Off Trails

struck long ago by lightning
charred heart open to the sky

what doesn’t kill you
leaves you damaged

climbing a mountain to learn
what you already know

like telling the pines apart
by how they whisper

or marveling at birch twigs
etched in sunlight

on the shadow
of the neighboring mountain

and underfoot the moss cracked
like mud in a honeycomb pattern

a kind of ur-text
about cells and absence

the way a life was laid down
ring by ring in a log

or how after the rungs rot away
and the tree topples over

it’s not a ladder anymore
the bark’s long gone

there are just these troupes of rusty nails
awaiting further orders

the sky so clear your binoculars
pick out distant windblown leaves

or follow a hawk
following the ridge for miles

with the leaves down a white
clapboard church appears

with a steeple to staple it in place
between the river and the railroad

where shipping containers roll past
night and day

from this height like pale capsules
full of bad medicine

this is the trouble with all
tracks and paths

it’s time to stop following
and set your feet free

off-trail
on a careful descent

stepping from rock to rock
stopping for twisted oaks

and tall straight pines no 19th-century
logger is coming back for

though a thousand feet downslope
and you’re in pole timber

the whited sepulcher of a tip-up mound
marks the shift from ironstone to shale

through long shadows made feathery
by young white pines

footfalls mingle contrapuntally
with woodpecker taps

on a twisty back road
the tarmac cracks in honeycomb patterns

and the low sun is attentive
to every detail of mummified roadkill

its five-fingered paw
still stretched out

just past a sign that reads
UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN

MAY GOD HOLD YOU
IN THE PALM OF HIS HAND

on bare wood
in letters of faded blue

Above the River

there’s no mountain
to the cloud

its shadow wandering
lonely as a poet

who no longer believes
in the power of words

as another name escapes
the tip of my tongue

trees are applauding the wind
their life-long mentor

the black birches are yellow
and the black gums
a pale salmon

a hawk flies through the forest
carrying something small
and very dead

a white-tailed deer
raises and lowers
her eponymous flag

as her antlered companion
seems almost to dance
between the boulders

there’s so little soil
the big oaks get their roots out
before they enter the ground

i take my seat
against a chestnut oak
we rock together in the wind

occasionally it makes
a high inhuman sound
that vibrates in my bones

September Ghosts

fog forms in the meadow
at first light

rising from the mop-
topped goldenrod

as if it were the conjoined breaths
of a shadowy golden horde

massed against the bald
white fact of the barn

its credible rooflines
asphalt-tiled

in the same dark green as
the ridges that flank the field

the barn’s ridgeline broken
by a slatted cupola

to draw air through
whether for hay or horses

or once a hundred years ago
a circus elephant

who spent the summer tethered
on the threshing floor

no one can remember why
only that it was here and lonely

like the young lady
a generation later

who came to the hollow to hide
an unplanned pregnancy

one winter shuttered up
in the summer house

with a church organ
they heard her playing Bach

for years after she and the child
died together at birth

every Appalachian hollow
has its share of ghosts

but the sun tops the ridge
and the fog shapes vanish

catching in spiderwebs
glistening on the breast of a wren

Epistemology on Jack’s Mountain

you might think you know
but that’s never what knowing means

a light last seen in winter
with sharp-edged shadows

two high hanging valleys
filled with forest

where the only fields
are boulder fields

this is the complex head
of an Appalachian dragon

that the locals have been led
to believe is a mountain

all you see from the river
is the stone snout

thoroughly domesticated
with a Mohawk of crosses

flags for each of the armed forces
snap above the veterans’ memorial bridge

but up a seldom-followed trail
past the reservoir

the trees are beginning
to swallow boulders whole

engulfing them with tight-
grained lips

as the earth extends
a single small black trumpet

in the middle of the trail
just as it starts to climb

and that silence becomes
an immediate ear-worm

in silence you drop to your knees
for a bright purple coral mushroom

in silence the cedar
waxwings whistle

the sassafras trees invent
a new choreography

you pass a white oak grove
carpeted with reindeer lichen

table mountain pines
parcel out the views

a fallen cone makes
a spiny souvenir

armed with hooks so it doesn’t
roll off the mountain

you station yourself among
other more durable fragments

of the paleozoic as
it has come down to us

collected works from the most widely
distributed of shallow seas

now habitat for rock tripe
lined in the tackiest black velvet

this is the glittery spine of a mountain
like a snake with two heads

the stream cuts through one
to climb the other

from the vista you see
little that isn’t wild

for a small town
that values sacrifice

this is where you’d come
to give up your sense of what’s normal

maybe you’d bring a rifle
or a sixpack and a date

as a visitor from elsewhere
you allow yourself to be charmed

like a newt turning back into an eft
when its pool-for-life goes dry

you like to think you could leave it all
and take to the trail again

become a youthful
avatar of yourself

if only you knew the way
to such rebirth

as the trail turns back
into a street

descending through town
you think you get the three crosses now

facing the mountain across the river
that lost its top to quarrymen

who prized the sand itself
from those ancient seabeds

to line the furnaces that once
smelted all our steel

the mountain on this side
got to keep its head

as a Golgotha
a place of the skull

and crossing the memorial bridge
you spot a family out fishing

lined up in chairs on the bank
watching the water

through the mountain’s reflection
waiting for something to emerge

Standing Stone Trail south of Mapleton
August 31, 2023

A Walk in the Park

dead tree green
with poison ivy

sugar maples self-grafting
like circus freaks

a black birch wearing
a hollow locust tree like a coat

these are among
the unsettling attractions

at the Allegheny Portage Railroad
National Historic Site

a monument to the great unsettling
of the American West

but what’s bitter in the morning
may be sweet by afternoon

i drink hot tea from a thermos mug
like an offering to the heat

staying one pace ahead
of my cloud of insects

though i stop for everything:
the man-made cliffs

dripping with native plants
the detours to peer

at old stone culverts
the interpretive signs

slowly being reinterpreted
by age and weather

preservation and transformation
are dance partners here

foundations are buried
for their protection says a sign

with a photo of the little we’re missing
in black and white

meanwhile the bumblebees
are making love to yellow touch-me-nots

Bombylius major pokes his pointy snout
deep into a lobelia

and a mother leads two teenagers
on a sullen walk for their health

now we are beginning
to get somewhere i think

as an alarmed pickerel frog
disappears into his puddle

and although one might wish
for less proximity to a highway

the trees are old and strange
and i am in my element

no longer on the way to elsewhere
people choose to live here in the hills

our journeys are local
our histories are brief

a sign exhorts us to leave
no trace

August 25, 2023

Doom Loop

just past the last internet tower
a rattlesnake’s elegant S

slipping through the crushed stone
almost makes you
want its skin

and divining this
its terminal bones
buzz in your direction:

down-ridge over the rocks’
stormwater eyes

which let you pass through them
as easily as the vultures

or the common mullein
at the first overlook

from a seed planted
by a hiker’s boot

on a well-loved trail
a raccoon’s footprint

might spell hard luck
for endangered wood rats

and yes most of the old trees
have fallen to new blights or pests

that travel the same
pilgrimage route

hemlock woolly adelgids
hitching rides on birds’ feet

spongy moth caterpillars
ballooning in each June

but the vistas are glorious
one can still dream wilderness dreams

ignoring recent clearcutting
in the swampy woods below

the old oaks that remain up here
are still so extravagant

seeming to gesture
seeming to conjure up

you can find forests two inches tall
made of gray-green lichen

stop to watch a slug
cross a jagged rock

a study in single-mindedness
gliding on his/her orange foot

or a sharp-shinned hawk
might speak to you

from atop a snag
your eyes meet

you notice how the branch
keeps swaying after he flies

launching into the green-
feathered wind

descent is difficult
who wouldn’t rather stay high

on a mountain stretching
half-way across the state

low as a wrinkle
in the earth’s hide

this would-be spine where pines
grow old and empty

and you peer into the largest one
and find another snake

this time no wilderness creature
but a black rat snake

coiled and sleeping like
the climber’s rope that it is

nearby a tussock caterpillar
yo-yos in mid-air

white and bristly
as a lost eyebrow

and charmed you decide
to walk all afternoon

looping back
in the long shadows
to your car

Jackson Trail, Rothrock State Forest
August 11, 2023

Hiking the Horizon

a humid mid-day climb
through clouds of gnats

up to a high ridgetop breeze
and the drone of deerflies

beside the trail a street map
in a mined-out witch hazel leaf

on the northwest horizon
where i walked earlier in the week

this mountain had been
the southeast limit of my view

and now without thinking about it
here i am in the haze

i find a coyote calling card
nestled in the rocks

a black-throated green warbler
regurgitates a caterpillar

green for its red-
mouthed fledgling

a dry rattle
and i am briefly airborne

before i even spot the snake
crossing the trail ahead

the unhurried whispery flow of her
over the stones

dappled and dapper
in patterned velvet

i follow with my phone out
as my pulse returns to normal

 

a netwing beetle flies past
without stopping

spongy moths flutter like spirits
between the oaks

which dwindle year by year
replaced by maples

but some of the old ones
manage to weather

the total loss of their heartwood
to lightning and rot

hollow yet strong
harboring a wild inner life

i surprise a large family of turkeys
foraging on the ridgetop

the mother runs downhill
the poults fly into the treetops

thunder in the distance
finds an echo in my stomach

i down handfuls of blueberries
from a patch of sunlight

on Brewer’s Trail just below the crest
there’s a white sand spring

i soak my fisherman’s hat
in its only pool

descend the mountain dripping
like a small cloud

The Way to the Ocean

the way to the ocean
goes through New Jersey

named for an island
where a king once kept his head

on the other side of the Atlantic
an inch and a half farther away each year

which sounds like a tall tale
a sailor might tell

if boardwalk barkers didn’t already
cover the waterfront

on the way to the ocean
circling vultures turn into gulls

fish crows
quack like ducks

a mockingbird riffs from the roof
of a manufactured home

in a manufactured village
right off U.S. Route 322

which has somehow caught up with me
after we parted in the mountains

i walk its broad shoulder
past brown fields and brownfield sites

it’s early spring so most green things
are aliens: privet ivy multiflora rose

aside from a few
prickly natives:

American holly Atlantic whitecedar
and the pines the pines

their high pitch where forest fires licked
what the locals call sugar sand

ducking into the woods
i find an old homeless camp

collapsed tent frame
discarded high-visibility coveralls

on the way to the ocean
is no way to live

to settle like fallen leaves
wherever the wind takes us

living on the road means
a groundhog oblivious to traffic

burrow hidden in a tangle
of Oriental bittersweet

or a burger place across the road
from a billboard for addiction recovery

a farmer on a backhoe
leading a small herd of goats

pray, hope & don’t worry
says a sign by someone’s mailbox

beyond which I find a faded
bouquet of artificial roses

hanging upright where i imagine
it had been flung from a car window

the right of the people to keep and bear arms
shall not be infringed says a billboard

across the highway from a weeping cherry
in full glorious bloom

i turn onto a smaller road
past a resort campground

lakes are easy to make here
where the Atlantic once beached

circling one of them on foot
i am accosted twice

by people wondering whether i’m lost
or am looking for someone

and neither is a question i quite
know how to answer

a woman embracing a bear of a man
rumbles past on a Harley

and off under the pines
all around a derelict trailer

i spot the bright green flags
of skunk cabbages

the way to the ocean
doesn’t wait for continental drift

though perhaps it could i think
standing on the beach at Ocean City

gazing out at the immensity
for a heartbeat or two

then down to my feet
at scallop shells

reminding me that any road
can become a route for pilgrimage

you can walk the boardwalk
out past the end of capitalism

lie down in the sand
and rust

because the true way to the ocean
must begin at the ocean

students running with a kite
a man watching a fishing line

a child who digs shallow holes
and lets them fill with sky

with gratitude to my cousin Heidi Myers Suydam for all her hospitality

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