A nature walk at the airport

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

airport geese

Sweden’s Arlanda airport is an $40 train ride from the Stockholm city center ($80 round-trip), and thanks to congestion at JFK, my eight-hour layover had dwindled to just five-and-a-half hours, not all of it in daylight. I weighed my options as I ate lunch in a randomly selected airport restaurant. Then I noticed the flowers on my table were real, and moreover were seasonal wildflowers — some kind of native aster, it appeared, along with a sprig of spearmint. If these people are as nuts about nature as I’d always heard, surely it must be possible to go walking right outside the airport, I thought. Continue reading “A nature walk at the airport”


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Aircraft. It sounds like something one could learn: how to breathe, how to oxidize. But this craft is the kind that floats, and it is enormous. It takes us the full width of Norway at its widest point to reach cruising altitude.

The Boeing 787 is nicknamed the Dreamliner, and its crowded cabin, though far from silent, is filled with a lovely hush of white noise that makes it difficult to stay awake. The only light left in the sky is a band of red above an oddly low horizon which goes before us like Yahweh leading the Jews out of Egypt, on and on into what my body assures me should be night.

five-hour sunset
a movie plays on the back
of every seat

Our original flight map had shown the plane going farther south, but I wake to find us over northern Iceland. In little over an hour we’ve made the journey that used to take the Norsemen more than a week in their own formidable crafts, part Dreamliner, part F-22. I’m not sure what always makes me favor window seats on the left side of a plane, but this time it pays off: that stream of bright orange in the near distance can only be the lava flow from the volcano Bárðarbunga, which on Google Earth—accessible from my seat-back video screen—shows as a great round hole. Now it is the rest of the island that is black, and the caldera, when it periodically appears, is as livid as a setting sun.

a glowing wound
in the darkness six miles below

Volcano! in half
a dozen languages
we gape through our portholes

A little later, as the lava flow recedes into the distance, I start to see the lights from settlements along the north coast. Pressing my face right up to the glass, I realize there’s still just enough light to distinguish land from the slightly darker sea. I recognize Vatnsfjord from the maps that accompanied translations I’ve read of Vatnsdæla Saga and Grettir’s Saga, and then the fern-frond-like Westfjords from, well, every map of Iceland ever (though I do think of the ill-fated hero Gisli). Then we are back out over the north Atlantic, its waves and storms as remote as a legend from our comfortable, high-tech bubble. The west seems brighter now, but it will have faded to blackness by the time we land in New York. I remember with a smile something someone said about the pilots as we waited to board at the Oslo airport: “If they’re too late, they won’t have time to fly up over the top of Canada as they usually do.”

curve of the horizon
even from this height
it’s hard to believe

Farewell to London

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

rainy bus ride near Queens Park Station

I’m about to begin the long journey back to central Pennsylvania after three months abroad. This last week since our return from holiday in Cornwall has been full of outings with friends and last-minute visits to things we’d meant to see all summer. But I promise some more photos and travel posts after I get settled in at home. My other home, that is.

I’m wondering what I’ll miss most about London, aside from Rachel and my other friends here, and I think it might be that particular, delicious kind of lostness that comes from immersion in a constant stream of sensory inputs and the whirl of cultures, languages and dialects that one can only get in a major city. I’ll miss good beef, street-corner pubs, old Slavic fisherman on the canal path and Muslim families picnicking in the park. I’ll miss sitting like a king in the top level of a lumbering, double-decker bus and watching the endlessly varied streetscapes scroll past.

And what do I most look forward to at the other end of my journey, aside from family? That’s easy: the lush meadows, the forests, and all the singing insects that I’ve missed listening to here — especially the throbbing choruses of northern true katydids that are such a feature of August nights in Pennsylvania. All the distinct dialects of silence.

Cornish haiku

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

where the dog threw up
at the edge of the road
early morning gulls


the incoming tide
a ground beetle rotates
on its back


through a gap in the hedge
as we flash past
a partridge and her chicks


village museum
retired fishermen gaze
at their old nets


rain in the campground
a girl hops back to her tent
on one foot


the sun comes out
a tiny spider rappels
from the brim of my hat


over there by the car park
a band practices songs
from World War I


in the still forest
one limb is swaying
boys on a rope swing


evening cottage
the whippet’s thin hind leg
glows orange in the sunset


listening to an owl
pale magnolia blossoms
as big as our faces

Existential museuming

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The human genome 1

Who are we, really? The current exhibits at London’s Wellcome Collection provide several intriguing suggestions. I loved a photo of the neural network pulled from the body, which looked like some kind of fairy shrimp, and a photo of many pairs of socks shaped like chromosomes. But I wasn’t moved to pull out my camera until we got to a printed edition of the complete human genome. Each volume had a thousand pages, with type so small it was difficult to read without a magnifying glass.

The human genome 2

Human-being-as-library is an attractive metaphor to me, not least because when I was growing up, I often visited my Dad at the academic reference library where he worked. Plus my Mom was a writer and our home was full of books.

Symbolical head

Reading was always a great way to live in my head.

Gormley on the ceiling

Antony Gormley is famous for making casts of his own body. His art prompts us to ask deep questions about the meaning of human embodiment and habitation, such as, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could stand on the ceiling?”

galloping penises from Pompeii

But as some of the art unearthed at Pompeii demonstrates, people have been indulging in gravity-defying fantasies for a long time.

false eyes and nose

One of the sculptures I particularly liked was a human skeleton with the skull substituted for the pelvis and vice versa. Such acts of imagination strike me as essential to who we are as social and ecological beings, attractive as it might be to pretend that we are entirely scrutable — recorded in the Book of Life or programmed in the hard drive of our genes. Besides, 90% of the cells in our bodies belong to microorganisms.

a blown-glass sculpture
of the HIV virus—
loud children swarm past

Embodied Belgium

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


Many Belgians, I’m told, dispute the proposition that Belgium makes sense as a single entity, and argue that the country should be carved up. Last week, Rachel and I visited friends in Mechelen, who also took us on day trips to Ghent and Antwerp. But even though we were in Rubens country, the more southerly spirit of Brueghel was never too far away, either. Five days and three cities don’t give me much of a basis for generalization, so I’ll just say I was impressed by a seeming obsession with bodies and embodiment, which I found evidence for almost everywhere I looked. Continue reading “Embodied Belgium”

London on five pounds a day

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Millennium Dome etc. from a station of the DLR

The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) was indeed well-lit, and offered stunning views of the Millennium Dome and the towering steel and glass centers of global finance.

Thames barrier at low tide

It was low tide on the longest day of the year. At the Thames Barrier, we saw a cormorant and a curlew. House martins fed their young in an artificial cliff above the river — a concrete apartment building. Continue reading “London on five pounds a day”

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Tate

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I was aperture, I was skylight. The knife-thrower’s blades ramified in the space around me. I was a white root swimming in the dark, Icarus falling into his own chest, a clown pried open by the red-handed crowd. I saw with a wolf’s blood-drop eye how horse and rider are imprisoned by the bars of a flag. The green world warped around an hourglass shaped like the symbol for infinity. Bodies flowered forth like bladder-wrack or sentient hands as life began returning to the sea. I saw a dancer dismembering all the space in a room and a blue nude curl into a backwards ampersand. When she stood up, her arms rose on either side like quotation marks. I saw Venus, freed of her scallop shell, expand into an isthmus between two oceans. My gaze became ambitious even as the butterfly collector’s net came down and I found myself pressed into glass, attempting still to dance on the head of a pin. My death led straight into the gift shop.