Spring fields

In classical Japanese tanka and haikai poetry, “spring fields” (haru no or haru no no) was a stock image and seasonal marker (kigo). Every poem had to have some word or phrase indicating the time of year; “spring fields” actually connoted earliest spring, not late spring, as in these photos. At any rate, my favorite poem using the phrase is this hokku by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828):

kami-jirami hineru toguchi mo haru no kana
*
I stand in the doorway
digging the lice from my scalp–
spring fields.

The mountains stand apart from us; that is their appeal. But the fields invite a more intimate kind of care. The Japanese Emperor Kí´kí´ (830-887) brushed this tanka for a lover:

kimi ga tame haru no no ni idete wakana tsumu
waga koromode ni yuki wa furi tsutsu

*
For you, I hurry
out into the fields
in search of spring greens.
My wide sleeves fill
with falling snow.

I’m not much of a fan of stock phrases or received opinions, especially in poems. But farmers are such rank traditionalists–one can hardly look at their handiwork without the familiar pastoral images crowding in. And here in Central Pennsylvania, at least, where the geology resembles a layer cake on end, you’re never far from a sudden insurgency of trees.

Penn’s Creek riddles

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Last Friday, I accompanied my brother on a quest for the Appalachian tiger beetle (Cicindela ancocisconensis), which inhabits sandy river banks of wilderness-quality creeks and rivers, and is thus rare throughout its range, though locally common. We went to Penn’s Creek, a world-famous trout stream that winds through the Seven Mountains north of State College, Pennsylvania. It’s one of the few places in the state where C. ancocisconensis has been collected. We found one beetle within the first half-hour of searching, but it eluded Steve’s insect net. We spent the next hour and a half clambering over slippery rocks and around huge hemlock trees to search the few, small beaches in the Penn’s Creek canyon in the vicinity of Poe Paddy State Park.

While Steve concentrated on his quarry, I found myself composing riddles in my head about everything I saw. I don’t think these are especially difficult. I’ll post the answers tomorrow in the form of an update to this post Answers are at the end of the post.

*

A dark waterfall of fur
slipping down the rocks at
the river’s edge, soft yoke
no neck will ever wear.

*

Though green, I am no plant.
Two kingdoms live in me, but no ruler.
I’m a colonist of places
where nothing else can survive.

*

Death comes to the hemlock trees
in grayish white clots the size of pinheads.

*

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We combed the banks of a rocky peninsula formed by a sinuous loop of the creek. The water was muddy from the rains the day before, and few fishermen were willing to try their luck in it, so we had the creek mostly to ourselves. The flowering dogwood appeared especially brilliant against the dark hemlocks, and wild geraniums, Virginia bluebells and white wood anemones bloomed among the rocks. Unfortunately, I knew we didn’t have the time or the proper vehicle to drive the rough road up to the view of the gorge, which is quite spectacular.

*

I have lived for two years, but this
is my first full day. I have a mouth,
but no stomach. I will die before dark.

*

Condemned to live outside
my true element, I curl up & hide
until the urge to hunt stretches me
to my full length, & I curve
into the current like an arrow
crossed with a bow.

*

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The roof of one large fishing camp at Poe Paddy makes room for a tree in a manner reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece Fallingwater.

Temporary fishing camps were rising on poles at the state park campground, as well. Solemn-faced men got in and out of pickup trucks, or stood around in small knots by the shore, staring at the turbid water.

*

Rubber udders, two long nipples each,
for the cow called Land to offer its milk of men to the creek.

*

Nymph on a silk leash,
creature of knots,
deadly desire given angelic form.

*

Grain routed through fire, water & air
lands at last on ice: two temporary containers for light
resting in a third, which was once a handful of sand
but now offers smooth resistance to the fingers
& culminates in a screw where lip meets lip.

*

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At last, Steve caught a single specimen in the front yard of the fishing camp pictured above, near where we parked. One of the owners of the camp, who was relaxing on a bench by the water, gave us permission to collect the beetle. Some better pictures of C. ancocisconensis are here. And by the way, in case you’re wondering about the Latin, Steve told me its intended meaning is a complete mystery.

__________

Answers: a wild mink; a green lichen (see here for factoids about lichens); hemlock woolly adelgid; mayfly (see “Ephemeral” at Chronicles from Hurricane Country); northern water snake; hip waders; an angler’s fly; whiskey in a jar (what the old fellow at the fishing camp appeared to be drinking)

New Enterprise Stone & Lime

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The Tyrone Forge quarry, owned by New Enterprise Stone & Lime, Inc., supplies blacktop, concrete, lime and crushed stone. For us, the quarry is a bit of mixed blessing. Since it’s only a little over a mile away from our houses as the crow flies, we get noise and light pollution from it – though nothing like the folks living right next to it in the villages of Nealmont, Ironville and Tyrone Forge.

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But it’s damned convenient having a source of 2RC gravel so close to the bottom of our lane. “Lane” perhaps fails to convey the reality of a mile-and-a-half-long, one-lane road up a northeast-facing, steep mountain ravine. Road maintenance has been a constant preoccupation for us in the 35 years we’ve lived here. There are always trees to be cleared, rocks to be pitched off, ditches to be dug out, cross-grates to be cleaned (picture half-culvert pipes topped with narrow versions of cattle guards), ruts to be raked out, and potholes to be filled. So they know us pretty well at the quarry. It’s a fairly friendly place, and the state Department of Economic and Community Development has listed New Enterprise as one of the 50 best companies of its size class to work for.

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Up through the 1970s, the quarry was a small, family-owned operation. But when it was bought up by New Enterprise, it began to expand almost overnight, gobbling up hundreds of acres of valuable farmland. Though limestone quarries don’t produce anywhere near the kind of pollution that other forms of mining do, they can still produce a lot of silt runoff, which can have a devastating effect on aquatic life. And the Tyrone Forge quarry sits right on the banks of the Little Juniata River, a high-quality trout stream. According to FlyFishingConnection.com,

Little Juniata River, located in the Southern region of Central Pennsylvania, is a river that’s making a comeback with help from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and environmental awareness. Throughout the 1960s, raw sewage and pollutants from local mills ran into the Little Juniata from towns above. Cleanup started in the early ’70s and today, the Little Juniata is a large river with large deep pools, moderate water, and prolific hatches supporting the thousands of fingerlings stocked by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission each year. This river is one of the finest in the State of Pennsylvania, running through two counties (Blair and Huntington).

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In March, New Enterprise applied for a permit to expand further–

to deepen the quarry, add additional mining and support area, add an additional sediment pond, add a NPDES discharge point, and change the postmining land use on New Enterprise Stone & Lime Company’s property from forest and cropland to unmanaged natural habitat (251.4 acres) and permanent water impoundment (137.4 acres).

So if this is approved, they will become stewards of a small lake and over 250 acres of “natural” habitat.

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Meanwhile, the parent company continues its active involvement in the permanent destruction and fragmentation of habitat through highway construction. In 2000, New Enterprise was the successful bidder for the construction of a ten-mile stretch of the newly christened Interstate 99 just north of here. Thus, it became the official executioner of a once-beautiful section of Bald Eagle Mountain – the very same ridge we live on – tearing a gash out of its wooded flank that in some places reaches all the way to the ridge crest. The quarry roars through the night to supply the stone and concrete for former Congressman Elmer Greinert “Bud” Shuster’s “Highway to Nowhere.” By sheer coincidence, New Enterprise was always a heavy contributor to Shuster’s campaign chest. (It has continued that pattern with Bud’s son and dynastic successor, Bill Shuster. In the current election cycle, Son of Bud is the second-largest recipient of campaign donations from the building materials industry in the U.S. Congress.)

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Bud Shuster was no stranger to such amazing coincidences during his tenure in power. His highway-building zeal found its fullest expression in his chairmanship of the powerful Congressional Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, during which time he aided and abetted the most expensive road construction boondoggle in U.S. history, Boston’s Big Dig. If you live in Boston and have learned to appreciate the convenience and fine workmanship of this engineering marvel, you can thank his stalwart supporters at New Enterprise Stone & Lime – and you can thank us, the residents of Plummer’s Hollow, for helping to keep them in business. Have a nice day.

A short course in Pennsylvanian

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In Pennsylvania, all the railroad tracks are named Beth. Sure, there’s a prosaic reason for that, but why dwell on it? No one wants to hear the real story behind such notorious Pennsylvania toponyms as Intercourse, Jersey Shore, or Hairy John Picnic Area, either. One writer I know got an entire chapter of his memoir out of a visit to Panic and Desire – neighboring hamlets in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania.

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We have our own way of doing things. Up through the first few decades of the 20th century, until the state began to enforce an English-only campaign in the public schools, a significant proportion of the rural population spoke a dialect of German – so-called Pennsylvania Dutch. The Amish still do. Some of those old German dairy farmers were so obsessed with cleanliness, they made their barns round so there wouldn’t be any corners to sweep out.

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Whether you need your horse shod or your teeth floated, we can redd it up.

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We take hunting camps pretty seriously, too. The hunting camp tradition dates back to the Indians – hence, I suppose, the fake-Indian names given to many modern camps. The difference is that the Indians took their entire families out into the woods for a couple months each fall; white hunters have always preferred to do the male bonding thing, playing the Indian as imagined by Daniel Boone.

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The capitol building in Harrisburg has a striking green roof – just about the only thing green about the current legislature. These days, politicians pay lip-service to conservation while turning their backs on a rich environmentalist tradition that includes such visionaries as William Bartram, John James Audubon, Rachel Carson, Howard Zahniser, Edward Abbey, and Annie Dillard.

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The capitol reminds me of those domes of moss you can find out in the woods. Which is appropriate, really, considering what “Pennsylvania” means in Latin. The region was famous for its forests long before William Penn came on the scene, in fact. As early as 1632, an Englishman named David DeVries, sailing north on the Delaware, claimed that the ground fires set each fall in the forests to the west gave off a distinct, medicinal odor:

The 2d, threw the lead in fourteen fathoms, sandy bottom, and smelt the land, which gave off a sweet perfume, as the wind comes from the northwest, which blew off the land, and caused these sweet odors. This comes from the Indians setting fire, at this time of year, to the woods and thickets, in order to hunt; and the land is full of sweet-smelling herbs, as sassafras, which has a sweet smell. When the wind blows out of the northwest, and the smoke is driven to the sea, it happens that the land is smelled before it is seen.
(A.C. Myers, ed., Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, West New Jersey and Delaware, 1630-1707, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912)

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These arborglyphs were made by insects, but up through the early 19th century, arborglyphs made by Native Americans, as well as by some groups of Europeans, were a common sight. The Pennsylvania German Romany people known as Shekener, though prone to use dead trees as signboards, brought with them the old European reverence for such species as ash, beech and oak. According to the folklorist Henry Shoemaker,

They venerated, if not worshipped, trees and resented their being cut down and mutilated. They only burned dead wood, or the wood from fallen trees. They would not cut a green tree except a pine under any circumstances.

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Of course, even fallen trees can sometimes seem to possess an active intelligence. I took these shots yesterday on my way back from Harrisburg, in the state forest named for the founding father of Pennsylvania’s 2.1 million-acre state forest system, Joseph Trimble Rothrock.

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Central Pennsylvania is world-famous for its brook trout. Two U.S. presidents – Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter – were in the habit of helicoptering in for a weekend of trout fishing. Personally, I don’t understand the catch-and-release concept, but fly fishermen seem mostly harmless, and they tend to be staunch conservationists. If you want to tie flies that really speak to the fish, you have to learn what they like. And what they like is wilderness. The brook trout is a fish with extremely limited tolerance for roads, construction or clearcutting in the watershed – anything that might raise the water temperature a couple of degrees, or contribute more than a smidgen of silt. Jimmy Carter learned the lesson well: he signed laws setting aside more land as wilderness than any other president, and has continued his activism to the present, advocating the creation of an Arctic National Monument in place of the beleaguered wildlife refuge.

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Trout streams tend to have names like Standing Stone Creek, and if you stand still as a stone and listen, pretty soon you’ll swear they’re trying to talk to you: a strange mix of whispers, maybe something in Romany, or Shawnee. What would it take to become fluent, I wonder? Given a course of total immersion, might I learn at least some form of glossalalia?

The owl’s insomnia

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Standing in the shower on the morning after we went to see the snowy owl, I found the words to one of Rafael Alberti’s many poems called “Canción” running through my head:

Si my voz muriera en tierra,
llevadla al nivel del mar
y dejadla en la ribera.

Llevadla al nivel del mar
y nombradla capitana
de un blanco bajel de guerra.

Oh mi voz condecorada
con la insignia marinera…

I couldn’t quite remember the last few lines, so after my shower, on my way out to the porch, I grabbed my bilingual edition of Alberti’s poems, selected and translated by Mark Strand: The Owl’s Insomnia (Atheneum, 1982).

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Insomnia? Well, perhaps so. What else might explain the amazing persistence of this Arctic vagrant, a veritable capitana de un blanco bajel de guerra shipwrecked in Central Pennsylvania on one of the mildest winters on record? For a month and a half he has sat implacably at one of several locations along a stretch of interstate highway near Rockview state prison, with meal breaks presumably consisting of meadow voles and other rodents. With all the traffic roaring past, not to mention the steady stream of admirers like us, one can well imagine he might be suffering from some form of insomnia – whatever that would mean for an owl. For most of this time here there’s been no snow cover to speak of, though the ground inside cloverleaf interchanges might be nearly as barren as the frozen tundra.

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This past Saturday, the temperature was in the low sixties, and the owl huddled in the meager shade afforded by the concrete entrance to a culvert, described as his favorite spot in the birders’ listserve. I felt as if we had come to pay our respects to some avian anchorite of great holiness. My brother pointed out the heavy bars on the culvert, no doubt intended to seal off a potential hiding place for escaped convicts. The owl’s eyes were never completely open, nor did they ever appear to shut all the way. He slowly pivoted his head as other cars parked on the shoulder of the exit ramp and more visitors emerged. We were at first surprised by the demographics, which included two different sets of mother-with-daughter-aged 10-12. “Hedwig!” Steve exclaimed, ever the authority on popular culture. “They’re here to see Hedwig!” Apparently a snowy owl by that name is featured in the Harry Potter books and movies.

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A raven suddenly flew in low over our heads, and we noticed a pair of horned larks fluttering around on the cloverleaf tundra within fifty feet of the owl. Less than a mile away, the state’s official execution chamber awaited its next victim and hundreds of modern-day slaves toiled indoors and out, under the assumption that Arbeit macht frei. It was eerie. During the whole twenty minutes we kept up our vigil, the owl never stopped looking like an apparition:

sobre el corazón un ancla
y sobre el ancla una estrella
y sobre la estrella el viento
y sobre el viento la vela!
*

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__________

*Here’s my translation of the poem by Rafael Alberti.

SONG

If my voice should die on land,
carry it down to the sea
and leave it on the shore.

Carry it down to the sea
and make it captain of a white
ship of war.

Oh my voice, decorated
with the emblem of a sailor:
over the heart an anchor,
and over the anchor a star,
and over the star the wind,
and over the wind the sail!

Cave

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Ice can do in one winter what it takes dissolved limestone centuries to achieve. Entering the mouth of the cave, we step gingerly between the brittle teeth.

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It’s like a strip show. Look but don’t touch, says the guide; this is a living cave. The formations are so sensitive, one touch of oily skin is enough to halt their slow dance of minerals forever.

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The walls have ears. Approximately 8,000 of them.

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Some of the bats wear a coat of condensed water droplets while they sleep. They glitter in the flashlight’s beam like pale geodes.

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Inverted as they are, we recognize many of these landscapes – or think we do. These are the long-legged peaks and the dark forests we know from childhood, from dreams, from Russian ikon paintings.

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With all lights extinguished, we take the measure of the place one drip at a time. How many generations would we have to live underground before we learned to echolocate as well as the bats?

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The stream that formed this cave was diverted elsewhere so tourists could flow through. At times, we feel like voyagers through our own viscera, inspecting the entrails of a future cut short by the very process of inspection.

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The usual flotsam of outlaws and Indians are said to have left buried treasures and unmarked graves. But these are no ruins. The columns are still barely half-built.

Short Mountain

Hearing there were old trees there, last Saturday my hiking buddy and I went over to Short Mountain – a place I can see from the ridge above my house. It’s time for a closer look, I thought. Together we saw far more than we would’ve seen alone. I am indebted to L. especially for drawing my attention to the stump in the second photo and the pool in the last one.

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In the last week of January, white rocks half-hidden by the green of lichens.

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The side of the tree that faced the weather still raises iron fingers to the breeze.

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Where it ground against another rock during the last ice age, the ridgetop boulder still burns.

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In the exposed end of a limb ripped down by last January’s ice storm, a complete record of the tree’s efforts to hold on to it.

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At the base of a large white oak, a monstrous burl. Inside, maybe a twist of limbs; another, darker sky; the shadows of birds.

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Right where we join the trail, a black birch’s spreading bark splits the bright orange blaze in two. Which way should we go?

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Behind the leaf dam, slow lines of foam crossed by a single leaf. The mountain stream turns still, no sound of water.

Brick and mortar

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I’ve been coming to Penn State’s Pattee Library since I was a kid. My dad worked as a reference librarian there, and I learned my way around the Library of Congress cataloguing system before I learned my times tables. I remember when they first started to computerize the catalogue, how novel that seemed. Dad was active in the American Library Association’s Machine-Assisted Reference Services (MARS) committee way back in the dark ages before the p.c. revolution. Now, so many library materials are available through electronic databases, slogans such as “the true university is a collection of books” seem mossy indeed.

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The library has almost doubled in size since I was a kid, with the addition of the new Paterno wing. Everything’s been changed: what’s shelved where, what the different sections are called, how you get from one part of the library to another. They even repainted the ceiling above the central stairwell in the oldest part of the library a few years back. It had been monochrome, but I kind of prefer the new look.

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As an aging alumnus, I most treasure those parts of campus that remind me of the way it was when I was a student. It’s been undergoing a building boom for the last ten years or more, but two of the main ingredients of the central campus landscape that haven’t changed are locally quarried limestone blocks and American elms. The limestone seems especially appropriate because it’s faithful to the underlying geology. Preserving the presence of the American elms seems noble in a kind of Sisyphean way, since Dutch elm disease is such a threat. As soon as a tree contracts it, down it comes and a new elm sapling is planted in its place.

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Since universities may now exist partly or even wholly online, the phrase “brick-and-mortar” has become the usual modifier to distinguish the traditional kind. Built of limestone blocks below and brick above, Old Botany is easily the coolest building on campus. It’s not very big, and no classes meet there, so a lot of people don’t give it a second glance. It reminds me for some reason of the kind of student I used to be, gazing out at the sky, my mind elsewhere.

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I was always dreaming about a shortcut to knowledge, like everyone else since Adam and Eve. These kids today – well, they have that shortcut. Some other dreamers actually set about designing it. It’s called the Internet. Or maybe Google. Or the Wikipedia. Heck, I don’t know – call it the Tower of Babel if you want! Now, hand me another brick…

Walking on the crust

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Geez, Ben, has it really been nine years since you checked out? It was late January, I remember that. Three or four days after getting the news, I was still consumed by violent fantasies of revenge against that unrepentant son of a bitch who got you hooked. I needed someone to blame, I guess. I went out for a walk around the mountain, which was a bit of a struggle due to a deep snowpack with an icy crust that wasn’t quite strong enough to hold me up. So I lurched along, trying hard not to slip and falling through at unpredictable intervals. I made a bet with myself: “If I can take twenty steps on top of the crust without breaking through, I’ll stop fantasizing about violence and try to forgive.” And what do you know? Twenty steps later, I still hadn’t broken through! So I amended it: “If I can make it all the way down this hill on top of the ice…” Damn, how’d I get so light all of a sudden? It was spooky! Finally, I said, “If I can make it all the way back to the house” – and I almost did. I guess it had just been a matter of concentration all along. I could see the smoke from my chimney rising straight up, lighter than the air.

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You know, it’s funny – I’ve never actually sat on your bench. Well, it’s all wrong, the way they installed it facing away from the street. Probably when the plan for downtown benches was first put forth, someone in the Borough Council objected that they might become an inducement for the Wrong Element to loiter and scare people, so they compromised by putting in benches that no one would actually want to sit on for more than a few minutes – shoppers resting their weary arms, someone taking an important call. But your family did well in putting your name on the closest bench to the record store. You know, they have a new bus stop across the street, now. Big new library, too. And dude, right across from your bench, someone just opened a Jamaican restaurant! I heard it’s good.

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The kids still sneak down into “Little New York” to drink. They think they’re gangbangers now – it’s pretty funny. You should see them walking along with their pants down around their knees, all rebelling in step. I’m sure it’s no easier than it ever was to grow up blue-collar in State College, PA. But these days, as every place gets more and more like every other place, probably the only towns that aren’t full of fake-ass shit are the ones that are just about dead. And State College is booming.

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There’ve been a hell of a lot of changes in town and on campus in the last nine years, but one thing hasn’t changed: no matter where you go, in the borough or the surrounding townships, someone is always tearing something down or putting something up.

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“Happy Valley” may have started as a tourism promotion campaign, but then people started to believe it. Penn State even runs its own retirement community now on a hill above the bypass. Who wouldn’t want to grow old on the frontiers of utopia? Somewhere in State College, there’s always a light left burning in broad daylight to reassure us that progress is on the way.

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Proof that at least some people in State College can laugh at themselves: the State College Centennial Pigs. I guess you’d remember this. The official story is that the sculpture was based on an historic photo of a sow nursing two piglets right in the middle of College Avenue, but with the Penn State campus right across the street, the symbolism is pretty hard to miss.

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The shoppes and restaurants downtown come and go, seemingly unaffected by all the new box stores on the outskirts. I’ve never seen so many upscale clothing stores and hair salons in one place. You can actually buy pre-ripped jeans now – imagine that! Instant authenticity! And there are more pizza places, coffee shops and tanning salons than ever. The owner of one tanning place just got busted for making secret videos of his patrons. Sick bastard.

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There are not one, but two Wal-Mart Supercenters now, one for each end of town. A group of about forty local activists staged a protest outside of one of them last month, holding signs and handing out literature. The funny thing is, according to the article in the paper, nobody really gave them a hard time, and some people were downright friendly. Does anyone actually enjoy shopping in a place like that? Go into Wal-Mart and all you hear is stressed-out parents yelling at their kids. I think being greeted at the door by people who are paid to act cheerful sets the tone – the whole place stinks of humiliation.

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Bouyed up the university, State College is still bubble-land surrounded by Bubba-land, metastasizing suburbs with no urban core, its bounty untroubled by the occasional small mutiny.

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Anyway, I don’t want to bore you. I saw your bench sitting there empty next to the record store and thought I’d just say Hey.
__________

Please note that the last photo is not a double exposure, simply a shot of reflections in a store window to the inside of which a poster of John Coltrane had been taped.

Cut your own

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News flash: Rudolf’s nose isn’t exactly red

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We’ve been coming here ever since I was five years old. I remember the excitement, all three of us boys crammed into the backseat of the old Scout.

Dad always made us walk at least a half a mile, for some reason. “That’s where all the good trees are, kids!”

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Of course, the snow was much deeper when I was your age. And the trees were greener, too.

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“What’s the fence for, Mommy? Can’t they just fly away?”

“That’s to protect them from all their fans, honey. Just like those barricades they put up to protect the president on TV!”

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“I think he likes me!”

“Of course he likes you, honey. You’re giving him treats.”

(Sound of chewing.)

“Daddy, can I have a reindeer for Christmas?”