In league with the stones

For thou shalt be in league with the stones of the field: and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with thee.
Job 5:23

Dear Teju,

Rocks are the roofs of a city
we barely know. On a dry ridgetop
at the end of a dry month,
I find little under them but burrows
leading deeper into the earth,
a colony of ants frantic
at the sudden inversion,
and on the talus slope, more rocks:
a puzzle that was put together wrong
8,000 years ago, but over the millenia
has settled into its own kind
of rightness. I follow a bear’s trail
through the woods, marked by black
cherry-pitted cairns of bear shit,
& note the series of overturned rocks,
flipped by an expert claw.
Only a human, uneasy at the way
our grotesque bodies no longer
quite fit into the matrix,
would ever return a flipped rock
to its bed. Birds have nests,
foxes have holes; culture
is not a thing unique to humans.
The song that makes the songbird
must be taught. Instinct borrows
always from improvisation —
the true two-step. But watch
a human child, too young
to hunger for our made world’s
humdrum El Dorados, playing
in the creek with a stick —
how she projects her dreams
into the teeming, pulsing flow,
how she punctuates
& fabricates — & tell me
this is not more wondrous
than any gold, this human

Chipmunk in a tree

Chipmunk in a Mulberry Tree, from the Undiscovery Channel

Houses make superior wildlife blinds, provided your yard isn’t some manicured, chem-lawn desert. I shot this video through two panes of glass in the window next to my writing table this afternoon, a welcome break from answering qarrtsiluni correspondence. I’ve been asked why I leave the storm window down in that window year ’round, and this is part of the reason: so I don’t have to shoot through a screen.

I was originally planning to publish a grim little piece I wrote yesterday about shooting an injured bluejay, but fate intervened. If for some reason this leaves you wanting still more cute chipmunk pictures, I did post one to the photo blog, too. In four hours, it’s already racked up five times more page views than that poor mushroom photo has gotten in four days. Damn. O.K., I give up! Tune in next time for some adorable footage of puppies and kittens.

July Stones

video link

This morning I welcome Fiona Robyn to Via Negativa — that’s her voice in the video. Fiona’s on a blog tour to promote her book small stones: a year of moments. I’m a long-time reader of the blog from which the selections were drawn — in fact, a small stone was a major inspiration for my own daily microblogging experiment, The Morning Porch.

Fiona’s “stones” aren’t poems, exactly — some are, but others clearly are not. Each one represents a moment of quiet, focused attention, part of a daily practice which Fiona began three years ago to try and revitalize her own interest in writing. Blogging was integral to the project, it seems: from the beginning she wanted a space where she could collect and share the literary equivalent of small stones picked up on a walk and carried home in a pocket. “They might be a snatch of overheard conversation, the sun moving behind the cloud, or a cat jumping on the lawn,” Fiona writes in the introduction.

They set off a quiet ‘ah!’ inside me, like a toddler saying ‘look!’ They are nothing special and something special all at once. As time went on, I got better at remembering to notice the world around me. Not just to notice it but to scrutinize it, engage with it, love it.

When Fiona said she was publishing a book of selections from the first three years of the blog, I had my doubts about how well it work. But in fact they make a surprisingly satisfying collection. Like insects trapped in amber, the very delicacy and ephemerality of Fiona’s “stones” invite closer examination. As fragments of concentrated attention, many of them engage the reader in an active search for additional images and ramifications, in the same way that a modern translation of Sappho challenges one to fill in the lacunae.

Accordingly, in the video, I tried to leave as many lacunae as possible and let the words create the pictures. I hope it manages to excite some interest in the project (I uploaded it to YouTube, as well, for maximum exposure). Be sure to follow the links on the blog tour page for many more interviews, reviews, and conversations with the author. Consider writing your own “stones” for submission to a new, communal blog that Fiona is launching called a handful of stones. And of course check out the book.


Five minutes before midnight, a gnat attracted to the reflected light of my computer monitor dives into my eye.

Father’s Day surprises

chipmunk with red elderberry

Father’s Day dawned clear and cool. After making an appointment with my dad to cut his hair later in the morning, I took my camera for a walk. Along the Road to the Far Field, in one of the large clearings created by the icestorm of 2005, I surprised a chipmunk next to a fruiting red elderberry bush. It froze when I hove into view, and the bright sun might’ve helped dazzle it a little as I inched closer for a clear shot through the brambles. Ecologists who study the effects of deer on forest health consider red elderberry a good indicator of low browse pressure, and we’ve been happy to watch its spread through moister portions of the property in recent years, thanks to the abundant patience and excellent marksmanship of our hunter friends. As this photo graphically demonstrates, lower deer numbers are good news not just for plants, but for other animals, too.

old mayapple leaf

I made my way to the thicket below the Far Field, where I knew the dense carpet of mayapples would be entering their autumn now as their fruits approached maturity. First they break out in a rash of yellow spots. Then larger areas of brown appear around their edges, turning them thin and brittle as old newspaper.

A few paces into the woods, in a patch of shade too dark to permit a decent photo without a tripod, I found a dense network of slime on the ground, as if a snail had been trying to weave a spider web. Then as I circled the field on a path I’d mowed just a few days earlier, I found two orange and olive tentacles poking out of the ground, foul-smelling and rubbery to the touch, about four inches long and half an inch in diameter at the base. They were in bright sunlight, but still I managed to screw up and didn’t get a single clear photo.

orange tentacle

This was the best I could do. It reminded me of a web comic I’d seen recently, in which an apparently fortuitous discovery has unpleasant repercussions. They turned out to be stinkhorns of the Mutinus genus, which lack the bulbous heads of their Phallus cousins: probably Mutinus elegans.

Many of the metaphors we use to try and come to grips with the inherent weirdness of nature aren’t terribly accurate, but the association of stinkhorns with human sex organs is right on target. In Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard: the Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists, author Nicholas P. Money writes,

Most of the volume of the erect fruiting body is air. But mechanically speaking, the stinkhorn is comparable with the mammalian penis because both erections are maintained by pressurized fluid rather than a column of solid tissue. The penis contains flattened reservoirs that become engorged with blood, while the tissue of the stinkhorn receptacle is built to tear apart to make a honeycomb supported by pressurized water within its hyphae.

One major difference, of course, is that mammalian erections don’t bulge with fertile spores or smell like rotting corpses, and aren’t designed to be eaten by flies and slugs, which will plant the seeds of a new generation of stinkhorns in their excrement.

That wasn’t the only place where bizarre reproductive rituals were taking place. All along the top edge of the field, the 17-year cicadas were singing and flying, clicking and crawling through the scrubby locust trees — appropriately enough, given their alternate common name, “17-year locusts.” I shot a video and posted it to the Plummer’s Hollow site, in an entry headlined “Cicada courtship in full swing.” I like the way biologists persist in referring to mating behavior as courtship: such an old-fashioned word, conjuring up visions of hay rides, shucking bees, and minuets in the parlor.

Ebony Jewelwing, from the Undiscovery Channel.

I was surprised to see several male ebony jewelwing damselflies on the ridgetop, half a mile at least from the nearest stream. They were, however, engaged in classic jewelwing flit-and-pause behavior. I like the video not just for the jewelwing — which is out-of-focus part of the time — but the soundtrack, which features a wood thrush, a scarlet tanager, a pileated woodpecker, chipmunks, and a train whistle, all set against a background surf of cicadas. (This was a couple hundred yards in from the edge of the field.)

In Indian musical theory, I’m told, the drone note symbolizes the inescapable horizon. Over the past week, the cicada chorus has contributed an almost constant, high-pitched drone as a backdrop to other elements of the soundscape. And from my front porch, first thing in the morning, that drone does literally emanate from the eastern horizon: the crest of Laurel Ridge, where the sun first strikes. By mid-morning, though, the cicada choruses become more dispersed.

mountain laurel

Speaking of Laurel Ridge, the mountain laurel was at its height of bloom yesterday, meaning that no more blossoms remained in bud — and that the earliest blossoms were already on the ground. As decimated as the laurel has been by winter-kill and diseases over the past six or seven years, we didn’t expect to see the woods turned white with their blossoms ever again, but this year comes close to the way it used to be every other year, back in the 90s and before. 2008 has been a remarkable year for flowering shrubs and trees of every description, from shadbush and red maple to wild azalea and tulip poplar.

When I got back to the house, I dug out my barber’s kit, we found an old sheet, and I had Dad sit on the veranda for his haircut. He’s slowly healing from surgery to remove a tumor on his lower spine last month, which involved slicing into the dura mater and coming right up against a cluster of nerves. Enough pain and numbness remain to make a trip to the barbershop seem like a daunting prospect.

The hair was thin and didn’t take long to cut — a scattering of tufts on the concrete floor. A half hour later, when Dad came out on the veranda again for some reason, he saw them there and couldn’t figure out what they were for a second. “That can’t be my hair!” he said. It had been silver for what seemed like forever, I guess, but now it was undeniably white, as white as snow. In a morning full of surprises, the passing of time was still the most surprising thing of all. I’m sure the 17-year cicadas would agree.

Stalking the wild lady’s-slipper orchid

It’s hot, it’s humid, I’m cranky, and I don’t feel like writing, so here instead is another thrilling documentary from the Undiscovery Channel. (No, I still don’t own a real video camera, and I’m still using Windows Movie Maker.)

By coincidence, today Bug Girl linked to a CBC exposé, Cruel Camera, and an accompanying chronological guide, Fakery in Wildlife Documentaries. I knew about some of the examples, but others were new to me — for example, that Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom “use[d] staged confrontations between various species of animals. Perkins was known to also put animals in situations where he will be filmed dramatically capturing them.” Even Sir David Attenborough comes under scrutiny for a scene in Blue Planet involving spawning lobsters that was supposedly filmed off the coast in Nova Scotia, but was in fact shot in a British aquarium, as well as for a couple of other, similar deceptions in other films.

I’ve blogged about the trouble with eco-porn more than once, but Bug Girl sums up the situation quite well, I think:

I have students showing up at the university that love the environment… but don’t want to go outside.
It’s hot! There are bugs and mud! And why aren’t any cool big animals doing interesting things? Everything just lies around. […]

Being outside is about Calm. Contemplation. Quiet.
Stillness and silence are not what television is about.

Except, of course, on the Undiscovery Channel.

Morning porch noodling

Video link

What is wrong with me that I so rarely listen to recorded music anymore? It’s not that I prefer to make my own music; weeks can go by without me picking up the harmonica. But I don’t feel especially deprived, either, because I hear birdsong all day long, interspersed with train whistles and other sounds. And I do love that.

Even more pleasurable, to me, is the feeling of what I can only call musical sobriety. Back in the days of my musical addiction, 15 and 20 years ago, if a record wasn’t playing in the background, I didn’t feel right. And it seemed as if I had to play tunes I liked in order to drown out the annoying tunes that would somehow get lodged in my head on infinite repeat — so-called ear worms.

That turned out not to be the case. Now that I rarely make a point of listening to recorded music, I rarely get ear worms, either. When I do pick up the harmonica, I generally play the same couple dozen tunes, but that’s O.K. I’m quite comfortable with the idea that I’ll never be a real musician. Even at the height of my music addiction, I could never stomach the endless repetitions that true practice entails.

By the same token, I don’t suppose many musicians can fathom how we writers can stand to go over and over the same few words until we get them right. Writing poems and practicing songs seem as if they should be closely related practices — they have, after all, a common origin, and are still closely allied in most oral traditions. But for me, as a free verse poet, melody is a serious distraction. Now that I’ve finally gotten the incessant tunes out of my head, I’m able to hear the sounds and rhythms of language much more easily. Poems come to me now like they never did before.

I’m not trying to suggest, however, that what works for me might be good for anyone else. British poet-blogger Dick Jones says that playing in bands for a few decades improved his writing enormously. It sounds as if his initial motivation differed a bit from mine; I never had much ambition to “set the world alight with my deathless prose and incandescent verse” the way Dick says he did when he was young. Playing bass in public sounds like just the medicine he needed.

Audiences identify with the vocalist or adulate the lead guitarist; they don’t notice the bass guitarist. He plunks alone, shadowy & monosyllabic behind the fireworks. So I stood on the left of the drummer, laid back on the rhythm and just enjoyed the simple process of getting to grips with a musical instrument.

And, over time, this attention to the medium over the message had its kickback into writing. For the first time I started to write poems principally for the sake of the statement made and the craft of putting it together.

Dick and I may have been following parallel courses, though. Because it seems to me that we’ve each stumbled on a discipline that has taught us a little better how to listen.

Scherzo for Winds

Scherzo for Winds, from the Undiscovery Channel

While I stand still as a gnomon trying to shoot the wind, five, six, seven chimney swifts wheel over the treetops up on the ridge, seining the air for wind-borne invertebrates: gypsy moth caterpillars on one-strand parachutes, perhaps. Baby spiders no bigger than an 8-point asterisk. Anything with wings.

A turkey vulture loses altitude above the corner of the field, rocking from side to side on upcurved pinions. Will it have to flap? No. It enters a thermal at last and spirals upward.

A common fritillary weaves drunkenly past my right shoulder, seemingly unconcerned by the sudden strong gusts throwing it off course. (Does it have a course?) I think a new verb is called for: it serendips.

From time to time, maple seeds come helicoptering in and disappear into the tall grass. The evidence of past years’ red maple profligacy dot the field, seedlings just big enough for the deer to find.

A sharp-shinned hawk sails out of the woods next to the powerline only to hover forty feet above the roiling sea of grass, wings fluttering rapidly, and then fly back. A cloud slightly larger than the others brings a spit of rain.

Back to Rickett’s Glen

Going in Circles, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Gnats circle our heads without biting as we climb up and down the rock steps with cameras or strip down to bathing suits to swim in the plunge pool, each attentive in our way to the mysteries before us. The stone face beside the waterfall stares unrecognized from a thousand vacation snapshots.

walking birch

walking birchThis is one of the most popular places to go walking in Pennsylvania; even the trees seem to want to join in. Black and yellow birches balance on stout root-legs, the stumps on top of which they sprouted having long since disappeared, like crutches thrown away after a visit to the healing waters of some sacred spot.

The understory shrubs known as hobblebush, or witch-hobble, lean out over the water to escape the ministrations of the white-tailed deer. They’re already in radiant bloom, with their heart-shaped leaves only half-grown.


“Deer Park,” says the label on the plastic water bottle bobbing below the falls. But deer numbers in the park must be low, or there’d be no hobblebush at all, and far fewer of the wildflowers that carpet the ground: trillium, foamflower, trout lilies.

lichen on hemlock

Twigs shed by the hemlocks are covered in arboreal lichen, as one would expect from an old-growth forest. I try not to focus on the unnaturally thin and grayish foliage on some the trees — a sign that the hemlock woolly adelgid has reached North Mountain, and in a few more years all the hemlocks here may be dead. If and when that happens, it will be catastrophic for lichens and the invertebrates that feed on them. Cold-water stoneflies, brook trout, and other species dependent on the cooling properties of hemlock groves will suffer, as will some of the songbirds that reach their highest densities in old-growth conifer forests: Acadian flycatcher, Blackburnian warbler, black-throated green warbler, and blue-headed vireo. All but the flycatcher have returned from their winter vacations in the tropics for another breeding season, and sing from the treetops.

truck in the woods

Brook trout dart across the bottom of sunlit pools in Kitchen Creek, seemingly oblivious to the traffic on the two-lane highway. I think I know why some people find fishing addictive: staring at the water and the fish moving through it is a passport to another, more timeless dimension.

We’re on our way home from a funeral for a great aunt, the last of her generation. My paternal grandmother, her husband, and most of her extended family are buried within fifteen miles of here. My ancestors have been making the circuit hike of the glens probably since before Rickett’s Glen was a state park, and my parents courted here back in the days when couples still courted, putting over from Bucknell University on Dad’s motor scooter. Somehow without really intending to I end up visiting at least once a year myself. It’s beginning to feel almost like a pilgrimage.