Down and dirty

Election Day Fracas, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Nothing quite says “Earth Day” to me like a battle for supremacy between two magnificent wild animals. Unfortunately, however, I had to settle for a squabble between two groundhogs under and (briefly) in front of my house. Hey, it beats reading yet another stupid email entitled “Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth.” (If it were simple, we’d have saved the earth ten times over by now. I’m more in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s camp: if something doesn’t make me angry or at least uncomfortable, it’s probably not true.)

But as I listened to the groundhogs’ threats and screams, and took in the dirt and the abundant flies, I remembered that it was also Primary Election Day here in Punxatawney Phil land. I’m registered Independent myself, so I won’t be participating in this wonderful exercise in sandbox democracy. If there’s hog to be ground — and I imagine there is — I’ll just have to leave that to my fellow Younsers.*

Given the predicted high turnout and the general disorganization at Pennsylvania’s polling places, I’m not too sanguine that this will be over by tomorrow morning, or even by the end of the week. Let me know when it’s safe to come out, O.K.?

groundhog snout

*Younser: An inhabitant of that portion of Pennsylvania where “you’ns” is in common use as a second-person plural pronoun. Younsers give way to Yinzers west of Johnstown.



It was hot today; I came close to cutting my hair. I saw four garter snakes — which usually can be found sunning themselves on warm rocks this time of year — down in or right above the water in the old stone well. It was too bad my three-year-old niece Elanor couldn’t have been here today; she’s developed quite an interest in these snakes, and even held one for the first time last week with her father’s encouragement.

Around 10:30, I wandered down to the pussy willow next to the stream to admire the way it shone and buzzed: bees, wasps, and flies of all descriptions swarmed its furry blossoms. Further down the hollow, the round-lobed hepatica was in full bloom on the bank above the road, and for the third spring in a row since I got the camera I have now, I knelt or lay on the leaves taking dozens of photos while the green-bottle flies climbed all over my arms and face. Every hepatica blossom is a slightly different color, ranging from almost white to lavender.

Later on in the afternoon, I saw the first cabbage white butterfly of the year. I kept thinking though that I ought to see a bear, since I had posted one here in the header of the blog yesterday, and as luck would have it, at around 4:45, I got my wish. I was getting a drink of water at the sink when I looked out the window and saw a bear doing the same thing in the stream right behind the pussy willow tree. And she wasn’t alone.

black bears

There were four cubs in all, one of them a relatively uncommon cinnamon bear. This is almost certainly the same family I first saw last summer, when the cubs were barely bigger than basketballs. I was happy to see that they’d all made it through the winter. I went out on the front porch and stood watching as they climbed the road bank and rambled off through the laurel. They disappeared surprisingly quickly in the sun-drenched woods.

UPDATE: Here’s a short video I managed to get from my porch.

Thrasher Thrasher

Ridge and Valley Improvisation, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo

I was up on top of the ridge this morning, bending down to photograph some trailing arbutus blossoms, when I heard the brassy, jazzy phrases of a brown thrasher for the first time since last summer. Since I don’t have any other way to record audio in the field, I shot a video with my digital camera. (Note the traffic noise from I-99, over a mile away on the far side of the mountain.) An hour later, a thrasher was singing in my parents’ front yard — possibly the same bird.

If you’re familiar with either of its close relatives, the catbird or the mockingbird, you’ll recognize the tone quality and improvisational character, but what distinguishes the thrasher is his tendency to sing most phrases twice. He also does far fewer impersonations of other birds than either a catbird or a mocker, and is the most creative of the three:

So far, researchers have documented between 1000 and 2000 songs, depending on which researchers you listen to. Not only that, but brown thrashers actually sing two songs simultaneously even though they emerge from their throats as a single song, according to Barry Kent MacKay in his informative book Bird Songs.

Every year brown thrashers learn more songs despite singing only during a brief period each spring while they establish territories and attract mates.


This might be a good time to mention that the May 1 edition of the Festival of the Trees will be hosted at what I guess must be the world’s most popular birding blog, 10,000 Birds. Here’s the announcement post, including information on where to send your tree-related links for inclusion in what is sure to be a well-written and widely read edition.

Coal and sadness

Prayer, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo. Music traditional Tuvan, performed by Ay-Kherel.

A fervent wish: that the water in this ephemeral pond last long enough for the wood frog tadpoles to complete their metamorphosis this year. When I walked up there this afternoon, I found just two egg masses, anchored to sticks near the center of the pond. Many of last autumn’s leaves floating just under the surface had turned green again, thanks to a fresh bloom of algae. I suppose you could take that as a sign of hope if you wanted to.

wood frog eggs
Click photo to see the full-size image at Visual Soma

As of this morning, the “pond” down in the corner of the field has a single egg mass, and wood frog mating activity seems to be over for the year, so the resident newt will probably make short work of those tadpoles. I have serious doubts about the long-term survival of our wood frog population in Plummer’s Hollow.


Speaking of hope — or the lack thereof — somehow I’ve managed to avoid saying anything about the famous people who have driven past the mountain in recent days: NPR’s Linda Wertheimer, Senator Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton. It was fascinating that Wertheimer discovered outspoken social conservatives whose views just happened to confirm outsiders’ preconceptions of this part of Pennsylvania… in a local Baptist church. I gritted my teeth to read of Obama’s vocal support for “clean coal” (an oxymoron, since there’s no clean way to extract it) and wind turbines everywhere (the ecological costs of which would outweigh the benefits here in the east, according to a report from the National Academies of Science last year). In fairness, the Clintons also support these environmental shell games.

As far as I know, Jon Stewart hasn’t swung through western Pennsylvania recently, but he must’ve been here at some point, because his one-liner on April 1 captured the essence of the region as well as anything can:

This area best known for its chief exports, coal and sadness.

It is perhaps a measure of his greatness as a comedian that he managed to turn that into a laugh line.

Compton tortoise shell

A very tattered question mark Compton tortoise shell butterfly landed on the trail ahead of me as I made my way back to the house.

UPDATED 4/11 to correct the butterfly I.D., thanks to tigerbeetlefreak on Flickr. (See the Massachusetts Butterfly Club page for a side-by-side comparison with other brushfoots.)

Updated 4/9 with a couple more sentences and links on our all-too-brief brush with greatness.

Fossils of the wind

If it quacks like a duck… from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

The woods were full of question marks, Mom says at dinner. They’re migrating north. I am suddenly sorry I didn’t go for a walk in the woods. Instead, I spent an hour in the bottom corner of the field, crouched beside the artifically enlarged spring we call a pond, waiting in vain for the wood frogs to resume the chorus I’d interrupted when I had to change my camera batteries. After forty minutes, a single frog re-emerged; at least six had been quacking and fighting when I first got there. Even though I was watching the pond intently for the slightest sign of movement, the frog just suddenly materialized like some kind of amphibian ninja, floating motionless on the surface with a small lump of mud for a hat. He drifted back and forth in the breeze, not moving a muscle. Watching him watch me — this creature that can freeze solid for weeks or months at a time, his heart stopped — I too began slipping into a trance. I was reminded of Charles Simic’s “Stone Inside a Stone,”

On the border of nothing and nothing.

Fossils of the wind.
But what wind?

You can’t step twice in the same river —
With a stone you can take your sweet time.

wood frog

The sun was sinking, and the temperature was dropping back down into the 40s. My fingers grew numb around the camera. I caught sight of the red-spotted newt that has been living in this spring for the past few years, feasting on frogs’ eggs and tadpoles and reducing the once-teeming wood frog population to a half-dozen long-lived survivors. The newt glided insouciantly along the bottom, and I couldn’t help wondering if this was the real “lizard in the spring” in the old Appalachian folksong.

Later, when Mom hears that the wood frogs had been out, she says she’s sorry she went for a walk in the woods instead. It seems we each took the other’s walk! But on the way back up the driveway to fix supper, I paused to admire a clump of newly opened coltsfoot at the edge of the driveway, small suns in a firmament of blue-gray stone.


Rabid fox

Hydrophobia, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

If you read today’s installment of the Morning Porch, you may have been led to envy my father’s good fortune in having such a rare encounter with a gray fox, a creature of generally reclusive and crepuscular habits. That’s how I felt, too, until we spotted it again in mid-afternoon, up in the corner of the field. Mom was watching a small flock of wild turkeys through her binoculars, when all of a sudden the fox jumped out from behind a clump of dried goldenrod. The birds moved away from it, but didn’t really spook, and the fox walked a short distance and disappeared into the weeds again. So we went up to get a closer look, and the video shows what we found. In the morning, it had acted normally aside from its lack of fear, but now it had blood all over its muzzle, presumably from attacking something, and was clearly in the advanced stages of rabies.

I went back down to the house and read up on the disease. Here’s what the Wikipedia had to say:

The virus has a bullet-like shape…

The route of infection is usually, but not necessarily, by a bite. In many cases the infected animal is exceptionally aggressive, may attack without provocation, and exhibits otherwise uncharacteristic behaviour.

The period between infection and the first flu-like symptoms is normally two to twelve weeks, but can be as long as two years. Soon after, the symptoms expand to slight or partial paralysis, cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, insomnia, confusion, agitation, abnormal behavior, paranoia, terror, hallucinations, progressing to delirium. The production of large quantities of saliva and tears coupled with an inability to speak or swallow are typical during the later stages of the disease; this can result in “hydrophobia”, where the victim has difficulty swallowing because the throat and jaw become slowly paralyzed, shows panic when presented with liquids to drink, and cannot quench his or her thirst. The disease itself was also once commonly known as hydrophobia, from this characteristic symptom. The patient “foams at the mouth” because they cannot swallow their own saliva for days and it gathers in the mouth until it overflows.

Death almost invariably results two to ten days after the first symptoms…

When I was a kid, I remember being terrified of rabies. Mom tells me that’s because, when I was four or five years old and we were still living in Maine, there was a bad outbreak of it. One day a rabid red fox staggered into our front yard, and she kept us inside all day and for a couple days thereafter.

I went back up to the corner of the field with my arthritic old .22 and scoured the area, but the fox was gone. It occurred to me that the last time I’d used the gun was to shoot a house cat with advanced feline leukemia some eight years ago. As it turned out, though, I didn’t have to be the executioner this time, because a few minutes later one of our hunter friends showed up, a guy named Jeff who lives close by and gets off work at 3:00. He had a much more effective rifle than mine — no surprise there — and we all went to look for the fox. I heard a robin scolding in the woods, followed the sound and discovered the poor thing lying a few feet off one of the trails. Its head was up, and it was still working its jaws and making a slight spitting-coughing noise.

There are times when the boom of a rifle is a very welcome sound, and this was one of them. I returned with a shovel a little later at my mother’s urging and buried it three feet down. This is the hungriest time of year; why risk infecting anything else? But it’s a hard thing to throw clay on something so beautiful.

A little later, Mom stopped by to say that a few coltsfoot and one purple crocus were in bloom — our very first flowers of the year.

Pressing on

Pressing On (Return of the Phoebe) from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Ah, to be as single-minded as a phoebe! To sing for the sheer joy of it, one’s message reduced to the bare fundamentals:
I am here.
Life is good.
Gimme some sugar.

Isn’t that really what we’re all trying to do, as artists and writers ?

Apparently not. “Whether a person blogs to make a little money, to influence opinion or just for sheer ego gratification,” says Paul Boutin of the New York Times, “amassing a large audience is the goal.” Oh. Oops.

Funny thing, though. Remember my interview with an anonymous blogger? Anon. used a slightly different yardstick to measure success in blogging:

One of my blogs lasted only a few weeks and got mentioned on instapundit and metafilter, logged hundreds of readers daily, was cut and pasted and forwarded as emails, and led to several offers of publication in whole or in part. A year before that, I had written another blog that also lasted only a few weeks. This second blog drew few readers, was not widely linked, didn’t feature my best prose, and when it ended, wasn’t archived by me or anyone else. It, however, involved my wandering in snowy woods by myself several times a week. For that reason alone, I prefer it to its more celebrated cousin.

Now this same individual, writing under a pseudonymn and working with an agent, has gotten an offer from a major publisher to bring out his second novel, which also gestated in a (now discontinued) blog — one with a daily readership probably around 100, I’m guessing. (Which still sounds like a lot to those of us who have been writing poetry for a while, and are used to thinking of a large audience as anything in excess of ten people, including family members!) Nor is he the only friend or acquaintance for whom blogging has led to authorship.

But judging by the advice proffered by most of the blogging experts I’ve read, my friends are basket-cases. Not only do they fail to measure their success by Google PageRank or Technorati authority, but their blogs often lack a tight focus; their titles usually aren’t terribly descriptive; most of them probably don’t know how to use tags to increase their SEO; and their posts often ramble far from the point and include lengthy paragraphs that few casual visitors would be able to focus on (Anon. was famous for that). But like our friend in the video above, they are hardly lacking in dedication.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the American blogging cognoscenti have completely ignored what I consider the most significant blogging story of 2008 so far. Japan’s most prestigious literary award — the Akutagawa Prize, which recognizes up-and-coming fiction writers — just went to a blogger named Mieko Kawakami. She began blogging in 2003 as a way to try and stir up interest in her music, but soon the writing took over. The prize went to her third work of fiction; all three were originally written for her blog.

Kawakami’s award-winning novella, “The Breast and the Egg,” explores the ideas of divorce, the questioning of beauty standards and other themes of solitary womanhood that are still relatively new territory in Japanese literature. Kawakami’s stories in some ways are those of Japan’s Everywoman. […]

“It’s about living, our body, the changes of the heart that accompany the body, the urgency, the problems being born, moment by moment,” Kawakami said. “The fact that we are always doing our best at living.”

So it seems that some top-notch writers are finding their voice through blogging now, even if blogging as a medium for literary expression hasn’t really caught on here yet. As someone who has helped publish bloggers and other writers and artists in a blog-enabled online literary magazine for three years, this is obviously a topic of keen interest to me. In Japan, as the AP article goes on to point out, it’s not uncommon now for writers to produce novels in installments meant to be read on mobile phones. To say that Japan has a healthy blogging culture would be a bit of an understatement.

There are more blog posts in Japanese than any other language, according to Technorati Inc., which tracks nearly 113 million blogs globally. Last year, Technorati found 37 percent of all postings were in Japanese — about 1.5 million per day. Postings in English — from Americans, Britons, Australians and people in many other countries — accounted for 36 percent of the total.

It’s not just a matter of numbers, though. In Japan, the personal or diary blog is the dominant form, not only as a percentage of the whole (which may be true here, too) but in terms of public perception. This makes sense, because letters and diaries have held a central position in Japanese literature for over a thousand years, enjoying equal status with poetry and novels. (You may have noticed the quote at the bottom of my sidebar from Sei Shonagon, whose tenth-century Pillow Book was as much like a personal blog as anything one can imagine.) Moreover, novels based on lightly-fictionalized autobiography have been a staple of Japanese literature for close to fifty years now. So a Japanese blogger with literary aspirations would not have to look far for role models or an appreciative audience.

Here in the U.S., by contrast, the literary establishment seems reluctant even to concede the value of online literary magazines, let alone blogs. The proper curmugeonly thing to do is express distaste for something so obviously deleterious to the cause of true literature, as the British novelist Doris Lessing did in her Nobel acceptance speech this past December.

What has happened to us is an amazing invention — computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked, What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print? In the same way, we never thought to ask, How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by this internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc.

God forbid! Then again, if all the bloggers I know followed the advice of the blogging gurus, I think we would have to concede Lessing’s point.

Mourning cloak

Snow Butterfly, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

What mourner wears maroon edged in gold? These dark wings are solar collectors, newly resurrected from hibernation or a long journey to the south. They are also billboards of a sort, advertising for sex.

mourning cloak on snow 2

But until the females emerge, there’s bare dirt and dung to eat, and snow to suckle. Find a path in the woods and make that your destination: land and circle, rise and double back. A month or more before the new leaves, your colors are made to match the fallen, the moldering. When the wind riffles the ridgetop leaves, you too can flutter. This is your glory time.

mourning cloak on snow 3

Later on, after the heat of mating is past, when the weather turns oppressively hot, you can let the strings of your life go slack a second time, creature of the in-between, of spring and autumn.


sky roots
(Click photo to see larger version)

Mid-March at this latitude is a time when even the most ordinary things can seem like revelations, as the Theriomorph observes. There is both less and more of things than we remember. Upturned roots diminished by rot seem to draw sustenance directly from the clouds, while living roots on a stream bank eroded by floods are left clutching little but each other and a few, bare rocks. As we circle, examining them from all angles, these signs turn gradually into ciphers. Soon we risk our own entrapment in a spell of undiscovery. Did she really say, “Even the babies have rocks in their parts”? What does it mean?

(Video from the Undiscovery Channel)


A couple of housekeeping notes: I’ve introduced a Feedburner version of the RSS feed for this site, the main advantage of which is that it displays videos to subscribers. Sometimes, as with that skunk video in “Canoe Creek,” I forget to include a note or caption to tell people reading this via Bloglines, Google Reader, or wherever that there’s a video in the post. And why make them click through to view it, after all? Other advantages to the new feed include helpful links to share the post via email, Facebook, and so on, similar to what you have on-site with the ShareThis utility. I’ve made it the new default, meaning that it’s what you’ll get if you click on the little feed icon in the Firefox browser window.

And speaking of the browser window, if you’ve noticed a question mark inside a yellow warning triangle to the left of the URL, don’t be alarmed — that’s simply my new favicon. (Don’t like it? Design me another one!) It used to be an exclamation point, but it was subjected to rigorous questioning in Photoshop. If you can’t see the new favicon, and are still still looking at the old, nearly indecipherable one (which was supposed to be a “falling rocks ahead” sign, but looked more like a sideways “V”), that’s probably because your browser is still caching the old one. Don’t worry — you’re not missing much.

Canoe Creek

Canoe Lake

It was a bright, sunny afternoon with temperatures in the mid-50s. I hitched a ride with my brother Steve and his three-year-old daughter Elanor to Canoe Creek State Park, about 20 miles south of here, to look at waterfowl through his high-powered spotting scope. We went first to the picnic area, where a few buffleheads were swimming in a small patch of open water. But most of the birds were crowded in an inlet at the far end of the lake. Even at 75 power, it was hard to tell what some of them were, and I was surprised by all the heat shimmer off the ice-covered lake.

on the beach

Elanor was delighted by the little artificial beach. Another parent was there with two, slightly older boys, but they left shortly after we arrived and Elanor had the place to herself. She loves water in any form, and can spend hours staring at it, throwing things in it, and generally messing around in it. Fortunately for her, the lake had ignored the “beach closed” sign and had breached the fence.

The real excitement came an hour later, as we were heading back across the picnic area toward the car, having decided to drive to the boat launch on the other side of the lake for better views of the waterfowl. Steve spotted a small animal rooting around in the grass between the picnic tables. A skunk!

Charles Fergus, in Wildlife of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, notes that “The fur industry gives the highest grades to skunk pelts having the least amount of white,” so this was a very valuable skunk. As luck would have it, my mother’s nature column for March was on skunks, which are often seen this time of year. Not only is March their mating season, but they are apt to be famished at the end of a long winter, as this one appeared to be:

Striped skunks fatten up before winter and sleep through the coldest weather. But their body temperature only drops from 98 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and they frequently appear during warm spells. Nevertheless, from November to March, females lose from 32 to 55 percent of their weight and males from 15 to 48 percent.

And what do they eat, exactly? It might be easier to list what they don’t eat.

Striped skunks, which find food by using their keen sense of smell and hearing, eat just about anything including garbage and carrion. That’s why they thrive in a wide variety of habitats, including lawns and golf courses where they dig up grubs. But they prefer forest edges, old fields, and brushy farmlands where they do more good than harm, eating an incredible diversity of insects such as beetles, crickets, moths, ants, and grasshoppers, and specializing in such harmful to agriculture insects as bud worms, June beetles, army worms, cut worms, and scarab beetles. They dig up yellow jacket nests and scratch on beehives to entice honeybees outside so they can eat them and are seemingly unperturbed by their stings. They also relish spiders, toads, frogs, snakes, young rabbits, chipmunks, shrews, voles, salamanders, crayfish and earthworms.

And then there are the birds’ eggs, the mice, the roots and berries… For a striped skunk, it seems, nearly every area is a picnic area.

goose girl

On the other side of the lake, Elanor finally got a close look at the creatures that had left all those impressive turds in the grass. Steve and I were more interested in the displaying mergansers, the canvasbacks, and four tundra swans standing out on the ice. And as usual, we were ready to go long before she was, though she fell asleep soon after we got into the car.

The greatest value of Canoe Creek State Park to biodiversity lies elsewhere than in its artificial lake: it has the largest maternity colony of little brown bats in the state, and a bat hibernaculum that includes the federally endangered Indiana bat. With the mysterious white nose syndrome decimating bat populations to our north, and the growing threat of industrial wind turbines, which kill bats by the thousands, Canoe Creek will probably be an increasingly important refuge for these slow-reproducing keystone species. But the recreation-oriented portion of the park has value to wildlife too, and on a nice day in early spring, we were perfectly content with a few close views of some common but undeniably charismatic creatures.