Thaw, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Headlong headlong waters; roaring; old hypnosis.
The river swamps the car cemetery, glitters
behind the masks.
I hold tight to the bridge railing.
The bridge: a big iron bird sailing past death.
–Tomas Transtromer, “From the Thaw of 1966”
(tr. Robin Fulton)

For what it’s worth, I was born in late winter 1966. Possibly during a thaw.

I chose the music for this short film based solely on sound — the lyrics are no more intelligible to me than the sound of the river — but from the little bit of web research I did, it sounds as if the Caddoan people known as the Arikara, Sahnish, or Arikaree had a strong connection to rivers (Specifically, the Missouri and its tributaries):

The Arikara hunted the buffalo in winter, returning to their village in the early spring, where they spent the time before planting in dressing the pelts. Their fish supply was obtained by means of basket traps. They were expert swimmers, and ventured to capture buffaloes that were disabled in the water as the herd was crossing the river. Their wood supply was obtained from the river; when the ice broke up in the spring the Indians leaped on the cakes, attached cords to the trees that were whirling down the rapid current, and hauled them ashore. Men, women, and the older children engaged in this exciting work, and although they sometimes fell and were swept downstream, their dexterity and courage generally prevented serious accident. Their boats were made of a single buffalo skin stretched, hair side in, over a frame of willows bent round like a basket and tied to a hoop 3 or 4 feet in diameter. The boat could easily be transported by a woman and, according to Hayden, “would carry 3 men across the Mis­souri with tolerable safety.”

cable roots

On the bank above the junction of Plummer’s Hollow Run with the Little Juniata River, an invasive ailanthus — the so-called tree of heaven — rose from a nest of rusted steel roots. Nearby, fresh-cut stumps of ailanthus and black locust along the township road probably attested to the desperation of local poor people to get through this winter with the high cost of heating fuel. It’s been three centuries, now, and we non-natives have yet to figure out how to put down real roots.

Announcing the Undiscovery Channel

Undiscovery Channel logo

No, I’m not starting a new blog! Five is enough, thank you. This is a channel. Really, just a fancy name for a place where I group all my videos together on Vimeo. Which I’m mostly just using to host the videos that I embed here, having gotten tired of YouTube. Vimeo has better esthetics, a more sophisticated clientele (at least until I joined), and they encourage uploading higher-resolution videos. And I think they’re popular enough to survive the coming shake-out when the Web 2.0 bubble bursts. (But I’m keeping my YouTube account open in case they aren’t.)

If you’ve been reading Via Negativa for a while, you know I have a thing about porcupines. Actually, that goes back to my pre-blog days: porcupines were a leitmotif of my original website, as well. Like a porcupine, I’m a slow-moving pacifist, I love trees, and I have large front teeth. Also, while we’re not on a first-name basis or anything, I do usually have a porcupine in residence under my house. Just the other morning, I wrote about watching it return after daybreak. What I didn’t mention is that I went inside and grabbed my camera when I saw it coming. Here’s the result.

Subscribers must click through to watch the video, as usual, or go here.

I was in the process of grabbing the embed code for this video this morning when I noticed the link to Vimeo Channels and said, Hey — that looks like a branch I could chew on for a little while. But I assure you, this isn’t going to be like Visual Soma or The Morning Porch; I set up the Undiscovery Channel purely as a lark. I have absolutely no intention of getting into filmmaking yet.

Anyone have a digital video camera they’re looking to get rid of?

Cold eye

field study

Thursday, mid-morning. Crunching my way up across the field, the thick crust on eight inches of snow forces me to take my time, however much I might think that the real show is in the ridgetop woods, where a heavy coating of hoarfrost is rapidly disappearing from the trees. The sun is strong, and since I don’t own a pair of prescription sunglasses, I have to walk with one eye shut and the other squinting against the glare. Not that this stops me from snapping pictures, of course: dead weeds and grass are always especially photogenic with snow to provide a ready contrast and a smooth white screen for shadows.

I notice it’s my right eye that’s the more sensitive of the two; it’s less painful to squint through my left. Consequently, everything has a reddish or magenta hue, which is especially noticeable because the light is so strong. My right eye sees a more greenish or cyan world. I’ve always thought of my eyes as warm (left) vs. cold (right), and perhaps because I’m right-handed, I do favor the latter. I think you can see this in my photographs, where I so often skew the color balance toward cyan. To me, they just look better that way. But with my cold eye shut and the LCD screen on the back of my camera almost unreadable in the glare, I’m snapping pictures on faith. This turns out not to be a very good idea: none of them come anywhere near the pictures in my mind. Maybe Yeats was on to something with that sententious epitaph of his.

Friday, mid-morning. It’s overcast and warmer, near freezing. On my way up the path to my parents’ house, I come across another walker in the snow — some kind of caddisfly, I think. After a few minutes of walking on top of the snow, it slips under the crust. Perhaps it’s a little warmer under there, or the insect senses that the icy covering offers protection from feathered predators. I watch the dark blob moving under the crust and can still picture the folded wings, the Charlie Chaplin legs, and the inquisitive antennae feeling all over like the hands of someone playing blind man’s bluff, groping for anything warm.

Subscribers must click through to watch the video, or go here.


hidden message

The Hidden Messages issue of qarrtsiluni is continuing to unfold. As usual, the second month of the issue is busier than the first, with a new post going up every day, so be sure to check back often. There’s a lot of really powerful stuff going up.

writing on the snow

I wasn’t looking for messages, hidden or otherwise, when I went for a walk with my camera yesterday morning. I did get some pictures which I hope will be good enough for a post I’m planning to write for the next Festival of the Trees’ special edition on fruit trees and orchards.

When I was still a mile from the house, a snow squall blew in, and I got some pictures of that, as well. It was exhilarating to walk along the crest of the ridge with 40-mile-an-hour winds whipping the trees back and forth and at times reducing visibility to about ten feet. (During those times, of course, I kept my camera under my coat.) Unfortunately, not everyone was out on foot: I learned this morning that the whiteouts caused accidents and pile-ups on highways all around Pennsylvania.

Yes, we f---ing got milk

I got back just in time for lunch, looking more or less like the Abominable Snowman. At 3:00 o’clock, we headed down the mountain to my niece Elanor’s third birthday party, and moments later the power went out — a neighbor from the valley called to let us know just as we reached the bottom of the hollow. This time I forgot to bring my camera, so I don’t have a photographic record of Elanor’s high-energy antics as she whirled and tore around the apartment.

We returned to the mountain two hours later to fire up our small gasoline generator, cook supper, and keep the pipes in my parents’ house from freezing as the temperature dipped to zero (-18° C). Sometimes when the weatherpeople say “cold front,” they really mean it! Fortunately the wood stove in my living room and the earth-sheltered design of my laundry room are enough to keep my own house warm. But the generator requires refueling every hour and a half, and it’s a two-person job, so Dad and I had to stay more or less awake until the power finally came back on at 2:30 in the morning. Oddly enough, when we laid bets hours earlier about when the power would return, 2:30 was my mother’s exact guess. I’m not sure what hidden messages she’d been privy to.

Here’s a brief video that should give some sense of the elemental power of the storm.

Blog subscribers should either click through to the post to view the video, or go here.

Chasing dragons

The scientists’ children ate our weird food with gusto. “We like trying new things,” they said.

“If someone served you escargots, would you try it?” I asked.

“Sure,” they said.

And as soon as supper was over, they were right back outside.

millipede on hand

Their parents had gone off down the mountain with a couple other ornithologists to survey the spot where they planned to construct a blind and spring-net trap for banding golden eagles on migration, later this fall. The impulse to hunt and capture fierce winged beings seems to be in their blood.

mantis on arm

Jeffrey was immensely proud of the male praying mantis he had found before supper and decided to keep as a pet, and he continued to address it in terms of endearment even though it delivered painful bites every chance it could get. His younger sister Ashley wasn’t shy about playing with the beast, either, and when my father spotted a dense swarm of green darners up on the barn bank, she raced back and forth for ten minutes, desperate to catch one.

Plummer’s Hollow gets a fair number of younger visitors, but I haven’t been so strongly reminded of my own childhood in a long time.

Life without DSL

or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation

But as of 12:30 this afternoon, thanks to the intercession of my cousin Jeff and a new modem from Verizon, Plummer’s Hollow has high-speed internet once again.


Despite what this porcupine seems to think, there are plenty of trees for everyone at the 13th edition of the Festival of the Trees.

Thanks to my friends Chris and Seung for the use of their laptop and high-speed internet to upload the above video, which I shot in Plummer’s Hollow last week. (I wasn’t using the zoom — the porcupine really was that close!)

Shooting Bambi

Hot off the presses this morning: Festival of the Trees 12 takes a meditative look at trees and forests, while I and the Bird turns 50 (editions, that is).


Meet Bambi. This fawn must’ve been less than 48 hours old yesterday morning, judging by the way it wobbled when it walked, and it displayed no fear of the strange, bipedal creature standing in the middle of the road. Its mother was nowhere in evidence; she must’ve gone off foraging after giving her fawn strict instructions to stay put. But like a lot of young ‘uns, the fawn clearly had other ideas. I happened around the bend just as it trotted down through the woods and teetered on the edge of the bank. I switched my camera to video mode and shot a short clip (I’m new to video editing, so I apologize for the poor quality). Notice how quickly and effectively it hides when a car approaches.

Note, too, the relative openness of the forest floor behind it. This is a look that all of us who have grown up in Pennsylvania and other parts of the eastern United States have grown well accustomed to over the last fifty or sixty years. But it isn’t natural.

hickory seedling in deer exclosure

Now meet a baby shagbark hickory. Notice the fence behind it: this is inside a 400-square-foot deer exclosure right on the top of one of our dry ridges, the sort of environment where we have become especially accustomed to looking at brown leaf litter and the occasional patch of moss. Shagbark hickories are great trees, but we don’t have too many of them under about the age of sixty, and three of the nicest ones were felled in an ice storm in 2005. The loosely attached shingles of bark that give the tree its name make especially attractive roosts for many species of forest bats, which, as voracious consumers of insects, are thought to play something of a keystone role in eastern forest ecosystems. But like most woody plants, shagbark hickory seedlings are highly palatable to white-tailed deer, especially in winter and early spring when there isn’t much else to eat.

corner of the deer exclosure

Here’s a corner of the deer exclosure, showing the contrast between inside and out. We have plenty of Solomon’s-seal down in the hollow, and now that the deer numbers are down throughout the property as a result of a decade of good hunting, we’re starting to see spindly, first- and second-year Solomon’s-seal appear in the flatter, more accessible areas on top of the mountain. But nowhere does it look as healthy as in this little exclosure, which is now ten years old. I had never seen Solomon’s-seal with two and three parallel rows of flowers before this spring. This suggests that even the de-facto wildflower refuge areas in the steepest parts of the hollow are still suffering from over-grazing. This is the kind of baseline data that you can’t get from historical records, because 100 years ago, very few people were taking notes on such things.

red oak seedling in deer exclosure

Bare ground is almost nonexistent inside the exclosure from March onwards — as I think it would be almost everywhere, were it not for our adorable cloven-hoofed friends. Yes, white-tailed deer are a natural part of the eastern forest ecosytem, but their numbers have been greatly inflated by the elimination of the two principal predators on adult deer, cougars and wolves. Nor is it just a numbers game. When deer and elk are actively predated, they change their behavior from what biologists refer to as an energy-maximizing mode to a time-minimizing mode. That is to say, they stop hanging out in the open or along forest edges, browsing and grazing to their hearts’ content and making as many fawns as possible, and instead they take cover — like the fawn in the video — and spend as little time as they can out in the open. That’s why most deer are killed on the opening day of regular rifle season here in Pennsylvania each fall: as soon as they realize they’re in danger, they bed down and hardly move for the next two weeks, except at night. The more ambitious hunters are getting proficient in archery and muzzleloader hunting so they can take advantage of earlier seasons, which begin in October here. Some of us would like to see deer seasons of one kind or another stretch for six months or longer, more effectively imitating year-round natural predation. Of course, the hunting would be much tougher under such a scenario, which is why the slob hunters in our state set up a howl at every attempt to manage white-tailed deer from an ecosystem perspective.

Our original inspiration in creating our deer exclosures was a visit to a fifty-year-old exclosure in northern Pennsylvania — Latham’s acre.

It was like stepping into a lost world, a world filled with wildflowers, shrubs, and saplings only rarely seen in much of Pennsylvania’s wild lands. Thick beds of Canada mayflower, Solomon’s seal, round-leaved violets, partridgeberry, Indian cucumber-root, white baneberry, jack-in-the-pulpit, and red and painted trilliums blanketed the forest floor. Alternate-leaved dogwood and red elderberry shrubs, as well as tree saplings of many species, such as black birch, sugar maple, shadbush, black cherry, and American beech, occupied the understory. The vegetation was so thick that we could barely see from one end of the acre to the other. The middle canopy, which has been eliminated from many of Pennsylvania’s forests by too many deer, was especially impressive. That is the area, researchers have found, where most of our neotropical migrant songbirds, such as wood thrushes, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and black-throated blue warblers, nest and feed.

You may have noticed the wood thrush, scarlet tanager, Acadian flycatcher, and worm-eating warbler songs in the video I posted. We’re fortunate in having at least some mid-level canopy in portions of our woods, and in time, with good hunting, we hope to have much more.

You can read about how we set up the larger of two deer exclosures here. I’ve also started a new photoset for pictures of the two exclosures, which I plan to take every year for documentary purposes.