Half-wild, half-cruel,
like the laughter of a solitary man.

– Paul Zweig, “Eternity’s Woods”

I’m used to waking in the dark; it isn’t that. I don’t really mind the thought that the majority of my fellow citizens may be simpletons, because I am myself exceedingly susceptible to delusions of every sort. It does bother me a bit, though, that virtually every analyst and pundit has skipped blithely over the glaring mismatch between exit poll data and election results. Exit polls, they suggest, are simply another form of opinion poll, and therefore only as good as the pollsters and the questions asked. Nonsense! I can think of only two ways the exit polls in Ohio could have been so wrong: massive voter fraud, or widespread lying by people who had just voted for George Bush.

The latter possibility deserves at least a little consideration. Willful ignorance and outright mendacity are not, after all, so very far apart. “He’s my president, so if he tells me that Saddam was poised to attack the United States, I believe him.” “Yes, I know that ‘faulty intelligence’ wasn’t to blame. We went in there for the oil – and it’s a good thing we did. We need that oil. If we have to kill a bunch of Arabs to protect our standard of living, so be it.” (I actually had someone say this to me a few months back.) “Sure, he lied. He does what he has to do. It’s all for the greater good, which most of us have no idea about. The ways of those who have access to the full truth will often seem incomprehensible to the more poorly informed masses.” (This is, of course, a neoconservative article of faith.) “Every decent, moral, Christian person has no choice but to vote for the candidate who will defend the sanctity of marriage and protect the lives of the unborn. But why should we tell the unsaved what we are doing? It’s not a sin to lie to liberal pollsters and reporters. ‘Let not the left hand know what the right hand is doing.’ It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Thank You, Jesus, For My Plastic Ears.
– headline from the Weekly World News

I woke in the dark with no power. This isn’t a metaphor. The electricity was out here from 1:10 a.m. until 6:35 a.m. yesterday, then again from 1:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon. The second time, my father finally called the power company and persisted through fifteen minutes of voice mail purgatory until he reached a human being, who informed him that we could expect to have our electricity on by 7:30 at the latest. When the power was restored only five minutes after he hung up, we felt absurdly blessed.

Our power company is a subsidiary of First Energy, the Ohio-based corporation found responsible for last year’s Great Northeastern Blackout. That was but one of six outages we had in 2003 that lasted 24 hours or longer. It doesn’t pay them to maintain their infrastructure, so they don’t. And with deregulation, they don’t have to.

This is the future, folks. Get used to it. In ten years, regular power outages will become an accepted part of life, just as they are in much of the so-called developing world where small, venal elites feel no sense of social obligation. Who needs bread and circuses when fear and repression work just as well? That’s something, after all, that both major parties believe in. Police repression in Boston leads to the death of a college student? Well, clearly there just weren’t enough cops on the street! Brutal U.S. presence in Iraq fuels an exponential growth of the insurrection? Let’s send in more troops! Flatten Fallujah! Kill ten Iraqis (or is a hundred?) for every dead American! Prisoners don’t respond to torture, or give useless or false information? Come up with better tortures!

Besides, false information is better than no information, right? As long as the empty suits on the network newscasts have something to work with.

Facts don’t matter any more – if they ever did. Remember all the public confusion surrounding the millennial year? No rational person could fail to conclude that the year 2000 was the last year of the 20th century and the 2nd Millennium. But rather than insist on the point, the mainstream news media put out the notion that it was mainly a matter of opinion. There were, after all, two sides to the argument, and all good reporters learn in journalism school not to pick and choose between warring points of view – just report them both. The same approach has allowed the Bush regime to get away with most of its outrageous claims, about everything from global warming to forest health to the War on Terror. Two fraudulent presidential elections later, it seems that our entire reality structure has become postmodern.

Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

– Gary Snyder, “The Trail is Not a Trail”

But what does it matter, Dave, if nobody really knows what time it is? Time is, after all, an entirely human construct. And you wouldn’t get so worked up about these things if you took the long view, cultivated awareness, recognized that all is vanity, or samsara, or whatever.

Well, yes, I suppose that’s true. But it is curious how the time becomes suddenly so important to me whenever the clocks go dead. Winston Smith thought it might have been 1984, but it bothered him never to know for certain. I could just sit here and treasure the silence – I wrote yesterday afternoon, scrawling the words by hand on some old scrap paper I dug up – watch the sun through the window flirting with fast-moving clouds, stop measuring the daylight remaining until supper. This time of day it takes me so long to get the words out, I wrote, that I can watch my thoughts change course in mid-stream. For all intents and purposes, the River Lethe has only a single bank. Earlier I napped, and when I awoke I was only able to surface halfway, at first – a peculiar sensation. I tried to count to ten and kept getting off track somewhere in the vicinity of six or seven.

Before that, I transplanted some New England asters to my front garden. They had gone to seed in the most appealing manner, tousled heads of brownish gray waiting for the autumn winds to do the rest. I thought of the blogger Paula and her obsession with roadside weeds, her unflinching agnosticism. Now I sit in this unaccustomed silence and find myself wishing that I could meditate as deeply as a seed, still my internal clock and go into suspended animation. I’d come back to life only when all the conditions were just right.

Never forget:
we walk on hell,
gazing at flowers.

– Kobayashi Issa

It’s getting to me, I confess: the capriciousness of power, the pervasive dishonesty about its modes and motives. In my other blog, dead raccoon, I try to turn the tables, ape the Grand Inquisitor. Because every declarative statement now begins to seem fraudulent, as if made-to-order for the interrogator of the moment. One moment, please. A service representative will be with you shortly. Please hold.

One moment. That’s all they ever ask for, isn’t it? But it’s enough.

Last dream before waking: I am visiting a little-known reservation for an obscure sect of Messianic Jews in central Pennsylvania on land granted them by William Penn. I remember a string of white ponies approaching me one by one and thrusting their wet noses into my face. A little later, I’m walking in my stockinged feet between huge trees padded with incredibly thick moss all the way up their trunks, as high as I can see.

It fifty-three degrees on my front porch at 6:00 a.m. Thin, low clouds. A warm breeze rustles through the dry leaves at the edge of the driveway; otherwise, it’s dead quiet.

A doe ran off when I opened the door, as on nearly every other morning. But something about the way she spooked suggests she might be a newcomer, not a member of the resident herd. The latter have grown so used to me, they’ll only run a little way, and quickly return as long as I stay reasonably still. Located as I am right next to the highest year-round open water in the hollow, I see so many deer on a daily basis it’s hardly worth mentioning them in these notes.

At 6:15, my coffee finished, I go off for a brisk walk. I’m back by 8:30. One member of the resident pair of Carolina wrens lands on the old bluebird box on the butternut tree, bobbing up and down with great apparent earnestness while reciting its usual teakettleteakettleteakettle litany. Not satisfied with this display, it flies right in over my head and lands briefly on the porch railing beside me, chipping loudly. I’m not quite sure what it has in mind, but I have a feeling my presence is not required.

A flock of cedar waxwings moves through around quarter till nine. I hear them whistling to each other as they move through the treetops, but I never do catch a glimpse of them. Not that I expend much effort. I’m busy reading (or trying to read) Jorge Guillén: Sí­, tu niñez, ya fábula de fuentes. “Yes, your childhood, already a legend for fountains.”

After lunch, I cart out the radio, thinking I might enjoy listening to a Penn State football game for once. They’re playing Minnesota, and it’s shaping up to be a good contest. The temperature has climbed to 60, and there are only patchy clouds. It’s a good afternoon for leaf watching: huge flocks of red and scarlet oak leaves (actually all brown now) keep swirling down from the ridgetop. It’s always fun when some of them turn out to be birds and just keep on going. I sit there open-mouthed for a second or two, like a football fan watching an interception.

It seems like excellent weather for ravens, but I’ve yet to hear one. Of course, having the radio on probably has something to do with that. It’s been so long since I’ve listened to commercial radio, I’m agog at all the ads. I’m wondering if maybe this doesn’t have something to do with the gradual ascendancy of football over baseball as the new American Pastime? There’s so much more room for ads in a football game!

I’m fascinated by the rigid division into play time, evidently measured by some sort of official clock, and irrelevant time, which is far from useless. I get the impression that this time-outside-time is integral to the game, somehow. The announcers constantly talk about which team has how much timeout remaining, for example, and it appears there are other ways to stop the clock. Considering football as ritual drama rather than mere sporting contest, it seems fairly obvious that our cultural fascination with the fight against time is at the center of things. For both teams, the clock seems to stand in for Death itself, just like the bull in a Spanish bullfight. But I don’t know enough about the rules for timeout and overtime to speculate any further.

Needless to say, the precise meaning of much of what I’m hearing escapes me. The descriptions of the plays are impossible for me to picture, but the repetitive, stylized language is undeniably poetic. Too bad my high school gym teachers always assumed everyone already knew how to play the game; I might’ve learned something. Instead, they were content to let me run back and forth as the occasion seemed to demand, and left me alone – except for that one time when M. K. made the mistake of throwing me the ball, and I proceeded to run in the wrong direction. I scored a touchdown for the opposing team! Hey, it was wide open.

Funny I still remember that. It really didn’t bother me at the time, all the ribbing and abuse I came in for. I was already the class pariah – what could they do? “It’s not my fault,” I said. “I didn’t ask to be here!” I don’t remember if anyone had an answer to that.

First down. Second down and three. Third down on their own fifteen yard line. The wingnut formation. Now they’re in motion. The quarterback drops back, he’s looking, looking . . . Now here comes Minnesota’s 41 over the line . . .

Second quarter. Pine siskins briefly enter the butternut tree, their calls blending with the (to me) indistinguishable calls of the goldfinches. Purple jerseys versus yellow. The stands go wild.

It’s more than background noise, the roar of the crowd. I’m reminded of the contemporary philosopher Alfonso Lingis’ resonant phrase, the murmur of the world. Except this ain’t no stinkin’ murmur. These people sound as if they want nothing less than triumph for their team and complete, shattering humiliation for the other side. WE ARE . . . PENN STATE! Like hell you are, I think with an alum’s smugness.

At 3:05, two Apache helicopters flying in tandem along the ridge pass low over the houses. You talk about LOUD!

At 3:10, I scribble in my palm-sized notebook my admiration of the lilac leaves, still light green when almost every other bush and tree stands bare. Beautiful the way they catch the low sun, all a-flutter in the breeze. “No more can you get a little extra – ’cause you want a lot extra!” says the radio, pimping for McDonalds.

Forty minutes later the setting sun turns the limbs of the butternut tree to gold. I’m reading Stephen Dunn with my usual astonishment at his retrograde insistence that words should have something to say. I notice a typo, its for it’s. Typos are a much better example of the sort of thing Lingis intended by “the murmur of the world,” I think. Basically, it’s all the stuff we screen out: typos, slips of the tongue, spoken ums and ahs – all of them part and parcel of the normal functioning of any organic system. Or at least, that’s how I recall his argument. It was one of those things where I was reading the book (The Community of Those who Have Nothing in Common) before I gave it to someone (my brother Mark) for Christmas.

By 4:00, my notes indicate I had turned the radio off; no mention of how the game turned out. I’m marveling instead at how much more natural sound I can hear now: the nearly constant chirps and twitters of foraging birds, the wind in the crowns of the few oak trees still in leaf sounding so much like distant applause.

4:05: The Thinker slowly descends the butternut, ambles across the stream and over to the old log beside the driveway. I wonder what makes this one squirrel so placid? He acts more like a fox squirrel than a gray.

Stephen Dunn, in a poem called “The Liar”: “Facts are what I love, their insignificance,/the clay I can make of them.” I like the way he avoids the unnecessarily logical formulation here. If it had been me, I’m sure I would’ve tried to say something like, “…the unlimited number of ways I can twist their clay.”

At two minutes before 5:00, a hunter emerges from the woods, gun balanced on his shoulder. I set my harmonica aside to say hello. “Do you know any Bob Dylan?” he asks. (Jesus, I didn’t think my playing was that bad!) His blaze-orange coat and cap glow like foxfire in the gathering dusk.

November 3

Clear sky, bright sun, high whistles of cedar waxwings gleaning wild grapes from the treetops. With the news of the election swirling in my head I am walking, walking. Last night’s rain pools in the makeshift cups of broad, curled oak leaves that have not yet learned how to lie flat against the ground. The ridgetop gleams with a hundred thousand miniature lakes, each with its separate sun & a plan for evaporation. If there’s anything else to see, I don’t see it. When I get back to the house, my boots are soaked.

November 4

Crawling in the dirt under my house to wrap the heating ducts in fiberglass. I wear a face mask against the dust: a hundred and fifty years have passed since rain last fell on this patch of mountaintop soil. I worm my way as far up as I can, bending and twisting into positions I’d never attempt with a lover, hug pipes to stretch ribbons of duct tape around rolls of insulation. Strands of pink fiberglass worry their way through my clothes like porcupine quills, turn my eyes blood red. I’m filthy. I itch all over. When I crawl back out into the cold drizzle, I pull down my face mask and take several deep breaths, then drain my bladder. I get my dad to help me beat the dust from my clothes. Where there’s smoke, they say, there’s fire. I’m not so sure.

November 5

A dried stalk of common mullein rattles in the stiff breeze, seeds loose in their pods like teeth in the belly of a rat. This wind leaves nothing alone, scouring the field, roaring on the crest on the ridge. In every direction I can hear new squeaks and moans from snags freshly toppled into the limbs of the living, there to rub and chafe throughout the long winter. Overnight, most of the oaks lost their leaves except for the scattered clumps where squirrels had made their summer nests. Now this fine mesh of branches against the sky, this lovely empty net can’t hold a thing. Right there where the two planets – Jupiter and Venus – had been shining side by side like a cat with mismatched eyes, now there’s only a large dark cloud with a rose-colored belly. It keeps right on going. The sun comes up.

Thirty-seven degrees and clear at a quarter till six. Again, I’m dazzled by the sight of the crescent moon hanging close to Venus: not something one is likely to get too many opportunities to enjoy in the course of a lifetime, much as we may like to think otherwise.

The moon’s down to its last little sliver, and the dark portion glows dimly with earthshine. I think I remember reading that it was Newton who first correctly identified this effect, which seems awfully recent for such a basic insight. But perhaps it was too counter-intuitive. The effects of the moon on the earth are many and undeniable – ask any woman. Even the land has measurable tides. The moon, in turn, is in thrall to our much greater gravitational pull. Should it surprise us, then, that its nights are brightened with the light reflected from this benighted planet?

At six the sound of a pickup truck: one of our hunter friends, parking over at Margaret’s. Fifteen minutes later a pair of great-horned owls starts dueting farther down the hollow. At 6:18 the first twitter of a songbird – probably goldfinch. At 6:20, a second hunter’s truck. By 6:30 I can hear the full compliment of songs and calls from sparrows, nuthatches, wrens. The owls fall silent. A single deer grazes just in from the wood’s edge, near the tulip tree – a yearling, by the look of her. Chances are she’ll make it through this hunting season unscathed.

Three song sparrows engage in a singing contest. The reductionist view that says birds sing to attract mates or mark territory hardly does justice to the countless uses to which a single song may be put, I think. But is it really accurate to consider this (or any) birdsong as one, basic theme capable of several variations? Sonograms reveal many differences from bird to bird and song to song indistinguishable to a human ear. And even the variations I can tell apart are enough to maintain my interest.

At any rate, ornithologists say an individual song sparrow may sing between six and twenty-four different songs. I listen as the closest of the three, perched in the French lilac bush, varies his song over the course of several minutes. Nasal at first and a little slurred, it turns more and more crystalline, as if to match the rapidly brightening sky.

To all those U.S. citizens (myself included) who have been talking about going into self-imposed exile: it ain’t that bad yet!

Or maybe it is. But where you gonna go? The actions (and inaction) of the most powerful empire in world history are felt in every corner of the globe, from the North Pole to the bottom of the sea. Don’t you think that, as a voting, taxpaying citizen of the imperial power, you have a moral obligation to stay and try to make a difference – at least until the Bill of Rights is completely suspended and your life is physically in danger?

Much as I would love to relocate now to Canada, or maybe Ethiopia, I don’t know how well I’d do apart from this place – this deeply conservative, Republican area – where I’ve put down roots. We deny the power of attraction to the land at our own peril, I think. Displacement may be one of the most demoralizing of human conditions. And internal or external refugee status is a sad reality for hundreds of millions of people around the globe. In all too many cases, their uprootedness is the direct or indirect result of U.S. political and economic hegemony. Rather than exile ourselves, shouldn’t we do what we can – however little – to help end the exiles of others?

The great Spanish poet León Felipe wrote this about having to flee Spain in 1938 after the defeat of the Republic:


Y ahora me voy sin haber recibido mi legado,
sin haber habitado mi casa,
sin haber cultivado mi huerta,
sin haber sentido el beso de la siembra y de la luz.
Me voy sin haber dado mi cosecha,
sin haber encendido mi lámpara,
sin haber repartido mi pan…
Me voy sin que me hayáis entregado mi hacienda.
Me voy sin haber aprendido más que a gritar y a maldecir,
a pisar bays y flores…
me voy sin haber visto el Amor,
con los labios amargos llenos de baba y de blasfemias,
y con los brazos rí­gidos y erguidos, y los puños cerrados, pidiendo Justicia fuera de ataíºd.

by León Felipe

And now I am going, without having received my inheritance,
without having lived in my house,
without having tended my garden,
without having felt the kiss of the planting season and of the light.
I am going without having shared my harvest,
without having lit my lamp,
without having broken my bread . . .
I am going without having been given my estate.
I am going without having learned anything more than how to shout, how to curse,
how to trample on berries and flowers . . .
I am going without having gained a single glimpse of Love,
with my bitter lips all flecked with foam and blasphemies,
my arms stiff and straight and my fists clenched, begging for Justice beyond the confines of the coffin.

Re-reading my own writing from last spring, I think: who was this too-clever chap who was able to spin such inspired bullshit? Whatever happened to that sense of black humor I had? It’s been so long since I’ve felt frightened enough even to want to whistle in the dark. Now, it’s as if the tune got stuck in my throat. I listen to a scratchy old recordings from another, more desperate time in the nation’s history: Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Son House, singing woke up this morning with the Jinx all ’round, Jinx all ’round, round my bed, singing can’t tell my future, now, you can’t tell my past. Well it seem like tomorrow, baby, sure gon’ be my last, singing about canned heat, singing about alcohol and jake, but still singing the sun gonna shine in my back door someday. The wind gonna rise and blow my blues away.

Out on the porch at 6:30, coffee and a cigarette. Thirty-two degrees and clear as a bell (interesting synaesthesic simile, that!). Venus and the crescent moon are less than a hand’s breadth apart.

The birds are very active and vocal this morning, in contrast with yesterday. Carolina wren begins the dawn chorus, as usual, followed by dueling song sparrows, a white-throated sparrow, juncos and chickadees.

Out again at 9:40. The sun’s in my eyes; I go get a ball cap. It seems a little odd even to myself that I don’t own a pair of sunglasses, but I just don’t like what they do to the light. Besides, this is the first day for a visual treat that I’ll be savoring for many months to come, as long as the sun stays low in the sky and my view up the ridgeside remains unimpeded: the sunlight glinting off the waxy leaves of mountain laurel. Picture a hillside of white light on dark green leaves, the straight dark trunks of trees and the blue sky beyond.

I ponder the paradox that, with the leaves gone, I actually have more opportunities for sunbathing in the winter than in the summer. Not that I’m going to take off very many clothes, of course. At any rate, the strong sun feels good on my face, despite the chill in the air: it’s just what the doctor ordered for my stuffed sinuses. And I’m cheered by the exuberant calls of chickadees. It amuses me to think about the likely gap between the way we perceive these “clowns and acrobats of the avian world” and the way they probably see themselves: as scouts and vigilantes, often the first and most fearless at scolding predators. Last week when I burned trash, three chickadees flew in to chirp their defiance at this dangerous intruder, darting as close as they dared to the leaping flames.

I wonder if the chickadee’s more wistful-sounding fee bee call is ever heard before the turning of the year? This is a good example of the pathetic fallacy, I guess: what strikes our ears as somewhat mournful almost certainly carries wholly different connotations for its author. Given that it seems a response to a lengthening photoperiod, it probably expresses excitement at the approach of another breeding season. In fact, given the way music can affect emotions, I’m willing to bet that singing their two-note fee bee song helps stimulate the production of hormones. (Any takers?)

12:45 p.m. It’s now forty-seven degrees in the shade. With the addition of the strong sunlight, that’s warm enough for the birds to bathe in the stream. The first pools below the butternut tree are, as always, the preferred spots, and juncos and goldfinches take turns there. The male goldfinches are now in their duller, gold-green winter plumage, but they still look spectacular as they immerse first their heads than their bodies, flinging water about with flailing wings. Half a minute of this and then it’s up into the butternut tree to dry in the sun and the light breeze, shaking the water from their tails and wings, sticking their breast feathers out like pins in a pincushion.

From watching the birds I’m led to admire the tree itself. I love the way this butternut changes color so dramatically at different times of day, even without rain to bring out the lichens. Whereas in the morning the trunk was a gunmetal gray, now it’s a river of shining white broken by thin black furrows. It’s almost like having my own, backyard Uluru.

I go out again at 2:00, and the squirrel I call the Thinker comes and sits in his usual spot. I guess he’s decided I’m not much of a threat.

2:18. The resident naturalist emerges from the woods. (Hi, Mom!)

2:25. I’m still here. There are falling leaves to watch, you know. It’s amazing how long it can take a large red oak leaf to reach the ground. Here’s one sailing down from the ridgetop, where the harder winds can scoop leaves right off the ground and send them spiraling hundreds of feet into the air. It rotates on its axis while dodging left and right, like a prizefighter crossed with a ballet dancer.

Seconds later two military jets – F16s, I think – come roaring over the treetops right on the other side of the powerline, about two hundred yards from where I sit. When the thunder dies away and my heartbeat returns to normal, I notice for the first time how really quiet things are this afternoon. The winds and barometric pressure are just right to screen out all but the sound of train whistles (which I really wouldn’t want to do without). I wonder, too, with a bit of envy, how intimately those pilots must know the topography: every wooded fold and wrinkle in this old, old land.

A quarter till three and my afternoon coffee is starting to kick in. Despite my head cold I feel so good I could cry – I don’t know what keeps me from it. Nobody’s watching except for that squirrel, and he looks like the close-mouthed sort. This happiness seems wholly without justification – an irrational exuberance, as Alan Greenspan is fond of saying about an overheated market. Well, but of course I can feel as justified in my happiness as anyone else. It’s simply that joy without cause brings a special burden on its owner, I think, one that isn’t exhausted by the mere recounting of it. The world asks me for poems. I wonder if I shouldn’t take this vocation a little more seriously?