(For what it’s worth, this is Via Negativa’s 500th post.)

The spell says everything connects. Though sometimes I long for a little more randomness in events, you know? Without mere chance, without the notion that the mind can somehow lift itself above the web of causality and inference, where might true autonomy be found?

Dale’s had some interesting things to say lately about the illusory nature of individual autonomy. I alighted on his site mole last night before bed and read a really evocative essay on rain, the nearly endless rain of winter in the Pacific Northwest. This put me in mind of Jorge Teillier with his rain- and nostalgia-drenched poems from his childhood in the south of Chile, and I thought I might start the morning with him.

And so I do. It’s raining here, of course – the remnants of Hurricane Ivan – and I’m sitting on the front porch with my morning coffee and a copy of the bilingual In Order to Talk with the Dead: Selected Poems of Jorge Teillier, translated by Carolyn Wright (University of Texas Press, 1993). I open the book at random, and the first lines I come to are these:

Ruega por mí­, reloj,
en estas horas monótonas como ronroneos de gatos.

Pray for me, clock,
in these hours monotonous as the purring of cats.

And this brings to mind a dream-image from a few hours before: a crate full of purring kittens, each packed carefully away like fine china among rags and crumpled newspapers. I remember setting the crate down on the hardwood floor here in my writing room and lying down next to it, pressing my ear to the floorboards to listen to the loud hum from all that purring.

In reality, of course, it’s my old computer that sits on the floor and hums like a dozen cats. Cats upon cats! It seems as if this computer, the worldwide web and the endless chain of felines at the Infinite Cat Project have begun to blend together in my subconscious.

There was another animal in my dreams, too: a little black bull that ran slow figure eights, trying to escape a matador. But somehow the scene shifted from Spain to Great Britain, prompted perhaps by news of Parliament’s debate over outlawing foxhunts. The bull became not quite a fox but something like a wild boar, I think, and the matador turned into a picador with a sword, then a hunter with a rifle, who walked casually behind the wounded, staggering animal with the barrel almost touching its hide. Why didn’t he shoot?

In Order to Talk with the Dead doesn’t seem to fit my mood this morning – I guess I’m looking for gravity more than nostalgia – so I go back inside and pull a volume of Charles Wright off the shelf: Appalachia (FSG, 1998). Again, I open at random and read:

Only the dead can be born again, and then not much.
I wish I were a mole in the ground,
eyes that see in the dark.

Star-nosed mole, I think. Blind, but carrying a beacon, a prehensile headlamp.

It’s always a dilemma, you see. Should I write poetry or prose this morning?

Wright, in “The Writing Life”:

Give me the names for things, just give me their real names,
Not what we call them, but what
They call themselves when no one’s listening –
At midnight, the moon-plated hemlocks like unstruck bells,
God wandering aimlessly elsewhere.

Elsewhere: there’s a ball I could run with! But I forgot to say that mole in the ground made me think momentarily of the waterlogged soil hereabouts – and then back to cats, again. Because ordinarily that’s the only way I ever get to see a mole: if a cat kills one and then leaves it in the grass when it discovers how bad it tastes. And right on cue – I swear! – a feral cat trots down the driveway. The black one with white stockings, out in the rain no doubt because she’s hungry and has no choice, and/or because she knows the rain will give her cover. Sure enough, she makes it down around the bend and out of sight without a single heckling squirrel or wren marking her passage. It’s been so long since my unilateral cease-fire went into effect that I don’t even remember to squint as I once would have done, drawing an imaginary bead on the back of her neck.

It’s so dark, I think, it might as well be 7:30 at night instead of 7:30 in the morning. Flash floods are forecast for later on today as Ivan moves through, and I worry about our access road. Two days after Frances, a section of the road bank slid into the stream down in the steepest part of the hollow, leaving a new, precipitous drop-off right at the edge of the track. We half expect to walk down to the slide area tomorrow and find the road half gone. If that happens, we’ll be cut off from the outside world for a month or more, until a contractor can get the necessary permits to bring his equipment up and rebuild the bank with limestone riprap.


Black cat in the rain, hunter,
avatar of luck I cannot begin
to classify, may the first star you see
herald a clearing sky. May it lead you
to slow prey & a quick kill: mouse
or vole or chipmunk, no star-
nosed mole. May hunger make you
attentive, disinclined to play with
your food. One slip
& the owl’s talons, those four-
pointed throwing stars, can find
their mark. May you keep
your distance from anything
with feathers, large
or small. I’ve never given
you a name, O wary one – I couldn’t
begin to hazard it. The bullets rest
in the cartridge case now
like little gold eyes, any one of which
could bore a blind tunnel through
the back of a neck. Let lead
lodge elsewhere, its paths
uncrossed. May all miners
stay dry in their tunnels, pray
that the mountains stand firm,
don’t backslide, & the creeks
don’t rise.

UPDATE (Saturday morning): The creek rose. Ivan has caused the worst flooding here since Agnes in 1972. The Plummer’s Hollow Road is still there – barely. Several portions are channelized too deeply for auto traffic, however. In addition, the river is over the highway at the bottom of the mountain. It looks as if I’ll be backpacking in groceries for a little while. Oddly, we never lost power.

The site where V.N.’s images are stored, Photobucket, has a notice up this afternoon saying that one of their servers is on the skids. So if you just logged in for your daily fix of the world’s most action-packed cartoon and are wondering where in the hell it went, please be patient. And thank Whomever that none of the alligators have gotten loose (yet)!

UPDATE: “Your album is not lost and we are apreciate your patience.
– The Photobucket Team”

I’m still working my way slowly through Bruce Kapferer’s tour de force on Sri Lankan sorcery practices, The Feast of the Sorcerer. I share with Kapferer the view that an accurate understanding of magic and sorcery offers more valuable insights into the nature of communities and the formation of human consciousness than any amount of social or psychological theory.

Almost every one of Kapferer’s generalizations jibes with what I’ve read about sorcery or witchcraft in other, very different societies (Pueblo, Nahuat, Songhai, Herero, Melanesia). It’s interesting to see how sorcery fits into a Buddhist worldview. The major word for the condition of being ensorcelled is huniyam or suniyam, also the name for the demonic deity most closely associated with sorcery practices. Its derivation is unclear, but

Aduras (exorcists) and some shrine priests (kapuralas) indicate that it is borrowed from the Tamil cuniyam. The lexical definition of this word, and its derivative compounds, carries many of the meanings of Sinhalese ritual and everyday usage: for example, such senses as barrenness, defilement, ruin. Some exorcists tell me that the word comes from the Sanskrit sunya, “void,” and this has similar meaning in Tamil, as, for example, “nonexistence, vacuum, nonentity, defilement.” The notion of sunya has much more resonance with the existential nature of sorcery elaborated in sorcery and antisorcery rites and in the experiences of sorcery victims.

Note that the very ambiguity of the concept of “void” serves its purpose here. The “negative emptiness” of nihilism – a very different, perhaps opposite goal from the “positive emptiness” of nirvana – is of course what is invoked, because

The ultimate effect of sorcery is the radical extinction or obliteration of the victim or the whole circumstance of the victim’s existence, the social relations and the means whereby victims sustain their life world. The fear that people have of sorcery is that it strikes at both the victim and the ground of the victim’s being. The major myths and rites of sorcery express themes of cosmic destruction and renewal. They indicate the condition of sorcery as being a virtual return to the void from which existence springs. Sorcery projects death, actual physical extinction, which is also a chief metaphor for the anguish of sorcery as a kind of death in the midst of life, a living death. The extinction threatened by sorcery is not a release from existence, the source of suffering, as in the achievement of nibbana (nirvana), but an obliteration in the continuity of existence. Again in the myths and major antisorcery rites, the force of the sorcerer and of sorcery is ranged against the Buddha teaching and the ultimate release from existence and suffering. The figure with whom sorcery and the destructive powers of Suniyama are often associated with is Devadatta, a kinsman and follower of Gautama Buddha who broke with his teaching.

“An obliteration in the continuity of existence”: whereas in other societies the ultimate horror involves simple erasure of being (and descendents), the Buddhist influence here makes the situation more complex and – I would have to say – perhaps more accurate. Whether one lives in a relatively atomized, modern urban environment or in a more traditional village setting, one’s reality as a social being arises from one’s participation in a complex web of interactions and attachments. The trick is to interact without getting too caught up in one’s attachments, without surrendering to negative emotions like envy and jealousy, which, in some circumstances, can ensorcell all by themselves. “People may not be aware of the dangers of their talk or realize the envy of their thoughts, but such action can nonetheless cause harm and in effect is sorcery.” Attention and intention are everything.

The notion of binding or tying (bandana,* vb. bandinava) is basic to sorcery action. Sorcerers tie their charms to their victims or bind their victims to their destructive work. The idea of binding or tying has strong associations of union with the sorcerer and of constraint to the terms of a relation dictated by the sorcerer. The term hira bandana (tight or marriage bond) is a sorcery trope that indicates the controlling intimacy of the destructive sorcerer and his victim. Sorcery is infused with the metaphors of sexuality, and these express the intense intimacy of sorcery’s relations as well as its capacity to strike at the core of generative being. . . .

The bond of sorcery limits and denies life. In effect, it is an antirelation, and in the rites to overcome sorcery, the aim is to cut (kapanava) such bonds. . . . The ultimate object of [antisorcery] rites is to tie or bind victims back into the life-regenerative aspects of their life world and to break the life-threatening bond that sorcerers and their demonic agents have established with them. Indeed, the bonds of the sorcerer must be broken, and sorcerers must themselves be bound and contained. Several ritual experts in antisorcery have described to me how they capture the essence of the agents of sorcery in bottles and throw them into the sea. At Kabalava, a major shrine to Suniyam, his destructive potency is understood to be constrained in a book (Kabala Patuna) bound by nine threads.

As I have argued here before, the intimacy of lovers and the intimacy of predator and prey are not necessarily as far apart as we would like to believe. “You either live in love, or you live in fear,” Einstein proclaimed. But we shouldn’t be so naive to assume that this can be a simple, polar opposition. There is a bit of fear even in the strongest love relationship. As the new-to-me blogger Doc Rock (thanks, Tom and Beth!) wrote just yesterday,

War is a conventional, convenient (and until recently all-male) anvil on which to try Character. But it’s not the ultimate test. Not really. Experience has recently taught me that Love is a far greater test of character than War. In Love, one is even more vulnerable, even more at risk, even more fragile, than in War.

And all this talk of binding and testing brings me back to the Bible, once again, and that brief, disquieting story about a boy and his aged father traveling up into the mountains with a load of brushwood . . .

*Yes, this is a cognate with the Hindi word from which the English bandanna derives.

“Nothing but turtles, all the way down!” Uh, make that “cats.”

It all began innocently enough when a user on an Apple help forum posted a picture of his cat, Frankie, contemplating the beauty of a flower. Shortly afterwards another user posted a picture of his cat bristling at the image of Frankie on the monitor. I decided this was too much fun and advanced the concept as The Infinite Cat Project which is, simply, cats regarding cats regarding cats in an electronic melieu.

They’re already up to 325 cats,

. . . like the imagination seeking
To propagate the imagination . . .

(Wallace Stevens, “Mountains Covered with Cats”)

What the hell is it with cats, anyway?

A contribution to the Ecotone topic Places for Books.

Body of rain, I drink to you. Body of long grass & the dark edge of the woods. I woke up at 3:00 in the morning murmuring the words to a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I have not read in years – O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew– / Hack and rack the growing green! / Since country is so tender / To touch, her being só slender . . . A gentle rain with crickets in it & the twittering of thrushes & warblers who have flown all night, in & out of showers, no stars to guide them. I went back to sleep on the couch with my head near the screen door, listening, & dreamed about a woman made of light whose warm regard turned the pages of books yellow, orange, scarlet, made spines of books crack & the covers warp. With a faint whispering their pages began to come loose and flutter down from the shelves in multiple reenactments of the myth of Icarus. I walked through dimly lit stacks chanting an LC call number like the name of a long-gone lover, shuffling through the fallen pages, which were already up above my ankles. This rain will go on for months. When it stops, the sky will reach all the way to the ground: an appalling brightness. We will squint & shiver, we will stamp our feet for warmth on the hard ground, swept bare by wind. Our fingers will itch for the feel of pages turning. Strained eyes will long for opaque surfaces, the darkness between the trees. Our skins will turn brittle. We will search like lizards for a flat rock in the sun.

I first met Linyphia last Sunday – the same day I watched Venus slowly drowning in the dawn sky. I had gone for a mid-morning walk down along Laurel Ridge. Dew lingered in the cool woods, and the sun was at just the right angle to give the impression of one, virtually continuous wood-wide web.

Less than a hundred yards from the house I stopped for a while to watch a spiny micrathena – our most common forest-dwelling Epeiridium spider – working on a new web in the tops of the laurel bushes, right at eye level. Two other cobwebs hung right behind her, at 30-degree angles from the one she was building. As many times as I have watched this process, it’s always spell-binding to see how smoothly the legs of an orb-weaving spider can navigate the radiating lines, how quickly the abdomen dips to attach the unwinding spiral at each intersection. It’s not so much weaving as it is a form of knitting, I think. And of course this species, with its odd, hobnail-shaped abdomen, makes for an especially intriguing spectacle.

Since I was walking in an easterly direction, it was easy to become entranced by the prismatic effects of a forest full of silk. Long strands dangled down from the treetops like unbaited lines of celestial fishermen: these were, of course, caterpillars’ rappel lines. The white, bristle-brushy tussock moth caterpillars are especially numerous this year, but dozens if not hundreds of other species are also at the larval stage right now. Otherwise, the upper layers of the forest seemed dominated by various species of orb-weavers (Epeiridae) and mesh-weavers (my name for the family Therididae, makers of most of the loose and irregular webs one sees, including those in the upper corners of rooms). The first two or three feet above the ground were dominated by various species of Agalenidae, which I tend to refer to either as tunnel spiders or handkerchief spiders – the latter especially after a heavy dew, when Agalenid webs can turn a lawn or recently harvested field white.

It’s a shame that most spiders don’t have common names. In my own idiolect, tunnel spiders are those common, forest-dwelling spiders that weave dense, flattish webs and hide in tubes or tunnels. Agalena navia is the most common species, which “varies greatly in size and color,” according to James Emerton’s Common Spiders of the United States (Dover, 1961 [1902]). I can attest to that! During my niece Eva’s visit last May, we discovered the joys of dropping ants onto A. navia webs and waiting for the spider to rush out of its hiding place, the tunnel itself often hidden strategically under a dead leaf. It was easy to assume we were looking at different species: “Large females may be three-quarters of an inch long, with legs measuring an inch and a quarter, while others may be full grown at half that size. In color some are pale yellow with gray markings, and others reddish brown with the markings almost black,” says Emerton. Whatever the case, they move so quickly that what one mostly sees is a small, hairy blur dancing around its prey, lasso twirling.

On last Sunday’s walk I became aware of a different kind of web, less common but occupying the same, bottommost layer of vegetation (chiefly blueberry and huckleberry bushes). The first one I noticed took my breath away: a spherical cluster of shifting points of prismatic light, like a tiny alien space craft hovering a foot above the ground. I stood for a while leaning against a tree and watching it from about six feet away. When the sun moved off it, it became almost invisible. I got down on my belly and inched forward.

As I got closer, I realized that the web was not spherical but bell-shaped, with a depth and width of about six inches each. A thin haze of additional threads extended for a few inches above the apex of the bell or dome. When I got within a foot away, its occupant – a small, thin-bodied spider with light yellow legs and a striped abdomen – darted down the side, but when I retreated she quickly returned to her station inside the top of the bell. The weaving was somewhere between the Theridiae and Agalenidae in denseness.

This was my first encounter with Linyphia marginata, of the Linyphiad family. It’s a common enough spider, apparently; I had overlooked it all these years in part because of my bad habit of daydreaming, and in part because, as Emerton notes, it uses exceptionally fine threads, building a web “so transparent that it easily escapes notice unless the sun shines upon it.” With the sun at just the right angle, I found three more in the next ten minutes.

How wonderful, I thought, that the woods could be so full of gossamer bells and I could fail to notice! And how humbling. I figured that the unique shape must be designed to catch small insects such as gnats and winged ants as they took flight from the forest floor, but Emerton claimed the opposite:

The spider stands all the time under the top of the dome. Insects flying near touch the threads above the dome and, their flight being broken, drop down among closer threads and, finally, to the dome itself, where they are caught by the spider and taken through the meshes. Remains of insects and other rubbish are cut loose from the web and dropped. The webs seem to be used for a long time, but if they are injured a new one is soon made, either in the night or day, and the remains of several old webs are often seen hanging flat and torn beneath a new one. The dome is begun at the top and extended downward by inclined threads, an inch or two long, which are crossed by shorter threads in all directions. The spider works very rapidly, but I have never seen a dome finished, the spider always working for a few minutes and then resting a long time.

So the unique shape is designed for the convenience of the spider, enabling it to race to any point of the web at top speed. Whereas an orb weaver like the spiny micrathena relies on the stickiness of its silk to hold the prey until it can get to it, L. marginata gambles on an insect’s physical entanglement in the labyrinthine meshwork of short, fine lines. Since discovering this lightning-swift spider that sits upside-down all summer under a bell of such striking design, I wonder if I will ever again be so entranced by a glinting web of a mere Empeiridium?