Self knowledge

I just found an old notebook from 1998. It contains some quotes from the German film director Werner Herzog, from an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (October 27, 1998). I am not absolutely sure that the following quote is verbatim, but the fact that I included ellipses suggests it might be. Probably I taped it and made a transcription.

I’d rather die, I’d rather jump from the Golden Gate Bridge before I would go to an analyst. . . . It’s a hysteria, here in America in particular, to “discover your inner self” and talk about “inner growth” and all these stupid things. Once in a while, it is very sane, it is almost clinically sane, to take a certain distance from yourself, and to look at yourself with a certain caution . . . What’s wrong with the analysts is that – let me put it in a different way. When you rent an apartment, and you illuminate it with neon lights to its very last corner, and you put lights everywhere, the apartment becomes uninhabitable.

Werner Herzog

This reminds me of several other things.

In Western houses we [Japanese] are often confronted with what appears to us useless reiteration. We find it trying to talk to a man while his full-length portrait stares at us from behind his back. We wonder which is real, he of the picture or he who talks, and feel a curious conviction that one of them must be a fraud. Many a time have we sat a festive board contemplating, with a secret shock to our digestion, the representation of abundance on the dining room walls. Why these pictured victims of the chase and sport, the elaborate carvings of fish and fruit? Why the display of family plates, reminding us of those who have died and are dead?

Kikazu Okakura, The Book of Tea (1906)


Without “chaos”, no knowledge. Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress. Ideas which today form the very basis of science exist only because there are such things as prejudice, conceit, and passion; because these things opposed reason; and because they were permitted to have their way. We have to conclude, then, that even within science reason cannot and should not be allowed to be comprehensive and that it must often be overruled, or eliminated, in favour of other agencies. There is not a single rule that remains valid under all circumstances and not a single agency to which appeal can always be made.

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge (1975)


Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing. Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels. “Life is not very interesting,” we seem to have decided. “Let its satisfactions be minimal, perfunctory, and fast.” We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work in order to “recreate” ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation – for what? . . . And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and purposes, of the life of the body in this world.

Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating,” What Are People For? (1990)


I breathe in the soft, saturated exhalations of cedar trees and salmonberry bushes, fireweed and wood fern, marsh hawks and meadow voles, marten and blacktail deer. I breathe the same particles of air that made songs in the throats of hermit thrushes and gave voice to humpback whales, the same particles of air that lifted the wings of bald eagles and buzzed in the flight of hummingbirds, the same particles of air that rushed over the sea in storms . . .

And like the alder and the spruce, the brown bear and the black oystercatcher, the mink and great horned owl, I bring the earth inside myself as food. . . . The rivers run through my veins, the winds blow in and out with my breath, the soil makes my flesh, the sun’s heat smolders inside me. A sickness or injury that befalls the earth befalls me. A fouled molecule that runs through the earth runs through me. When the earth is cleansed and nourished, its purity infuses me. The life of the earth is my own life. My eyes are the earth gazing at itself.

Richard Nelson, The Island Within (1989)

Appalachian fall

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Blogging the Appalachians


Black birch roots above the water.
Witch hazel blooming against the rocks.

Above the water: a spring half covered with birch leaves – yellow – & the red and orange of maples.
Against the rocks: boulders as big as you want.
One in particular that hikers circumambulate, patting its elephant-gray sides.

The stream can’t decide whether to flow over or under the ground.
If you put your ear down low, you can hear it trickling through caverns full of salamanders & stolen moonlight.

The birch won’t be here long – no more than a single human lifetime.
Its trunk rests on four columns, two tercet arches above the water.
A winter wren darts from grotto to grotto.
When he pauses to sing, you think, this is how rivers get started.

Rain & fog.
Pale yellow rays of witch hazel against the dark rocks, the moss-backed boulders.
What we notice depends on how often we stop, how well we listen.
You don’t need to know the names of anything, really.

The birch in all likelihood doesn’t care about its reflection.
Witch hazel will scatter its seeds through small explosions; it doesn’t need the birds.
Trees die & fall – or vice versa – but are far from dead.
Wren gleans silverfish & millipede, bark beetle, caddis fly: all small things that scuttle, flutter, flow.

The mountain emerges as a series of rests, an improvised pause.
You climb past the boulders in the rain, humming, a shock of white hair under a dark umbrella.


The more we think we know, the deeper our ignorance. An ignorant person is someone who mistakes his or her habitual views for reality and reacts defensively to new perspectives and ideas. Ignorance partakes of that proverbial contempt – for others, for oneself – bred by a long and uncurious familiarity. I am ignorant when I think this hillside full of rock oaks and mountain laurel has little more to teach me. I only have to go two steps off the trail to remind myself of the limits of my usual perspective.

Intellectuals are among the most ignorant of people, because we tend to have the most highly developed and strenuously defended views. And needless to say, such ignorance becomes deadly when it shapes corporate decision-making and government policy.

Knowing that we know nothing, on the other hand, is the beginning of true awareness. That’s why most dogs seem wiser than their masters, and so many truths can be found among the songs and sayings of the so-called common people.

In local parlance, here in central Pennsylvania, ignorant means uncouth, rude, offensive. That’s not entirely separate from the kind of ignorance I’m talking about here, as the following example of usage shows.

Some time back in the mid 80s my brother was dating a woman from South Africa of multiracial (“colored”) ethnicity. When he took her to meet a few of his friends in Altoona, they were curious about her background, never having heard much about South Africa. My brother explained a little bit about the apartheid system, and one of the women reacted with great indignation: “That’s so ignorant!

Now, I suppose that better-educated folks would say that anyone back in the 80s who didn’t already know about apartheid must have been deeply ignorant. But in fact, the woman in question was, my brother said, very curious and open-minded – quite opposite from the learned architects of – and public apologists for – the apartheid system.

You might call such a woman backward, but again you’d be at variance with local usage. Around here, backward means shy – and it isn’t such a bad thing to be. It’s far better than having a swelled head.

Almost heaven

The bi-weekly Ecotone topic is Energy of Place. “What the hell am I gonna write about that?” I thought. But a weekend jaunt in West Virginia gave me plenty of material, as it turned out.

It was a cold, windy night. I had a knit cap pulled down over my ears, but several times an hour I was awoken by especially strong gusts that made my jerry-rigged tent fly flap violently, like a large bird trying to gain altitude. I dreamt not of flying, but of walking through endless, enclosed spaces where some sort of conference was in progress. I also dreamt that all the other tents but our two had blown away, and we woke to find ourselves alone in the campground.


I get up at 5:30, brew coffee in my tent, get bundled up and sit outside to drink it, gazing at the stars. At ten after six there’s still no sound from the other tent. I’d better start walking if I want to stay warm. It can’t be more than a mile and a half to the trailhead at Seneca Rocks.

The highway passes a couple of small farms with yard lights. I wonder briefly if people who install yard lights are more likely to vote Republican? I’m heading northeast, more-or-less, which means that Venus is a little to the right of straight ahead and the big dipper a little to the left. Just after I pass the last farmhouse, a meteor streaks through the bowl of the big dipper. Fire in the hole!

I cross the acres of empty parking lot and reach the bridge over the North Fork at 6:45. All but the brightest stars have faded, and the jagged outline of the huge stone fin known as Seneca Rocks looms above the trees. I decide to follow the trail a little ways into the woods, pausing at a bench that affords a good view of the Rocks through thinning foliage.

At 7:05, ravens start calling from the vicinity of the Rocks – I presume they must have a nest somewhere on the ridgetop. Their first cries are high, like the wails of lost children. It’s now light enough to distinguish yellow from green in the trees around the bench.

The wind up on the ridgetop must be terrific – the pine tree growing out of the cleft in the middle of the Rocks is dancing wildly against the lightening sky. Now the ravens are calling hoo HAH, hoo HAH.

7:10. The red from the red maple trees is now visible, along with dark patterns on the cliffs – patterns that will, I know, soon resolve themselves into ragged files of table mountain pine trees, growing from cracks and small ledges. It amazes me that these trees can grow without any soil, other than what they bring with them. If anything ever killed all the pines, I wonder, would Seneca Rocks get more than a small fraction of the visitors they attract now?

It occurs to me that this bench was situated solely for the long-range view; the foreground view of trees and boulders is more impressive a little farther along, I recall from the day before, and decide to walk on.

I pause to admire the fur of miniature shelf fungi on the north side of a monstrous dead tulip poplar beside the trail. Just as I look up, a raven circles through the window of sky above the bare limbs. It lets out a series of ruarks – the sound ravens make when they’re enjoying themselves, surfing in a high wind.

Small cumulous clouds are sailing rapidly across the otherwise clear sky. From my perspective, each cloud disappears behind Seneca Rocks, as if dropping into a toothy maw. At 7:30, the sunrise turns them pink. The first sunlight glows along the crest of the Allegheny Front.

7:40. I’m back on the bridge with its unobstructed view of the Rocks. Now all the clouds’ bellies are golden, and I notice that each has a backspin. That is, they’re rolling on their axes as if to travel west, but the wind pulls them rapidly to the east. Yellow sycamore leaves ride the wind above the river. Since this is the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac, I think, I could spit in the water and it would get to Washington.

At 7:45 a blue jay calls; at 7:50 I hear a flock of white-throated sparrows in the thickets along the river. It’s time to head back.


By 11:30 we’re at the parking lot at Spruce Knob, at 4,863 feet the highest point in West Virginia. We might have gotten here sooner, but kept stopping to admire the snow. When it rained yesterday afternoon at Seneca Rocks, some two inches of snow fell above 3,500 feet. It’s especially striking against the orange and yellow leaves of sugar maples, but here on the crest of the Front and on the rolling plateau beyond, most of the trees have already lost their leaves.

The short trail around the summit is called Whispering Spruce Trail, after the almost-krummolz forest of wind-buffeted red spruce. But today, the spruce aren’t whispering so much as roaring. We have a hard time standing upright in the strongest gusts.

On the southwestern end of the summit, we look down across open talus toward the brown, Novemberish hills for a few minutes, then retreat to a large grove of spruce where the wind immediately dies and yesterday’s snow, sheltered from direct sunlight, still lies deep. The contrast between the fury without and the stillness within points toward something deeper than words.

We find a seat overlooking North Fork Mountain and the other ridges of the folded Appalchians, still a mix of green and orange and yellow. On the northeastern end of the summit, the Forest Service has tastefully situated picnic tables among the trees and patches of open rock. Each table is invisible from the others, and each is spread with its own serving of snow.

A small tower gives an unobstructed view in all directions, but after a few minutes I climb back down, find a nice, sunny spot out of the wind and take a brief nap. A., wearing a wind-proof parka and lined pants, enjoys the experience of being rocked and buffeted by the wind far more than I do in my quilted shirt and jeans. But I understand the attraction. One can get almost drunk on a wind this strong. Between the wind, the snow cover and the strong sunlight, the overall effect is mind-altering – especially for minds still attuned to the look and feel of mid-October. Theories of aesthetics err, I believe, when they ignore the connection between the experience of beauty and the experience of power from outside or beyond the self. That connection, and the joy that accompanies it, is one experience denied to the powerful themselves, I think. But I could be wrong.


This part of West Virginia is exactly like central Pennsylvania, only more so. The same geological formations cap the ridges, but they’re much harder farther south as a result of being more tightly compressed during the main Appalachian orogeny, 210 million years ago. Thus, the Tuscarora quartzite that forms talus slopes of smallish boulders along the crests of mountains in central PA, such as the one I happen to live on, can produce spectacular fins in West Virginia, most famously at Seneca Rocks. In other words, some of the mountains in the Mountain State have so much attitude, they actually sport mohawks!

We take a roundabout route home, driving first northward on the Allegheny Plateau, past Canaan Valley and the town of Davis. A line of giant wind turbines looms over the horizon like the invaders from War of the Worlds. Their triquetra-shaped blades are spinning merrily, though a bit more slowly than I would’ve expected. I think about the conservationists I know who are contesting plans to situate wind turbines along nearly every ridgeline in the area, posing unknown hazards to migrating birds and bats. Now, seeing a large wind farm for the first time, I want to cry: Hand me my lance, Sancho! But the things do have a bit of grace.

We follow a long, lonely road to the east. “INDUSTRIAL PARK – FOR LEASE” says a sign just outside Davis. There’s nothing there but trees and little wetlands. But after a few miles, we begin passing active and abandoned coal strip mines. Just west of the Allegheny Front, we are startled by a high wall along the highway that turns out to be the breast of a dam for a large reservoir. Smoke billows from smokestacks in what we presume to be the power plant.

There’s just enough daylight remaining for one last swing through the ridge-and-valley section before heading home on U.S. Route 220 – as it happens, the same highway we returned from the Adirondacks on two and a half months before. If we had had more time, a longer hike would’ve been nice, but it’s enough just to drive in a place where virtually every bend of the road discloses another stunning view: a rocky gorge filled with long-legged rhododendrons, sunlight glinting off foaming water. An unpainted house flanked by apple trees and a clothesline flapping with brightly-colored scraps of laundry – or are they prayer flags, transplanted from Tibet? A high, steep pasture with a white horse grazing halfway up it, and a black horse immediately below. One faces north, one south. Both raise their heads to watch as the car speeds by.

Shout-out to the 343rd

Now here are some troops I can support!

A whole unit refusing to go on a mission in a war zone would be a significant breach of military discipline. The military statement said the incident “isolated” and called the 343rd an experienced unit that performed honorable service in nine months in Iraq.

One of the 19 urges the folks back home to “raise pure hell!” This will mean, among other things, holding President Kerry’s feet to the fire come January.

I know it makes no sense for an anarchist to feel patriotic, but this kind of story just makes my heart go pitter-pat.

Going hiking in West Virginia. Have a great weekend, y’all.

Two translations


by Du Fu (712-770 C.E.)

A breeze stirs the small grass
as the night ferry’s tall mast floats by.

Stars stretch above the endless steppe,
moon bobs in the river’s sluggish current.

My name as a man of letters – how can it last?
My post – I’m old & sick enough to quit.

Drifting, drifting, what kind of life is this?
Caught between earth & sky, a solitary gull.



anonymous Pima Indian, 20th century

Shining Water lies
Shining Water lies
Mudhen goes wandering through it

come & see
how gracefully
he floats

An expanse of muddy water
for me to circle

laced with the greenest algae
arrayed in zigzags

it pleases me so much I pluck a strand
wind it around my head
encircle myself

My heart turns giddy
I wander in a daze
ai-ya my heart
an unbearable feeling
running toward this toward that
an unbearable feeling

A wind springs up
& carries me off
sets me down in the distant Place of Reeds

there the wind runs through
with a flute-like sound

there where songs are kept
forever fresh

Do you hear me do you hear me
the land everywhere resounding

dance on it

blow gently over it

a piece of eagle down
a wisp of cloud

go in


The Pima (Akimel O’odham) songs are my versions, based upon two sets of English translations – one word-for-word, the other slightly freer – in Ants and Orioles: Showing the Art of Pima Poetry, by Donald Bahr, Lloyd Paul and Vincent Joseph. Bahr’s detailed commentary gives the patient reader sufficient tools to turn his transliterations into something resembling poetry, although his identifications of plants and animals are often suspect, according to Gary Paul Nabhan (Cross-Pollinations).

The anonymous composers of these songs credited their inspiration to the spirits of the ants. The versions translated by Bahr et. al. were sung by Andy Stepp and Claire Seota on the Salt River Reservation, Arizona, 1972.