HALOSCAN UPGRADE

I finally sent Haloscan some money, which means that comments can now be as long as a whopping 3000 characters each – and they will be preserved indefinitely! My ability to edit comments is vastly simplified, so let me know via e-mail anytime you want to change something you said (be it as minor as a typo or misspelling). I also get e-mail notification when someone leaves a comment, which is particularly helpful if it’s in response to a post in the archive.

I’m having a problem with early comments not registering. From about the first week of February on back, all comments are incorrectly labeled as “(0)” whether they are there or not. But nothing seems to have been lost, which is the main thing. If anyone knows how to fix this, please let me know. Also, I don’t understand this “trackback” feature too well. Do folks who have it at their own blogs really find it useful? I’m reluctant to add too many features that might confuse people who aren’t regular blogonauts.

The electric went out this morning just as I was casting about for something to blog about. April fool! We were without power for three hours altogether. It was raining too hard to go for a walk, so I found myself reading in the only chair in the house with enough natural light – the one in front of my computer. Damn, I live in a cave!

When the lights went out I had been reading Jorge Tellier, whose nostalgic poems about his childhood in the rainy South of Chile should have been a perfect accompaniment for such a gloomy day. However, they didn’t seem quite what I wanted, and I had to resist the temptation to pull out a volume of Georg Trakl translations instead.

Nostalgia is such a self-indulgent mood. It’s the daydreamer’s ultimate escape, “the country of nevermore” (el país de nunca jamás), as Tellier calls the landscape of his childhood. It is lost in the way we would like to be lost ourselves, distracted forever in a world made from pure longing. It is not the true heaven of the mystic – which exists in the present moment if it exists at all – but its doppelganger, the Land of Faery, the paradise beyond death. How else to explain the apparent paradox that experiences we were in fact barely present for can assume in nostalgic recollection such portentous and idyllic proportions?

And pondering still Walter Ong’s theories about the transition from orality to literacy, I’m wondering if nostalgia might stem in part from a reaction against the increasing irony, the distancing of consciousness from world that literacy entails? We remember with special clarity those years before full literacy, when bedtime stories and ghost stories had such power to entrance or terrify us. The stories we invented then about ourselves and that others told about us probably still form the most solid substratum of our self-identity.

I’m thinking (with some nostalgia) about a woman I used to work with – one of those rare people gifted with what I can only call a pure heart. (William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, described such people as once-born.) I remember her talking once about her largely unhappy childhood, and how she still pictured herself as the little girl in a raincoat with her back to the camera, poking at the water in a puddle with a stick. Yes, I thought, for all her cheerfulness there was something of that sad little girl, deep down – as if a photo I’d never seen had captured her very soul.

I don’t want to rehash past arguments to the effect that the notion of a single, unitary soul is a recent and minority view. What’s indisputable to me is that this substratum of the self formed in early childhood is inhabited by an uninvited guest, whom we may or may not consider a friend: our own death. (I am trying to avoid the terminology of modern psychology, in which I have little grounding.) Communication with the dead involves us in a very special kind of language, older than human speech: the figurative language of omens, markings, gestures, involuntary actions and reactions quicker than thought. Here’s the title poem from Carolyn Wright’s translation for the University of Texas Press (1993), In Order to Talk with the Dead: Selected Poems of Jorge Tellier. I have altered the last two lines just a bit.

In order to talk with the dead
you have to choose words
that they recognize as easily
as their hands
recognized the fur of their dogs in the dark.
Words clear and calm
as water of the torrent tamed in the wineglass
or chairs the mother puts in order
after the guests have left.
Words that night shelters
as marshes do their ghostly fires.

In order to talk with the dead
you have to know how to wait:
they are fearful
like the first steps of a child.
But if we are patient
one day they will answer us
with a poplar leaf trapped in a broken mirror,
with a flame that suddenly revives in the fireplace,
with a dark return of birds
before the gaze of a girl
who waits on the threshold, motionless.

Para hablar con los muertos
por Jorge Tellier

Para hablar con los muertos
hay que elegir palabras
que ellos reconozcan tan fácilmente
como sus manos
reconocían el pelaje de sus perros en la oscuridad.
Palabras claras y tranquilas
como el agua del torrente domesticada en la copa
o las sillas ordenades por la madre
después que se han ido los invitados.
Palabras que la noche acoja
como a los fuegos fatuos los pantanos.

Para hablar con los muertos
hay que saber esperar:
ellos son miedosos
como los primeros pasos de un niño.
Pero si tenemos paciencia
un día nos responderán
con una hoja de álamo atrapado por un espejo roto,
con una llama de súbito reanimada en la chimenea,
con un regreso oscuro de pájaros
frente a la mirada de una muchacha
que aguarda inmóvil en el umbral.

What I love about language
is what I love about fog:
what comes between us and things
grants them their shine.

Mark Doty, “Fog Suite” (See V.N. Dec. 28, “Deeply Superficial”)

Too much happens to ever get it all down. The writer has a running bet with God that he can turn any base metals into gold. I will sacrifice my health and even my privacy; I will bare my soul to the world. Sometimes I even long for a device that would read my thoughts and automatically convert them into text. How many of us who blog wouldn’t jump at the chance to have a computer chip implanted in our brains? Something that would convert every verbalized thought into digital form for eventual download and editing.

Walking in the fog, I can’t help thinking about editing. As every Chinese landscape painter knows, there’s nothing like a little blank space in the middle of the canvas to make the romantic heart go pitter-pat. No wonder lovers feel as if they’re walking in a cloud. Without such selective vision, how could anyone fall in love?

The mountain sounds different in the fog. Nearby noises may be muffled or echo strangely; distant sounds may be amplified. Red-winged blackbirds fly over, invisible but for their calls. On the road to the Far Field, a pileated woodpecker lets me pass within a few feet of the snag where he beats out his baritone ostinato. I can hear two men talking in the valley, dogs and cars and quarry trucks, a ruffed grouse drumming off in the laurel. When I get back to the house the juvenile red-tailed hawk takes off from the vicinity of my front porch, setting off a chorus of alarm calls from all the gray squirrels in the vicinity. Although it’s 7:00 a.m., a screech owl is still trilling – an odd addition to the chorus of song sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds and juncos. A single blackbird seems to have alighted in a nearby treetop. The call of this most common of birds is unusual enough on a dry mountaintop to excite my admiration.

Things look different inside a cloud, too, and not just because of the loss of distance, the sudden drawing-near of the horizon. This morning, for example, I noticed that the distinction between vines and tree trunks had suddenly grown much more arbitrary. A tall skinny sapling can have as many crooks and bends as a wild grapevine. No longer even did they appear as different ways of reaching for the sky, since the sky was now here. My gaze was drawn to the pure form; the illusion of individual purpose had dissolved. It’s too early for spiders, but you know what fog can do to their webs, right? It felt like that: everything glistened. Touch one part and everything will vibrate.

In the dawn light, trees turned deep blue at a little distance. Up close, the trunks shone in a half-dozen shades of green and grayish blue, as lichens threw open all their doors and windows. The trail gleamed, a bright ribbon of yellow-green moss. I was reminded of descriptions of the jeweled buddhaverse of Amida, as in the Pure Land Sutra: “And on every side of these lotus ponds jeweled trees are growing, lovely and radiant with the seven precious gems: gold, silver, beryl, crystal, red pearl, diamond and coral. In the lotus ponds the lotuses grow: blue, bluish, with a blue radiance, blue to behold . . . “

This briefest of excerpts narrowly avoids the endless repetitions that make Buddhist scriptures so tedious to read. I remind myself that they were written for a largely illiterate audience, and were intended to be committed to memory. Absolute novelty is not as memorable as we may think. Indeed, the mind has difficulty even interpreting – let alone memorizing – things too far outside its experience. Thus for the supremely strange Pure Land, created to provide a short-cut to enlightenment for the non-intellectual and the illiterate, only a very repetitive description can permit its assimilation by the habit-bound imagination.

In Japanese, as in Chinese, the ancient Sanskrit invocation Namo Amitabha Buddha became an almost unintelligible spell, na-mu-a-mi-da-boots. Namu does sound like a Japanese verb, and is typically interpreted as such – “I invoke,” “I trust/depend upon,” or even “I become.” Given that verbs bring up the rear in ordinary Japanese sentences, however, the effect would be something like, “I become, Amida Buddha.” But at the same time, the whole phrase is thought of as Amida’s Name. Most Pure Land Buddhists repeat this mantra hundreds of thousands of times over the course of their lives. But theoretically, at least for members of the largest Japanese Pure Land sect, Jodoshinshu, it only takes one, completely heartfelt repetition of the spell to guarantee rebirth among the gem-trees and lotuses, where all ordinary impediments to enlightenment are removed.

*

I’m currently reading Walter J. Ong’s ground-breaking book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Routledge, 1982), about which I’m sure I will have much more to say in the coming days and months. Ong summarizes a vast amount of material, much of which is new to me and almost all of which has bearing on the sorts of questions I’ve been concerned with here at Via Negativa. Today, I want to consider his analysis of how the world is understood by illiterate people and by people in mostly or entirely oral cultures.

“Without writing, words as such have no visual presence . . . They are sounds . . . To learn what a primary oral culture is and what the nature of our problem is regarding such a culture, it helps first to reflect on the nature of sound as sound. All sensation takes place in time, but sound has a special relationship to time unlike that of the other fields that register human sensation. Sound exists only when it is going out of existence. It is not simply perishable but essentially evanescent, and it is sensed as evanescent. When I pronounce the word ‘permanence’, by the time I get to the ‘-nence’, the ‘perma-‘ is gone, and has to be gone.

“There is no way to stop sound and have sound. I can stop a moving picture camera and hold one frame fixed on the screen. If I stop the movement of sound, I have nothing – only silence, no sound at all. All sensation takes place in time, but no other sensory field totally resists a holding action, stabilization, in quite this way. Vision can register motion, but it can also register immobility. Indeed, it favors immobility, for to examine something closely by vision, we prefer to have it quiet. . . .

“For anyone who has a sense of what sound means in a primary oral culture, or in a culture not far removed from primary orality, it is not surprising that the Hebrew term dabar means ‘word’ and ‘event’. Malinowski has made the point that among ‘primitive’ (oral) people generally language is a mode of action and not just a countersign of thought . . . Neither is it surprising that oral peoples commonly, and perhaps universally, consider words to have great power. A hunter can see a buffalo, smell, taste and touch a buffalo when the buffalo is completely inert, even dead, but if he hears a buffalo, he better watch out: something is going on. In this sense, all sound, and especially all oral utterance, which comes from inside living organisms, is ‘dynamic.’

“The fact that oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency is clearly tied in, at least unconsciously, with the sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded, and hence power-driven. Deeply typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface.”

Toward the end of the same chapter (“Some psychodynamics of orality”), Ong mentions that, in addition to its evanescence, “Other characteristics of sound also determine or influence oral psychodynamics. The principal one . . . is the unique relationship of sound to interiority when sound is compared to the rest of the senses. This relationship is important because of the interiority of human consciousness and of human communication itself.”

What might we make of using sound, in the form of charged words, to try and actualize a highly visual and essentially static buddhaverse – the inverse of our own “impure” world? Ong’s treatment seems to shed a little light, if you’ll pardon the expression. “To test the physical interior of an object as interior,” he continues, “no sense works so directly as sound. The human sense of sight is adapted best to light diffusely reflected from surfaces . . . A source of light, such as a fire, may be intriguing but it is optically baffling: the eye cannot get a ‘fix’ on anything within the fire. Similarly, a translucent object, such as alabaster, is intriguing because, although it is not a source of light, the eye cannot get a ‘fix’ on it either.”

Thus the radiant and gem-studded Pure Land is designed to baffle and intrigue, to lure and refuse hold. Without the sound of bells and the cries of birds of paradise, it might refuse all entrance to the mind. For our visual perception of depth, Ong says, is limited. “Depth can be perceived by the eye, but most satisfactorily as a series of surfaces: the trunks of trees in a grove, for example, or chairs in an auditorium. The eye does not perceive an interior strictly as an interior: inside a room, the walls it perceives are still surfaces, outsides.” Here I am reminded of Mark Doty’s eloquent defense of light-diffusing surfaces as containing a kind of depth of their own. (Has anyone ever thought to compare Doty’s notion of the salvific effects of shimmer, glitter and radiance with the visualization-based soteriology of Pure Land texts?)

“Taste and smell are not much help in registering interiority or exteriority. Touch is. But touch partly destroys interiority in the process of perceiving it. If I wish to discover by touch whether a box is empty or full, I have to make a hole in the box to insert a hand or finger: this means that the box is to that extent open, to that extent less an interior.

“Hearing can register interiority without violating it. I can rap a box to find out whether it is empty or full or a wall to find out whether it is hollow or solid inside. Or I can ring a coin to find out if it is silver or lead.

“Sounds all register the interior structure of whatever it is that produces them . . .

“Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects, as Merleau-Ponty has observed. Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: to look at a room or at a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound from every direction at once: I am at the center of my auditory world, which envelops me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence . . .You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself in vision.” Now, of course, I picture myself back among the trees, immersed in sound-filled cloud.

Whereas vision dissects, Ong maintains, “The auditory ideal . . . is harmony, a putting together.” To avoid undue Western bias, I would add here that “harmony” might be understood to include all forms of musical coherence. Phenomenologically speaking, syncopation may be more fundamental than harmony per se.

“Interiority and harmony are characteristics of human consciousness . . . What is ‘I’ to me is only ‘you’ to you. And this ‘I’ incorporates experience into itself by ‘getting it all together.’ Knowledge is ultimately not a fractioning but a unifying phenomenon, a striving for harmony. Without harmony, an interior condition, the psyche is in bad health.”

Now to return to the question of how pre-literate people may receive the religious or magical word – and what those of us who are immersed in the garden of the text might be missing. “In a primary oral culture, where the word has its existence only in sound . . . the phenomenology of sound enters deeply into human beings’ feel for existence, as possessed by the spoken word. For the way in which the word is experienced is always momentous in psychic life. The centering aspect of sound . . . affects man’s sense of the cosmos. For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center. Man is the umbilicus mundi, the navel of the world.” Namo Amitabha Buddha!

*

There remains the matter of editing, of the Pure Land apart from this present, impure one. I have written elsewhere, from an environmental and aesthetic perspective, on the emptiness of the very idea of garbage. (See The Art of Living.) To produce garbage is to sin against the original wholeness and purity of mind. If words are, as Ong suggests, fundamentally evanescent, perhaps our Quixotic attempts to freeze and isolate them are precisely where waste is generated? Recall the possibility I threw out at the beginning of this post: a “bug” that could read and record our verbalized thoughts, the ones we speak silently with perhaps only the faintest motion of lips and tongue. Imagine how much would have to be discarded to make any of it cohere (or harmonize, as Mr. Ong would say)!

But imagine that I could do this editing as I walked, using a completely verbal computer language. This too – all the instructions to the computer – would be discarded or invisible in the eventual (or nearly simultaneous) text. Indeed, from the writer’s vantagepoint all hypertext (as in html) is waste material, is it not? Not for nothing did “garbage in, garbage out” become the mantra of the technorati.

To read to oneself is to become isolated – to edit out the world. “Because in its physical constitution as sound, the spoken word proceeds from the human interior and manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as persons, the spoken word forms human beings into close-knit groups. When a speaker is addressing an audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity, with themselves and with the speaker . . .

“The interiorizing force of the oral word relates in a special way to the sacral, to the ultimate concerns of existence. In most religions the spoken [or sung, or chanted] word functions integrally in ceremonial and devotional life. Eventually in the larger world religions sacred texts develop too, in which the sense of the sacral is attached also to the written word. Still, a textually supported religious tradition can continue to authenticate the primacy of the oral in many ways. In Christianity, for example, the Bible is read aloud at liturgical services. For God is thought of always as ‘speaking’ to human beings, not as writing to them. The orality of the mindset in the Biblical text, even in the epistolary sections, is overwhelming . . . ‘Faith comes through hearing,’ we read in the Letter to the Romans (10:17). ‘The letter kills, the spirit [breath, on which rides the spoken word] gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6).” (The parenthetical interpretation is Ong’s.)

The letter kills, the spoken word revives. Hmmm, I don’t know. The fog is thickening . . .

“I like the idea of making films about ostensibly nothing,” [Errol] Morris told The New Yorker’s Mark Singer. “That’s what all my movies are about. That and the idea that we’re in a position of certainty, truth, infallible knowledge, when actually we’re just a bunch of apes running around.”

He may say he’s a filmmaker, but he smells like a lawyer to me. Check out his rationalizations for Why It Makes Sense to Beat a Dead Horse.
(Via Brokentype.)

Must. Must really. Should. Ought to. It would be nice if. The procrastinator’s diminuendo, a rolling stop. Over the landscape of his imagination hangs a heavy haze. The distant peaks are invisible, buildings and monuments vanish rapidly from view. Memory does not speak, it yawns. Monday through Friday, most of its teeth are missing. Ah me!

Now here comes a fine funny fellow to shake things up a bit. A street-corner tin whistler with a nose for rats. What about the children? They must be saved and served up later, wrapped in the flags of monumental abstractions, over the hills and far away. The stage mother of all bombs sits in a storage facility at an undisclosed location in the Middle East. While the pilot who will deliver it to the theater of operations for the opening night performance dips his toast in his eggs at a truck stop somewhere in the Middle West. He is – need it be said? – a decent fellow. He doesn’t daydream much. He reads the papers.

In Hamelin the Rotarians are listening to a presentation by a retired colonel on the promising new frontier of non-lethal weapons. Tomorrow’s battlefield is the urban ghetto, we must be prepared. We can fire short bursts of microwave beams, high-frequency sound, souped-up tear gas. The agony will be selective and of short duration. Special agents will peel the graffiti right off the walls. Property values will soar. The rat-faced children of the working poor can be given uniforms, gas masks, clubs and shields. That way they’ll feel empowered and will avoid drugs, which they can’t really afford anyway.

It’s morning in America. The dreamers have been rounded up and given jobs in the public relations industry. At a certain point three years ago every public-private partnership in the country had the same boast: We Build Solutions. But what was this solution that everyone was working on? Something caustic, no doubt. What ever happened to civility? Penmanship and proper diction must be taught again in the schools.

Do you remember where you were when the news hit about the extinction of the golden toad of Monteverde? How about when they flooded out the snail darter? Do you remember all those bad-smelling black hippies in Philadelphia who wouldn’t MOVE? That’s exactly what I’m talking about this morning. With better planning, we can avoid all that. The news shouldn’t have to be so depressing. Our brave pilot dipping his toast into his eggs shouldn’t be subjected to the incivility and mudslinging of negative political ads and columns by liberals. Democracy is all about trust.

The carrot and the nightstick, muses the copyeditor. Who the hell eats carrots any more? There are plenty of night-vision goggles to go around. Some use them to play weekend warrior, chase down UFOs or illegal aliens, live out their fantasies. Me, I don’t go in for that screwy stuff. I’m just going to get myself a pair so I can see what my neighbors do in bed. Make sure none of them are secret perverts. This is a nice neighborhood. On a really clear day, you can see the mountains.

I apologize to my regular readers for yesterday’s lapse. I took a brief, impromptu vacation less than thirty miles from home, the highlight of which was witnessing the annual mating frenzy of the wood frogs. Yesterday in particular was an unusual day, beginning as it did in a strange house with none of my accustomed morning rituals to get me going. The sky suddenly cleared around 11:00 a.m. and I found myself in excellent company for an afternoon of leisurely exploration in an unfamiliar part of the state forest, driving slowly along the gravel roads looking and listening and most of all smelling the glorious odors of thawing earth and burgeoning life. We chanced upon some ephemeral ponds and puddles right alongside the road that were aswarm with wood frogs. Thus we were able to use the car for a blind, sitting in awestruck silence as hundreds of frogs called and swam and fought and waited for females. The day ended with a free showing of the movie “American Splendor” and a solitary walk in the moonlight when I finally got home.

This morning I’m all tired out and feeling terribly uninspired, so I’ll simply link to one of my favorite nature essays, Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, by George Orwell. Who but Orwell with his no-bullshit, common-man realism could say so clearly why humans need contact with wild Nature? And almost everything he wrote about the British toad applies equally well to the North American wood frog. After the usual false starts, spring has finally arrived in all its glory – a glory that is, as Orwell noted, unofficial, illicit and more than a bit subversive.

But what of my own mountain, the one I’m a tenant on? I’m afraid I know it too well to idealize it as Li Bo or Du Fu might have done. Besides, its very status as a mountain can be debated – though the long, low ridgelines of the folded Appalachians and Ouachitas are globally unique and nothing to sniff at. My exact topographical circumstances here can be tricky to put into words. My house sits near the head of a transverse hollow (Plummer’s Hollow) in the end of a ridge (Brush Mountain) that the hollow divides in two. Thus with equal justice I could consider myself the inhabitant of a mountaintop or of a high valley.

What’s certain is that, biologically speaking, this mountain has seen better days. In the first half of the 19th century, all the steep hollows and ridge sides in what used to be called the Upper Juniata Valley were ravaged repeatedly by charcoal makers. For those few short decades, Juniata Iron underwrote the Industrial Revolution. Plummer’s Hollow must’ve been clearcut for the first time around 1815; the river-powered Upper Tyrone Forge was founded at its mouth in 1813. It probably would’ve been clearcut again a mere 30 years later. Merely by counting the charcoal hearths that still remain in our 3rd- and 4th-growth forest, I can get a glimpse of the tremendous size and number of trees that must once have stood here.

The loss of soil due to erosion would’ve been tremendous – by some estimates, possibly as much as 15 inches’ worth. The work of millennia, gone in a few short years. The character of the forest has changed dramatically since the early 19th century, not only in the obvious species composition of canopy-height trees, but in the loss of entire biological communities whose richness and complexity we can only guess at. To pick one example, the northern flying squirrel-old growth hemlock-micorrhizal fungus-bacteria association depends on the presence of all four components (and possibly more we don’t know about); when one is gone, the rest will follow. Species dependent on moist, cool, forest interior habitat or with other more specialized requirements are long gone. In fact, I just learned a few days ago that the westernmost ridges in this part of Pennsylvania are unique for the virtual absence of a lungless salamander species, the red-backed salamander, which has been found in such abundance on identical-looking ridges to our east as to equal in biomass all other vertebrate species combined. Why don’t we have it? Was it once present, wiped out by the frequency and intensity of clearcutting in the 19th century? We’ll probably never know.

Repeated clearcutting is far from the only ecological wound this mountain has suffered. At least one fire, probably triggered by a charcoal fire that got out of control, burned well over a hundred acres, destroying seeds and seedlings that might otherwise have regenerated. The loss of the passenger pigeon and the American chestnut had huge consequences for forest composition throughout the East. The extirpation of the two top carnivores, gray wolf and cougar, had complex ripple effects, including what ecologists call mesopredator release – the unnatural abundance of mid-sized predators such as raccoons, skunks and bobcats, with severe repercussions for their own prey species.

The loss of top carnivores in combination with the unnatural proliferation of young forests and edge habitats has led to catastrophic overbrowsing by white-tailed deer for most of the last 80 years. Forest succession has been radically altered and in some cases curtailed altogether. These and other impacts work in concert. For example, severe air pollution – chiefly ground-level ozone and acid precipitation – is changing soil chemistry, in turn favoring a few deer-resistant, invasive species such as New York and hayscented ferns and the non-native Japanese barberry and stiltgrass. These latter species have been found to further alter soil chemistry and composition on their own. This process is greatly abetted by the actions of non-native earthworms, introduced deliberately or accidentally to forest soils in this region over the past 200 years. For at least the past 20,000 years, forests as far as 200 miles south of the glacial line have been free of earthworms. The forest communities native to Central Pennsylvania were thus dependent on a chemical balance and depth of leaf litter that may never return.

One final impact, out of many more I could describe, remains largely unknown: the cumulative effects of global climate change. We are already seeing an increased frequency of natural disturbance events that makes us agonize more than ever about the extent to which anything we now observe can be called natural. Icestorms, hurricanes, wildfires and native insect outbreaks are all part of natural disturbance regimes. They are elements of native biological diversity as critical as the presence of native communities, species and genomes. But the other impacts I’ve listed are already straining the natural resilience of the ecosystem. Add global warming to the mix, and the radical simplification or complete collapse of entire ecosystems looms on the horizon. Much of Penn’s Woods may turn to savanna within my lifetime. Already on the mountain one can find open patches as large as several acres each that haven’t supported a closed-canopy woods in decades. This phenomenon can be observed throughout the state.

As Aldo Leopold famously noted, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds . . . An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

If it were only the allegedly uninformed masses who persist in whistling in the dark, our task as conservationists wouldn’t seem so daunting. But over the years I’ve encountered all too many foresters and wildlife professionals who refuse to recognize the numerous elisions in their own view of what is natural and what isn’t. Especially in the last couple of years, as I’ve become a vocal advocate on behalf of the fledgling Pennsylvania Wildlands Recovery Project, I have encountered widespread, sometimes willful ignorance of the problem of shifting baselines for ecological recovery. That is to say, the vast majority of professional conservationists speak in terms of sustainability, which seems to imply simply accepting the status quo as a baseline for evaluating the future health of the ecosystem.

I don’t know which human characteristic has had more disastrous effects over the millennia – our natural acquisitiveness, our limited imaginations, or our short and highly selective memories. Over a thousand years before Li Bo and Du Fu sought mystical oneness with the mountains, a Chinese philosopher named Mengzi (a.k.a. Mencius) penned the following parable. This captures the whole problem of shifting ecological baselines as well as anything I’ve ever read:

Ox Mountain once was covered by trees. But it had the misfortune of standing too close to a city. People came with their axes and their hatchets; they climbed all over the mountain. They cut down the trees, stripped the mountain of all vegetation.

Nevertheless, the night breeze wafted over its slopes. Rain and dew fell; everywhere sprouts of green began to show. But cattle and sheep had been let loose to pasture on the mountain. Before too many years had passed, it stood gaunt and bare. Today, people see its barrenness and can’t believe the mountain wasn’t always that way.

Who can tell when forests have been altered, cut down with axes, demolished with hatchets? Day after day the trees are cut down. How will the mountain ever recover?

It’s just as Confucius said: “Preserve it and it will remain. Let it go and it’s gone forever. One can never be sure what one has, and when it’s enough. Afterwards one can never tell just where it went.”

It seems these words of the master were aimed straight at the heart.

(Cue up Alan Hovhaness)

The search for universal themes in human psychology and culture tends to focus either on the most basic elements (sex, security) or the most abstract (hero-worship, fear of death). But I wonder if we wouldn’t do better to look at how humans relate to the landscape? Seeing how people of different times and places have related to forests or to mountains, for example, seems to reveal more similarities than differences. But even if this were not the case, the exercise strikes me as much more worthwhile than cross-cultural comparisons that focus on purely human realities. Hell, the latter approach probably does violence to most indigenous ways of understanding, according to which humans are far from the only sentient beings.

All this is simply by way of introducing a couple of translations from the classical Chinese. Poems celebrating cosmic mountains aren’t hard to find in the Chinese tradition. Both Li Bo and Du Fu – revered as the two greatest Chinese poets of all time – wrote poems in which mountains teach us how to see. In Du Fu’s poem, the first four lines of the second stanza of my translation (lines 5 and 6 in the original) have given scholars headaches for centuries. A totally unprecedented expression is, in the Chinese tradition, a very rare thing. Surely the poet couldn’t have meant what he wrote?

Gazing at Tai Shan
by Du Fu (712-770 CE)

This mountain of mountains – how
to put it in words?
Throughout Qi and Lu, a blue
that never fades. The Maker fills it
with power, unearthly beauty.
North face, south face divide
the dark from the dawn.

Heaving lungs
give birth to layered clouds,
straining eyes join the birds
returning to the peak.
Someday I swear I’ll climb
clear to the summit,
watch all other mountains
shrink into
a single
glance!

*

Jing Ting Mountain, Sitting Alone
by Li Bo (701-762)

Flocks of birds climb out of sight.

The single cloud journeys on alone.

Absorbed in each other’s gaze, never tiring,

now there’s nothing left but Jing Ting Mountain!

From the Toronto Sun, via Unknown News: “U.S. security agents have a master list of five million people worldwide thought to be potential terrorists or criminals, officials say.”

Make that five billion and I think they’d be a little closer to the truth.

The following poem is in the expected voice of the 50 year-old Afghan woman Kairulnisah, from the farming village of Haji Bai Nazar. My source is a New York Times story by Carlotta Gall, archived at Common Dreams. Suggestions for improvement are, as always, welcome.

THE BELIEVERS

Two years after the fact & they pretend
we’re heroes. The infidels crowd around
waving microphones, snapping pictures.
Why weren’t we afraid, they want to know.

My son, 18 now & full of fight, tells them
we just didn’t understand the danger. Says
only men know war. But when we saw
those children die, we knew enough.
You can’t tell boys anything.
As long as those bright plastic toys
littered our yards and streets, it was clear
no mother’s son would be safe.

My husband tells the foreigners how
when the bombs were falling
I climbed up on the roof and shook
my fist at the American jets.
I wanted the pilots to see me, a mother
just like their own. I wanted to show them
where real fighters come from.
Only God can scare me.

Sometimes when we picked up the yellow cans
we could feel something shift inside.
As gingerly as we carried them,
they vibrated until our arms grew numb.
Sometimes they turned too hot to touch
and we had to put them in water.
Sometimes they made little noises
like the claws of rats. Could anyone
but a mother know how to carry
something so delicate?

Nasreen was the first to try it,
but she knows my heart.
We’ve been neighbors all our lives. So
that night we started cleaning them up.
Some lay half-buried in the dirt as if
they’d been dropped by a forgetful hen.
One by one we took them out to the ravine
and nestled them gently in a bed of straw
behind an old wall. Each needed
a little space. When the bed was full
we’d duck around the corner of the wall
& toss a match.

The explosions woke the village
and all the men came running
with guns at the ready. Come on
and lend a hand, we said, but they refused.
My husband was frantic, threatened me
with the word of the Prophet: no honor
to a suicide. I am a woman, what do I care
about honor? You’ll go to hell, he wept.

The bombs burned with a smell far worse
than rotten eggs. Nasreen must’ve held
her breath, but I got sick – a nine-
day illness. I lay on the roof
thinking my own thoughts. Foreigner,
you can tell the world: the Americans
are children. When I die & where
I go is up to God. Only a little boy
or an unbeliever should marvel
at something so plain.