The double-take

I don’t recognize these photos that are allegedly of me, someone says on a listserve. That’s not who I am. Growing old never seems real. Childhood was real, and the people around us who were old then seemed as though they must have been that way forever. I remember how my grandma used to hum as she moved around the house, a mostly tuneless hum as far as I could tell. I never asked her about it, but I find I do the same thing now, living in the very same house where she and Grandpa spent their summers when I was a kid. Maybe it’s the same hum, too.

The Baltimore oriole has returned to the yard and the wood thrush to the woods, and it’s difficult to escape the impression that these are the very same individuals that have been coming back to sing every year for the past 35 years. The power of songs to outlive us: this is what makes them the true currency of warm-blooded life, the way they bind an aging pulse to an ageless but no less fragile place in the world.

But now it’s almost dark and the birds are still. It’s Monday evening, and I’m sitting on a stump at the bend of the old woods road, resting somewhere between daydream and meditation, too tired for either.

I find that sleep deprivation interferes with my ability to experience joy. It’s nothing for the body to support tension and irritation, but taking deep pleasure in things requires every faculty we possess and then some. Instead, I find myself increasingly abstracted from my body and all of its superstitious attractions and repulsions. I’m listening for the whip-poor-will rumored to be calling at the far end of the property, but all I hear are things rustling in the leaves, jets high overhead, dogs barking in the valley. One of the planets glimmers through the branches of an oak.

There have been some interesting goings-on lately. One of the turkey hunters told us about a wood duck nesting in a hollow oak tree some fifteen feet off the ground, right on the dry ridgetop. He had been sitting against a tree a short distance away, and the duck kept poking her head out to look at him, he said. The nearest pond of any size is a half-mile away at the base of the mountain. How the mother duck intends to lead her ducklings there is beyond me.

On top of the other ridge, there are a few very small vernal ponds, as I’ve mentioned before, but the last one is rapidly drying up in the drought. My mother was up there gazing at the little puddle that remains and wondering if any of the wood frog tadpoles would make it to maturity, when she heard a rustling in the leaves behind her. She turned around and there was the mother bear walking along with one, two, three small cubs bringing up the rear. This marks the fourth time this bear has raised a litter on our end of the mountain, presuming it’s the same mother each time, which would make her about ten years old. The bears paid my mother no mind, just kept going wherever they were going. It’s a rare privilege for a wildlife watcher to be so completely ignored.

The third sighting last weekend was my own: a pair of Cooper’s hawks that kept calling back and forth in an agitated fashion. As long as I stood still, the male was content to sit and watch me from a safe distance, preening his breast feathers, but as soon as I’d move he’d take off again, making a wide arc through the trees, disappearing completely and then reappearing from a different point of the compass. I examined every tree for hundreds of feet in all directions, but couldn’t see any sign of a nest. Like the black bear, these Cooper’s hawks have become regular breeders on the mountain, but only once in the past four years have we managed to find their nest.

The thing I like about nature in general is the sense of complete unpredictability and spontaneity within regular cycles of events. Over at Slow Reads, Peter reports on groundhogs that run unexpectedly straight toward him – and an eccentric neighbor who knows just what to do.

The farmer begins to prance in a circle, raising his hands and knees high and lowering them, and the groundhogs just follow him, prancing in their own way.

Or so his friend Michael told him. I have my doubts. But while Peter was photographing the back end of a rebuffed woodchuck, “Rurality” was face-to-face with a gray rat snake.

I tried to snap a shot when he was scoping me out with his tongue, but none of them turned out too well, and after a while he quit doing it…

I tried to prod him into leaving, but by that time he’d become too relaxed and didn’t want to leave.

The problem with wildlife-watching, it seems, is that the wildlife watches back. This elementary truth sometimes seems lost on those who want nature to resemble a made-for-television drama. I remember a visiting friend one time declining my offer for a guided tour of our woods: “I’ve seen trees before. Boring!” Indeed. Where’s the drama? Most animals spend most of their waking hours doing nothing, wildlife researchers tell us. They have plenty of time to sit and contemplate the frantic to-and-froing of human beings.

Night comes while I wait: I certainly can’t complain about the service! I’m sitting here not expecting anything to happen, and the closer I get to accepting that there is nothing that needs to happen, the straighter I sit. Even in my sleep-deprived state, I’m enjoying the stillness.

But it isn’t like that, really: my life, I mean, or yours either. Apparent stillness is simply an artifact of defective hearing; as I grow older, I should have many occasions to revel in the growing silence. Or maybe I’ll just a hum a little louder. And in all likelihood someone will come by here tonight – on four feet, perhaps, or on two wings – and in the darkness we will recognize each other, we will do what they call a double-take. Any moment now.

Cibola 93

This entry is part 92 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (5) (cont’d)

The procession winds through the fields–
or are they gardens? Indian plantings
always remind him of the dooryard
gardens back home
in Provence, that same
commingling of tame & wild,
the artful confusions of herb
& tree & vine. He wonders if here,
too, they have cunning-men
& neighbor ladies gifted in
the knowledge of signatures,
God’s gossip with weeds.

But as they climb the dry slopes
beyond the reach of the last
irrigation ditch, they pass windrows
of rock piles like one would expect
at the edges of plowed fields–except
there’s very little growing between them
in the sun-baked clay, only
the hardiest thorn bush & creosote
& the annual evidence of springs unseen
already yellowed, powdering
under their sandals.

The cross stops before a large pit
black with charcoal
& Marcos finds himself in the middle
of the rogational psalm: My prayer
is unto thee Oh Lord
in an acceptable time
Oh God in the multitude
of thy mercy hear me,
in the truth of salvation.
Deliver me out of the mire,
don’t let me sink–from those
who hate me, out of the deep
waters–don’t let the flood
wash over me nor
the deep swallow me up.
Let not the pit
–he startles
at the aptness of it–
let not the pit close
her mouth around me. . . .
For the Lord hears the poor, his captives
he never scorns. Let the heaven
& earth praise him, the seas
& everything that moves.
For God will save Zion & rebuild
the cities of Judah . . .

Then the antiphon with the other Marcos,
who gazes impassively toward the north,
the wine-dark horizon:
Bless these fields. (We beg you to hear us.)
Bless these hills & mountains,
consecrate every wild tree & bush
from which these your servants
gather sustenance (We beg you to hear us).
And all else besides,
he murmurs: best
to cast the net widely, or not at all.

We interrupt this blog to bring you…

The end of racism.

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Abdul-Walid writes feelingly about being black and not encountering significant racism in his adopted country of “Acerbia.” But he also misses something else in his chosen academic field: other African Americans.

Even African-American literary studies, where arguably the biggest strides in African-American scholarship have been made, is characterized more by boosterism and cheerleading than by the rigorous and dispassionate analysis that gives other scholars a sense of what’s worth celebrating and what should be consigned to the dustbin of history. But this, I suppose, only mirrors trends in the academic humanities, where political considerations trump aesthetic ones. And yet, in the absence of internal criticisms, systems will naturally tend towards the fascistic, stifling dissent, and reifying one final and official version of all narratives.

The parochial narratives African-Americans are writing for themselves prepare them ill for full participation in a truly multicultural society. Other stories need a place at this table. A good place to start would be to ask why more of the 80% of African Americans who are partly white don’t explore this part of their heritage. Why don’t people take the absolute miscibility of race as evidence that race ultimately is a social fiction? Why is it almost universally assumed, among blacks, that race should continue to matter indefinitely? It’s one thing to be shackled, but to be shackled by a fiction is a galling thing.

When I meet African-Americans (especially in the university context), and they ask what I am doing, I tell them. My field of study, which is basically something as “authentically black” as Byzantine epigraphy or Japanese architecture, is not what they expect. The reaction, often, is not good. “What the hell are you doing that for?” Peer pressure doesn’t end with grade-school.

But I met a man once, late-middle aged and black. This was in a used-bookshop in a midwestern university town. We were both browsing, and I started to speak to this man. I consider him a hero now, a view of the future we yet might achieve. He was a full Professor of Ancient Greek at one of the best classical departments in the country. He had studied philology at Cologne and Oxford, and I imagined him poring over his analyses of Thucydides or Pausanias or whatever it was with the mystical concentration of a priest.

And this man was African, only coming to the US after his graduate studies. That, perhaps, was the crucial difference. No one, while he was growing up in Ghana, had bothered to tell him that classical literature was only for blacks who were not “keeping it real.” He probably studied it out of some assumption that this was a fascinating part of world heritage and as such was a legitimate object of his attention.

In the environment of identity-politics that universities are now, he is probably a figure of fun to some, an example of not “keeping it real”, but he surely has the satisfaction of knowing that, by not limiting himself to some foolish notion of “acting black”, he inhabits a more robust reality than those critics of his could imagine.

– Part Four, “Owning All the World”

This is what blogging should be. Please go read, and leave comments.

Cibola 92

This entry is part 91 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (5) (cont’d)

Marcos rises renewed, seized
with fresh intent: later
this very morning–since
he’d already planned, with the help
of his three assistants, to honor
their hosts’ request for holy songs–
to bless the fields and wild crops
in solemn procession.
To improvise
a penitential rogation. It’s only
a few days past the official date:
his name-saint’s day,
the Feast of St. Mark.

Thus it happens that four hours after sunrise
on their fourth morning in the valley
they kneel before the makeshift altar,
the natives wearing (as instructed)
no jewelry & only their plainest
cotton robes, as well as the sad looks
this rite demands.
The friar launches into the litany:
God the Father of Heaven have mercy
God the Son Redeemer of the world have mercy
God the Holy Spirit have mercy
Holy Trinity One God have mercy on us
Holy Mary pray for us

& at a signal from the Indian Marcos
all rise, queue up by twos
behind the cross, carried by a newly
baptized elder: first the men,
then the women, & bringing
up the rear the four religious,
Marcos as always finding the sacred
phrases right at hand, inevitable
as wave following ocean wave–
Holy Mother of God pray for us
Holy Virgin of Virgins pray for us

his inner senses freed for contemplation.

He marvels at the silence–no
suppressed giggles, not even a whisper–
& finds himself stealing glances
at this congregation–if such
it can be called–of freshly
baptized infidels. One woman
he notices with hair modestly
unbound, spilling down her back
& around her bowed head–such
humility in her posture,
her chaste attire,
St. Benedict pray for us
St. Bernard pray for us
St. Dominic pray for us
St. Francis pray for us,

he allows himself to imagine
a future for her in Service,
as a Bride of Christ–
all ye holy priests & Levites pray for us
all ye holy monks & hermits pray for us
St. Mary Magdalene pray for us
St. Agatha pray for us
St. Lucy pray for us
St. Agnes pray for us
St. Cecilia pray for us,

perhaps even a founder, Lord willing,
of the first chapter of Poor Clares
north of New Spain. As soon
as the word arrives from Rome, per
his request, for full native
admission to the orders . . .
All ye virgins & widows pray for us
be merciful, spare us O Lord
be merciful, graciously hear us O Lord
from all evil O Lord deliver us
from all sin O Lord deliver us
from thy wrath O Lord deliver us
from a sudden & unprovided death
O Lord deliver us . . .


rogation – Rogation days were “Days of prayer, and formerly also of fasting, instituted by the Church to appease God’s anger at man’s transgressions, to ask protection in calamities, and to obtain a good and bountiful harvest,” according to the online Catholic Encyclopedia. “The Major Rogation [on April 25], which has no connexion with the feast of St. Mark (fixed for this date much later) seems to be of very early date and to have been introduced to counteract the ancient Robigalia, on which the heathens held processions and supplications to their gods. St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) regulated the already existing custom.”

Tow Hill

Yesterday I walked around the Tow Hill portion of State Game Land 176 in Centre County, PA with my friend L., who lives nearby. This is a geologically, botanically and historically unique area – a former iron mining town now reverted to woods and barrens. The Tow Hill portion is crossed by a large powerline and dotted with small ponds, some occupying former mine pits, others made by beavers. It was a spectacular day to be out in the woods.

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The buds open on the oak trees: yellow-green flowers, yellow-green leaves the size of squirrels’ ears & equally full of buzzy warbler voices. Warblers sound like what they eat, hard on the outside, liquid on the inside, segmented, brief – sing it! – cerulean, black-throated green, black-throated blue.

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Just as the leaves open, the caterpillars pitch their tents. Power lines whistle a thin & hungry tune from bare metal trees.

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Moth and rust don’t corrupt, they beautify. Some hunter thought this slab of old metal was worth leaning against a tree beside the trail for others to see. It’s trying to become a window, perhaps, one corrosive raindrop at a time.

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A window? No, more like the obverse of a periscope. The sun sits on the surface of the murky pond like a glass-bottomed boat.

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Strange fruit: a dry, rusted-through bucket hangs in a tree. If this were the American Southwest, we’d know what to make of the bullet holes: it’s been killed, we’d say, so its dead owner won’t come looking for it. Who knows when you might need to carry a little more sky?

Skunk cabbages space themselves as if they’d been planted by some self-effacing green thumb. The drama of their blooming long over, they spread their sails for home in the rust-colored mud.

Cibola 91

This entry is part 90 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos (5)

East: Jerusalem, Mageddo
where Christ will return in glory.
South of East: Peru. México. Kingdoms
condemned to be beautiful & rich.
West of the South Sea:
Cipongo. India. Cathay
of the Great Khan.
Fabled missions of Prester John
& the Apostle Thomas, patron
of all who wrestle with a literal mind.
North: Cí­bola. Now only
some sixteen days off.

And lately the friar hears
it’s just one city, richer than some–
though not as rich they tell him
as Totoneac downriver to the west,
where in the hottest, driest part of
the land one can walk
for a week & never lose sight
of green, well-irrigated fields.
A miracle of the kind
he’s come to expect
from a lifetime in the Rule:
great poverty the most fertile ground
for sustenance, a lodestone
for earthly blessings. See
how all these Indians have fed
& honored him, pressing
to touch his robe, erecting
triumphal arches . . .

In a sudden vision as he kneels
in meditatio, the hated Francisco
hangs again from the cross–but this time
a true imitation, an Indian Christ.
Out of the hole in his side spills
an enchanted waterfall, a rain
of flower petals in every color
including a few he can’t remember
from any rainbow. Four
Indian women weep at the foot
of the cross–a twisted snag, long-dead
except for one thin ribbon of bark
& a single branch of the crown.

But it sings, this tree, it breathes.
It has a heartbeat. One of the women
straightens up & hears it: he thinks
it’s Martha, the one with callused hands,
it hurts her back to kneel so long.

Her face glows, transfigured.
Whatever news she hears will save
her people.
This voice no longer like his
speaks with assurance.

(To be continued.)

Totoneac: Historical anthropologist Daniel Reff interprets this otherwise unknown toponym in Marcos’ Account as a reference to the center of Hohokam civilization in the vicinity of modern Phoenix, Arizona.

the hated Francisco: See Marcos (1), from Cibola 24 on.

The images of the enchanted waterfall and the talking tree both come from Yaqui Indian folk Catholicism. (I’m not trying to suggest that Marcos de Niza was ultimately responsible for those motifs, simply that he is beginning to think in a more Indian fashion here.)

Night drinking at the western pavilion of the Flower of the Dharma Temple

by Liu Zongyuan (773-819)

We gather at the Jetavana
Sunset Pavilion,
immerse ourselves
in drinking meditation.

The mist gives way to darkness.
Water laps against the steps.
The blossom-laden trellis glows
in the moonlight.

Never let your exhaustion show
to Venerable Inebriation.
One glance and it’s clear
which heads have yet
to turn white.

This translation is dedicated to all the bloggers gathering at the Cambridge Zen Center and elsewhere in the Boston area this weekend: Beth, Pica, qB, Lorianne, Leslee and Abdul-Walid.

Jetavana – One of the first Buddhist monasteries, a converted pleasure-garden. The poet probably knows it from the opening of the Diamond Sutra, a very popular text in Tang Dynasty China: “Once, the Buddha sojourned in the Jetavana Park with an assembly of twelve hundred and fifty bhiksus…”

immerse ourselves in drinking meditation – literally, “together pour samadhi beer (rice wine)”