Malinche, A.D. 1522

No rain of flowers marked my entry into the world.
I wasn’t born onto a shield or draped
in a robe of feathers. My own mother
sold me in secret & celebrated my funeral
with the substituted corpse of a slave.
I ended up serving the lords of Yucatán,
on the eastern shore.

Four years ago, when Hernán Cortez came back
from setting fire to his ships, slipping
like a thief into camp, I was waiting in
his tent. We understood each other
from the first, before I could speak
one phrase of Castillian. We had
the same hungers.

He is the blonde lightning, I am the thunderhead.
The eagle dives, the jaguar screams — or so
the lying poets like to say. I hear
only the cries of men sliding
in their own gore, moaning for
their mothers. A thousand times
the fate of empires rode on almost nothing
but my supple tongue.

When we fled Tenochtitlan the first time
& our portable bridge failed, the drowned bodies
of soldiers weighed down with plundered gold
filled that last, terrible gap in
the great causeway. Over such fords
have these legions of freed slaves wallowed,
swum, returned.

Freely I chose to serve the foreign occupiers
& their three-faced God Who is Father,
Mirror, Smoke. He bleeds Himself so
the rest of us might be spared, redeems
all captives. For the sake of faith
His double-edged words sever children
from parents, wives from husbands,
a people from their blood-soaked earth.
For love!

Here, Mother. Take the jewelry from around
my neck. All’s well that ends.
I am called Marina now: the fleet
burning in the harbor. That watchword.
That perilous crossing.

Our booty, ourselves

When you speak, let your whole body stand as collateral, I said. When you sing, make the hearts of all that hear keep time like furious tambourines. The dance and the lyrics should rise together like a cobra from the snake charmer’s basket, like Miriam on the banks of the sea, I said.

Some stayed in their seats and swayed, others filed into the aisles and shook their fit or flabby hindquarters with what passed for wild abandon. It’s possible to be simultaneously fit and fat, I thought, looking with my shopkeeper’s eye. But what I love most is the idea of ass as self, as faithful or recalcitrant beast of burden for our five shameless senses. Ego? Id? Libido? I dunno. We all gots donkey ears, ya know? Like King Midas. Everything we touch turns tragically to gold – or perhaps to compost, if we’re lucky.

Shake it, don’t break it. My jelly, my roll, my pigmeat mama. Baby got back. Haunch. Rump. Booty! How this region extends its merry dominion! The waist or navel may well contain the body’s center of gravity, but the butt – which is pure superfluity, really – seems more essential. Waists can go to waste, after all, and in iconography, at least, the navel too can disappear: our archetypal ancestors made do without them. Humanity’s subsequent loss of innocence seems somehow linked to our acquisition of navels, for the umbilicus is a bit of a doppelganger. It must be given its own, secret burial as soon after birth as possible, and thereafter (we suspect) grows gradually younger, even as its former owner grows long in tooth.

But the ass, ah! The ass remains more or less innocent: not in the sense of naive lack of experience, of course, but in remaining immune to all criminal charges. Whatever we think of a scoundrel, the horse he rode in on is almost invariably spared. I realize some men prefer those other superfluities, the breasts, as the main recipients of their devotion. But I can’t help thinking they’re just little boys who never grew up. The breast man is an idolater, a mere magician. He knows his tender acts of worship can compel his beloved to answer his prayers. Only the ass-kisser can enjoy the fully abject position of a true believer.

Everything I need to know I learned from studying buttocks. Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists take note: your prostrations will never be complete as long as you have a single ounce of fat attached to the extremity of your torso. Even as we touch our foreheads to the ground, even as we press our ears to the earth to hear whatever the reeds might be whispering, our recalcitrant rumps stand upright, as proud and humorous as the humps of camels. If the heart is the seat of the soul, the seat is the heart of the body – or better, its crossroads. The rhyming halves of the ass suggest the possibilities of completion, of harmony, of pleroma. We are our own twins – we can own such luck! Our natural wealth should suffice us: this booty goes wherever we do, and no will and testament can bequeath it to another. We may well covet our neighbor’s wife’s ass, we might even get a piece of it, as they say, but ultimately it remains her own – though she may, of course, take out insurance on it, as the high priestess of Bootianity, Jennifer Lopez, is reputed to have done.

So swing low, sweet chariot! Free your ass, and your mind will follow. Your ass may be grass in the long run, but watch the way the tall grass moves in the wind and tell me that’s a bad thing! One could do a lot worse, I’m thinking, than to shake and sway with such hushed fluidity, such unselfconscious grace.

SEX SEX SEX

In a recent comment thread, Dale asked about the connection (if any) between my waking life and my dreams. I’ve always thought there’s a bit of an inverse relationship: the more dull one’s day-to-day existence, the more one’s subconscious mind tries to compensate with exciting dreams. Thus, my dreams are unusually eventful. I do things in them that I never do in real life, such as have sex.

It’s often said that the brain is the most important sex organ. Humans, along with our close cousins the bonobos, are among the sexiest of animals. That is to say, the females of our species do not have distinct periods of estrus, but remain more-or-less permanently receptive. Hence the importance and power of the imagination in initiating sex, and the autonomous quality of sex for humans and bonobos, its liberation from reproduction per se.

A more female-centric way of putting this would be to say that human females have a unique level of control over their sexual cycles compared with other species. This also means that women can “turn it off” for prolonged periods of time – a source of wonder and some envy to me as a male. Thus, freedom in sex includes freedom from sex.

Except, that is, for the menses. It seems that as a species we have bought our freedom from the solar calendar with an inconvenient and sometimes quite dreadful slavery to the lunar calendar. (It’s no wonder that religious systems as diverse as those of the ancient Hebrews and the Maya have sought further human liberation through the invention of arbitrary units of time with no dependence on either lunar or solar cycles.)

And all of this, of course, is still bound up with reproduction. Homo sapiens is at the extreme “K” end of the r vs. K (numbers vs. care) continuum of reproductive strategies. The scientific, reductionist explanation for human sexiness emphasizes its importance in forming and perpetuating social bonds necessary for caring for our uniquely dependent offspring. (Elephants are our closest competitors in this regard, and not surprisingly, they too form exceptionally strong social bonds, which even extend beyond death.)

The exceptionally long period of juvenile dependence may well be viewed as another factor limiting individual freedom. But there’s little doubt in my mind that the human imagination wouldn’t be nearly as powerful – and hence wouldn’t perpetuate any instinct for freedom in the first place – were it not for the demands and rewards of lengthy juvenile dependence. Sex in and of itself is actually fairly mindless.

I was reminded of this by a brief tour through the more erotically charged portions of the blogosphere last week. This was sparked by a scornful paragraph over at Blaugustine about the utter predictability of Britain’s most popular blog, Belle du Jour – the purported diary of a prostitute. Indeed, after spending a couple hours peeping in on the sexual adventures of the terminally hip, I found myself stifling a yawn. Give me a good collection of folktales or creation myths from almost any indigenous society and I can find way more bizarre shit. You know, Coyote turning into a comb to impregnate the daughter of a chief, a giant sea serpent turning into a handsome prince (or vice versa), that kind of thing.

Ah, you say, but that’s not realistic. In fact, I would argue the opposite: it’s not nearly realistic enough.

I was actually thinking along these lines yesterday, as I drew yet again on Biblical themes to exemplify the kind of myths we need in order to teach reverence for Creation. The fact is that a couple centuries of careful, scientific-minded observation have yielded far more compelling narratives. Only the wildest and woolliest dreamtime stories of Australian aborigines, and a few other gatherer-hunter peoples, come anywhere close to representing the true variety and inventiveness of Nature.

One question I would like to pose, inter alia, is whether the human imagination – including its supreme offspring, empathy – can still accomplish its fundamental tasks of providing social cohesion, effective childrearing, and (of course) lots of hot sex in the absence of meaningful connections with wild Nature? If, as I believe cultural history demonstrates, a people gradually becomes more imaginatively challenged as their society loses its vital connections with the earth, is it possible that their sex lives might suffer as well?

I’d need to become a lot better versed in the anthropological literature before I could do that question much justice. In the meantime, I’d like to use the rest of this post to review the kinds of revelations about sex that can reward a close study of Nature.

Among the most varied and interesting sexual curiosities are of course the flowering plants. Orchids that use visual and chemical stimuli to trick wasps into trying to mate with them, using them to spread their pollen (sperm) but giving the poor, inadvertent masturbators no satisfaction whatsoever – these are the true champions of Nature’s extreme sex competition.

If we are to stick with Animalia, however, almost invariably the invertebrates seem to exhibit the most bizarre variations. This makes sense: the backbone certainly constitutes a strong limiting factor on what humans can achieve. Picture, for instance, an overweight john trying to get his groove back with a too-vigorous, youthful companion (male or female) in some sleazy Mediterranean motel where the bedbugs add insult to injury.

Now switch focus and watch the bedbugs. Like human beings, they like to stuff themselves way past what would seem like a rational point, where they would still be able to escape readily from the Pinch of Doom. Bedbugs are interesting culturally and linguistically, as the first insect to be called a bug, apparently from the Welsh word for ghost or demon, the root also of bogeyman and bugbear. (“Buggery” has a separate origin, from the Bogomils, the archetypal medieval heretics – the modern word is “terrorists” – to whom all manner of unspeakable acts were attributed.)

But here’s what’s really weird: the male bedbug practices what’s known as “traumatic insemination.” He uses his large, scimitar-like penis to punch a hole in the female’s abdominal wall and ejaculate directly into her bloodstream. The sperm cells migrate through the blood to the reproductive organs, where they hang out in little bags until the female’s next blood feast, whereupon they make their way into the ovaries for their long-anticipated trysts with the eggs.

So yes, bedbuggery is a bloody mess all around. It isn’t quite as haphazard as I’ve painted it: there is one distinct spot, a small notch between abdominal segments, where the penis goes in. But not all species in the bedbug’s genus possess this feature; with at least one species the locus of insemination appears to be wholly random. And there’s no denying that bedbugs are horny little devils. Olafactory clues seem to play even less of a role with bedbugs than with humans. “Males apparently find the females merely by blundering upon them, and they will attempt to mate with a piece of cork carved in the shape of a bug,” says Howard Ensign Evans (Life on a Little-Known Planet, Dutton, 1968 – the source of all this fascinating information).

Moreover, the males of some species will apparently stick and inseminate each other if no females are available. “This seems to support the idea that [bedbugs] are able to transfer protein-rich nutrients to one another, possibly an important adaptation in an animal that sometimes has to wait long periods for a blood meal to become available,” says our entomological guide. But what’s the reductionist argument for having sex with bedbug-shaped pieces of cork, then? Whatever the nutritional advantages of fucking, it seems bleedingly obvious to me that bedbugs – like the johns and (perhaps) prostitutes with whom they often exchange bodily fluids – just happen to like sex, traumatic insemination and all.

Another curiosity of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditism. The hermaphrodite is, of course, a figure with rich mythological overtones in many cultures, and we probably can’t remind ourselves often enough that human hermaphroditism, while quite rare, is natural, giving the lie to overly dualistic notions about gender.

My favorite book of poetry on biological themes, Bio Graffiti: A Natural Selection, by John M. Burns (Norton, 1981), uses a lithograph of a snail to illustrate the very brief “To a Lonely Hermaphrodite” –

Know
thyself.

– which I have quoted here before, in a post aptly titled Confused chorus.

For those with an imperfect grasp of the Facts of Life, this might seem to raise the question, why would a hermaphrodite need to have sex with a partner at all? The short answer is, because cloning is a risky reproductive strategy, although many plants (for example) do rely heavily upon it. Another answer is that snails seek partners possibly for the same reasons we do. Assuming most members of the animal kingdom experience some kind of pleasure in the gratification of the sexual urge, it makes sense that natural selection would favor individuals most prone to experience pleasure with a partner, guaranteeing genetic diversity and hence the survival of that species.

Thus it is that horny land snails, such as the little brown jobs you can find by the thousands in any Eastern U.S. woodlot after a rain, like to pull alongside and fire little love darts into each other, after a considerable amount of fondling and foreplay. Snails are montremes: that is to say, both sets of genitals share one opening. In the words of an online handbook on snail ranching (what else would you call the raising of snails for escargots?),

During the mating season which begins in spring the snails seek each other, smell and nibble each other and then join themselves for a very long coition of several hours, side by side over the horizontal plane. They prick each other with a calcium dart and after numerous pricks with this dart the pouch containing the vagina and the penis turns in on itself.

There is a reciprocal introduction of the male organ into the female conduit and the sperm received is then stored. At this time the genital gland issues no eggs.

Once mating is completed and the two snails separate the male part is absorbed and the female part develops. The spermatozoa leave the copulative pouch and move toward the top of the genital tract in order to impregnate the eggs that are discharged by the hermaphroditic gland.

I get kind of envious reading this. Imagine being able to turn one’s sex organs inside out! (Of course, snails can do this with their eyestalks, too. Come to think of it, sea cucumbers can turn their entire bodies inside out – but that’s another story.) And sex has to better if you’re covered with slime, I’m thinking, remembering the fellow who was arrested recently in Binghamton, NY for coating every surface of his motel room, as well as his own body, with petroleum jelly (44 jars of Vaseline!).

Mollusks are an odd bunch. Not only did they independently evolve eyes and (in the case of octopi) advanced intelligence; they also include the one group of animal species I’m aware of that most closely resembles flowers in its reproductive strategies. I’m talking about the wonderfully diverse and imperiled bivalves known as freshwater mussels, which are something of an Appalachian specialty.

Mussels don’t get around much; they only have one foot and they spend a disproportionate amount of time with their mouths (gills) open, seining the water for microscopic food. The sexual part of reproduction seems fairly mundane: males release sperm into the current and trust in fate. As far as they are concerned, I suppose, they are having sex with the river itself.

The fun part begins when the female puts the fertilized zygotes out to nurse. If a freshwater mussel species relied solely on the current for reproduction, over time it would migrate downstream until it became a freshwater species no more. In order to continue to occupy their headwater niches in the Appalachians and elsewhere, mussels have to avail themselves of the unwitting services of more mobile animals: fish. Some species simply wait for an opportune moment and expel the larvae, called glochidia, trusting again in chance. If the glochidia come in contact with a suitable piscine host, they attach themselves to its gills and fins and irritate them just enough to stimulate the secretion of scar tissue, which completely covers the larvae in a kind of jerry-rigged marsupial pouch. The larvae then feed on the fluid of the host until they get big enough, at which point they drop off and find a new home as adults, crowded together in beds – as they’re called – on the beds – as they’re also called – of streams and rivers. (I’m thinking that fisher people must be rather fond of sleep. Actually, that could explain a lot.)

But some species aren’t content to trust in fate and timing alone. They literally go fishing. According to a paper I found online, these mollusks “bind numbers of glochidia into long mucus forms called conglutinates. These conglutinates may be colored to resemble worms or other food items, and infest the host’s gills when they are eaten. Recently, superconglutinates were discovered in several southern species; these superconglutinates are groups of individual conglutinates formed into a fish-like lure which is played out in the water on a strand of mucus up to 8 feet long. Some species have modified their mantles into lures resembling fishes, insects, or other food items, which often pulsate in swimming-like motions” (references removed).

What I want to know is, are some of the fish so targeted also game species, such as brook trout? Might a single fish be fooled by two different simulacra of the very same insect prey, manufactured by two very different critters, on the same day? What a uniquely frustrating life that fish must lead!

I can understand why the mollusks do what they do, but I must admit, the motives of catch-and-release fly fishermen remain a mystery to me. And as for the fish: I feel their pain. I really do.
__________

UPDATE: I just discovered that Fred First blogged about mussel reproduction first! On June 10, he wrote about the wonderfully named orange-nacre mucket, whose lure takes the form of two minnows swimming side-by-side. His source describes the fishing line as “gelatinous.” I still prefer to think of it as mucous. Clam snot. (Not to be confused with snail slime.)

Heart’s Content revisited

A week later, we return for what we missed. This time we’re prepared: field guides, notes from the scientific literature, lists of what to look for. A sketch pad, a digital camera. Better maps and enough food to tide us over until supper.

We’re thorough. No skipping trailside non-natives this time! Even grasses and sedges merit attention. We agonize about whether this milkweed’s leaves are leathery enough, whether that tiny seedling is Fagus or Amelanchier. We manage to re-locate the bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), but the round-leaf orchid we found last time eludes us.

Seventy-five years ago, someone found twayblade (Listera cordata) here, so we comb every patch of sphagnum for it. Four different times, the tip end of a partridgeberry plant peeking through the moss appears to mimic our recondite quarry.

Gradually, this small patch of ancient forest grows more familiar, though mysteries still abound. Why is the deer browsing so selective? Toward the center of the tract, seedlings of pine, hemlock, devil’s walking stick and cucumber tree grow vigorously; around the margins, they’re chewed back to within an inch of their lives. Erecting permanent deer fencing around the entire perimeter still seems like a good idea – in fact, given that the Forest Service maintains hundreds of miles of such fencing around recently logged areas, it’s difficult to understand why they don’t similarly protect Heart’s Content. Its value as a baseline for ecological recovery efforts elsewhere would be immeasurably enhanced, since everyone recognizes that white-tailed deer overbrowsing is unnaturally severe. If fencing were erected right now, it would still take many decades for the forest to recover a healthy mid-story level.

The return of the natives won’t happen overnight. Some of the rarer wildflowers recorded in the 1930s and not seen since might not return for centuries, or perhaps millennia, without human intervention. On average, herbaceous perennials in undisturbed old-growth forests spread at the rate of one meter per decade. Sexual reproduction often yields very small numbers of seeds with dispersal by gravity or by ants.

Some restoration ecologists believe that widespread reintroduction of soil microorganisms will be necessary to fully restore ecological function to future old-growth forests. Most plants depend upon fungal symbionts to extract nutrients from the soil; when those fungi are extirpated as a result of logging, plowing or other intensive landscape modification, the only way to get them back may be to inoculate with plugs of soil from rare old-growth remnants such as Heart’s Content.

Thus, surviving virgin or near-virgin forests appear to comprise an ark of sorts. But the ark is leaking. Non-native, invasive plants, insect pests and diseases challenge the very ecological integrity of these would-be sanctuaries. Close to a century ago, the American chestnut blight wiped out one of Heart’s Content’s keystone tree species – and who knows how many others went with it. In the last 15 years, virtually all large beech trees have succumbed to another introduced pathogen. Their rotting hulks litter the forest floor, providing not only nutrients but some level of physical protection from deer browse pressure to the seedlings of other species that will replace them. This dieback of a major canopy component has greatly increased the amount of light reaching the forest floor, which has favored the spread of ferns (hayscented, New York, intermediate woodfern and others) over forbs.

But that’s not the only reason the ferns are doing so well here. As in so many forest tracts in northern Pennsylvania, ferns thrive due to their general hardiness: they tolerate light, white-tailed deer and acid rain better than almost any other native species. They are particularly resistant to the heavy metals that accumulate in the soil as a result of the leaching of base cations by sulfuric and nitric acid deposition. High plateau and ridgetop areas – where most forested land, and almost all publicly owned lands are concentrated – are at particular risk for acid precipitation downwind of the coal-burning power plants of the Ohio Valley.

Thus, Penn’s Woods stand to suffer in a major way from the consequences of the Bush regime’s two major environmental initiatives – “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests.” “Clear Skies” is a bid to make the skies dirtier by replacing federal oversight with industry self-regulation – essentially, asking criminals to police themselves. And “Healthy Forests” would lead a further degradation of forest health, by giving rapacious corporations a stranglehold over management decisions on national forests and BLM lands.

Noah’s Ark is a myth – neither a particularly pleasant nor an especially accurate one. The myths of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained may prove almost as problematic. I keep telling anyone who will listen that we cannot restore “original” ecosystems because too many pieces have been lost, some forever, like the passenger pigeon. Others, such as the beech and the chestnut, may take centuries to recover their former glory. And we simply don’t know enough. In fact, we barely understand the first thing about healthy ecosystem functioning. Population ecology is a mystery even for most vertebrate species, except for a few game animals that receive the vast bulk of available funding for research and management. We have no clue about how to reintroduce many types of organisms.

We cannot restore what was; it’s hubris to think that we ever could. An unknown proportion of ecolgical features present in the 1600s were the result of unique climatic conditions; another, sizable proportion were anthropogenic, challenging the Western dichotomy of natural vs. human.

Many missing elements of biodiversity can be reintroduced or recovered. Natural ecosystem functions and processes can be restored. I have already suggested a few, stopgap measures: buffering or physically protecting invaluable sources of biological richness such as Heart’s Content and other rare habitats. We can’t ignore essential political and regulatory changes (in fire-dependant ecosystems, physical removal of highly flammable understorey materials – yes, I mean all the Bushes – can help prevent unnaturally catastrophic, canopy-destroying fires). And we need to start following the prescriptions of conservation biologists to preserve and physically connect large, buffered, core areas.

What narratives can we use, what new visions can we advance? Regular readers of this blog probably already have a pretty good idea of what I would suggest as a starting place: not the Garden, but the demon-haunted wilderness, the domain of behemoth and leviathan. Not with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but with humility and the elemental power of the whirlwind.

In one respect, the story of Noah’s Ark still has something to teach us: that Creation was not a one-time event. It is on-going – and it can be reversed. Creation, which most of us non-literal types understand to include evolution and involve geological time-scales, depends upon the active participation of human beings who must not allow themselves to forget their fairly humble position in the grand scheme of things. And though I am using religious imagery here, this is not an especially religious argument. Talking about the recovery of wildness strikes many professional land managers and government bureaucrats as so much woolly-headed mysticism. But then, the manager never wants to hear that there’s anything wrong with trying to impose a human agenda upon a thoroughly domesticated landscape. In fact, the bulk of the ecological evidence strongly suggests that unless we soon permit the return of greater-than-human realities such as natural disturbance regimes and large carnivores, far more than Eden might be lost.

Blogger’s manifesto

My verse resembles the bread of Egypt –
Night passes over it & you can’t eat it any more.

Devour it the moment it is fresh,
Before the dust settles upon it.

Its place is the warm climate of the heart;
In this world it dies of cold.

Even if you see it imagining it is fresh,
You’ll need to conjure up many images.

What you drink is really your own imagination;
That’s no fable, my friend.

Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by A.J. Arberry (with a few slight changes)

(“Bread of Egypt”: I.e., manna. See Exodus 16, but also Numbers 11:5-7, which tells how the monotony of the substance led to a rebellion)