Parenthesis and antithesis

The heat and humidity, which makes the birds so happy (and the dawn chorus so full) is bad for my brain. Bear with me here, folks! At this rate, I’ll have to slink through the summer in borrowed thoughts. (Barring inspiration, I could pay more attention to the look of the site, borrow codes from sites I admire. (You can see I already took the momentous step of introducing an Image yesterday, which necessitated learning to use a free image hosting site and the photo-touchup software that’s on my machine. (For anyone who’s wondering, it’s the Egyptian glyph KA, which refers to the undying part of the soul – the “spirit” or doppelganger – which in ancient times, according to Bika Reed, was understood by analogy with an egg in the womb of BA, the overall soul-complex.)))

If the oviducts of my imagination fail to produce any original thoughts soon, the stewpot will beckon. I could turn Via Negativa into a regular potpie of pithy quotes and striking images, maybe even build up a real readership! All sorts of folks who don’t have the time or patience to struggle through my usual fare would begin stopping by for Pearls of Wisdom – presuming I could keep my more swinish tendencies at bay. (Like insulting the present readership by implication – bad bad bad!)

Today, I’m off to town (first time in three weeks!), so I’ll cut the crap right here and retrieve a pearl of sorts that you won’t read anywhere else. You may remember me writing about my niece Eva, who is eight years old and a bit precocious in the spiritual sense. I reprinted her first-ever poem, which she wrote over a year ago. The beginner’s luck didn’t last, but she did send me a poem about a month ago that was impressive in its own way. I wrote back with praise and what I hope were encouraging remarks. Here’s the poem:


Why do people kill?
Why do we have wars?
Why do we cut trees for houses?
Why did we invent the nuclear bomb?

Why? Why? Why?

Everything is a question to me.
Why does the world have so much evil,
and sadness,
and kindness?

Why is the world like it is?

–Eva Bonta, April 6, 2004

Here’s how I responded. I don’t know how much of this she understood, but I’m a firm believer in not talking down to children.

Hi Eva,

Good work! What can I say? I still ask these questions, too. A lot of people would rather avoid wrestling with tough questions like these, and prefer to settle for easy answers. Why do they do that? That’s a question that’s not so hard to answer: because people want to feel safe and secure. Who can blame them? Very few people are brave enough to face up to the basic unfairness of existence.

I like the fact that you added “kindness” at the end. That’s a mystery too: why love when it’s easier to hate?

I don’t know whether a willingness to ask big questions will make you a happier person. But it will stretch your mind and make you wiser – and a better poet. You know what they say: the brain is a muscle, it needs to be exercised. I’m glad you’re giving yours such a workout!


“There is always another way . . . “

Some good quotes from the physicist Richard Feynman today at wood s lot. I especially liked this one:

If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain… In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.

Curious to see what else Feynman might have said about the limits to knowledge, I followed the link to his Nobel lecture and found this:

There is always another way to say the same thing that doesn’t look at all like the way you said it before. I don’t know what the reason for this is. I think it is somehow a representation of the simplicity of nature. A thing like the inverse square law is just right to be represented by the solution of Poisson’s equation, which, therefore, is a very different way to say the same thing that doesn’t look at all like the way you said it before. I don’t know what it means, that nature chooses these curious forms, but maybe that is a way of defining simplicity. Perhaps a thing is simple if you can describe it fully in several different ways without immediately knowing that you are describing the same thing.

I’ll go along with that! The question, though, is whether this “simplicity” lies in nature itself, or merely in the mind of the observer?

Gold fever

This time four years ago, my friend Crazy Dave had come up from the Philly area, where he was living at the time, to help me out with a project, and ended up staying for a couple of weeks. One evening an old friend of Dave’s, Dr. D., stopped by for a brief visit. Dr. D. had been bitten by the gold mining bug, and the intensity with which he talked about panning for gold in the Appalachians was almost frightening. The following account appears in my manuscript Spoil (available for download as a .pdf document at my other site). I decided to convert it into prose – it reads better that way.



Rain interlaced with birdcalls, the god-forsaken moan of a cat in heat & without warning a crash of thunder, so close it’s simultaneous with the flash.

We lean over the porch railing, crane our necks, peering into the dusk. Some black or scarlet oak must still be shivering, its newly unfurled leaves as if in the throes of a proprietary wind, with the raw stripe–sapwood laid open from earth to sky–where the lightning-tree stretched one revelatory limb.

A heartbeat later the rain turns torrential. We have to pull our chairs close to talk.

Let me tell you, some of these eastern creeks can really tease honey from the rock says our visitor, hunched around his hunger like an inverted question mark, wire-thin arms tense with current. He pulls out his portable titanium sluice box & the green plastic pan–only eight dollars through the mail. Says there’s one thin seam that runs the length of the piedmont from Georgia to Maine: in plate tectonic theory, perhaps the very line where the continents tried to fuse. Somehow you need that heat, those exact pressures.

I decide to save for later my polite queries about his children, whom he’s just been up to visit. He’s busy unscrewing a vial full of dust, balances a grain on his fingertip. You don’t do it for the money, just the realization: it’s been lying there on that creekbed for ten thousand years.

He runs an anxious hand through thinning hair. Here, feel how heavy, how hard the gold itself tries–this little grain! to get under your skin.

Sailing to x, solving for Byzantium

A new week begins, just as the old one was beginning to feel familiar. It had come in like a wet dog, and it shook itself so hard we all got soaked. When the conversation finally resumed we had to go back, start over . . .

I have solved for x far too often. From now on x can solve for me.
vajrayana practice

That smiling bitch. With her fingers pointed like a rifle at my cock. Humiliation and shame, it seems, are to pave the road to democracy. Who stands naked now?
The Coffee Sutras

I started to scream again. I was having a hard time breathing. I was gagging from my own bloody nose and whatever she dumped on me. My stomach turned and the woman stripped the tape from my mouth and projectile barf went flying.
A ‘Coon Named Legba

The photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib are bad enough, considering that possibly 25 prisoners have died while in American custody. However, some faked photos are also circulating, including pictures of an alleged rape by soldiers that were actually taken from a porno site.
Spin of the Day

They managed somehow to communicate with each other and to fashion (my memory fails me here) some kind of eyeball attached to a muscle that let it hop around and see things and report back to the brains.
Fragments from Floyd

This results from my need to learn about Cascading Style Sheets and structure-based page markup and buzzword-based jargon leveraging . . .
Creek Running North

Since conservative religionists blame gays for everything from AIDS to 9/11 to Tinky Winky and the Catholic Church’s sex scandals, I was wondering how long it would take for gays to be blamed for Abu Ghraib? I got my answer: oh, about a day.
Joe Perez

I’m not sure–I’m not sure that, given the same circumstances, the same boredom, the same bitterness, the same mix of factors–I would categorically not have been that woman with that leash in her hand.
Feathers of Hope

here’s the bed she lies in
the sheets might as well be snow
she’s so cold
the heat disperses above her
the ceiling blankly accepts it
she sinks clean as a stone

Ivy is here

So we each answered the questions, each one according to her opinions. The beautiful thing in this, is that our answers did not agree, but they were close. We are mothers, and we hate wars. And we want peace for our families, and for our countries. The program will be broadcast on mothers day in America – I mean, May 9. I hope it’s a happy day for all mothers in America and the world – that families gather. That nobody is absent, participating in a war or something similar. And that peace surrounds the whole world.
A Family in Baghdad

O inhabitants of al-Andalus, what happiness is yours, having water, shade, rivers and trees. The garden of Eternal Happiness is not without, but rather within your territory.
– ibn Khafaja, Valencia, 11th century

Everybody has clotheslines; in fact the fronts of the buildings give very little clue about the vibrant life that happens in the back gardens and alleys between rows of attached buildings on two parallel streets.
the cassandra pages

[Lot for sale = Zero.]

Eventually, maybe it will be recognized that those individuals who dare to blow the whistle and who refuse to participate in anti-human actions are the real heroes, the truly civilized.

Khalid wanted to go and die in Iraq, not because he is a loser, not because he wants to have a 72 virgins (I don’t know where did this virgins story come from), and not because he wanted to achieve personal benefits . . .
Khalid like other hundreds before him, and thousands after him, wanted to say NO, he wanted to change his/our world, and it is our fault that we didn’t give him other means to express this protest.
Raed in the Middle

“The life of a warrior cannot possibly be cold and lonely and without feelings,” says don Genaro, “because it is based on his affection, his devotion, his dedication to his beloved. And who, you may ask, is his beloved? I will show you now.” He then performs an astounding demonstration, in which he “embraces the earth.”
Book of Life

There was a time when people here felt sorry for the troops. No matter what one’s attitude was towards the occupation, there were moments of pity towards the troops, regardless of their nationality. We would see them suffering the Iraqi sun, obviously wishing they were somewhere else and somehow, that vulnerability made them seem less monstrous and more human. That time has passed. People look at troops now and see the pictures of Abu Ghraib . . .
Baghdad Burning

Say firmly:
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause . . . “

Helena Cobban

There is a sign hanging beside my piano. It says “Don’t shoot the piano player. She’s doing the best she can.”
Switched At Birth

First he joked that only Jews could make a holiday of a day when nobody died. (We laughed.) And then he observed that, in this day and age, when so many of us begin our mornings by turning on the radio or checking news online to see how many casualties the Iraq war has generated overnight, we might find ourselves identifying with the impulse to celebrate such a day. (We weren’t laughing any more.)
Velveteen Rabbi

We are greasy in death, and wet
and slippery and vainly named.

Lekshe’s Mistake

the darkness can go away now, the darkness can go away
Awake at Dawn — Writing Journal

I have solved for x far too often. From now on x can solve for me.
vajrayana practice

This post was inspired by the late, lamented blog commonbeauty, which demonstrated the potential of the blogroll collage/chrestomathy form in the posts “twenty upanishads” (April 08) and “twenty questions” (April 12)

Say hello to my little friends

Somewhere or another I remember reading that the most perfect faces are simply those that are the most average: eyes just the right distance apart, cheekbones just the right height, mouth neither too big nor too small, and so forth. With certain caveats, I might be willing to accept this. But I’m also thinking, how sad if our attempts to describe beauty begin and end with such perfection. We may become so unaccustomed to real beauty that we not only overlook it, but are repelled by it. How many truly striking women only come into their own during their college years, having been largely shunned by their classmates all during high school? How many people can really feel comfortable in a wild setting without succumbing to the urge to straighten things up a bit – get rid of some of the downed limbs and rotting logs, remove an unsightly snag, eradicate that clump of rank weeds? Yet with a little bit of ecological education, such messy elements may be prized – to such an extent that a forest seems immature and incomplete without them.


The other day I was lured outside for a brief mid-afternoon walk by the clear sky and calls of newly arrived scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings. I slung binoculars around my neck, but found myself instead crouching for half an hour beside an ant-lion’s trap in the middle of the trail, waiting in vain for an ant to stray into it and get “stoned” to death – a drama I’ve never actually witnessed. I dropped little pieces of detritus into the trap, but only once did the larva’s head come close enough to the surface for me to catch a glimpse of it in the strong sunlight. So I started looking for ants to drop, lure or chase into it.

Again my efforts were a flop. Small ants are hard to catch, impossible to herd – and boy, do they move fast! One did bumble into the ant-lion’s trap while I watched, but it had no trouble scaling the other side – in fact, it didn’t even slow down! I began to suspect that this was the sort of thing that only worked as it was supposed to once in a very rare while. But later, when I checked on the web, I decided that maybe I just found a lazy or recently satiated ant-lion. According to The Antlion Pit: A Doodlebug Anthology, “Antlions are fascinating creatures whose behavior can easily be observed in the wild without ever touching or capturing them. An ant tossed into the pit will stir the antlion into action immediately. If direct involvement in an ant’s death presents you with moral (or other) problems, use an alternate method: a puff of air or a slender blade of grass dangled into the pit can sometimes provoke a sand-flicking response.”

Actually, my fascination with ant-lions stems from the knowledge that their adult form is an ethereal insect closely related to a lacewing. For me, the beauty of the lacewing derives as much from the contrast with its pre-adult “ugly” nature as from the grace and perfection of its adult form.

The thing that really struck me, though, once I began looking at the forest floor with a hunter’s eyes, was just how many tiny creatures were moving around. And most of them were ants, of at least three different species. That didn’t really surprise me; E.O. Wilson notes in Journey to the Ants that ants outnumber all other animals. Without them, says Wilson, “the earth would rot” and most animal species would go extinct. Still, even knowing all this, I was amazed. The earth is a goddamn ant farm!

A miniscule jumping spider added to the interest of this landscape-in-miniature. So quickly did she move from one spot to another, it was as if she had mastered the art of teleportation – an impression reinforced by the lack of any apparent mechanism for this amazing feat. I saw nothing comparable to a grasshopper’s outsized rear legs.

When people talk about creepy-crawlies, I think, they demonstrate perhaps to an exaggerated degree an unease that most of us feel about the lack of any absolute differentiation between the living, crawling surfaces of the world and the surfaces of our own bodies. This co-terminality is more than mere homology – a fact of which the inhabitants of more tick- and chigger-infested parts of the globe need little reminding. When one goes to the tropics, of course, the number of lifeforms waiting to parasitize human flesh, from exotic molds to all manner of mosquito-borne viruses, becomes truly staggering. Years ago, my mother returned from a visit to the Peruvian rainforest with a strange, red lump on her arm that weeped pus and wouldn’t go away. Then one day when she was in the shower, she let out a shriek that brought us all running. Something had just stuck its ugly little head out of a hole in the middle of the lump! A human botfly larva! Fortunately, she hadn’t seen the movie Alien, and fortunately my dad is very patient with a pair of long-nosed tweezers and managed to pull the thing out. (We learned later that the approved method of removal is to tie a slab of raw meat over the spot. Trying to evict the larva by force is chancy, because if part of it remains behind it will rot, with potentially unpleasant consequences.)

Here in the over-sanitized North, we forget what it must’ve been like for our ancestors, whose hirsute bodies (in the case of my ancestors, at any rate) would’ve been more or less constantly in motion with fleas and one or both species of human lice. Without such direct experience, who nowadays can really read as it was meant to be read Robert Burns’ poem “To A Louse”, or John Donne’s “The Flea”?

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Our gross-out reaction undoubtedly gets in the way of enjoying the bawdy humor – just as it prevents us from truly appreciating what such creepy-crawlies meant to the 18th-century haiku poet Kobayashi Issa, perhaps the most entomologically minded poet of all time.

For you fleas too
the nights must be long,
they must be lonely.

(translated by Robert Haas)

Of course, a complete consideration of human-body-as-habitat must look well beyond the assorted ecto- and endoparasites. As Lewis Thomas memorably stated in the title essay to his bestselling essay collection The Lives of a Cell (Viking, 1974), “A good case can be made for our nonexistence as entities. We are not made up, as we had always supposed, of successively enriched packets of our own parts. We are shared, rented, occupied. At the interior of our cells, driving them, providing the oxidative energy that sends us out for the improvement of each shining day, are the mitochondria, and in a strict sense they are not ours. They turn out to be separate creatures, the colonial posterity of migrant prokaryocytes, probably primitive bacteria that swam into ancestral precursors of our eukaryotic cells and stayed there. . . . We carry stores of DNA in our nuclei that may have come in, at one time or another, from the fusion of ancestral cells and the linking of ancestral organisms in symbiosis.”

To pick a less radical example, our intestinal flora are still more-or-less discrete organisms without which digestion would be impossible. This example in particular makes me think of Rabelais, as interpreted by Bakhtin. As I’ve written here in the past, for Rabelais – as for most premoderns – the idealized human body was in constant flux, full of grotesque hollows and protrusions, interpenetrated by – and only very imperfectly differentiated from – the world’s own, grotesque body. Bakhtin maintains that our conception of a smooth and finished body is no older than the 18th century. “The basis of the image is the individual, strictly limited mass, the impenetrable facade. The opaque surface and the body’s ‘valleys’ acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world. All attributes of the unfinished world are carefully removed.” (Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky, Indiana U.P., 1984.)

Experimental pathologist Marc Lappé, author of The Body’s Edge: Our Cultural Obsession with Skin (Henry Holt, 1996), seems to agree that the older conception of the body was more accurate. “The view of the skin as a barrier against pathogens, pollutants and radiation is a modern one, and a wrong-headed one at that,” Lappé writes. “Many primitive [sic] cultures regarded the skin as a naturally permeable system and respected its integrity by limiting their disinfection efforts to occasional scrubbings. . . . [By contrast,] modern medical practitioners mistakenly believe that the skin must be kept ‘clean’ and germ-free as a defense against disease. Through the overzealous use of disinfectants, the skin is stripped of its naturally protective microorganisms. This unfortunate practice has led to nursery epidemics of antibiotic-resistant staph and streptococcal skin infections and overgrowth of yeast organisms.”

“Naturally protective microorganisms”? Say what?

“Our skin is host to a veritable entourage of microorganisms during its short life,” says Lappé. “As many as twenty million bacteria and fungi and numerous parasites and arthropods inhabit every square inch of our skin. We are not born so colonized, but rather acquire this ecological microcosm in stages. . . . After birth, the sterile skin is seeded constantly by individual bacteria and fungi, including various staphylococci, corynebacteria, streptococci, and occasional coliforms. These interlopers land on the skin much as invaders would colonize a vacant planet: tentatively and with many failures. But certain bacteria are ‘intended’ to thrive on the skin and are remarkably successful in expanding from their initial land sites rapidly.” (Emphasis added)


This brings the discussion back almost to where it started, given that the condition of our skins – especially the skin of our faces – is widely used as an index of beauty. Although human beings are uniquely expressive and uniquely attuned to the expressions on other’s faces, we ignore at our peril the role of culture and individual preference in shaping these conceptions. “Beauty is only skin-deep,” says the redneck proverb, “but ugly goes all the way to the bone.” But if beauty is understood only as a sort of golden mean, and all the individuating marks and scars and wrinkles, all the skewed and off-color points of interest must be airbrushed away, I say: make mine ugly!

I’ll let our panhandling sage have the last word on this topic today . . .

Face to face with the trees

In little over two weeks, the view from my front porch has changed radically as leaves come out on the trees. The house sits at the edge of a large lawn/meadow/barnyard opening; the porch faces the edge of the woods some fifty feet away. When the leaves are down, I can see up to the top of the low rise we call Laurel Ridge, a couple hundred yards away through the woods. Only the solid mountain laurel understory remains green all year round, and the low winter sun catching an entire hillside of waxy laurel leaves, especially with a snowpack to provide contrast, is a sight to savor. Tree trunks in winter evoke a crowd in freeze-frame; I have only to step down from the porch and walk a few dozen paces to join their vigil. For those six months of the year, I can sit on my porch and feel the smallness of the mountain, the closeness of the sky.

Now, I face an ever more solid wall of green. The last few peeks of sky below the top of this wall will disappear in another day or two. The wintertime impression of limitless space has given way to a feeling of fertile and profuse mystery, veils behind veils.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been able to see faces in the trunks and foliage of trees. The crown of the tallest white pine tree off to the east always reminds me of a long-chinned, long-nosed crone. But with the great deciduous leaf-out, the anthropomorphic forms and faces proliferate. One glimpses them especially at dawn or dusk, an effect aided not merely by the dim light but by the profusion of birdsong at those times. The elaborate blending of ethereal thrush notes, the catbird’s jazz scatting, the oriole’s brassy reveille and many others, along with the profusion of new scents (now the lilac and cypress spurge in my yard; in a few weeks the dame’s rocket) – somehow the synaesthesia helps trigger this intimation of extra presence right at the edge of perception.

I hasten to add that this is without the aid of artificial stimulants, except on very rare occasions. My willingness to admit this peculiar habit of mine is sparked by a study of American Indian tree carving, Faces in the Forest, by Michael D. Blackstock (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001). I had known that some First Nations possessed arborographic traditions, but I hadn’t realized what a wide swath of territory this took in: from the coastal forests of British Columbia clear across to the eastern woodlands. The Iroquois medicine society known in English as the False Faces centered on the power of very beautiful, individually unique masks that were carved directly into the trunks of living trees, and subsequently removed for ceremonial use. The False Face Society’s etiological myth makes it clear that the mask carvers were trying to borrow the spirits of the trees themselves. That is to say, the masks weren’t intended merely to represent other beings – they were the beings they represented. Blackstock gives a version of the origin story collected by Arthur C. Parker (Seneca Myths and Folktales, 1923):

“Unfolding from the trunk of the basswood, the great face stared out at the spellbound hunter and opening wide its protruding lips began to speak. He told of his wonderful eyesight, his blazing eyes could see behind the moon and stars. His power could summon the storms or push aside the clouds for the sunshine. He knew all the virtues of roots and herbs, he knew all the diseases and knew how to apply the remedies of herbs and roots. He was familiar with all the poisons and could send them through the air and cure the sick. He could breathe health or sickness. His power was mighty and could bring luck in battles. Evil and poison and death fled when he looked, and good health and life came in its stead. He told of the basswood and said that its soft wood was filled with medicine and life. It contained the life of the wind and the life of the sunshine, and thus being good, was the wood for the false-faces that the hunter must carve.

“Long the hunter listened to the giant false-face and then he wandered far into the forest until the trees began to speak. Then he knew that there were trees there in which were the spirits of the beings of which he had dreamed and that the Genonsgwa was speaking. He knew that now his task of carving must begin and that the dream-beings, the voices, the birds and the animals that he saw must be represented in the basswood masks that he must make.”

If this all sounds a bit familiar, I suggest that may be due to reading The Lord of the Rings one too many times! But of course Tolkien’s description of the Ents drew upon ancient Eurasian traditions not so different from those of Native North America. In fact, common themes crop up in arboreal myths the world over, which implies to me a phenomenological basis. (Notice how, in using this fancy terminology, I can completely side-step the question of whether that basis should be sought in human psychology, in “reality,” or in some combination of the two.) I explored the diverse meanings of trees in some detail a while back, in an essay called Notes from an Anthropologist of Trees. My ruminations there were born from the intuition that many of our public monuments are not so much phallic as they are arborescent, stemming from an age-old and deeply felt homology between the trunk of the tree and the heroic human torso.

This is not to deny that the phallus occupies a strong role in the male and female imagination, as well; I simply don’t feel that phallic images are primary. To assert that they are, I believe, is to indulge in a post-pubescent, pre-adult power fantasy. The taming and rechanneling of this fantasy would seem to be one of the major goals of initiation ceremonies and rite-of-passage ordeals the world over. Although even to suggest that this fantasy is something to be tamed and rechanneled implies primacy, and I’m not sure how many cultures really believe that adolescent behavior is somehow primary or “natural” in our sense of the word. In fact, a great many peoples hold up as their cultural ideal the figure of the Elder, who simultaneously embodies the deathless wisdom of the ancestors and the direct gaze and innocence of the young child.

Western concepts of wild/natural vs. tame/civilized emphasize the repression of part of the self – rather than, say, the preferential cultivation of one part without disrespect toward other aspects. (I have to really hunt for the words to say this, so deeply ingrained is the habit of looking at life as a zero-sum game.) Why cut down the whole tree if all one needs for the mask is one small portion? Art (or, more broadly, technology) can have a symbiotic rather than a parasitic relationship with Nature. If Native Americans have no concept of the wild, it may be because they cannot comprehend the desire to impose one’s will upon Nature in the first place.

Such, at any rate, is the drift of my thoughts this fine morning as I watch the light grow, marveling at the number of variations on the theme of green. In a few weeks, washed by air-borne chemicals both natural and unnatural, the leaves will darken into a more uniform monotone. From my front porch I’ll still be close enough to distinguish one tree’s foliage from another by the shape and arrangement of the leaves – although of course each individual is familiar to me from long acquaintance. As dawn turns to day, the trees at the woods’ edge gradually coalesce, becoming ever more circumscribed and distinct. I imagine that if Sigmund Freud were here with me, sitting in the other plastic stack chair, he would listen to my ramblings about arborescent images and cultural ideals with a faint smile, then say: “But sometimes, you know, a tree is just a tree!”

CROSS-REFERENCES: Mask and pageant and Divining the wild