Diogenes’ Tub (10)

“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.)

The mutter of all bums

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.

Finding Ox Mountain

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.

Mysterious mountains

(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


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!

Diogenes’ Tub (9)

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.

Poem for the heroes

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.


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.

How to make an egg salad sandwich

As Via Negativa goes into its fourth month, I’ve decided to introduce a new, semi-regular feature: favorite recipes. And I’d like to encourage other bloggers in the “spirit, place and ideas” end of the blogosphere to do the same. Here’s why.

A few weeks back, my cyber-friend and fellow blogger Tom Montag left a comment to the effect of, “There you go again tackling the BIG questions!” Although I’m sure he meant this as a kind of teasing compliment, it set me to wondering (being opposed to hierarchical thinking as I am): just what would constitute a little question? I couldn’t think of any examples. And I began to worry that my love of abstract thinking was turning me into a caricature – something like the Muskrat in the children’s book Finn Family Moomintroll. While Snufkin, Moomintroll and company spend their days making lots of wild, improbable discoveries and having fun, the Muskrat lies in a hammock reading and re-reading a book called On the Uselessness of Everything. He is a grump and a scold, but Moominpappa insists he be treated with the utmost deference. Somewhere along the line the book gets lost, and at the great end-of-summer party, when the Hobgoblin is granting everybody’s wishes, the Muskrat asks for another copy. His wish is granted, but the Hobgoblin’s magic inadvertently alters it just a hair: the new copy is entitled On the Usefulness of Everything. This leaves the Muskrat extremely disgruntled, of course; his youthful critics can barely disguise their glee.

Thinking along these lines, I typed out the following mea culpa:

I ask the big questions because I am too intellectually lazy to study the details. I seek out the exotic and the occult because my own life is a godawful bore. I speak with conviction partly to sound authoritative, and partly to convince myself. Who am I? I don’t have the foggiest notion. What do I do? I bullshit my way though life. It could always be worse. I could be working in advertising or public relations. But as things stand, I have an obvious and compelling reason to want to write at least one true thing. Poetry is the by-product of that Quixotic attempt. Everything else is footnotes.

Harsh, dude! And – like all breast-beating confessions – self-centered and false.

The truth is, I produce essential artworks everyday – not invariably great works, mind you, but undeniably essential. That is to say, I cook. I feed myself and others.

I hasten to add that I am neither a gourmand nor a highly skilled chef. I specialize in a whole grain, vegetarian-except-when-we’re-eating-meat version of what they now call “comfort food.” In Plummer’s Hollow, the stew and the casserole reign supreme. I don’t give a rat’s ass about presentation (though I do appreciate it when eating out) and I’m afraid I eat way too quickly to pay attention to subtle nuances of flavor most of the time. If eating alone, I will distract myself by reading or listening to the radio while I eat. If eating with others, the art of conversation takes precedence. A little more mindfulness around here might be in order.

Actually, the last-named habit may not be entirely negative. Rabelais maintained that great thoughts could only emerge from dialogue, and then only under the influence of good eating and drinking – the typical Renaissance view, according to Bakhtin and Illich. But here too I may be in trouble: 90 percent of the content of this weblog has been written before breakfast!

This morning was an exception, mostly because I slept in until 7:00, then had to start in on laundry before I did anything else. I ate what I eat every morning: two fried eggs, sunny side up, with tarragon. I won’t give the recipe, because everyone reading this probably has equally strong, individualistic preferences for breakfast in general and how to fix their eggs in particular.

Instead, I would like to attempt to give the recipe for another egg product: egg salad sandwiches. My mother whipped up a batch of egg salad just yesterday that was superlative. I asked for the recipe, and found she had followed a decades-old clipping from Woman’s Day magazine, with one or two alterations. However, I want to go a little bit beyond the mere instructions and consider the whole recipe. If I ever write a cookbook (which would probably have to be a collaborative effort with my mom), here’s what the recipes would look like.


Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Wrong question! First comes the zoning ordinance that says you can’t raise chickens in your backyard or in your rooftop garden! Well, why the hell not? So step number one in the making of a good egg salad sandwich is to talk to your neighbors. Chances are good that they, too, would like to keep a few hens, maybe a goat or two, not to mention enjoy the right to plant herbs and vegetables instead of grass in their front yards, as the French do. My friend the Sylph rallied the folks in her village and they managed to get the zoning ordinance amended. She now raises chicken. That’s right, just one chicken. She doesn’t eat very many eggs, I guess.

Be willing to compromise: no neighborhood should have to endure crowing roosters or screeching guinea fowl. Guineas have just about the best-tasting flesh of any domesticated bird, but if you value peace and quiet, don’t fall prey to the disingenuous claim that “they make great watch dogs!” Well, they do – if you want to be alerted every time a cricket looks at them cross-eyed. But I digress.

Don’t have a yard? More sophisticated political organizing may be required to start up community gardens. You’ll need local or state government assistance to get land – or else take the risk that some crazed capitalist running-dog mayor like Giuliani will call in the bulldozers and destroy years of work. Community gardens sound to me like a great reason to live in towns and cities, giving folks of different ethnicities, who would otherwise probably never talk to each other, the chance to trade seeds, gardening tips and (of course) recipes. Finding enough area for a small, cooperatively managed chicken coop with a large fenced run might be tricky, however.

There are other options for getting good eggs. You could visit/help start a local food co-op and/or farmer’s market; become a shareholder in a CSA farm, or simply find a local farmer or gardener who raises chickens right.

The important thing is this: the best-tasting eggs come from free-range chickens, period. The difference in taste between factory-raised and free-range or “scratch” eggs is roughly equivalent to the difference in taste between white bread vs. whole wheat, or Miller Lite vs. a microbrewed IPA. Whether or not the chickens are fed organic, non-GMO mash isn’t nearly as important in determining taste. The eggs don’t need to be fertilized. And the color of the shell is irrelevant: yes, Leghorns are the Holsteins of the chicken industry, but they are still bright enough to be able to do what all chickens (and very few humans) will do if given half the chance: balance their own diet. Left to their own devices, chickens like to eat a whole lot of weeds, worms and insects. They also stay healthier if they have an area where they can regularly take dust baths to keep ectoparasites under control, and the less confined they are, the less often they resort to cannibalism.

The yolks of free-range chickens should be bright orange, not the sickly yellow of supermarket eggs. Another thing to look for is shit on the shells. I’m serious. In any given dozen, at least a few eggs should appear fairly filthy. This is desirable because it shows that the eggs haven’t been washed. Chickens produce a thin, invisible film on the outside of the shell that helps extend the shelf life of the egg. As far as I know, it’s impossible to wash the eggs without removing that film – though I suppose the egg factories might have some way of dry-cleaning the eggs.

This brings us to another important ingredient: consumer education. In The One-Straw Revolution (one of this weblog’s foundational texts), Masanobu Fukuoka discusses the difficulty of selling organic fruit: not only will its skin or rind have some blemishes, but a fully ripe mandarin orange, for example, should be slightly shriveled. “Speaking biologically, fruit in a slightly shriveled state is holding down to the lowest possible level. It is like a person in meditation: his metabolism, respiration, and calorie consumption reach an extremely low level. Even if he fasts, the energy within the body will be conserved. In the same way, when mandarin oranges grow wrinkled, when fruit shrivels, when vegetables wilt, they are in the state that will preserve their food value for the longest possible time.”

In a chapter entitled “Commercial Agriculture Will Fail,” Fukuoka discusses eggs and chickens from an economic point-of-view. “I have been thinking lately about white leghorns,” he says. “Because the improved variety of white leghorn lays over 200 days a year, raising them for profit is considered good business. When raised commercially these chickens are cooped up in long rows of small cages not unlike cells in a penitentiary, and through their entire lives their feet are never allowed to touch the ground. Disease is common and the birds are pumped full of antibiotics and fed a formula diet of vitamins and hormones.

“It is said that the local chickens that have been kept since ancient times [in Shikoku], the brown and black shamo and chabo, have only half the egg-laying capacity. As a result these birds have all but disappeared in Japan. I let two hens and one rooster loose to run wild on the mountainside and after one year there were twenty-four. When it seemed that few eggs were being laid, the local birds were busy raising chickens.

“In the first year, the leghorn has a greater egg-laying capacity than the local chickens, but after one year the white leghorn is exhausted and cast aside, whereas the shamo we started with has become ten healthy birds running about beneath the orchard trees [and fertilizing the mandarin oranges] . . .

“Commercial chicken eggs (you can call them eggs if you like) are nothing more than a mixture of synthetic feed, chemicals and hormones . . . The farmer who produces . . . eggs of this kind, I call a manufacturer.

“Now if it is manufacturing you are talking about, you will have to do some fancy figuring if you want to make a profit. Since the commercial farmer is not making any money, he is like a merchant who cannot handle the abacus. This sort of fellow is regarded as a fool by other people and his profits are soaked up by politicians and salesmen.”

Fukuoka and many other organic farmers, ecologists, and prophets of the new “slow food” movement stress three main points: buy locally, eat seasonally and use fresh ingredients whenever possible. For eggs, that may mean cutting back in the winter, when most breeds (other than leghorns) slow down their laying considerably. I must admit we compromise on this point and buy some commercial eggs during the winter months, due partly to my two-eggs-a-day habit and partly to the pragmatic reality that, absent fresh vegetables, egg-based dishes are an important option for an otherwise fairly bland winter diet.

But eight or nine months of the year we can count on being able to stop once a week and pick up several dozen from a small back-to-the-land-type farmer named Carol. Her house is right off the small highway that also runs past the orchard where we buy much of our fruit, so it’s convenient. She puts out a funky little sign with a painting of a chicken right beside a little table with a picnic cooler on it. You take out as many eggs as you want and put your money (or an IOU if you’re short) in the cash box. Competition is fierce, and Carol’s response has been not to raise prices (bizarrely, she charges less than the supermarket) but to try and prevent her institutional customers from cleaning her out – there are any number of local restaurants who would buy her entire supply every day, but she won’t let them. Last year, as we got more friendly with her, she agreed to let my mother call and leave a message on her answering machine the night before our weekly shopping trip, and to set aside as many dozen as we request. They’ll be wrapped up in a plastic bag, stapled shut with a note often containing some personal message.

The message here is simple: know your farmer!

We raised chickens for many years when I was a kid, and one time I even plowed through a hundred years’ worth of USDA pamphlets on poultry farming for a project in history class. So as you can readily imagine there’s a lot more I could say on this subject. But recipes should be fairly brief, so I’ll confine myself to one final observation before moving on to the other ingredients: expect variation in taste from one egg to another. I think it’s fair to say that the demand for uniformity in taste grows out of – and helps reinforce – the industrial mindset.

I believe strongly that as eaters, as creators, as thinkers and as citizens we must resist mass production in every way possible. If you’re able to get eggs from a farmer like Carol, or to raise your own, you’ll notice an amazing thing: they come in all sizes and several shapes! In the spring, new layers commonly lay eggs with two yolks. Hence the imprecision of this and all true recipes. Hard-boil somewhere between five and eight eggs, preferably not fresh, but aged at least one week. This will make them much easier to shell. Also, be sure to plunge them into cold water immediately after removing them from the heat. Finely chop the shelled eggs using whatever tools and implements you like.

The other fundamental ingredient can take the form of either cream cheese or mayonnaise – preferably the former. The problem with mayonnaise is that to get it really good you have to make it yourself. That’s not at all difficult, but it means you will be eating raw eggs. We used raw eggs regularly, for eggnog as well as for mayonnaise, as long as we raised our own chickens. But with the growing proliferation of salmonella (due to industrial farming techniques, of course) we’ve been unwilling to risk it since, even with Carol’s eggs.

Everything I’ve said about obtaining decent eggs applies to other dairy products as well. Again, we happen to be fortunate in having access to a great local dairy which, while not organic, avoids hormones and other excesses of industrialized farming. Do your best. You’ll need about eight ounces of cream cheese, softened – otherwise use roughly a quarter cup of mayonnaise.

Almost as critical is the addition of one small onion (also approximately 1/4 cup), also finely chopped. A sweet onion or mild leek might seem like a good idea here – try it if you like. But I really feel that the bite of a regular onion gives the best results. I should add that if you have space for a garden, onions are supremely easy to grow from sets. Any container will do – you can grow them in your window sill. I must admit we don’t bother, however, preferring to support the local Amish truck farmers (some of whom even follow organic methods, though they’re not business-savvy enough to advertise the fact). The Amish are exemplary farmers because they put land and community ahead of personal profit (which is not to say they are communists – far from it). When we can’t get eggs from Carol, we’ll try and get them from the local Amish, even thought they’re not from free range chickens. It just makes one feel good to support people who don’t buy insurance, borrow money from banks, fight in wars or hire lawyers, who keep institutions to a minimum and who choose their leaders by lot. And needless to say, one rarely has to worry that something from the Amish was made by mass production techniques.

Salt and black pepper round out the list of essential ingredients. A whole treatise could easily be written about either one, but as I said, I’d like to keep this brief. Iodized salt? Sea salt? Kosher salt? Fresh-ground black pepper? I must admit, the last phrase immediately raises my blood pressure, conjuring up visions of snooty waitresses in absurdly overpriced chain restaurants with terrible food. Rants, however, have no place in a good recipe. Like any essential art, cooking should ennoble rather than degrade, nourish rather than produce indigestion. This sounds old-fashioned – I don’t mean to downplay the occasional usefulness of shock value (but how many “Piss Christs” does the world really need?). I simply feel that, in order to strike a proper balance between process and product, the maker should cultivate a playful attitude, consisting of about one handful each of equanimity and dynamic tension, seasoned with a dash or two of irresponsible pleasure (substitute joy if not available) and accompanied by a sizeable helping of temporal awareness. (Few other arts are as time-limited; if any culinary creation could be said to be immortal, it would have to be through recollection alone.)

In fact, I’ve been thinking recently that the most important ingredient in the creative process and/or product might be simply an enhanced quality of attention. This seems nowhere more true than of the culinary arts, oriented as they are to the daily alteration of consciousness through eating and drinking.

Now for the fun part. My mom’s old Woman’s Day recipe includes, in addition to the foregoing, 1/4 cup finely chopped green pepper, 3 tablespoons chili sauce (for which she substitutes a good tomato salsa) and two thirds of a cup of chopped English walnuts. The result, as I said, is delicious. I don’t know if she has tried substituting pecans or black walnuts for all or part of the English walnuts, but that strikes me as one interesting possibility.

Bell peppers are a standard egg salad ingredient. A mix of colors would improve not only the presentation but the taste as well. It’s a surprisingly little known fact that a green pepper is simply an unripe pepper, and hence has not reached optimal sweetness. I suspect that the popularity of green peppers among 20th century cooks was a by-product of their easy availability, related to the invention of the refrigerator car and the consequent destruction of local and regional farmer’s markets. (How many East Coast residents still remember why New Jersey is nicknamed the Garden State?)

We use a lot of frozen peppers in the winter. If you’re concerned about taste (which is, of course, a direct index of nutritive value), freezing and drying are in general much better than canning. Bell peppers of all colors are supremely easy to freeze if you have the freezer space. No blanching is required. Simply spread out the strips or bits on cookie trays, stack them up and stick ’em in the freezer for a day or two, then stuff them into ziplock bags.

If you have access to fresh peppers, the additional crispiness will change the character of the egg salad quite a bit. Otherwise, you could try substituting celery for part of the pepper. Or, given fresh peppers, you could take the opposite tack and roast all or part of them. Roasting peppers, garlic, etc. is a Mediterranean technique gaining favor among North American cooks. I’ve tried it, and I can vouch that it certainly does concentrate flavor in a unique way. It’s also fun to pull off the blackened outer skin. (Who knew bell peppers even had skins?) But oven-roasting seems wasteful to me unless: A) you’re using the oven for something else anyway; B) your oven is attached to the woodstove that heats your house (though it’s unlikely you’d be using it much during pepper season); or C) you have a toaster oven. Toaster ovens use quite a bit less electricity than their full-sized cousins.

I hasten to add that I have never tried putting oven-roasted peppers in egg salad, and I have my doubts about how well it would work. I simply raise the possibility. Of course, if you follow my mother’s lead and add some tomato salsa, you can use that as a way to introduce roasted peppers, both hot and sweet – and roasted garlic as well.

In my opinion, one of the keys to good salsa is cilantro, a.k.a. Chinese parsley. I know there are some people who object to the flavor. But I love the stuff and use it as often as possible, either directly or by adding salsa to recipes. I bring this up because some egg salad recipes call for Italian parsley. Why not substitute cilantro? You’ll thank me for it.

Two other possible, exotic ingredients have a Mediterranean provenance: kalamata olives and capers (both finely chopped, of course). We get our olives directly from Turkey, via the husband of the owner of a local natural foods store who is an importer of Turkish carpets. Buying them in bulk like this makes the olives affordable enough to use in many dishes where we might otherwise leave them out: another way to jazz up a boring winter diet! I realize that some high-end supermarkets now include olive bars where one can select from dozens of different varieties. If that’s a priority for you, fine. But wherever possible we try to limit our weekly supermarket shopping to one stop, and to patronize a chain based in central Pennsylvania that relies heavily on PA farmers for its store brands (canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, etc.). We haven’t yet found a better source of capers than the canned Goya brand carried in this supermarket. I should mention that one recipe for egg salad with black olives and capers I’m looking at right now also calls for two teaspoons of prepared mustard.

So much for the egg salad part of the sandwich. Now, what about the bread? I’m afraid that in the interest of brevity I’ll have to leave that side of the equation unsolved for, at least for the time being. Use whatever bread you want. But for my money there’s nothing like egg salad on rye. And a good rye bread is worth a considerable quantity of blood, sweat and tears . . .

With this easy-to-follow recipe, I hope I have redeemed myself a little from the charge of being preoccupied with Big Questions to the detriment of truly useful subjects. Perhaps I have even managed to convince one or two readers that thinking and living need not be mutually exclusive activities. But what does it have to do with the via negativa, ostensible subject of this weblog?

In a word: everything. What could be more mysterious, farther beyond the reach of language than taste? Long gone are the days when scientists thought that flavor could be dissolved into a simple trinity, like light. Food scientists now recognize thousands of unique flavors, each indescribable except through comparisons with other flavors.

Eating, it seems to me, is the ultimate encounter with suchness. “O taste and see . . . “

Diogenes’ Tub (8)

From the AP: “Everyone is in our sights,” Internal Security Minister Tsahi Hanegbi told reporters. “There is no immunity to anyone.”

Let me get this straight: the guy charged with making people feel safe announces that no one is safe. Am I missing something here?

Ifa: telling the fortunes of animals and humans

Divination, or Ifa, occupies a central place in Yoruba religion. My understanding of the Ifa system is basic in the extreme; I lack the two essential English-language studies, both by Wande Abimbola: Ifa: An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus and Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa. As the titles of these works suggest, a large canon has grown up around the practice, which is all the more impressive for being entirely oral in its transmission until modern times.

There are several different methods of Ifa divination (casting of kola shells, casting of cowries, etc.) and as with any divinatory practice the interpretation and application of lessons arise from a kind of three-way negotiation between client, priest/therapist and divinities (orishas). (I would speculate in passing that the main difference between secular and religious forms of therapy is that the latter, by acknowledging the divine as a third party, may be more able to zero in on the problem through triangulation)

It’s during the interpretive stage that traditional Ifa poems may be recited if appropriate. English translations display much more affinity to the Hebrew Bible than to the I Qing; this should not surprise us, since many Hebrew religious concepts (including henotheism/monotheism) appear to be African in origin. Indeed, despite the passionate and eloquent arguments of the great A. J. Heschel (in The Prophets) I remain unpersuaded that the ancient Hebrew nebiim (prophets) were fundamentally different from West African diviners in their understanding of the relationship between revelation and response. In both cases, what matters is not predictive accuracy but moral transformation.
One might ask, Why not call the Ifa diviner a prophet rather than a priest? Yoruba priests and scholars like Abimbole prefer to reserve the term “prophet” to translate the role of the orisha Orunmila, who is second in the divine hierarchy after Oludumare, the High God who is not only beyond all supplication but can’t even be characterized in words or concepts. (It should not surprise us that Ifa recognizes the via negativa as explicitly as the other ‘world religions,’ for Yoruba religion too is a universalizing system, and thus needs to spell out speculative details that would be left largely unspoken in more particularistic or ‘tribal’ traditions.).

Ifa diviners are also called priests rather than prophets because they direct the sacrifice. In his essay in Evil and the Response of World Religion (W. Cenkner, ed., Paragon House, 1997) Abimbola translates what he says is a ‘very difficult verse’ explicating the power of sacrifice to maintain – or correct – the balance between benevolent and malevolent forces in the world. Like many Ifa psalms, it tells a story – here about the King of Epe (Elepe) who managed to appease death (Iku) for a little while. It begins in the praise-proverb mode familiar from West African poetry from almost all languages and genres. This mode typically uses metaphor and, especially, apparent non-sequitor to inject magic potency into the overall poem/utterance/act.

[from Osu Meji]

The old man who strolls gracefully like an elephant.
The old man who gallops like a buffalo.
When a wooden pestle falls on the ground, it makes the sound ogbonrangandan.
Help me catch my chicken with broken wings.
One room cannot adequately contain two sick people with different diseases.
Exchange-exchange, Ifa priest of the household of the king of Epe.
Ifa divination was performed for Elepe
When he was told to use an animal for sacrifice
As an exchange for his own life
Because of imminent death.
He listened to the prescription of sacrifice.
And he performed the sacrifice.
He was told to offer sacrifice to Eshu
And he complied.
He then heard the Ifa priests tell him that his sacrifice was accepted.
He praised his Ifa priests,
And his Ifa priests praised Ifa.
Death then left Elepe untouched
But took away the head of the animal.
Exchange-exchange, Ifa priest of the household of Elepe.
Loss left Elepe untouched,
But took away the head of the animal.
Exchange-exchange, Ifa priest of the household of Elepe.


Back near the beginning of this weblog I wrote a couple short pieces “for” and “against” sacrifice expressing my own ambivalence about this word, which still pervades discussions of ethical behavior – especially during wartime. In the essay about my television shrine I quoted Abimbola’s own thoughts on sacrifice; to recap, he says “sacrifice is an act of exchange. When one makes sacrifice, one exchanges something dear, or something purchased with one’s own money, in order to sustain personal happiness. Sacrifice involves human beings in a process of exchange or denial of oneself, or giving of one’s time, forsaking one’s pleasure, food, etc., in order to be at peace with both the benevolent and malevolent supernatural powers as well as to be at peace with one’s neighbors, family, the entire environment and ultimately to be at peace with oneself.”

It is Eshu who mediates between the 400 malevolent ajogan and the 401 benevolent orisha; thus it is to him that sacrifices are performed. As the straddler of worlds he is the master of paradox, which makes his praise-poems especially interesting in translation.

But – asks the sensitive postmodern reader, recoiling from the very notion of blood sacrifice – what about the animals? “Animal rights” propaganda to the contrary, traditional earth-based religions in which animal sacrifice is practiced (which could include all shamanistic systems, give a sufficiently broad definition of ‘sacrifice’) generally seem to inculcate more respect for the natural world in all its loving cruelty and complexity than many supposedly more advanced religious or philosophical systems. You can search the canons of European Romantic poetry in vain for a poem that deals as tenderly with a predator as the following excerpt from an Ifa psalm. (Though Blake’s “Tyger” comes close.) This was translated originally by B. King for Introduction to Nigerian Literature and is included in The Penguin Book of Oral Poetry, edited by Ruth Finnegan (whence also the remaining examples, except where noted). However, I have modified the translation of “tiger” to “leopard,” based on a strong resemblance to a briefer piece translated by Ulli Beier, not to mention the fact that tigers do not live in Africa! I am also not sure which orisha is meant by King’s “Oosa,” Orunmila or Oludumare.


Ifa divination was performed for Leopard,
That one with lovely and shining skin.

Could he possibly have honour?
That was the reason Leopard performed Ifa divination.

He was told there was much prospect of honour for him,
but he should perform sacrifice.

And he performed it.
He performed sacrifice with ten knives
And one lovely and shining cloth.

The ten knives which he used for sacrifice
Were fixed to his fingers by his Ifa priests,
And with it he does havoc to all other animals.
That lovely and shining cloth which he also uses for sacrifice
Was used to cover his body
And it made him a beautiful animal.

He was dancing,
He was rejoicing;
He was praising his Ifa priests
And his Ifa priests praised Ifa.
He opened his mouth,
And the song of Ifa entered therein.
As he stretched his feet,
Dance caught them.

He said: O! Animal created to have honour.
Animal created to have honour.
It is Oosa who gave honour to Leopard,
Animal created to have honour.


For a fuller sense of traditional Yoruba attitudes toward animals, some translations of non-Ifa poems might help:

(translated by Ulli Beier)

Swaggering prince
Giant among snakes.
They say python has no house.
I heard it a long time ago
and I laughed and laughed and laughed.
For who owns the ground under the lemon grass?
Who owns the ground under the elephant grass?
Who owns the swamp – father of rivers?
Who owns the stagnant pool – father of waters?

Because they never walk hand in hand
People say that snakes walk only singly.
But just imagine
Suppose the viper walks in front
The green mamba follows
And the python creeps rumbling behind –
Who will be brave enough to wait for them?


What’s remarkable about this poem from a Western perspective is not simply the reverential attitude toward snakes, but the recognition of swamps and stagnant pools as “fathers of rivers.” In this respect, traditional Yoruba knowledge is more advanced than was environmental science in the 1970s when the Clean Water Act was written: its supposition that such a thing as “isolated wetlands” can exist continues to bedevil conservation efforts in the U.S.

Beier also translates a praise poem for the viper. This comes from his African Poetry (Cambridge, 1966).


The viper lives in the forest.
Not even the Ogun worshipper can pick it up.
Viper’s child is beautiful in its nest.
But Nini is the most beautiful of snakes.
It is better for Nini to change its colour
and go home and bring some colour for Viper.
Viper owns all the rats in the forest.
Viper owns all the bush in the forest.
Viper owns all the snakes in the forest.
If there is no rat, what will snake eat?
If there is no rat, it will eat mouse;
if there is no mouse it will eat a shrew.
Poisonous death,
Poisonous viper,
Beautiful viper.


And here are two more from the same volume, which I use simply because I don’t have a copy of Beier’s Yoruba Poetry on hand. As with poems about people, in Ifa psalms or otherwise, the praise-proverb mode is above all designed to instruct and inspire.

Kob Antelope

A creature to pet and spoil
An animal with a smooth neck.
You live in the bush without getting lean.
You are plump like a newly wedded wife.
You have more brass rings about your neck
than any woman.
When you run you spread fine dust
like a butterfly shaking its wings.
You are beautiful like carved wood.
Your eyes are gentle like a dove’s.
Your neck seems long, long
to the covetous eyes of the hunter.


Colobus Monkey

We ask him to come and die – he sulks.
He dies at last – his cheeks are full of laughter.
Two rows of neat white teeth.
Death always follows war.
Those who wake early must sweep the ground.
Colobus says: the eagle sweeps the sky;
let me sweep the top of the tree.
Abuse me – and I will follow you home.
Praise me – and I will stay away from you.
Colobus is friend of the man in rags,
and a friend of the man in the embroidered gown.
He kills lice with black nails.
Deep-set eyes.
A mighty tail.
Don’t hold my tail,
don’t play with my face.
Death always follows war.


I don’t understand all the references in this last one, but the lines about praise and abuse could almost be my own motto! (A friend with whom I sometimes exchange poems, on the condition that we each be unsparing in our critique of the other, once accused me of not being able to take compliments.) Perhaps if Ifa divination were performed for me, some lines about the Colobus would crop up! For Ifa does possess a sense of humor, it seems:

(translated by J. A. Adediji)

Ifa speaks in parables,
A wise man is he who understands it.
When we say understand it –
The wise man always understands it.
But when we do not understand it –
We say it is of no account.


Wisdom is the finest beauty of a person . . .
an Ifa oracle poem

(translated by Ulli Beier)

Wisdom is the finest beauty of a person.
Money does not prevent you from becoming blind.
Money does not prevent you from becoming mad,
Money does not prevent you from becoming lame.
You may be ill in any part of your body,
So it is better for you to go and think again
And to select wisdom.
Come and sacrifice, that you may have rest in your body,
Inside and outside.


As I conceive of it, the Ifa valuation of social and aesthetic balance bears a strong resemblance to that of the Diné (Navajo). The word usually translated “beauty” – as in the famous Nightway chant – for the Diné includes notions of harmony, symmetry, justice. A deep participation in this beauty promotes both wisdom and healing (“rest in your body, inside and outside.”) I’m also reminded a bit (again, perhaps erroneously) of the Japanese word kirei, commonly translated as “pretty” or “beautiful” but carrying also strong connotations of cleanliness, purity and order.

This ethos is on display in my final selection, one more translation of an Ifa psalm by Ulli Beier. It treats a theme that is truly pan-African in scope: the idea that, by sharing in the glory of others (through praise-singing or otherwise) our own selfhood is expanded: from the little bundle of urges and impulses familiar to us from western psychology, to the Self of Atman and Whitman’s Song of Myself. This psalm interprets the throw called Iwori wotura, which Beier uses for a title:

Oracle: Iwori Wotura

Iwori wotura.
Anybody who sees beauty and does not look at it
Will soon be poor.
Red feathers are the pride of the forest.
Young leaves are the pride of the palm tree.
Iwori wotura.
White flowers are the pride of the leaves.
A swept veranda is the pride of the landlord.
Iwori wotura.
A straight tree is the pride of the forest.
A fast deer is the pride of the bush.
Iwori wotura.
The rainbow is the pride of heaven.
A beautiful woman is the pride of her husband.
Iwori wotura.
Children are the pride of their mother.
Moon and stars are the pride of the sun.
Ifa says,
‘Beauty and all sorts of good fortunes arrive.’