Appalachian Winter

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

At last, Appalachian Winter is here!

I don’t mean the season. I mean the book.

This completes the tetrology my mother began in 1991 with Appalachian Spring. Each of the Appalachian volumes is a synoptic nature book: that is to say, it takes the form of a journal in which every entry is a true account of a real day, but the book combines entries from multiple years. The personal and geopolitical events of a single year are used to provide an over-all sense of continuity.

Because of their journal format, their attention to the details of a single place, and their frequent engagement with local, national and planetary issues, this book and its companion volumes should appeal to anyone who enjoys reading blogs. I realize anything I say here is going to sound a bit biased. But let me at least make clear that my mother and I are very different people, though we do draw plenty of inspiration from each other. Marcia Bonta is an exceedingly down-to-earth writer – you won’t find much wool-gathering or flights of fancy such as I indulge in here, though she does like to quote poetry and the classics from time to time. Instead, she has in spades something I am quite deficient in: real, in-depth knowledge of the natural world. She has an enormous nature library and keeps up to date on all the latest discoveries in the scientific journals. And in fact, scientists are among the biggest fans of her writing, because they recognize her ability to popularize their findings and theories without distorting them. So expect to be educated as well as entertained.

Regular readers of Via Negativa who want to know more about the mountain I live on (and even a little more about me) should be interested in Appalachian Winter. My mother even stuck in a poem I wrote for this blog last winter, “In the Ice Forest.” (Thanks, Mom!)

But enough of my blather. Here’s part of the description at the publisher’s website.

Winter is the season that most tests our mettle. There are the obvious challenges of the weather–freezing rain, wind chill, deep snow, dangerous ice–but also the psychological burdens of waiting for spring and the enduring often false starts that accompany its eventual return.

On the surface, perhaps, winter might seem an odd season for a nature book, but there is plenty of beauty and life in the woods if only we know where to look. The stark, white landscape sparkles in the sunshine and glows beneath the moon on crisp, clear nights; the opening up of the forest makes it easy to see long distances; birds, some of which can be easily seen only in winter, flock to feeders; and animals–even those that should be hibernating–make surprise visits from time to time.

Appalachian Winter offers acclaimed naturalist Marcia Bonta’s view of one season, as experienced on and around her 650-acre home on the westernmost ridge of the hill-and-valley landscape that dominates central Pennsylvania. Written in the style of a journal, each day’s entry focuses on her walks and rambles through the woods and fields that she has known and loved for over thirty years.

Along the way she discovers a long-eared owl in a dense stand of conifers, tracks a bear through an early December snowfall, explains the life and ecological niche of the red-backed vole, and examines the recent arrival of an Asian ladybug. These are but a few of the tidbits sprinkled throughout the book, interwoven with the human stories of Bonta’s family, as well as the highway builders and shopping-mall developers that threaten the idyllic peacefulness of her mountain.

This is the fourth and final volume of Bonta’s seasonal meditations on the natural history of the northern Appalachian Mountains. Her gentle, charming accounts of changing weather and of the struggles faced by plants, animals, and insects breathe new warmth into the coldest months of the year.

This will be my last post until Monday.

Cibola 41

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 40 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (2) (cont’d)

Before he got sold to the Spanish
he used to play hare-&-jackal in
the back alleys with the other
slave-children & never lost,
whichever role he took. In Spain
they’d never heard of that. No jackals,
he supposed, meant
they only knew how
to be mean like wolves–
or dumb as sheep. At any rate
he was almost too old for games by then
& don Andrés didn’t want a hunter,
it seemed, but a personal servant
& an amanuensis. Taught him
to chase down words in four
more languages. Said
an astrologer had told him he’d someday
need an interpreter, a master of the Word.

True enough: without him, Dorantes
& the other two would still be slaves,
toiling naked for savages
in those godforsaken
mosquito-haunted saltwater swamps.

Instead, mutatis mutandis
he bears a letter
from the viceroy,
a commission to lead this brownrobe
north into lands unknown, to claim them
as a conquistador for the crown,
to plant crosses & the gospel hope
in every town & village, up to
& including (if need be)
the Seven Cities.

He’d grimaced at first when he read
through the almost impenetrable legalese,
a tangled rot of ill-begotten synonyms–
Castillian by way of Bologna
& Salamanca, great troughs for pigs
& pig Latin–but ended by folding it
into a little wedge that just fit inside
an old brass locket. Sewn into his shirt
it nearly balances the weight of the image
of the Holy Child of Atocha,
patron of all who travel on foot–
a parting gift from the ever-more-pious
don Andrés before he set sail.

These–& the gold cross & the leather
pouch of tobacco–he continues to wear
long after having handed the breastplate
over to one of the porters, because
however much they chafe, it somehow seems
they keep him safe at least
from forgetting himself,
from one day stripping naked again
& wandering into the sunset . . . or
running after some heat-addled vision
of Saint James astride his stallion
tall as a thundercloud . . . or snatching
a blade & running it through
the nearest native–be it nothing
more than a toddler–on a sudden
Moor-killing frenzy.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

First came the story of a boy and his Plank. Then we all played House. Now the party’s over. Please put your chairs up on the tables before you leave.

Have you ever stopped to wonder how dogs with recumbent ears tend to hear the world? Clap a seashell to your head. I won’t say I hear the ocean, because I’ve never been there. But a waterfall, yes. It takes the edge off all but the harshest sounds.

So there I am, lying in my usual corner with nothing better to do than worry an old rag, when the shed door bangs. A moment later, a piercing whine that cuts right through that hush, as if all of a sudden my heart had stopped pumping blood.

It’s like a hornet made of metal, and almost as painful. Sawdust burns my nostrils, and something else: rage. Or so I would guess from context. It’s a potent odor, known to almost all animals (including some humans), but it’s impossible to distinguish from the stench of fear.

I raise my head cautiously above the woodpile. His face is a study in concentration – the same way he looks whenever he’s drawing something. But how did he learn to operate his father’s radial arm saw like that? Again and again he pushes the screaming wheel into the wood. Scraps of paper swirl over the shed floor, bearing the remains of an open mouth, a shocked eyebrow.

You might wonder what an inanimate being could have done to provoke such fury. My guess is nothing – though it did have its share of splinters. It’s just that it’s the bottom dog, and so it has to pay for whatever the alpha male or female might have dished out.

The boy’s jaw is set, but his eyes have begun to get watery, and it can’t be too long until he shuts off the saw – or until someone hears it and comes running over from the house. Keeping to the shadows, I slink around toward the door. With Plank gone, I’ll really have to watch my step.

Cibola 40

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 39 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (2) (cont’d)

Perhaps his father was
a hunter like that:
abstinent for a week in advance so
the game animals wouldn’t smell it on him
& grow jealous, camping without food
for days beside a game trail
while the raiders came to his village,
seized his pregnant wife–Esteban’s mother–
and took her off with the others
across the Sahara.
Your father was a hunter
she used to hiss in his ear
whenever he cried as a child–be it
a single tear track down the dust
on his cheek.

Your father was a hunter
& a singer of hunter’s songs.
He owned so many amulets
his clothes clanked when he walked.
With his harp & with his powders
he made the game stand still
he brought the big cat back in his bag
the gazelle alive in his pocket, ah–he,
he was a hunter!

So she sang (in lieu of other comfort)
one time when his step-father was away
in Marrakesh.

Walking into town

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Mid-morning, and a thin scrim of cirrus softens the sun just enough to make it possible to see the whole disc – not like on a cloudless day when you can’t see anything but aureole, an acetylene rip in the sky or on the retina. Soft is the only word for this light filtering through the hemlocks and glistening on the wet trunks of beeches. Though maybe it’s not the light that convey softness so much as the shadows with their indistinct edges. Everything is feathered.

The stream is full of voices and I begin thinking about the insane, their laughter that contains so little of joy and even less of mirth. When Jesus said by their fruits ye shall know them, he might have meant, “See if they know how to laugh about themselves.” They say asylums are packed with the only begotten sons of God. What makes a person so willing to believe the unbelievable? Perhaps nothing more complicated than boredom, or a dissatisfaction with the existing flavors of sky. But to want the whole world to taste of me . . .

Just as I reach the bottom of the hollow a westbound train comes through. I head along the tracks toward town with the train thundering past: more than a hundred flat cars, each bearing two cargo containers, a larger one atop a smaller. I’m almost to the bend by the time the last car passes with its blinking yellow light in lieu of a caboose. In the silence that follows I hear chickadees, and something else – a lovely liquid birdsong I can’t quite place, coming both from the mountainside to my left as well as from the trees above the river.

An hour later, after finishing my errands, I return to the tracks a slightly different way, taking a pedestrian footbridge over the Little Juniata and following the path up past the train station. This is the way I used to come 25 years ago walking to and from school, but I don’t think I ever really stopped to admire these four giant sycamores before. What’s now a well-groomed acre with a gazebo was then a scruffy, grimy place littered with broken beer bottles, and the sycamores as well as the one stone monument were painted up with graffiti. Now they stand clean and beautiful, and I long for a camera to capture the splay of enormous mottled limbs against the sky.

The empty space at the corner where the old hotel used to stand is now a parking lot for a new business with offices in the building right behind it: G&R Excavation and Demolition, “The Excavating and Demolition Experts,” as it says on their trucks and equipment. Was it they who tore down the old hotel where they now park? Whoever it was, I remember the way they left that three-storey, cast iron fire escape standing for several weeks after everything else had been removed. This was just last year. I remember standing at the end of the street and looking up at those lonely zigzag stairs to nowhere, with the end of the mountain rearing up behind. It would have made a great cover photo for a book of selections from Via Negativa, I think.

As I walk back along the tracks, another train comes along. Odd – the last two times I walked into town, at the very same time of day, there were no trains at all. This one consists of chemical tankers and boxcars, which are more and more enjoyable to watch these days because of a growing tendency of urban street artists to use freight trains for their canvases. It goes way beyond gang tags, although I admit a certain fascination with calligraphy so stylized as to be unreadable to all but its authors and their immediate neighbors. It occurs to me that the apotropaic sign may signify, but it does not speak. It refuses dialogue of any kind, like the bloody handprint that wards off the Evil Eye.

Some boxcars I’ve seen recently feature clearly representational drawings, even whole murals. I wonder if this growing trend reflects simply poor security at train yards, or whether the anonymous artists are deliberately trying to share their works with a vast, unknown, transcontinental audience? The one really striking artwork on this particular train is a large, humanoid duck with a boot for a head.

It’s a little before noon as I start back up the road, and the sun has just made it down to the stream at the deepest part of the hollow. On the slope above me I hear again that mysterious birdsong I heard earlier, along the tracks, and remember who sings it: tree sparrow. One day late for Valentine’s Day. There’s a certain admixture of joy and wistfulness that spells longing to me, and the tree sparrow’s song has it. But how much does that impression owe to the music itself, I wonder, and how much to knowledge of the fact that this courtship song is not merely out of season but far from the permafrost and muskeg that originally shaped its notes?

I stand for half a minute recording the event in my pocket notebook and enjoying the play of sunlight on the stream fifty feet below. Whatever made me think its murmur was lacking in mirth?

The way it was

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A year ago today it was Monday, and I wrote a pretty good post, which I subsequently forgot all about until just now, when I re-read it for the first time. (The “diva” I wrote about was actually Jennifer Lopez. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking about Google hits!)