Sleeping with trains

Storms in the forecast mostly missed us, though more than once the rumble of thunder came close. I heard the booms from a few scattered fireworks before the rain set in, drowning out the big Fourth of July celebration at the nearby amusement park. I could barely keep my eyes open; the intense humidity we’ve been having makes it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Sitting in my chair, trying to read, my attention kept wandering outside, where the rain was delivering its urgent message to the grass and the leaves. A beautiful music even if I don’t understand the words, I thought, and I lay down on the couch with my head toward the screen door.

An hour later I woke up in the darkness. I was covered in sweat – I felt as if I were drowning in my own clothes. The temperature couldn’t have been higher than 70, and fell to 65 by morning. But with this much humidity, the slightest exertion is enough to overload the body’s cooling mechanisms. How in the world do fat people survive? I stumbled upstairs and got undressed, crawling into bed with only a thin sheet over me. Even still I woke again around 1:00, drenched in sweat as before. Possibly I had been having overly energetic dreams, I thought, but I couldn’t remember a thing. Which was odd, really. It was raining again, very softly. A freight train blowing our crossing sounded as if it were many miles farther away. I realized it was the first train whistle I’d heard since before the holiday.

Perhaps I’m not so different from my suburban cousins, who say they can’t sleep when they visit us because of the lack of traffic noise. They’ve taken to staying in a motel right beside a busy highway instead. I wonder if I haven’t gotten to a similar point in regard to the sound of trains? Having lived here almost continuously since the age of five, with the main east-west trunk line of the old Penn Central Railroad winding right around the entrance of the hollow less than a mile and a half away, I’m so accustomed to hearing trains at all hours of the day and night that I barely notice them anymore. But on major holidays when the trains aren’t running, something just doesn’t seem right.

The trains infiltrated our dreams from the start. Both my brothers report having the same dream that I often had as a kid. We’d be walking home from school – the bus didn’t go up our hollow – when we’d hear a train coming right up the road behind us. We’d run as fast as we could through the tunnel of trees, which at a certain point morphed into the steep stairs and hallway of my parents’ house, straight into our bedrooms. We’d start awake, then, with the long wail and the rhythmic pulse of freight cars ringing in our ears.

When we moved here in 1971, two abandoned houses still stood down at the crossing, remnants of a once-thriving village that actually predated the railroad, which came through in 1850. The last kids to grow up in those houses are in their 70s now. Two of them, brothers, are regular visitors to the crossing area, which is also popular with train spotters for the dramatic views it affords of locomotives coming through the gap. One of the brothers brings his wife, and they sit on lawn chairs about fifty feet from the tracks, near where their house used to sit. “We just come here for the sound,” they told me once. “Can’t ever get enough of that.”

Needless to say, from fifty feet away the sound of a train can be almost deafening, especially the high-pitched scream of the occasional rusty wheel. “That didn’t make it hard to sleep growing up?” I asked. “Hell no! Even when the whole house would shake – which it did just about every time – that didn’t bother us. We got so we loved it.”

How did they make it through the holidays, I wonder? And how well do they sleep now, in their adult lives separated from a sound that once had been such a constant – a sound that for over a hundred years nearly defined the American landscape, full of inchoate longing for the great wide open? I try to imagine that rocking – like sleeping in a large ship and rolling every fifteen minutes with another series of swells. Such regularity at sea would seem supernatural, I suppose – Morse code, an SOS, a warning from the god of storms. Rocking in the bosom of Abraham. When my friend Dave the Voudun initiate comes to visit, he always takes the time to leave an offering down at the tracks: a few gold coins and a shot or two of rum for Ogun, orisha of the forge.

A modern-day Elijah would probably denounce this temptation to see and hear divinity in the powerful by-products of human ingenuity. Only in the pauses between the trains should we perhaps listen for that “still, small voice” that sets the hair on end and the heart on fire.

Elijah may have been the first to advance a critique of storm and earthquake as automatic expressions of transcendental power. Nothing’s automatic, of course. Surrounded by the too-quiet wilderness, surely the prophet longed at first for more pyrotechnics. The 400 prophets of Asherah and the 450 prophets of Baal had been unable to match his single-handed feat of calling down fire from heaven. Having once felt that kind of power, what human being wouldn’t want more and more – wouldn’t come to believe that salvation itself lay in such a mastery over the elements?

The true modern-day Elijahs, I suppose, are the ones who bear unwelcome messages about the need for humility and restraint. For now it seems possible that this long dream of power may soon lead to a violent awakening, through storms of unimaginable ferocity. Perhaps. Coffee mug in hand, I pad out into the still-dripping garden.

I had just been examining my tomato plants the evening before, and their change overnight is astonishing. Each main vine looks about six inches longer, with new flower buds and clusters of rootlets sprouting from every bend. With an almost animal-like intelligence the three plants – all volunteers – are reaching eagerly toward the garden’s open spaces. They are luxuriating in the very humidity that makes me feel trapped, unable to see or think clearly. When I pant, do they welcome the extra carbon dioxide, I wonder?

I bend over and try to move one vine to point it in a more advantageous direction, but it resists my tutelage. When I come back in to type this post, I bring the smell of tomatoes with me – that pungent scent that once reminded more God-fearing folk of witchcraft and poison. But one man’s religion is another’s sorcery, I think. And it turns out that all the while I slept, the steady rain and rush of engines had been following endlessly branching tunnels across the earth.

Some railfan pictures taken from the Plummer’s Hollow crossing can be seen here, here and here. (From this site.)

Exciting new ways to access the same old brain-farts

1. Blog title index

If you want to find an old post more quickly, or simply browse more easily through the archives, you might find this new feature useful. Scroll down the sidebar; it’s right after “Restless natives.” Each title is of course a clickable link; this is similar to the “most recently posted” feature found in many blogs, and indeed will work that way for the index page, which, as you’ve probably noticed, is set to display one week at a time.

I’m sure you more tech-savvy types are snickering at me right now, but I am totally psyched by this new discovery! However, I realize it is no substitute for a real subject index. You can always use Google (put search term(s) plus into the search window), but I’ve found that that doesn’t always work – apparently I have too many words and not enough links, or something.

Can anyone tell me whether it’s possible to install indexing by categories in Blogger (without upgrading to a paying version)?

2. Burning for you

I’ve also “burned a new feed”: that is, I’ve signed up for a new syndication service, which will supposedly convert the existing Atom feed to RSS (Really Simple Syndication) automatically, if needed; give feeds a uniquely browser-friendly appearance; and even optimize the feed on your “handheld wireless device” – a phrase I can’t still say without smirking. All this is free, through a new company called The URL is

I’ve also added a little button (in the Tomb of the Unknown Reader section of the sidebar) whereby one can get each new Via Negativa post magically beamed up to one’s “My Yahoo!” page. Pretty special, eh?

Does anyone out there even read this blog in syndication? If so, were these changes useful to you? I am way out of my freakin’ depth here . . . just doing a slow backstroke and gazing up at the sky, wondering why everything seems so quiet all of a sudden.

Misplaced courage

Before the monitor’s blank screen I bow my head, waiting for the words to come. The hum of this machine of mine keeps me steady, like the upper cable of a makeshift bridge across a river. And I’m picturing that time on the cable bridge across Hammersley Fork, at the end of a long day’s hike.

Perhaps those watching from the bank were thinking, “How brave!” But it’s much more likely they were saying to themselves, “Better him than me!” And they each took off their shoes & rolled up their pants’ legs, grabbing sticks to steady themselves against the current.

If you take a close look at bravery, it almost always turns out to be something else. Firemen enter the burning building out of a sense of duty, out of love. Soldiers rush into battle to save their comrades. A woman gives birth because she has to, because she wants a child. People do what they have to do. It’s their actions that are courageous; their hearts are full of trepidation.

I have never been brave like that. I’m lazy. I want to stay dry.

The others made their way downstream and crossed at the ford, shouting and laughing. I kept the lower cable tight against the heels of my boots and crab-walked slowly across. At its highest point the drop was less than ten feet, I said to myself, so what’s the big deal? But right in the middle I looked down and my heart skipped a beat.

The water looked so inviting, all of a sudden!

Submitted for the July 1 Ecotone topic Courage and Place. Hammersley Fork is both the name of a large stream and a State Forest Wild Area in northern Pennsylvania, over 30,000 acres of virtually roadless, recovering second-growth forest.

Drinkin’ and thinkin’

I’ve never been in the habit of writing down my thoughts and observations as they occur to me. Sometime around the age of twelve, I remember deciding that any truly important ideas couldn’t die, and if they didn’t come from me, they’d come from someone else. So that allowed me to relax and, over the years, learn how to let thoughts be, to incubate and hatch out when they were ready. If you’re hungry, make an omelet; otherwise, wait and watch and let them grow their own wings. For a guy afflicted with logorrhea, as I am, this is probably an essential attitude to have toward writing.

Since starting this weblog, however, I’ve been forced to moderate a bit. Of course, I could write a lot less than I do, but I enjoy the ad hoc, ephemeral quality of this medium so much, I find it hard to keep from giving it all I’ve got. Because giving stuff away is so much more fun than hoarding, you know (see yesterday’s poem). I see the Internet culture as a potlatch of sorts – and am distressed at all the sites that now charge for access. Anyhow . . .

Yesterday evening I decided to try the ultimate stream-of-consciousness blogging experiment. I don’t have a laptop, but with the help of a little pocket notebook and a generous quantity of homebrew, I resolved to try and record everything that occurred to me over a three-hour period as I sat on my front porch. (In case you’re curious, I’m currently working on the vat of yarrow brew that I blogged about back on May 23. I decided this past winter that bottling is a waste of time – I don’t need the “mouth-feel” of carbonation, since I grew up without soft drinks – so I just siphon it off, a half-gallon at a time, into a juice pitcher that I keep in the fridge. The important thing to know is that this is a cross between ale and mead, closer to the strength of wine than beer. The sheer quantity of yarrow takes a little getting used to, but no more so than the hops in a heavily hopped microbrew such as Hop Devil. The difference is, yarrow doesn’t make you sleepy and stupid. And being as it’s homebrew (and organic), I don’t have to worry about waking up with a hangover the next morning unless I really overdo it.)

So here’s the transcript, edited as little as possible. I’ll use [brackets] to indicate editorial additions. I started right around six p.m.

I am reading from The True Subject: Selected Poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated from the Urdu by Naomi Lazard. The poem “Before You Came” just blows me away! I wonder if he knew the Zen saying about how, when one gains satori, the mountains go back to just being mountains again?

[Before You Came
by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Before you came things were just what they were:
the road precisely a road, the horizon fixed,
the limit of what could be seen,
a glass of wine no more than a glass of wine.

With you the world took on the spectrum
radiating from my heart: your eyes gold
as they open to me, slate the color
that falls each time I lose all hope.

With your advent roses burst into flame:
you were the artist of dried-up leaves, sorceress
who flicked her wrist to change dust into soot.
You lacquered the night black.

As for the sky, the road, the cup of wine:
one was my tear-drenched shirt,
the other an aching nerve,
the third a mirror that never reflected the same thing.

Now you are here again–stay with me.
This time things will fall into place;
the road can be the road,
the sky nothing but sky;
the glass of wine, as it should be, the glass of wine.]

[Watching a great-spangled fritillary chase a cabbage white:] Butterfly’s flight has been shown to be random [through wind tunnel experiments] – true randomness in Nature is a rare & difficult thing – Is there a sense in which we can see randomness, then, as a gift of God, rather than as a repudiation of Creation?
The tragic thing about drinking (or any drug taking) is that one has the most fun in the transition between the two states, “normal” and altered. Drunkenness itself represents a vain attempt to recapture that initial “wow” feeling of a good buzz, which is of necessity ephemeral. The alcoholic is a tragic idealist. To drink regularly without succumbing to alcoholism, one needs to become a comic realist – to embrace ephemerality & then let it go, not attempt to possess it
Drinkin’ & thinkin’ = drinkin & stinkin’? [This is a reference to a blues song.] Or Winken & Blinken & Nod (zzzz). Rene Dubos once confessed he could only write while drunk on wine. Dude, that is so French!
Male cardinal in late afternoon sun, gnatcatcher on elm branch, goes down for a bath. I hear goldfinches but can’t see them. When are they going to pair off, start nesting? Not as many bull thistles in my yard this year. How much thistledown does one goldfinch nest require?
Right now I want NOTHING. Happy stuppor [sic]!

O.K. I take that back. I want another drink! More more MORE! (But if they’re [sic] weren’t any, I’d be fine with that. This glass is it until I draw more from the carboy, boy.)
I like the way a nice buzz takes my mind off SEX, and related desires, lets me just enjoy the moment.
My God, I just SAW a no-see-um!
And now, a tiny smudge on my wrist.
For its memorial, just this ITCH.
As soon as I leave the porch to take a leak, a deerfly zooms in, starts orbiting my head. Damn I miss my dreads, fuckers could never bite through that. That was, like, Daoist: do nothing, let Nature take its course, and filth will repel filth: the homeopathic approach.
Go find a deer, motherfucker.
On the way back from pissing, I pick up the wine bottle with the beebalm flower in it. No hummingbirds all day – except I just saw one at the edge of the woods. (They have to have a nest nearby, with all the crazed courtship flights I’ve been seeing.) Set bottle w/flower down on the other stack chair. Voila! I have company!
THIS WRITING IS INTERFERING WITH MY DRINKING. (Think first, than write. If possible.)
Chipmunk clucking. He too must be in need of a good trance. [Note: this is my own theory. Conventional wisdom says that chipmunk chipping is purely territorial. Bullshit. They’re so tightly wound, I think they need to do it to calm their little triphammer hearts. I have watched chipmunks cluck (as I prefer to call it) from close quarters on numerous occasions. It sure looks like they’re zoning out!]
Hey, there’s the porcupine – long time, no see! Climbing my poor elm tree. Wonder if she has a porcupette under the house. (How do you pet a porcupette?) Quills shine in the evening sun. she moves around to the back of the tree, maybe to avoid the sun in her eyes? Now back in the sun for an instant: a reddish-brown tinge down under the quills, beautiful! (Red, white, brown, gray: the same range of colors as my beard) – Almost to the top –
A chickadee troika right beside the porch, dee dee dee WHACK – as one flies into the window behind me, another in hot pursuit. Love triangle? Or just the usual dominance/submission games. (sigh) Nature is SO unenlightened!
Now that I look at it, this elm does seem mighty SPARSE up top. Time for a collar [aluminum flashing to keep the porcupine from climbing it]?
Zoom! Speak of the hummingbird . . .
Oriole has the center stage now. Goldfinches have moved off. Other random chips & chirps. If I had MORE BEER, I could stay out until the thrushes tune up!
FAIZ is so GREAT – why didn’t I see this before? [I have owned the book for years, but wasn’t overly impressed on previous readings.]

“The birds that herald dreams
were exiled from their song,
each voice torn out of its throat.
They dropped into the dust
even before the hunter strung his bow.

“Oh, God of May, have mercy.
Bless these withered bodies
with the passion of your resurrection,
make the dead veins flow with blood.

“Give some tree the gift of green again.
Let one bird sing.”

[This is the latter half of the poem “When Autumn Came,” a political poem (in part)]

(the translator Naomi Lazard must be a true poet too)

Porcupine hunching down a limb (I hear it first, then look) – rests in crotch for half a minute, ascends other limb.
We have this much in common: we both love trees!
P. climbs four feet up & stops, does nothing for many minutes, wedged in another crotch. a snooze?
O.K., I’ve had enough – taste beginning to creep under my tongue (need water) [But see below.]
7:30 – birds quieting down – just vireo, goldfinches
Ten minutes later, P. still hasn’t moved. I think I will make fettuccini puttanesca for supper. But first, I feel an obligation to sit here and watch night come on. Sun now in tops of trees.
What was it my mother said, animals spend [on average] 60% of their time doing NOTHING? I believe it!
The pathos of drinking – one yearns to join Su T’ung-Po, Li Po, those fleeting moments they rendered immortal (for all practical purposes) – how I wish I could go back in time! But you know that THEY FELT THE SAME WAY – that pathetic nostalgia. “Drink sake and weep.” [This is a reference to the tanka poems in praise of sake by Otomo No Tabito (665-731). An example (Hiroaki Sato, tr.):
Better than to say things like a wise fellow, it seems, is to drink sake, get drunk, and weep]
7:45 – Porcupine is definitely taking a snooze. It looks so trusting.
Oops, it’s shaking its head. Sneezing, I think.
The sun retreats up the ridgeside, & just like that I can feel the cool coming on.
Irrationally solicitous for the beebalm on the other chair. (“Can I get you a coat?”)
P. scratches its head, adjusts its embrace [of the tree].
I can’t believe how quickly this buzz is fading (drinking and drugging is so self-indulgent)
Porcupine resumes climb! It’s 7:51. I need: coat, beer.
8:00 p.m. back from siphoning more beer. (Poetic symmetry for a man – beer passes through a hose twice)
Porcupine has climbed all of eight feet & is sprawled out asleep on a horizontal branch.
8:02 – first wood thrush [singing] – soon joined by a second.
(Almost full moon won’t rise till late – how am I gonna tear myself away for supper?)
8:07 – thrushes quiet again. Great-crested flycatcher, WEEP WEEP WEEP WEEP WEEP (but never weepy!) A very prehistoric sound. This year I have really grown to appreciate them.
Train. Short-hand jazz.

No one ever invented onomatopoeia for a train whistle! All you can do is imitate – yodel, harmonica. That high lonesome thing. “Well I wish I was / In a lonesome holler . . . ” Oh right, I am.

C’mon, Mr. Tanager, give me a view.

Scolding squirrel. Cat?
What did I do with my fingers before I had a beard to tug on?
Even now that it’s July and the leaves have darkened, still so many different shades of green in view.
W. thrush off to left, cuckoo [singing] to my right.
Squirrel still scolding, Porcupine has ascended into canopy (I missed it, too many leaves in the way)
The Buddhist atheist says: There is no end to suffering. Deal with it.
For some reason, the cover of Hayden Carruth’s Collected Shorter Poems [on the end table beside me] has a full frontal portrait of the sphinx. King as predator. Lost his nose despite his face. Still fucking sinister.
If I weren’t writing, I could be talking to myself. It feels good to be putting a jag to use! BUT I could also be putting the same thoughts to work in some harmonica playing. It’s a trade-off.

Alcohol keeps you at the stage of wanting to do ten different things at once – until you pass out. Mary G. Juana is so much more intelligent! Alcohol is a drug of distraction, cannabis is a drug of attention. Polar opposites. [Note to any law enforcement officers who may happen to read this: I do not buy, sell, or grow cannabis; I haven’t gotten stoned in years. But if it were legal, believe me, I probably wouldn’t be brewing half as much homebrew as I do.]
8:40 already!
The other major difference is that alcohol kills time, cannabis slows it down – alcohol makes you think more slowly, hence time passes more quickly. The THIRD difference [of course] is taste! I want pot that tastes like beer!
8:45 – must be close to sunset, maybe already past – Thrushes have been decidedly desultory [in their singing] so far. Fuckers.
Thinking about what Lekshe wrote about ego & illusion. It could be right. It should be right. Why can’t I let it be right?
Tanager still singing, thrush a ways off, toward Margaret’s house [a derelict dwelling a quarter mile from my porch]. “Chip BANG” – that’s a tanager, all right
Faiz Ahmed Faiz! Poet with a rhyming name!

“If a forgotten pain
in some corner of the past
wants to burst into flame again, let it happen.”

This is better than the blooze.
Someone explodes a firework in the valley – can’t tell which valley, due to the reverberations off the ridges.
8:45 – Now the thrush [is finally calling] right here – then two more – as light dims and my book becomes hard to read (good timing)
9:00 – first fireflies in the grass

I run my fingers over the page, stroke these poems – in English, in Arabic [script]. Nothing. what did I expect, [miniature ridges,] mountains? The page is smooth as the cheek of a too-young lover.
9:03 – first bat, dropping from the tulip tree I think. Thrushes are silent. Only a song sparrow. Then nothing.
Hello, sister mosquito!
Almost too dark to write. Why it seems so quiet: daytime crickets have hushed. I realize this when the first nighttime cricket starts up.
9:18 – [Next-to-]last entry ’cause I can’t see! I can hear chewing from the elm tree for the first time –
Night descends
[The nightly twin-propeller] cargo plane flies over
9:20 – P. climbs down tree – soft clack of claws on bark – Then leaf rustle as she heads up into the woods –

AFTERTHOUGHT: An amusing experiment, not something I’d want to make a habit of. There’s something inherently dishonest about the pretense of unmediated thoughts/reactions here. If you’re going to go to the trouble to record, it makes no sense not to go ahead and select, modify, polish into more shapely and interesting essay(s) or poem(s) – like this or like this. (In both those cases, however, nothing was written down before the poems themselves. Otherwise, I find, the poetry plays second fiddle to the prose. My ultimate goal – an idealistic one, to be sure – is to be able to think entirely in poetry. To me, that would represent true, unmediated thinking.)



i put a single stem
of beebalm – bright
red shaggy head – in
a green, wide-
bottomed wine
bottle & set
it outside to see if
the hummingbirds
would come


the first summer crickets
playing their rasps
pick right up where
they left off at
the intermission,
going on as if
this brief stage
were the whole of it


if you come for pizza
bring a bar of ayurvedic soap
a cut flower from your garden
& a jar of cold soup –
so thinks my friend L.
who gives & gives from
what little she has
& calls herself lucky
to be able to spare
so much