A heavy tread on the gravel drive, as if from a very large dog or a small pony trotting past my front door. It’s late Tuesday morning. I’ve been feeling depressed about the end of a too-short vacation, and am still very tired. But I force myself up out of my chair in front of the computer and over to the window in time to see a medium-sized black bear pausing where the trail enters the woods. I step out onto the porch for a better look. The bear sees me and gallops up the trail, quickly disappearing behind the thick curtain of leaves.

It’s good to be home, I think, as a male ruby-throated hummingbird ricochets back and forth above my herb garden, displaying for some nearby female. What wildlife did we see in the city? Pigeons, starlings, English sparrows, gray squirrels. This dullness in my head is nothing a good night’s sleep can’t dispel.

An hour later, when my ten-year-old niece Eva comes down from the other house, I tell her about my sighting. “Nuh-UH! You’re lying! I don’t believe it!” I show her the blurry photo I managed to snap as the bear’s butt disappeared up the trail. “That’s no fair! I hate you!” she exclaims. I’ll admit, it doesn’t seem right that good wildlife sightings should come to those who sit in front of their computers, while others go for long walks and see nothing.

Eva wants to go looking for the bear immediately, but I tell her it could be anywhere by now — and besides, I badly need a nap. Later in the afternoon, she bugs me about camping out that night, but I manage to persuade her that a walk at dusk will suffice. So around 8:15 we head up into the woods of Laurel Ridge, following the trail the bear took.

Our trails are mostly old woods roads, almost 200 years old and deep in moss, so it’s not hard to walk quietly. A doe bounds up out of the ferns, and we head off-trail to search for her fawn, with no luck. We continue bushwhacking for another couple hundred feet through the woods, Eva in the lead since she’s shorter and prefers an unobstructed view. Then we rejoin the trail and circle the three-acre deer exclosure, continuing on the trail that parallels the field just inside the wood’s edge.

At the top of the field next to the spruce grove, another couple of deer bound off, and again we search around where they had been standing, but still no fawns. We do a little more bushwhacking through the edge of the black cherry woods that was so devastated by the ice storm the winter before last, and I’m pleased that Eva seems to have no trouble finding the easiest way between the felled trunks and blackberry vines. Then we cut over past the vernal pond — now nothing but a slight depression filled with flattened leaves and dried mud — and head down along Sapsucker Ridge. It’s about ten after nine, and I’m anxious to get Eva back before her grandparents go to bed.

The woods are open here — mostly oak — and off to our left we have a good view of the sunset above the Allegheny Front and the lights of Logan Valley below. The wood thrushes are mostly silent now, but a scarlet tanager sings a few, final bars of his hoarse song as we pass under his perch.

Eva stops short about seventy-five feet from the powerline right-of-way. “There’s a bear!” she whispers. Now it’s my turn to be skeptical. But I crouch down until my head is level with hers and I can see out under the leaves at the edge of the woods, thanks to the browse line made by our too-numerous friends the deer. Sure enough, a dark space among the ferns has the exact shape of a bear. It looks much bigger now than it did in the light of late morning. It’s standing still, facing the sunset, and my inclination is to stay still and see what it does, but Eva is already creeping forward on her hands and knees, so I have little choice but to follow suit.

We close about half the distance between us before the bear seems to shake itself out of its reverie, and moves forward, out of sight. We stand up and walk out onto the powerline, certain that the bear has moved off, but discover instead that it’s only gone as far as the nearest power pole at the edge of the ridge, less than twenty feet away. It now seems quite large — a male, I imagine, making the rounds of the power pole message boards in search of females, which are just now coming into heat. As far as we know, we still have two female bears wandering this end of the mountain, and both should be chasing off their year-and-a-half-old cubs this month, preparatory to their biannual mating.

“Lift me up! Lift me up!” Eva commands, and I quickly comply, locking my hands together into an unstable seat. She blocks most of my view, but what the hell — I’ve seen plenty of bears before. Eva is beside herself with delight. “Hello, bear! I love you!” she cries, waving wildly. It stares at this strange apparition for a few seconds before turning tail and crashing off into the woods.

We follow the bear’s fresh trail back to the other ridgetop power pole and find dozens of fresh gouges in the wood and a pile of large splinters around its base. “The bear stands on his hind legs and goes scraaaatch, then turns around and rubs his shoulders against it,” Eva informs me, repeating what her Nanna has told her. We’re descending the ridgeside, following deer or bear trails through the thick hayscented fern, the half moon bright above the trees to the south. Examining the power pole at the base of the ridge, we find that it, too, has been freshly tagged with ursine graffiti.

“Where are the stars?” Eva asks as we follow the mowed path across the field. Besides the moon, so far only one star and a planet are visible. I explain about the darkness, how it comes in increments, and how much of it we need in order to see.

In illo tempore

The phone rang at mid-morning on Christmas Eve, and my nine-year-old niece Eva answered it. One of our hunter friends, Troy, was calling from his cellphone. “There’s two bears on Sapsucker Ridge right up above the barn!” he said. We hustled into our boots and overcoats and ran outside. Troy, his brother Jeff and his son Andy were standing at the top edge of the field, staring up into the woods. It was a bright, sunny morning, but the snowpack, which had melted quite a bit the day before, was still firm, and our boots punched through with every step as we made our way up across the field.

The hunters had been moving their portable tree stands in anticipation of the beginning of muzzleloader deer season the day after Christmas. Like most of the hunters we know, they have excellent observational skills, and one of them had caught a movement in a tangle of brush a hundred yards away near the top of the ridge as they walked by in the field below. Until I looked through binoculars, I had to take their word for it that the black dot was the head of a half-grown bear.

“There was a second one – the mother probably – but she went on over the ridge,” Troy said. The remaining bear was nonchalantly turning its head all around and working its jaws, as if rehearsing a speech. “I think he thinks we can’t see him,” Jeff remarked. I hoisted Eva onto my shoulders so she could get a better view. We decided that this was the same mother bear with cub that my mom and I had surprised on the Christmas Bird Count as they lay in a denning cavity a quarter mile farther down the ridge.

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Eva’s parents had spent the night in town with my brother Steve and his family; when they all showed up an hour and a half later, the bears were gone. “Let’s go out after lunch and follow their trail,” Steve said. “Maybe we can track them to their den!” His enthusiasm was infectious. I had just finished decorating the tree, and would have a few hours free until I’d have to assist with supper preparation. Eva decided to go along, too.

It was a warm day. By two in the afternoon, the snow had turned to slush. We found the spot where the bears had been hanging out that morning without much trouble, and began following their fresh tracks, clambering over and around numerous deadfalls and smashing through thickets of wild grape and blackberry. In many places, a smaller paw print had been pressed inside a larger one, and it was easy to picture the gangly youngster scampering along behind its mother.

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We were relieved when, after couple hundred yards, the trail led us up over the ridge and down into the relatively more open woods on the other side, where the main hazards were the dense patches of mountain laurel and steep boulder fields. The snow was firmer and crunchier on the northwest side of the ridge, and gave us pretty good footing over the rocks.

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The trail began to parallel the ridge crest about a hundred feet below it. Steve set a brisk pace, and Eva began falling farther and farther behind. She wasn’t complaining, but I could see that her cheap, low boots were no match for the snow. While I waited for her to catch up, I snapped pictures of the gnarled old rock oaks and black birches that grow among the rocks, the closest thing to old growth on our mountain.

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This was also the only place on the mountain where paper birch grows, and in the strong sunlight, the contrast between the snow and the off-white bark was striking.

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Eva admitted that she had a couple inches of water in her boots, so I led her back up to the top of the ridge and pointed the way home. Steve seemed tired of clambering along the steep hillside himself, and convinced me that if we simply followed the crest of the ridge, sooner or later we’d find where the bears had crossed back over. One way or another, we’d have a good walk out to the Far Field, he said, and that much turned out to be true. Through binoculars, we could just make out the bears’ tracks down below, continuing to head southwest along the ridge. “They could be half-way to Altoona by now,” Steve said, and we reluctantly turned back.

I still had to finish wrapping presents, so I took the more direct route home. Steve went back along Laurel Ridge, where he scared up a small flock of wild turkeys. I had a brief encounter with a dead snag I had never noticed, standing along the edge of the field. A woodpecker hole near the top pierced all the way through to the sky beyond, and as I watched, the contrail of a nearly inaudible jet seemed to thread it, fading rapidly away toward the south. Perhaps if I were one of the Magi, I’d know what to make of this perspective-dependent celestial sign.

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It’s odd. Given their wariness and generally crepuscular habits, we see bears only once every month or two, on average. But twice before when Eva was visiting with her family we’ve had great sightings of black bears, and both were on Easter. The second time, Eva was the first to spot the large, male bear peering in through the bow window while the rest of us sat in the other room. These were our first Christmas Eve bears, but I have a feeling they might not be our last.

In The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, the great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade talks about the cyclical nature of sacred time. “Religious participation in a festival implies emerging from ordinary temporal duration and reintegration of the mythical time reactualized by the festival itself,” Eliade wrote. “Hence sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable.” Sacred, ritual time operates almost like a time machine (my image, not Eliade’s), making the participants feel as if they have in some sense returned to the way things were at the very beginning, in illo tempore. In Judaism, and in Christianity after it, every Sabbath permits such a return, and the high holy days even more so.

For most of the last two thousand years, Christians have regarded Good Friday and Easter as the high points of the liturgical calendar, but nowadays, for whatever reason, many seem to have decided that Christmas is a bigger deal. It’s certainly much less Christian in its origins, and the celebration of light and faith at the darkest pivot-point of the year has a nearly universal appeal outside the tropics. The epiphany in the manger also takes us back to Eden in a way that the Passion and Resurrection of Christ cannot. According to widespread folk belief, on Christmas Eve night, the speech of animals becomes briefly intelligible once again, though the traditions disagree on whether it is a good idea for humans to listen in.

I’d be lying if I told you that any of these ideas were passing though my head on Christmas Eve, however. After supper, we gathered in the living room according to time-honored family custom and listened while Mom read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus from her battered old copy of the King James Bible. My ten-month-old niece Elanor rested quietly in her mother’s lap.

Then Mark takes the seat at the piano, and it’s carol time. We begin with a few of the more light-hearted songs, courtesy of Steve, who has an excellent memory for lyrics: “Jingle Bells” in Latin, the Grinch song, and Tom Lehrer’s cynical take on the holiday. Then it’s on to more serious carols which everyone is expected to join in on, such as “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Only the light above the piano competes with the colored lights strung on the tree and threaded through the greens on top of the fireplace mantle.

Mom has a good, rich, mezzo-soprano voice and took a lot of voice lessons in her youth, but with advancing age, each year it’s an open question whether she’ll be able to hit the high note in “O Holy Night” – always the last carol of the evening. As she works her way up to it, her younger granddaughter gets more and more into the spirit of things. Guarded closely by her mother and her cousin Eva, she crawls up onto the coffee table next to the piano, where she sits waving her arms rapidly up and down as if to urge a faster cadence in the music. Eva gets the idea of putting a small plastic toy into one of her wildly gyrating hands. Elanor clutches it for a second or two, then releases her grip, sending the toy flying. She shakes with laughter, her eyes squeezed shut with pleasure. Eva hands her the toy again, and again. I can’t remember when I’ve ever witnessed such pure, unmitigated delight, and it makes me feel something I haven’t felt in a long, long time. Meanwhile, Mom and Mark have made their way into the third verse of “O Holy Night,” after some rusty piano accompaniment in the first verse, and skipping the second.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease….

She hits the note. Elanor is bubbling over with joy. Oh holy night.

Quest for the Lord God Peckerwood (Part 1)

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It’s a sunny afternoon on the day after Thanksgiving, and we’re driving deep into the Arkansas Big Woods on a quest for the largest and most elusive woodpecker north of the Rio Grande, known to locals as the Lord God Bird, and no doubt to the few birders who have spotted it here as the Holy F***ing Shit Bird: the ivory-billed woodpecker. In other words, we are combing the puckerbrush for peckerwoods.

At the wheel is my brother Mark, who teaches geography across the river in Mississippi and thus can sometimes be counted upon to get us where we want to go. Also with us are my sister-in-law Luz, an artist with a sharp eye and an imagination to match, and my nine-year-old niece Eva, whose enthusiasm for nature is infectious albeit occasionally deafening. We got off to a late start this morning, due to the lingering effects of the previous day’s over-indulgence. And we’ve just spent a couple hours at the very educational and family-friendly visitor center of the White River National Wildlife Refuge, which includes a display on the ivorybill courtesy of the Big Woods Partnership.

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We followed a new trail still under construction below the visitor center through an impressive stand of very large oaks and tupelos down to the banks of the White River. I was especially struck by the thick understorey vegetation, which included many white oak saplings. In Pennsylvania, white oak regeneration has declined drastically over the last century, apparently as a result of fire suppression as well as from overbrowsing by deer. According to the signboards along another nearby trail, the area hasn’t been wildlife refuge land for too many decades, and I wondered if the forest composition doesn’t reflect a culture of burning among the much-maligned peckerwoods – the people, not the birds. According to the Wikipedia, peckerwood

is used as a pejorative term and was coined in the 19th century by southern blacks to describe poor whites (white trash). Blacks saw blackbirds as a symbol of themselves and the contrasting redheaded woodpecker as a representation of whites. They considered them loud and troublesome like the bird, and often with red hair like the woodpecker’s head plumes. This word is still widely used by southern blacks to refer to southern whites.

In 1979, the USDA’s Southern Forest Experiment Station in New Orleans published Southern Woods-Burners: A Descriptive Analysis, which characterized “veteran woods burners” as a “disadvantaged culture group with antisocial tendencies.” The authors found that some 40 percent of the 60,000 wildfires that occur throughout the South every year are intentionally set. But regardless of what Smokey the Bear would have you believe, frequent, low-intensity ground fires can help perpetuate the more fire-resistant oaks (or, farther south, longleaf pine savannas) while helping to provide the standing dead trees that are so essential to a balanced forest ecology – especially one that includes large woodpeckers. In the wet forests along the fringes of the swamps, I imagine that flooding, whether by beavers or otherwise, is the major killer of trees. But on Saturday we would see some undeniable evidence of the importance of burning to local woodpecker biodiversity.

The afternoon sun is already sinking into the treetops as we wind our way south through a maze of gravel roads. Mark spots the flaming red crest of a woodpecker in the trees off to our left and slams on the brakes, but it turns out to be a pileated – a bird we are both quite familiar with because it’s common on the family farm back in Pennsylvania. “That’s O.K., I can still use a good pileated photo for the blog,” I say, but it takes off before he can even roll his window down. We stop instead at one of the numerous camping areas that line the road and spend a few minutes admiring the bald cypress trees before resuming our journey.

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When we reach the end of the road, we feel as if we are indeed deep in the wilderness. There’s one other vehicle in the parking lot, an old pickup. It’s still hunting season here, and the trails are open to hunters with ATVs. But by the middle of December, those trails will be closed to all motor vehicles, and then the ivorybill searchers will have the 160,000 acres of the refuge pretty much to themselves.

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It’s very quiet. I am reminded of a line from the Delta bluesman Big Joe Williams – “a thousand miles from nowhere.” In fact, this area on the west side of the main stem of the Mississippi is culturally and geographically part of the inland delta – locals refer to it equally as the Delta on both sides – with the difference that a much larger proportion of it is still wooded. The timber crews came through early in the last century, but much of the area was never clearcut, simply high-graded, and some stands of cypress in the deepest part of the swamps were ignored altogether. As readers of my earlier post “Learning from the ivorybill” will understand, it’s these big trees that I am mostly here to see; I have few illusions that I will be lucky enough to actually see an ivorybill. This also constitutes a logical extension of my Delta Blues pilgrimage. Like levee camps, lumber camps were important as places where musicians from all over met and mingled, trading songs and techniques and helping to spread the blues across the South in the decades before the “race record” industry got underway.

The White River Refuge was established to protect migratory waterfowl at the point of their greatest concentration in North America, so perhaps it isn’t too surprising that a presumably small population of resident ivory-billed woodpeckers were overlooked. As the decades went by, the impact of hunting- and fishing-related tourism became more and more important to the local economy. In the 1980s, the wealthy planters of Mississippi wanted to build a bridge across the river to carry their cotton west into Texas, but they were stopped by popular opposition, which focused on the need to protect wildlife habitat and the wilderness character of the White River refuge. And it was Governor Bill Clinton himself – a peckerwood if there ever was one – who pushed for the reinvention of Arkansas as “the natural state,” Mark tells me. Last year, when ornithologists announced the rediscovery of the ivorybill here, it was a vindication of that vision. Though the best sightings have been a little farther north, in the more accessible area we’ll be visiting tomorrow, the White River refuge and adjacent woodlands have yielded the best sound recordings of ivorybill calls from the autonomous recording units (ARUs) that have been posted here.

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It’s been very dry for the last few months; we find it easy walking along the fringes of the bayou. In contrast to last season, when the water was high, this year, the ivorybill searchers are probably having a hard time finding a place to put in a canoe. The cold is keeping mosquitoes and cottonmouths at bay, though I had kind of hoped to see the latter. Mark wants to leave time to drive out before dark, a concern which is also a limiting factor on how well the refuge can be canvassed for ivorybills, who are most active in the hour or two before dusk, according to Tim Gallagher (see my review of his book The Grail Bird here).

So we only have time for a brief walk, but in that time we find several hollow logs and trees and a wonderfully grotesque snag – more evidence of why this is such great wildlife habitat. Black bears, who like nothing better than to den in hollow trees, are common here, whereas they only show up in Mississippi on rare occasions when one swims across the river. There are also persistent reports of mountain lion sightings. Luz looks on a little apprehensively as her daughter pushes her way into every homey-looking cavity she can find. We listen in vain for a double knock or the tooting of a child’s tin horn.

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To be continued. The second, fourth and sixth photos are by my brother Mark.

Child’s play

Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, it is order. Into an imperfect world it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game,” robs it of its character and makes it worthless.
– Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Beacon Press, 1950)

The hasidim tell the story of Rabbi Baruch, whose grandson Yechiel was playing hide-and-seek with a friend. Yechiel hid himself cleverly and waited for his friend, who never came to find him. Realizing that he had been abandoned, he ran crying to his grandfather and complained about his faithless friend. Rabbi Baruch’s eyes, too, filled with tears, as he told the young boy: God says the same thing: I hide, but no one wants to seek Me!
– Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman, ELUL WEEK 1 — RESPONSIBILITY (via Velveteen Rabbi)

I hid too well. I lay under the tarp in plain view and willed myself into a clump of weeds, a mound of dirt. Springtails and inchworms began to claim me as an extension of their territories. A daddy longlegs scaled my torso and ran across my face, palpae ghosting over the Braille of my cheek and forehead.

My niece ran around the house, peering into all the obvious places, hollering my name. I lay still, certain the slight crepitating of the tarp in time with my breathing would give me away. But in less than ten minutes, everything was quiet. A vole began rustling against one of the corners farthest from my head, and I began to think my presence there was unwelcome. But I waited, trusting that the seeker would not abandon the chase without signaling surrender.

I’m not normally inclined to claustrophobia, but after twenty minutes it got too hot under the tarp and I had to get out. I eased it off me as quietly as I could and stumbled to my feet, dislodging several ants and caterpillars in the process. The thing to do now, I thought, was creep around the house and take a seat on the verandah, where she’d find me right before she gave up.

But when I rounded the corner of my parent’s house, there she and my dad sat, reading a book together. “Where were you?” she asked with feigned unconcern. I stood there blinking in confusion. “Where did you hide?” she persisted. I brushed at an imaginary spider. “You think I’m telling you? Don’t you even know how to play hide-and-go-seek?” I demanded angrily.

But of course she didn’t know. Without siblings, and with precious few playmates her own age down in Mississippi, where would she ever have learned the rules of engagement?


Thhhnk! Thhhnk! Thhhnk! Eva’s fist slams into my diaphragm with all the strength she can muster. She stands with one foot forward, in prizefighter form. Then for variation she crouches and aims a karate kick at my head. “Hey! Where did you learn to do that?” I barely dodge in time, grabbing her foot. “From watching my mommy!” Then she’s back to punching my flabby gut.

“Does your dad let you do this to him?”

“Uh, well, I don’t know. I guess not.”

“So why pick on me?” I whine. “Can’t you pick on someone your own size?”

She giggles. “No! I only punch my Uncle Dave! Because I know you’re FIERCE!”

If only that were true, I think to myself – but already the game has morphed into something else. “I LOVE you, Uncle Dave!” she says in her most melodramatic voice, throwing her arms around me. Good grief! What next?

There’s no question the kid’s got brains: it didn’t take her long to figure out the one kind of attack I’m not very good at fending off. “Put your arms around me!” she commands. I reluctantly comply, thinking: another eight years and this girl’s gonna be hell on ice.


The crudely drawn map had shown only a few, tentative landmarks – lines that might or might not have been trails, an “x” showing where the treasure chest had been hidden “at ye base of ye white pine tree between two okes.” Additional inscriptions hinted at the forbidding nature of the terrain: “BEWARE: Many Spyders,” and “here there bee squirrels.”

The doughty female pirate, accompanied by her two chief scientists, was unperturbed. She hacked mercilessly at the webs of the spiny micrathena with her vorple, cardboard blade. Any squirrels that hadn’t fled at the sound of her bloodthirsty cries must’ve been struck dumb by the terrible device with which her shield was emblazoned: a skull swimming in a pool of blood, encircled by a ring of fire. It looked a bit like the cover of a Slayer album.

Even with the help of scientists, the map’s instructions were difficult to follow. Where was that scurvy pine tree? Disoriented, they found themselves stumbling in circles, the thick vegetation tearing at their clothes, vultures circling. But just as they were about to abandon the search, the chief scientist spotted a scrubby sapling with dark needles. “Hey, there’s another pine tree! And look, there’s the chest!”

And there it was, a classic, green sea chest with tarnished brass fittings, gleaming in a patch of sunlight. Eva let out a triumphal shriek, and she and her grandpa pushed their way through the laurel to claim their prize. But just then they heard a crashing noise off to their right, the sound of pirate boots scuffling on dry leaves. Sun flashed on metal. The air filled with the smell of brimstone. They stood transfixed with horror as the apparition hove into view: a bearded, black-bandanna’d pirate ghost clenching a scimitar-shaped machete between yellow teeth. “WHO DARES DISTURB THE LOST TREASURE OF PLUMMER’S HOLLOW?”


“Have at ye!”


The fight was long and – needless to say – terrible. Blood was curdled. Timbers were shivered. When it was over, the undead defender of the lost treasure lay in a pool of gore, torn limb from limb. The female pirate and her assistants ignored the threats of revenge that still issued in a hoarse whisper from his bloody lips. They broke the lock on the chest and lifted the lid: another strongbox! They tore savagely at the duct tape. Oh my god! Styrofoam packing peanuts!

A small jewelry case lay hidden at the bottom of the box. Cautious now despite her great excitement, Eva pried it open. At last, the treasure was hers! It sparkled between thumb and forefinger as she gazed for a moment or two in uncharacteristic silence.

“AHA! Feast your eyes on this, me maties! The world’s most precious and only clear ruby!”


“Yes, Eva, there are female pirates – or were.” One of the encyclopedias we consulted even included portraits of two of the most famous women pirates from the late 18th century. We were careful not to mention the reality of modern piracy in places like the Molucca Straits, nor to bring up the only slightly more figurative piracy that is contemporary monopoly capitalism.

The idea of a treasure hunt on the last afternoon of Eva’s latest sojourn in Plummer’s Hollow had come from my dad – her grandpa. Which is ironic, given his strongly pacifist views. They’d hung out together all morning, telling stories. “Geez, you were never this much fun when we were kids!” I said jokingly during lunch.

But the truth is that when my brothers and I were kids, living on an isolated, mountaintop farm, we had each other as playmates and fellow adventurers; Eva is an only child. Now, thinking it over, I’m forced to reevaluate my childhood memories a bit. However much each of us three brothers might choose to dwell on the times when we fought, when we dominated and made each other miserable for no good reason, the fact is that we were extraordinarily fortunate to have grown up the way we did, our imaginations virtually unimpacted by television, pop music, and all the other anodynes of post-industrial civilization whose side-effects seem to include a general stifling of the imagination and a fracturing of the attention span.

The most salient fact of my pre-pubescent history remains my unusual capacity for self-induced misery. I was a displeasure addict, throwing tantrums at the drop of a hat. Even so, I can easily recall dozens of memorable adventures that I had in the company of one or both of my siblings. There was the time we went looking for Middle Earth in the hollows beyond the Far Field, mysterious with fog. I got completely disoriented and frightened, and was forced like Rabbit in the House at Pooh Corner to humble myself before my little brother, who led us unerringly home. Then there was that time when my big brother led the way into a giant blackberry thicket – at a rabbit’s-eye level. The three of us spent a lovely couple of hours on our hands and knees, gingerly excavating a long tunnel, then hollowing out a sanctuary in the thicket’s impregnable heart. Talk about a pirate fort!

On rainy days, we set up makeshift tables in front of the doors to our rooms, set out all the toys, knick-knacks and gee-gaws we could afford to part with, and then took turns “shopping” at each other’s tables. No money was necessary; even questions of trade, fair or otherwise, didn’t intrude. These were, as we called them, “give-away sales.” And just as in the kula system of ceremonial exchange described by Bronislaw Malinowski in Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the same items circulated from owner to owner.

Raised by liberals who believed in treating their children as intellectual equals, the problems of the world were never far from our minds. Our parents didn’t try to shield us from the knowledge of such nightmare-inducing horrors as mass starvation, genocide and nuclear Armageddon. But we remained kids; such knowledge only challenged our imaginations to work harder. Now, from the perspective of a quarter century later, I am struck by the fact that the adult reality we lived under, the Cold War, has utterly vanished, while the worlds we conjured up in its stead have lost none of their power to enchant. The buried treasures and dragon hoards we sought then seem, in a strange way, realer than the stock-optional wealth of the dot-com boom or the ebb tide of investments that devastated the economies of Southeast Asia a few years back. My brothers and I each remain idealists, and on the rare occasions when the three of us get together, the B.S. sessions are a wonder to behold. We may disagree about the nature of the quarry now, but the rules of the game are still intact and the search is still on.

Missing notes

I was a Phebe – nothing more –
A Phebe – nothing less –
The little note that others dropt
I fitted into place –

Six-thirty. The treetops glow with the first rays of sun. A hummingbird circles a bull thistle’s purple tuft – all looks, no substance – then zooms over to the bergamot with its washed-out, scraggly heads.

Aside from the background trill of crickets and the sound of cars and trucks on the interstate highway a half-mile to the west, I’m struck by how silently the day has dawned. Early August is always a sad time of the year for me: the dusk and dawn chorus has dwindled to almost nothing. No more phoebe, wood thrush, Baltimore oriole, indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, catbird, great-crested flycatcher. Their young have fledged and learned their parent’s songs, and some have already begun the journey to their true homes in the tropics. Without such stalwarts as the cardinal, song sparrow and especially Carolina wren, the morning would arrive completely unheralded eight months out of twelve.

Already, the early goldenrod is blooming, and by the end of the week the whole field will have turned to gold. The season’s final generation of monarchs is on the wing. A dry high has settled in, bringing clear skies and autumn-cool temperatures. My niece is in heaven – she can spend almost every waking hour out-of-doors if she chooses. She spends the nights apart from her parents, sleeping up in her grandparents’ house in what had been my bedroom when I was growing up. And though she sometimes seems to wish that every adult were as facetious as her daddy and uncles are, there’s no question that her serious, naturalist-writer Nanna is still her main role model.

Yesterday morning the two of them went for a walk down Laurel Ridge, and Eva discovered a box turtle that her Nanna had walked right past without noticing. It was half-grown – only a few years old – and completely unafraid, even when Eva picked it up. After a careful examination of the eyes and plectrum, they decided it must be a female. Eva was so excited to have been the first to spot it, she ran all the way back to the house to tell her grandpa – and anyone else who would listen.

After lunch, without prompting from anyone, she sat down with a clipboard and legal pad and began to write what she proudly predicts will be her first published nature essay. We were astonished by the neatness of her hand and her fantastic spelling for a second grader. Mom reported the following conversation from earlier in the day.

Eva: “Are you famous, Nanna?”

Nanna: “Well, no, not really.”

“But do people know who you are?”

“Well, in Pennsylvania, I guess some people know who am.”

“That’s what I want! I want to write about Nature so people will know who I am!”

Yesterday afternoon my cousin Heidi stopped over with her three-year-old daughter Morgan in tow. Eva immediately took her under her wing and managed to coax her into walking much farther than she ever had before, showering her with praise for the feat. It was amusing to see these two only-children relate to each other in a big sister-little sister fashion.

As for me, I’m just happy for the company of two spontaneously affectionate and imaginative children – even when sudden storms of temper blow in from nowhere, as sometimes happens. Most of the time I am content to play Thoreau without regret for my single, childless state. But then I get a hug from a little kid and am reminded suddenly of just how much I’m missing.

The missing All, prevented Me
From missing minor Things.
If nothing larger than a World’s
Departure from a Hinge
Or sun’s Extinction, be observed
‘Twas not so large that I
Could lift my Forehead from my work
For Curiosity.


Both quotes are from the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson: nos. 1009 (first stanza) and 995 (complete).

House and garden

My brother Mark’s family is visiting. Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with my sister-in-law Luz about clay tile roofs. When they paid a contractor to rebuild her mother’s house in Juticalpa, Honduras, they replaced the roof tiles with tin. How come? Well, short of setting them in concrete, it seems there’s no way to fasten the tiles securely in place.

I was especially intrigued by Luz’s description of the traditional manufacturing technique: women in Honduras used to make the u-shaped tiles by bending slabs of wet clay over their thighs.”Surely they’ve graduated to using logs now?” “Well, I suppose so. But you never know.” Parts of the country remain deeply traditional, though electricity, television and internet cafes are spreading to the remotest villages.

One consequence of the loss of traditional techniques is that in the bigger towns and cities, like Juticalpa, it has become impossible to find anyone who understands the delicate art of roof tile readjustment. As I understand it, the tiles are nested together and keyed to notched roof beams in some way. All is fine and dandy until the neighborhood cats start using the roof for nuptial activities. Their constant running about is enough to vibrate individual tiles out of position.

“Can’t you just get up on a ladder and move them back into place?” “It’s not so easy. I’ve tried it. Mark’s tried it. It’s practically impossible if you don’t know what you’re doing. You should’ve seen us three years ago, during the rainy season. Every night we had to keep moving our beds around so we could sleep without getting dripped on!”

And concrete? “No, because kids, you know, throw stones. The tiles are softer than the concrete. One broken tile and you have to replace the whole thing.”


So after supper I am sitting here going through my e-mail when my eight year-old niece comes in and grabs me by the hand. “Uncle Dave!” “Niece Eva!” “Tell me the names of the plants in your garden!”

I let her drag me outside. “You know this one, right?”


“Yep. They’re all volunteer plants that I rescued from the compost pit. And you should know this plant, too. Here, smell a leaf.”

She takes the proffered leaf, crunches it against her nostrils, then chews on it. “Smells like limes!”

“So it’s lemonbalm, remember? We made tea out of it last spring.”

“What’s this yellow one?”

“That’s rudbeckia. I got the seeds from Pop-pop originally, over ten years ago. It just keeps re-seeding itself, year after year. Now that he’s dead, I have something to remember him by.”

And so it goes: bouncing bet, lamb’s ear, thyme, butterfly weed, bindweed, tansy, peonies. She wants to know not only the name but each plant’s reason for being there.

“This tall purple stuff is bergamot or oswego tea. It does make a nice tea, but really, I keep it for the hummingbirds.” I make her feel the square stem characteristic of the mint family, then show her catnip, with the same property.

“Is that for cats?” she asks, knowing that the only cats around here are the fully wild ones that show up from time to time.

“Yes, well, it does make cats crazy-hyper. But it has the exact opposite effect on humans. It’s an essential ingredient for sleepytime tea. I don’t plant it – it just grows wherever it wants to, and I pull out the ones that get too aggressive.”

After a while of this, she inadvertently pays me the ultimate compliment.

“Uncle Dave, this is the strangest garden I’ve ever seen! You can’t tell the good plants from the weeds!”

Afternoon of a fawn

I’ll be gone until at least Monday. Happy Decoration Day, y’all.


I watched an indigo bunting on
the topmost branch silhouetted
against the sky: blue
& still more blue. If I told you
all I could see was the yellow of
his bill, would you believe me?


In the bare crown of the elm tree
where a porcupine gnawed all winter,
a hummingbird perches with his back
to an indigo bunting. How odd to see him
sit so still so long, I think, though
his head pivots back & forth the whole
time. The bunting calls & calls.
Could this battered tree with
its foliage like a crazy woman’s skirt
hide two nests? A crow flies sideways,
silent, against the wind.


Putting the chili to simmer, I walked into the dining room and found a bat – some myotis, probably little brown – hanging between the storm windows. The sun shone full on its scrunched up face. I left a note on the table and went for a walk, chased down the unfamiliar whine of 17-year cicadas in the corner of the field, looped into the woods. A hen turkey took off from her nest among the ferns. Looking for the eggs, I found instead a nest in a barberry bush with three naked purple nestlings. A towhee scolded from the next bush. Jesus, I thought, what next? Then cutting back across the meadow I almost stepped on the head of a newborn fawn.

Two hours later when my eight year-old niece returns from town I lead her to the spot, tramping behind me through the thistles in her sandaled feet, too impatient to put shoes on. The fawn’s still there, curled up like a question mark. Its dark eyes blink. We are its first two humans, I tell Eva, this is the first afternoon of its life. Eva explains all about hunters, miming the crouch, the bang, her voice getting louder & louder, pointing an imaginary rifle at its heaving ribs. The wet black nostrils flare & quiver with the strangeness of our scent.

Parenthesis and antithesis

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

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

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


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

Why? Why? Why?

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

Why is the world like it is?

–Eva Bonta, April 6, 2004

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

Hi Eva,

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

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

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



The art museum’s smallest room
is filled with miniature landscapes.
We stop in front of each,
& my 8-year-old niece waits for me
to hoist her up by the armpits
for a five-second look.


I learn a new word from the exhibit’s title: purlieu. “A frequently visited place, an outlying district,” says Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate. In the plural, “Confines, bounds” as well as “Neighborhood, environs.” From the French, “to go through,” it came into use in the Middle Ages, when it had a fairly specific denotation: “ME purlewe land severed from an English royal forest by perambulation.”


Later, she watches from
the back seat of the car as
a ten-dollar bill change hands. Giggles.
“They hold the money
as if it were fragile!
she whispers in my ear.


Eva and I go for a ramble in the new snow, me with the big plastic saucer under my arm. She discovers tracking: “If you follow an animal’s tracks, you can tell where it went!” But the squirrels elude pursuit on the ground for longer than the distance between two trees. Then it’s time to re-examine our own tracks. Walking forward, craning around to see what we would see if we were tracking ourselves. We’re detectives now, she decides.

She follows tracks to where they disappear in a hole or under a log, wants to begin excavating on the spot. I remember this fascination with burrows going back to when she was four, if not earlier. “What lives here?” was one of her first intelligible questions. Now more and more this question comes accompanied by a wish: to live there too. At any given charismatic opening in the woods: “This would be a great place for a kind of a house. Well, not with walls or anything. Just to sleep in. This summer we could camp here. We can bring blankets and make tea.”

We follow a deer trail through the woods, pause to inspect weasel and mouse trails. “How far is the spruce grove?” “We’re not heading for the spruce grove. In fact, we’re going in the opposite direction.” “Are we ever going to find these deer?” “Probably not. These prints were made before last night’s additional snow.”

So it seems animal tracks can’t be trusted to take you where you want to go. The chief detective looks for something else to investigate. Thirsty, makes a discovery: the snow right here doesn’t quite taste quite the same as the snow over there. Or so she says. We thread though the laurel to the woods road and make our way to the top of the field, stopping every ten feet to sample the snow.

“Can’t you taste the difference?” “Um, no. See, you lose your sense of taste when you grow up. That’s one of the great things about being a kid.” “This one tastes like cotton candy!” “I’ve never had cotton candy. What does it taste like?” “I don’t know. I’ve never had it either.”

At the edge of the field, a new wish: to walk without leaving any footprints. “What if you just ran really, really fast?” She tries it: no luck. I reason with her. “You saw all the squirrel tracks. Squirrels weigh less than a pound! Think about it – even the mice leave tracks. The only things that don’t are the ones with wings.”

At last, the spruce grove at the top of the field: the ultimate outdoor living room. Destination of countless picnic excursions with her Nanna. With me she plays tour guide, gets exasperated at my evident familiarity with the spot. Our footprints cross paths with a pair of turkey tracks, a lone coyote. We cut back into the field just soon enough to avoid the deer carcass, which neither of us mentions. “I love the view from up here,” she says. Ridge after ridge stretching away to the east.

Time to put the saucer to use. We go to the edge of the steepest hill and my heart sinks. I grew up with sleds you could steer; with the saucer, gravity has almost the only say over where you end up. But determined to cut a good trail I sit down in the thing and lie back, trusting in my outstretched legs to keep me pointed downhill. Bump bump bump, a half-turn and I’m at the bottom looking up. I shout something cheerful, trying hard to keep the shakiness out of my voice. On the brow of the hill a small red figure jumps up and down with glee.

I would’ve been terrified at her age, but I don’t tell her that. “Now hold on tight and be careful!” “Give me a push!” A quarter of my weight, she goes airborne at each bump. At the second one her hat flies off. Spinning around, going backwards or forwards, it’s one continuous shriek all the way down. Then here she comes charging back up the hill, half-unbuttoned coat flapping, stopping to examine the places where the saucer left the ground. “Did you see me flying?”


Snow in March
brings marvels:
a phoebe diving for snow fleas,
the track of a chipmunk,
a turkey vulture flapping its wings.

The calculus of luck

Ungrateful keyboard! I wake myself up two hours early to write and all you can do is sit there. Your so-called keys stay locked. My brain says write, my heart says hum to yourself.

The new snow stopped falling sometime in the night and a few stars were blinking in and out of the clouds by 5:00. Every snowfall has its own properties; this one brings the trains closer and drives the gurgle of the stream farther away. As I sat out on the porch with my coffee I was admiring as I do so often the unique pitch of each eastbound locomotive whistling the crossings: Bellwood, Tipton, Grazierville, Tyrone, Plummer’s Hollow, Birmingham. Now all I can do is sit here and hum, writing about writing about nothing. Because important things have been happening too fast for me to record, unless I were to turn myself into a writing machine with no time left over to experience anything except in retrospect. So I guess I’ll have to break an unwritten rule here and resort to bullet points, so as not to forgo all mention of:

~ The courtship flights of the woodcock at dusk almost every evening for the past week – the way it can slip in and out of sight against the almost-dark clouds, the sudden transition from strange nasal peent to the rapid piccolo it makes somehow with its wings, rushing across the sky in wide arcs like a released balloon

~ The week-long Visit of the Beloved Granddaughter (my niece Eva) from Mississippi, and her 8th birthday celebration yesterday in the snow she welcomed as “a present from God – I mean from Santa!”

~ The scavenger hunt for birthday presents, and the riddles my dad and I had dreamed up for clues leading from one present to the next all over the farm

~ Some of the things collected before the snow fell: ruffed grouse feathers; jawbones from winter-killed deer; bird’s nests; a large handful of wild grape tendrils, each one an eloquent restatement of the beauty in clinging, the unique possibilities of attachment

~ My mother saying yesterday morning as the birds mobbed the strewn seeds: “I wonder if a fox sparrow will show up today?” and a fox sparrow showing up two hours later, obligingly digging his trademark holes in the snow, the song sparrows and juncos giving him a wide wake

~ The very punctual return of the eastern phoebe in the middle of the snowstorm. I was attending to e-mail yesterday afternoon when he landed on a branch of the mulberry sapling right outside the window where I type and flicked his tail up and down three times.

It’s light now and I can see what the night brought: just the barest additional skim of snow on top of yesterday’s five inches. Today, we’re off to Penn State to visit museums – always a fun thing to do in the company of a bright and inquisitive 8-year-old.

I don’t get to enjoy the company of children very often – especially children who love nature, poetry and all the other things that exercise the imagination. So naturally I’ve been enjoying the excuse to relive my childhood for a few days (who knew that tinkertoys could still be so much fun?!). Fueling my enthusiasm, too, is the marvelous, multi-authored literary experiment unfolding over at Commonbeauty, “The Archaeology of Childhood.” The entries are in the form of personal letters between participants, describing an illness or an affliction suffered during the writer’s childhood and what it meant to him or her. The results have been very moving – not a dud yet. As Tom Montag observed a couple days ago, this is an experiment that takes advantage of the unique possibilities of the blogosphere for spontaneity and immediacy.

I believe today will see the seventh and final installment of this unique experiment, so if you have the time to stop over you can read the whole series from start to finish.


When I began thinking about luck yesterday it was with a specific destination in mind, but I ended up somewhere else instead. I’ll start again, with the “reprint” of an essay off my other website that’s also in the spirit of the archaeology of childhood. This was written in January of last year, as the chorus of harpies calling for “shock and awe” in Baghdad was rising to a crescendo.



There were always rats in the barn when I was a kid. We kept the chicken feed in wooden bins reinforced with sheet metal but they still managed to chew through. My father said that a Norway rat could chew a hole in a lead pipe in twelve hours, and I believed him. He put out d-con rat poison, but it never got them all. We tried not to think about how it worked: slow death by dehydration.

Then when we cleaned out the shed, we found dozens of mummified rats hidden in the scrapwood pile. My brothers and I kept the most gruesome examples for a long time, bringing them out to show visitors. The mummies were completely hairless, and their tough yellow-brown hides made them seem less animal than vegetable, dried seed husks or corn stalks in winter. Except, that is, for their heads, the place where their eyes had been. “Look at this one! It’s still got all its teeth!” “Why is it grinning like that?”

The rats had excavated an extensive subway system connecting barn, shed, and compost heap. The only way to catch more than a glimpse was to sit very still in the basement of the barn for a while, for instance with a loaded .22. They were part of the natural order of things, and it never occurred to me that they could die out. But one day a few years after we stopped keeping chickens and the raccoons killed the last of our Muscovy ducks, I realized there weren’t any more rats around. Their major tunnel entrances were all grown up with weeds.

My niece Eva comes to visit at least once a year, at Christmas. Two years ago, when she was four, she and her Uncle Steve discovered a mummified duck under the hay in the barn basement. Something had eaten half its face, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape. Eva was fascinated. Every day for the rest of her visit she would beg to be taken down to the barn to see the dead duck. Nor was it a passing fancy–a year later she was still visiting it faithfully at its resting-place on the hay of the next-to-last stall.

Had I been thinking, I probably could have predicted that Eva’s first poem would include a duck–very much alive, with ducklings in tow. In my family, we’re fond of attempting such auguries about people, about the weather, about world affairs, though we never bet any money on them. For major events, like elections or impending wars, everyone will predict a different outcome.

These days, there’s fierce competition for the worst-case scenario. No one actually wants it to come true, of course–in fact, some of us cling to the notion that a bad thing can’t happen if it has been fully exposed in advance. But even if it does come to pass, someone at least can enjoy the brief frisson of its discovery. “Why is it grinning like that?”


This brings me to what I wanted to mention in yesterday’s post: the role of luck/grace in the birthing of any truly original poem or work of art. I don’t mean to discount the importance of practice, practice, practice. In fact, I think that Pasteur’s dictum, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” perfectly captures the relationship of preparation to inspired discovery. All I’m saying is that such discovery is utterly chancey – as my experience this morning with the mute keyboard reconfirms. And that it comes from some specific place, some spot in the in-between of earth and sky: all genius was originally of place. The word applied to the production of an artist only by the once-conventional presumption that inspiration is (as its eymology still implies) a species of possession.

I had been invited to participate in a poetry reading for State College’s First Night celebration a year ago, and as usual I brought my audience with me in the form of the extended family. Eva was then six going on seven and wanted to know what kind of tree was this “poetry” I was going to read about. She sat with me in the front row throughout the entire two-hour reading – a fairly hyper, high-energy kid who is also blessed with the ability to concentrate. A month or two later, her daddy helped her type her very first poem and I proudly e-mailed it around to all my friends. She hasn’t written anything like it since, and I have no intention of pushing her.

by Eva Bonta (6 going on 7 years old)

How would it be to smell
like a flower and the petals
fall off from cold wet breeze
pink and silver yellow.

The birds fly up to
their nest as hot as the
sun with their hot smooth
egg. The frog at the
pond croaked once more
as the Duck with her
Duck-lings go silently to
bed when the moon is