I’m walking past ranks of even-aged red pines with a native broadleaf forest rising in the understory to a height of some thirty feet now: a visually striking natural insurgency against the industrial monoculture. Molting birds skulk through the dense foliage while a hermit thrush still sings just up the hill. A very small brown and white feather floats down.
If i didn’t know that these mushrooms were poisonous, would I still find them repulsive? Yeah, probably. The death angel looks delicious — which apparently it is. Then it dissolves your liver.
One of those days when even the rocks sweat and the biting insects form clouds dense enough to block the sun, and here I am circling a bog. My addiction to walking is beginning to seem nearly pathological, even to myself. But here’s the thing: I’m having a blast.
Oh what a lovely breeze!
Say, are those storm clouds?
bound in red surveyor’s tape
how hot it is
Why would I slog through a buggy bog, you ask? That’s where the prettiest mud is.
sky face says meh
to the white noise
of our anti
bodies of work
squeezing whole lives
into a few hours before sleep
while six-legged leaves
chant half the night
sky face acquires
a round cloud mouth
the moonlight denies
ever knowing the moon
the lives we’re missing bloat like corpses
as species dwindle
I can’t deny the central importance of my phone’s weather app to my daily walking practice. Being able to squeeze in an hour’s fast walk between thunderstorms, yesterday evening on a day otherwise too buggy and humid for a pleasant walk, is something I wouldn’t have been able to pull off in the old days, before up-to-the-minute weather radar data in one’s pocket.
Needless to say, global weirding also makes the weather harder to predict just by watching the sky and knowing what’s expected in each season. “Red at night” could mean anything these days. If it was sweltering yesterday, it’s likely sweater weather today.
bandanna gone white
from his salt
It’s odd, looking back, that I never had much interest in general literary culture aside from poetry. I’ve tried to read journals like the Georgia Review or the Kenyon Review and found them interesting enough, but not so much that I wanted to let high-brow discourse and concerns take over my whole Weltanschauung. I think it’s intellectually limiting. Watching comedy on YouTube, listening to underground metal on Bandcamp, or reading nonfiction strike me as a better use of my non-poetry-related free time.
I should add that I’m not one of those jerks who submits to journals I rarely read. But I do have to wonder how many of these publications would even exist without tenure and review requirements that academic writers publish regularly in prestigious places. As the tenure system goes away, how many of these journals will survive? Those few that do will probably be quite a bit less arid and more edgy, designed solely for an audience of urbane intellectuals.
Simply having Poetry Daily, which reprints poems from journals and other publications, as my laptop’s homepage for the last 18 years, plus following a bunch of poetry bloggers, is enough to a) keep me apprised of interesting new collections and translations I might want to pick up, and b) prevent me from feeling completely out of the loop. Social media helps fill in the gaps with more ephemeral poetry-world news.
Reading poets’ personal blogs, to the extent they still exist, offers in some ways an opposite experience to reading a journal: largely un-copy-edited, raw, unfiltered, full of quirk and charm and way more ideological diversity than you’d find in any one organ with a unifying editorial vision. I follow poets from nearly every conceivable background and persuasion, socialists, centrists, libertarians, scientists, school teachers, beat poets, experimental poets, etc. If they write or simply appreciate good poetry, I’ll add them to my feed reader.
It’s a shame that feed readers never really caught on. It’s like the bizarre reluctance of online literary magazines to serialize content using blogs, a technology designed specifically for serializing content. But all too often, as the founders of Substack realized, it’s not enough to have tech solutions out there if they require too much sustained attention to technical details that most people, even editors unfortunately, don’t want to wrestle with.
The resistance of our literary elite to anything requiring technical know-how does get tiresome, though. I suppose that’s why I find the poetry film crowd so congenial—they’re not afraid to wade in and play around with some of the amazing tools and toys currently at our disposal. (For how much longer, who knows.)
One of the unexpected adjustments I’ve made as I’ve gotten older is I’m OK with not knowing the answer to, or even having an opinion on, every goddamn thing. It’s very liberating. I recommend it.
a rictus of agony
in old leather
Songbirds harrying a cuckoo. I didn’t realize they did that, but it makes sense. They may not notice the difference in their eggs, but they would sure as hell notice someone trying to sneak into their nest.
The topic of personal identity tires me after a while, with the rather literal spin that most people put on it in a desperate effort to assert some thereness for this nebulous mental placeholder, the self. I want to know more about shadow identities, for example: one-time or persistent mistaken identities ascribed to one by others. Let’s also consider any and all fantasy identities one might assume, whether in imagination alone or in role-playing games. Persistent dream identities, if any. Characters in favorite novels, comic books, movies etc. with whom one deeply identifies. And of course the way they all intersect. Let us not through dissection diminish what is in a sense larger than life.
Deep in the woods, a small sun-starved blueberry bush is having its best year ever: it produced a flower for the first time—a perfect yellow bell!—and a forest bumblebee with pollen on her feet found its nectar. Now the green berry swells.
What bird will find it when it assumes the color of the sky? How far might its seeds travel? That’s how suddenly the future can change on you.
Last night I watched it get dark from the bench at the top of the watershed—the head of the hollow where the old field meets the spruce grove. There’s a very misleading vista of forested ridges, which, because our own mountain is so low, manage to hide nearly all the valleys in between, creating the illusion of a Penn’s Woods with only a few scattered lights of cell towers and scattered farms. All of State College, a small city of around 40,000 in the summer, is hidden by the mid-valley ridge except for one water tower. It’s a good spot to watch the sky and imagine impossible things.
Learning what cumulonimbus clouds do at dusk on a June evening is of vital importance, just as it was earlier to watch the late afternoon light on mature-but-still-young oak leaves in the hollow among which a tanager and wood thrush were performing their greatest hits. I thought I’d spend the spring and summer hiking elsewhere, as I was doing last fall, but so far that hasn’t happened, between the garden needing regular attention and the high price of gas discouraging unnecessary trips.
What is truly necessary, then? Walking, yes, and sitting still from time to time. But when you’re lucky enough to have the run of a private forest two and half miles long, you don’t need to drive somewhere in order to walk. So many urban and suburban dwellers don’t have that privilege; I feel I should use it well and file these reports often.
Today, however, I decided to go hike my favorite stretch of Tussey Mountain — the part I see from the aforementioned bench looming off to the east, nearly 1000 feet higher.
dark forest edge—
A popular spot to get high, judging by all the comfy-looking seats among the rocks. Good thing I’m not an influencer—I’d have to include myself in the photo, and the thing I like about this view is precisely the fact that I’m not in it.
Rock tripe. I love how they curl back as if ready to take flight.
Went off-trail among the ridgetop hemlocks for a while.
as big as coffins
(That’s the warbler who allegedly sings Trees trees murmuring trees!)
It was worth going off-trail just to get up close and personal with all the contrasting shades of green. This is the true visual treat of late spring and early summer, more than anything blooming right now, even mountain laurel.
The main reason to go into wilder places is to be reminded that pretty much anywhere in the world will, given time, turn into a garden on its own. They’re out there, these aesthetically magnetic places. The fun is finding the small and unofficial ones. And in most cases keeping them to yourself.
What’s fun in the folded Appalachians — the Ridge and Valley section — is that all the places you know have echoes elsewhere, since habitat and forest use patterns tend to follow geology, which keeps running through the same, mostly edge-ways layers. Everything repeats—not necessarily in a Groundhog Day manner, but sometimes that, too. I can find analogues to our ridges at Plummer’s Hollow. In fact, I’m on one now. That’s what makes this so interesting to a stay-at-home nature freak like me: it’s the same but different. I can play detective as I walk, trying to guess the forest history.
There are an insane amount of black-throated green warblers along this stretch of ridge. I think it’s safe to say that if or probably when all the mature hemlocks succumb to the woolly adelgid, the black-throated greens won’t be nesting up here anymore. Then think of the countless acres of hemlocks as recently as 100 years ago, lost to the logging boom and never likely to come back, and all of the more boreal-type species that have declined or vanished as a result. Think about the trout streams that no longer held trout, and people puzzled that God’s bounty, as they saw it, might actually be contingent on good treatment of the earth and respect for wild and waste places just like it says in Leviticus.
Also, it’s interesting to watch forest succession in places with little history of recent human disturbance. My hiking buddy L. and I discovered this years ago at a very remote, nearly deer-free gorge full of dying old-growth hemlocks, the Tall Timbers Natural Area within Bald Eagle State Forest. It’s deeply sad that we’re losing some of these last fragments of eastern old growth to an introduced pest and a changing climate. But if you happen to have a lifetime’s knowledge of what forests in the Ridge and Valley tend to look like, you can still appreciate the specialness of a place where forest openings are filled not with ailanthus or mile-a-minute vine but mountain ash, sugar maple, or red oak.
Two military jets hurtle past a few hundred yards away, skimming the treetops. What an absolutely terrifying, inhuman howl.
I’m not a Christian but sometimes I think, you know, they might be on to something with the myth of Antichrist. Like, I don’t believe in Christ, but the Antichrist? That’s us. That’s our deathly hand around nature’s throat.
(No, I’m not listening to metal as i hike. That would seem blasphemous even to me!)
A large ground beetle goes into the ground, as is, one supposes, its wont.
I like to watch invertebrates simply because they make up an overwhelming majority of the critters I see on a day-to-day basis. Also they are cool as hell, obviously, and often terrifying if you make the mistake of looking at them through a hand lens. Even so I barely know a fraction of their names. Some of the more obscure ones may still be officially unknown to science, because taxonomy is hard and thankless work.
Damn, it’s chilly up here! Glad I decided to try out this longsleeved merino shirt.
I hate to sound like a fanboy, but I got this shirt for all the obvious practical benefits that people talk about only to discover the real reason for its popularity is that it’s such an unbelievably soft but smooth texture, almost like a second skin. When the wind blows, it feels amazing.
Maybe all athleisure wear is like this, and I’ve been missing out all this time? Too bad my nipples aren’t erogenous zones like a normal person’s. But it does mean less potential for embarrassment in the unlikely event I run into anyone else today.
It’s not silky but silk-adjacent, without the alien feeling of actual silk. It feels like something a mammal made.
Mostly I’m just happy for an excuse to deploy that hilarious, oxymoronic marketing term “athleisure wear.”
Garter snake sunning in the middle of the trail. You’ll just have to imagine it, curled into a single stripey loop—it looks much too comfortable to disturb.
I wonder when the last time was that someone went through? Certainly the clump of pale corydalis I found growing in the middle of the trail hadn’t been trampled. The Mid-State Trail may be part of the Great Eastern Trail network, but let me tell you, this ain’t the Appalachian Trail. I saw no one else all day. As usual.
We need to stop using the word “picturesque” for things that, upon examination through the back of a camera, turn out to have in fact no good pictures in them. That still trips me up, thinking that just because something looks cool that it’ll make a cool image. That’s like assuming that just because a person is good-looking, they’ll make a good model.
Because I’ve also hiked this trail at times when the leaves are down, stopping to take lots of pictures, I know there are way more cool old oaks, birches and hemlocks than i can see now. It definitely heightens the experience just to know they’re there. I mean landscapes are just like people in their uniqueness, aren’t they? No one expects to learn all there is to know about a person in just one visit. The world needs fewer travelers and more lovers.
Just tripped and nearly fell less than a hundred feet from the spot where I tripped and fell last fall. That’s some spooky shit.
I’M ALMOST OUT OF BATTERY. TELL ME GOOGLE HOW TO APPEASE THE UNQUIET GHOST OF A CLUMSY HIKER.
Cool, twisted old trees on my right, grouse exploding from dense cover on the left. That’s this hundred feet. It’s constantly changing, and I wish I could be present for the full wonder of it but wonder is exhausting so thankfully rare. I’m having a ridge experience, which is kind of the aesthetic equivalent of being in a perpetual low-level state of arousal due to one’s choice of shirt.
Found a boulder field to eat lunch on, sunning myself on the rocks like that snake, hunched over my sandwich. Boulder fields are cool and all, but these ridges would have fins like sharks had it not been for the icy breath of the glaciers fifty miles away for thousands of years.
Couldn’t find my second sandwich for a few seconds and I almost had a full-blown panic. I am not cut out for the wilderness.
I love the fast wolf spiders that prowl these rocks. I dream of seeing an Allegheny woodrat in the wild some day, but they’re so rare now, I might’ve missed my chance.
a black-and-white warbler
“Light rain ending in 37 minutes.” If it weren’t for the excitement of failing batteries, technology would suck every last ounce of adventure out of a hike.
A view to the southwest of Plummer’s Hollow nearly hidden by curtains of rain.
Ah, the smell of cow manure, even this far above the valley! That’s how you know you’re in central Pennsylvania.
I hate whoever did this, no doubt choosing to camp under this ridgetop hemlock for its ambience, then carelessly building a campfire on its exposed roots.
Miraculously, it clings to life. Trees are tough up here.
I like trail registries if only for the surrealism of encountering a post office box in the middle of the woods.
My feet are tired but in a good way—that warm feeling they get after a good long hike. What did I learn today? Merino is amazing, and always bring the solar battery charger. Hiking with as much technology as possible is the way to go, really. I simply need to find a good dictation app so I don’t have to keep stopping to write down my thoughts. Then a 360° camera so I can record my hikes for a virtual reality experience. Then I’d be able to relive them someday when my knees are shot and the hemlocks are all gone.
The more I walk, the better I feel. But the longer I sit, the more I see: an oak forest in the spring after heavy defoliation by what we’re now urged to call, out of respect for the Roma, spongy moth caterpillars. And here let us pause and reflect how abominable it is to compare any insect pest, let alone one with such a potentially devastating impact, to a traditionally nomadic people living more lightly on the land than most. Roma have the right idea: keep moving. don’t stay too long in one place and let it break your heart.
the oaks’ mouths
are already open
that’s my shadow
A half-grown spongy moth caterpillar—one of this year’s much diminished cohort—climbs my leg: same bristle-brush as before. (The sponginess is entirely a feature of the egg masses.) Two of the canopy oaks nearby haven’t leafed out, but three saplings are there to fill the sunlit hole thanks to 30 years of good deer hunting on the mountain.
circle of stones
where some giant once stood
The way any orchid is visibly more complex and intricate than the plants around it, so would aliens or angels seem compared to us. We would see our ordinariness, tumble from our self-centered, would-be heavens and begin to dwell more fully in our animal bodies. Or so I would like to believe.
death starts out
as gorgeous spots
In the steadily shrinking vernal pool at the top of the watershed, a pale newt hangs tail-down in the water like a wraith among the densely packed tadpoles fattened on pollen—its prey.
Later when the sun comes out i watch it feeding: dash, gulp. dash, gulp. The cleared space around it is surprisingly small.
Standing outside my front door on this rainy night is the closest thing to a son or daughter I’ll ever have: an eastern red cedar tree, which I found and transplanted when it was one or two years old back in 1993, and has since grown into a bit of a monster, towering over the house. The old place in Maine where we lived till I was five had a number of juniper bushes in the former pasture, where I used to play a lot, and I think that’s what appealed to me about having a closely related species right by the door. And sure, I knew it would turn into a tree rather than a bush, but I still thought it would stay on the small side. It hasn’t — much to the delight of roosting songbirds. I have to prune branches that rub against the roof, but still, on stormy nights, I hear it thump, thump, thumping against the house.
It’s not that you’re chasing a white moth through the forest; it’s just that she happens to be flying ahead of you, right? It’s just that things come to you when you’re walking. And you to them.
An ephemeral forest pool, fed by spring rains. Here at the top of the watershed the rain doesn’t quite know where to go, so it sits for a while. Ripples on the surface show how any point can be the center of an expanding universe. I love watching them intersect and cancel each other out.
Living here for 50 years in a bend of the railroad’s main line through Pennsylvania, I couldn’t help but become an aficionado of train horns. As they age they grow in dissonance, till they’re making chords straight out of Schoenberg.
of a distant ball game
the unadorned darkness
of Amish farms
What I thought at first were stars reflected in the forest pool’s nearly still surface turn out, when I look up, to be satellites — a long line of them, easily visible through the half-grown leaves as they file soundlessly overhead. This has the name, I recall, of an almost bird: Starlink. Creepy and unnerving as hell. I guess we should be grateful they don’t spell out DRINK COKE or something, but the long-term plan is even worse: to outnumber the visible stars in the night sky. All so one multinational corporation, SpaceX, can have a monopoly on rural broadband service. I’m reminded of Robinson Jeffers’ misanthropic quote: “Man would shit on the morning star if he could reach it.”
I love the startled barks of raccoons. Even when my presence is the occasion for it.
A small outbreak of fireworks down the valley: a local clusterfuck.
Out in the woods at night, it’s hard to shake the impression that I’m surrounded by tribespeople — I mean the trees. They act as if they own the place. You can see it in their posture, their habit of rarely bowing, their standoffishness. However often we cut them down they keep coming back, as best they can, to this same backward place, clannish, profligate. Prone to annual revivals that quickly devolve into orgies, pollen flying everywhere. Full of exotic music from all the nomads they take in.
My brother Mark’s nocturnal audio recordings show that field sparrows, a supposedly diurnal species, are the most regular nighttime songsters. I wonder if being a light sleeper confers evolutionary advantage to a dweller in open spaces? Mark wrote,
A field sparrow or field sparrows called 42 times on the night of May 14-15, after dusk and dawn choruses were over, over the course of 7hr45min. So that works out to about once every 11 min. I believe it was more than one bird, given the differing volumes–assuming they weren’t flying around.
Other diurnal birds singing at night I’ve encountered so far are the [yellow-billed and black-billed] cuckoos, an apparent chipping sparrow, catbird, and a common yellowthroat.
I’m sitting in the ridgetop forest listening to a dog or coyote in the valley, yipping and howling to the accompaniment of the high school marching band.
The howls are getting closer, the band more distant.
It is almost fully dark, I’m a mile from home, and I’ve just had my second Covid shot.
OK, no, I must be listening to an outdoor rock or country concert. The howls aren’t canine but human, sounding multi vocal when the audience joins in. I can almost make out the melody line.
It’s like I’m in the world’s darkest, deadest bar with a dying jukebox just out of sight around the corner.
But doubtless this is something the town leaders have dreamed up to get people outside and lift their spirits. I’m glad.
And I’m glad that it’s now over, climaxing in a frenzy of colored spotlights. Silence and darkness descend like benedictions from the great velvet Elvis above the bar.
without my glasses
A genuinely blood-curdling cry from the other side of the spruce grove. It spooked a couple of deer, who just ran past me.
s t r e t c h i n g
into the woods
The crescent moon is the best moon: more stylish than the full moon, and available for moongazers and performers of dark rites twice a month rather than just once. Plus it doesn’t nearly eradicate the darkness as the full moon does.
In one dream I am hunted — or haunted? — by the Polaroid of a fish.
the sudden crack and roar
of a falling tree
the mouse keeps on
Fifteen minutes later, another tree crashes down, twice as close. I take the hint and get out.
first field cricket
through the open window
half a moon
Fifteen minutes past sunset, coyotes strike up a chorus not far from where I sit, on the appropriately named Coyote Bench. They start out sounding plausibly dog-like, but the yipping and wolf-like howling quickly give them away. Like all music that resonates down deep, this is part moan, part jubilation. Closing in on prey, and close to prayer:
First firefly blinking through the half-grown black walnut leaves, all alone going here… here… here…
Rainbow colors in the clouds around the moon — a reminder that even on a sultry evening, ice is less than ten miles away.
To go for a walk in the woods during the day is to participate in a fantasy of knowing through seeing. The mysterious unknown is pushed back, engendering the desire to keep walking just to see what’s around the next bend. At night, all such illusions fall away. The forest we’ve just walked through retains its essential unknowability. Without darkness, the very possibility of the wild becomes endangered.
From off in the darkness, the sound of a porcupine clacking its teeth. Against what threat, I wonder?
It goes on and on. Somebody doesn’t have much sense.
I sit on a bench in the moonlight, put down my hand, and find the pen I didn’t know I’d lost. A small moment of grace, like so many over the years that have allowed me to see myself as deeply fortunate, despite the fact that I’m broke.
The absolute silence of an owl’s flight. If I hadn’t been gazing in the right direction, I wouldn’t have known it was there. Even the moonlight makes more noise.
In a moonlit forest there are far more beasts. I have had to get out my flashlight three times in the course of a mile to verify that dark shapes were merely logs or root balls. But of course in reality, too, more animals are able to forage or to hunt when the moon is bright.
Trees don’t need heads because they have the sun. At night, all that remains are their gestures of ardent worship silhouetted against the sky.
Angels with the jaws of lions, these clouds trying to swallow the full moon. A bat less seen than felt — a ripple through the still air currently bearing the monotonous hectoring of a whip-poor-will.
Full moon through the trees: the last I’ll see it like that, with so few leaves, until November. I watch it inching along through the branches.
Sitting in the middle of a mowed path through the meadow, I feel something bump into the back of my canvas chair, followed by the sound of running feet. Didn’t turn around in time to see what it was. Too small for a deer, too fast for a porcupine. A near-sighted fox? A not-so-wily coyote?
taking off my glasses
to make sure it’s real
sprouting a cloudy tail
time to plant
the old anthill’s
that elusive piece
Sólo la luna sospecha la verdad.
Y es que el hombre no existe.
(Only the moon suspects the truth.
And that is that Man doesn’t exist.) Vicente Aleixandre
The night’s doors opening all at once. Flickers of lightning on the horizon. The false thunder of a jet.
The sounds of my digestion startle me — and perhaps others off in the darkness. Wouldn’t this have given our hunter-gatherer ancestors an adaptive advantage? I like the idea of the wild within — our gut microflora — helping to safeguard us against the wild without.
Moonlight in the kitchen is a sign of God.
Does the moon ever shine in my kitchen with its northeast window? Maybe only in January, on the full moon known as Wolf, or Popping Trees, or Absence of Bears.
and the rattling wind
in one bed
2:00 a.m. road
without cars the tarmac’s
into mere roadkill
so many stars
all these travels written
in my teeth
One set of keys for the day and one for the night. But if the locks fill with rain they will drown and our souls will devolve like cetaceans, returning to the deep and its sunless music, now with microplastic.
Nautical twilight. A distant, non-human wail from one of the farms in the valley. Microdrops of rain on my face.
The pleasure of watching headlights move through a forest ten miles away.
Through the bottom of my mug, my other hand shrinks into an insect: seat of my soul, dung beetle. Scarab sacred only to a little world of shit.
When you sit or lie1 on the forest floor, in a strong wind you may feel slight movements beneath you: tree roots working the night shift.
It’s too cold for the bat. Now the moon is recalling all shadows.
Do trees feel the moonlight? If so, it must be the lightest caress.
Gazing directly at the moon for too long feels disrespectful, especially when it’s just beginning the monthly molt.
A voice off in the forest calls You and after several seconds the response: Yah.
That lone window still lit at 4:00 in the morning. The patch of dim light it inflicts on the edge of the forest.
every hidden hammer
hitting its string
the pianist’s fingers
not her own
I can’t stop fantasizing
With their frog mouths and weird nocturnal calls, the nightjars wouldn’t seem out of place in one of Hieronymous Bosch’s teeming tableaux.2 One North American species, the common poorwill, is the only bird known to go into a prolonged state of torpor very like hibernation.
I go out to take a leak
landscapes of my childhood
aglow with bleakness
knocking at my house
must be sleepless too
The first hint of dawn in the sky and in the forest the first hint of gray. It begins its daily dwindling into mere woods.
1 Due to the threat of Lyme disease, this is of course best done in a tent.
2 I do a web search and sure enough, Bosch gave Lucifer the head of a nightjar:
Driving home along the river, I have to turn on the windshield wipers every mile or two because of all the mayflies, the off-white inkblots of their anonymous deaths. Imagine living one’s life in a state of arrested development, and only on your last day undergoing not one, but two radical transformations, one after the other: growing wings, breathing air, and mating just once, having gained reproductive parts in exchange for the loss of a mouth.
scheduling my first
Placing two things in close proximity: that’s a poem. The shadbush and hepatica footage here came from a single walk down the hollow and back. But if only I’d had a dash cam on that drive home…
Will this be the final post in the Pandemic Year series? Probably not, but it feels as if it could be.
Pedants may think that COVID should still be written in all caps but that doesn’t seem to be how common usage has gone. In time, even the initial capital letter will come to seem too much, and it’ll end up like scuba or ok, just another word.