Lookout

You have to drive quite a ways to escape the sound of traffic. In the end, though, there’s no getting around it: you have to get out and walk. I follow an almost vanished trail to a high point called Penn Lookout where the scenic vista long since grew in. I have the former picnic area all to myself. It’s too far from the road. When I snap a photo of the low light through the trees, the camera shutter startles in the silence.

fall colors
a yellowjacket’s
unsteady flight

Stargaze

Never having believed in happiness, it occurs to me, might have had something to do with why i never actively pursued it. If it showed up regardless, well and good, but in general, day-to-day contentment seemed enough. And you know, maybe it is. For far too many around the world, it’s an unattainable dream.

But what about love, Dave?

And you call yourself a poet!

Pleiades
syncopating
crickets

Lonesome Water Revisited

homage to Roy Helton

All the while i sat watching the rocks, a spider was right behind me mending her web, knowing i offered protection from the birds. You’re never as alone as you think. I hear water trickling underground, remember that fateful drink and grin. It’s not so lonesome i could cry. And when i do, it’s just to talk back to coyotes, or that family of barred owls who hoot like chimpanzees. When the sun goes down, the hollow turns strange. Jumping mice dance in the moonlight. A whippoorwill clears his throat three times before he launches into his diatribe. Corpses of trees glow with foxfire and flying squirrels whistle high and thin like ghosts—whose ghosts, one can never be sure. Once i found a green stone that had been worked, given an edge that could still scrape a hide. It fit so easily into my hand. It took all my willpower to put it back into its hole. The original owner might not be done with it yet.

three-toed root—
they’re saying my name
in Raven

Star attraction

If I ran a movie review site, nothing would get more than one star. Movies would compete for fractions of a star.

Times are lean. We could run out of stars.

No one could afford to live under such a dark sky. They’d go mad with loneliness.

I saw another fireball the other night. Spend time under the stars and you see things: fish, a bull, a hunter, you name it. It’s so liberating to realize thanks to modern astronomy that the universe isn’t about us.

That said, there is a gas giant in my guest bedroom. My older brother can’t help his stature or intestinal difficulties. In his religion, everyone gets their own universe someday—a classic Ponzi scheme if you ask me. But what if it’s true?

I think the opposite is more likely the case: everything is drifting farther and farther apart, into an ever emptier void. You can already see it happening. People have that distance in their eyes.

the high inhuman
shriek of a dying rabbit
4th quarter moon

(via Twitter)

***

Finally got a good look at the pair of red-breasted nuthatches who’ve been hanging out in the spruce grove all year, according to my younger brother, and presumably nesting. Like the red squirrel i got a good look at yesterday, they were right near Dad’s grave. The spot is beginning to feel a bit magical, I have to say. Currently there’s a bit of fresh rain-water in the reflecting rock. I’m sitting on the bench listening to the stuttering calls of Linne’s cicadas, “a steady pulsating rattle sounding like a saltshaker” as the Songs of Insects website puts it. They outnumber dog-day cicadas now, of which I’m hearing just two—that buzz-saw whine. I’m also hearing what sound like falling acorns, a very hopeful sign.

***

In my poetry i want to write about nature without breathlessness. Don’t know whether i always succeed. Sharing new poetry on social media is an essential part of my probably Quixotic quest to normalize talking about wildflower sightings and wildlife encounters in the same way people post about the latest books or movies they’ve consumed.

I suppose in time I’ll end up creating a personal iconography of favourite species and other natural phenomena, licensed by the ubiquity of the smart phone and modern search engines—hardly any reference is too obscure anymore. For all that the internet has diminished attention spans, it does still expand access to layers of context that previously would’ve escaped all but the most knowledgeable of readers.

***

Successful ideologies are those that promise more than they can deliver. That way their adherents are never forced to answer for their beliefs. Evangelical conservatism may soon be dead as a political force because its adherents actually achieved one of their main goals, and everyone else is horrified.

***

Somewhere in the world right now a 90-pound weakling is sitting beside a hotel pool writing an epic novel and a 300-pound man in a tiny basement apartment is sweating over a haiku.

Wild things

So I’m standing here watering my garden, and a female hummingbird flies in and takes a shower in the spray, three feet away from my hand.

*

Many hours later, I flush two ruffed grouse. Together. For the first time in years—since West Nile Virus began decimating them about 15 years ago. Last winter I thought it likely that there were only two grouse on our entire, two-and-a-half mile long end of the mountain. Now there seem to be at least five. Perhaps they’re staging a comeback.

Two unusual wildlife sightings in one day! I’m a lucky man.

***

As long as I live, I’ll never forget the sight of hundreds of university students walking past a low-hanging oak limb on which an adult male red-tailed hawk was ripping apart a gray squirrel, and not one of them so much as slowing down to watch. And that was at least ten years before the rise of smart phones. It was around that time I realized that nothing I would recognise as poetry will ever reach a mass audience in this distracted age.

***

What if my next poetry collection included all my voices, not just a few of them? Perhaps it would be an unreadable mishmash. But if there’s a uniform focus or addressee, it might work. Hmm.

Maybe I should also be a little less concerned about what an audience might prefer until closer to the end of the project? Behave less like a craftsman or entertainer and more like an artist? I don’t know about that. It challenges my populist instincts.

But you’re talking about wild words. The wild is not and will never be popular. See above.

***

Suspense

You are waiting for the next thing to be popular so you can admit how much you’ve come to loathe the last thing. But with this economy, who knows whether there will even be a next thing? That last thing might be the last thing ever, in which case you will someday come to miss it with all the fervent conviction of nostalgia.

tea for two
the ant holding a crumb
above her head

Ragged claws

On a day of incomparable beauty the past wells up within me and I am grateful for the kindness of shadows. The sun is bright but not hot; it feels like autumn. An indigo bunting lets spill its usual headlong song, but this late in the season and up in the woods, most likely it’s already on the move.

using the phone
as a mirror — how little
sky it holds

*

where the oak split off from its lost half open mouthed

***

Re-reading Prufrock, as one does. The line “There will be time, there will be time” catches me right in the feels. Also “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” is excellent. The whole poem strikes just the right balance between repetition and surprise. Still fun on the tongue. Five stars, would read again.

***

The literature is riddled with absences.
David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything

***

The difference between what you tell yourself about what you’re doing and your true motivations can be a fruitful place to explore, but too much self knowledge isn’t always advantageous. Lying to myself about my true motivations was absolutely key to quitting tobacco back when I was in my mid 30s, for example. I didn’t admit to myself that I’d actually quit for years.

moon-eyed—
one cloud
at a time

Insurgent, portentative

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?

hemlock sapling
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.

***

Portentative

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

sky face is just the void
with better branding

Weather permitting

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.

***

highway work—
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.

rat mummy—
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.

And now I have a Clarence Ashley earworm—a quality problem!

***

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.

forest floor
striped with shadows
swallowtail

Hiking with the Antichrist

descent path
of a regional jet
wild yarrow

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—
sassafras extending
middle fingers

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.

mossy rocks
as big as coffins
black-throated green

(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.

Watch on Vimeo

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.

ridgetop wind
a black-and-white warbler
hisses back

“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.

Report from Planet Oak

May 29, 2022

in the woods
surrounded by mystery
my thermos mug

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
little fledgling

monstrous
hunting spiders
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
sporangia

caterpillar-
killed trees—the cuckoo’s
haunting call

impossibly thin
green beetle
please don’t go

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.

mayapple leaves:
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.

gust to gust
only the dead
trees moan