When I saw signs the owner of the land next to ours is plannning to log it, we made an offer on 20 acres to try to build a better buffer. I’ve been walking it every day just to get a feel for it, and there was a riot of elf cups coming up yesterday. It’s been warm and we had rain recently. Shouldn’t be long before there’s fungi everywhere. Can’t wait.
There are intermittent streams on the north and south ends of the land, separated by a ridge that rises up to where Innisfree and Dove Cottage sit. These late afternoon hikes have been a great way to rehab my knee, though some of the terrain is pretty challenging, and they’re an even better way to clear my head after sitting in front of the computer most of the day. The forest has been over-logged, and it’s now dominated by beech, maple, and chestnut oak, though there are some nice hickories in there, including several shagbark, and a few young oaks. There’s also a large whitetail population. I scared several up yesterday during my hike. Part of the land I’m hoping to buy is leased to a hunting club, and there’s a deer stand on it. Someone’s been cutting the grape vine that’s strangling trees along the stream beds, though I’m not certain if that’s the hunters or the land owners trying to maximize their timber crop. The guy renting Dove Cottage also has a deer stand down in the south hollow. His game cam turned up some beautiful bucks in that spot, but he didn’t manage to take any during deer season this year.
I pulled this up out of the leaf litter to see where the elf cup was rooted. Plenty of decaying branches along the stream to host them.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest … Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? @UncitedPod re: pet pics pic.twitter.com/GL2ZZCev1r
I’m flying high in the arms of caffeine. I’ve been avoiding coffee because my gut has been twisted, but this morning I was feeling the urge. Green tea is nice, but I like that full on blitz, frantic fingers on keyboard, that only a strong cup of coffee or two can deliver. Bang. There it is.
I’m smitten with the Uncited podcast. The two women behind it, young, goofy, at times misdirected, often spot-on, are a hoot, and it’s interesting to hear their takes on works I view through a much older lens. I recently picked up a recommendation from them. I was looking for something akin to Borne, a bonbon book easy to devour but still packed with literary calories to stay the guilt (the so-many-books-out-there-why-am-I-wasting-my-time-on-this-rubbish guilt). Their pick, Station 11, is filling the bill so far. It opens in the fourth act of Shakespeare’s Lear and then rolls briskly into an end-of-the-world pandemic story, hitting all my major buttons. I’ve obsessed about end-of-the world stories since I was a wee Yinzer, probably from the time I first saw Omega Man, Charlton Heston at his defiant sci-fi finest (fuck all that Bible shit; Heston’s greatest work was filled with deserted streets and apocalyptic visions that put Revelation to shame … Omega Man, Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes). Station 11 is off to a fine start. I actually had to force myself to put it down on this 19-degree morning, waiting for the wood stove to do its thing, flipping pages on my Kindle in rapid succession and envisioning a day lost in a book, something I don’t indulge with nearly enough frequency these days and that I’m still not convinced I’ll manage today, having closed Kindle to junk surf (check Twitter, review Reddit, make sure the social presence for the nonprofit I work for is copacetic, check email — why the fuck is Google claiming the business page for one of said nonprofit’s subsidiaries in being put in some sort of limbo because of some unspecified problem on said business page?). Then I jumped into this moment. I’ve missed only one day in the 30 that have passed since I started doing these daily exercises at the behest of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s been transformative, from a writing and psycological perspective, and I have been meaning to send her some sort of communication saying thanks for that. She advocates a Zen approach to writing, just pounding your thoughts into the computer (well, not computer, actually, since she published Bones in the 1980s and seemed a tad ambivalent about even typewriters at that point). This has helped me turn it into a system as I follow her guidance to begin a writing exercise each day with the words “This Moment” and then dash off into whatever I’m obsessing about in that instance. I’ve produced a few things I’m quite proud of, though they constitute a microscopic percentage of the 31,000+ words I’ve churned out in the process (yes, my monkey mind can’t stop from making it a bit of a competition … how many total words, how many consecutive days … ). But creature of habit that I am, I sit here in the predawn Ohio morning, candles lit, Brian Harnetty’s amazing Shawnee, Ohio, playing low enough through the Sonos system to keep my mind rooted in Appalachian Ohio while I let my consciousness (no, not false class consciousness, that’s an entirely different suffering of the benz) drift from Pittsburgh to Albuquerque to Tennessee, to forests, to flying squirrels, to the Globe Theater, to all points along the timeline of my increasingly fading memories. Why the Globe this morning? Shakespeare is on my mind this moment. During the pandemic, I’ve been devouring plays on a pay-per-view basis, phenomenal theater that rivals the works I was privileged to see live at the Folger and the Shakespeare Theater Company in D.C., which recently produced Patrick Page’s incredible All the Devils are Here monologue/meditation on the Bard’s villains that I watched last night and finished with a standing ovation when it concluded. Brilliant. Simply brilliant. Page traces the Bard’s bad guys throughout the plays, from the stereotype-steeped Moor in Titus Andronicus to the more complex, nuanced villains of his later plays. It got me thinking. I’ve been looking for my Big Book of 2021, the whale of a work that I try to consume and get my head around each year. In the past, I’ve tackled Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, In Search of Lost Time, Don Quixote … why not the Bard this year? So my new obsession is born, thanks in part to that transcendent moment watching Page shift from one villain to another, especially during his discussion of what, exactly constitutes a sociopath in a discussion of Iago’s dastardly deeds in Othello. Page reads the traits of a sociopath, then makes a connection of said traits to a whinging orange sociopath more than four centuries removed from Shakespeare’s Iago. So during this morning’s junk surfing, mentioned a few hundred words earlier in this predawn diatribe, I subscribed to the subreddit for Shakespeare, where I intend to seek guidance on sources of insight to aid my efforts to plow through Shakespeare’s plays this year. I read the sonnets a few years ago to the sound of howler monkeys awakening in the jungle dawn cacophony of Costa Rica. It’s time to dive back into Shakespeare, steeped in memories of my undergrad work (a key reason, no doubt, that I’m smitten with the Uncited pod — Amy and Chantelle’s undergrad-inspired rambling about the literary works they studied in school, reflecting on a golden era in their literary lives, much as do I, though my glance backward extends decades while theirs covers only a handful of years. A vision comes to mind of my battered-brown Riverside Shakespeare, purchased used in 1984, spine on the verge of breaking, pages grimy from the paws of countless previous owners, margin notes so cryptic I don’t know how the original notetaker understood them. I wonder what happened to it. Probably disintegrated somewhere during my cross-country travels. Dr. Charles Glendinning’s voice is next, a bit posh, pontificating on the plays, putting them in context, explaining the philosophy and history that infused them so that even when I had spent the previous week drinking and drugging, neglecting to read the assignment, I still emerged with key insights that remain with me 37 years removed.
This same professor gave us the best academic advice I’ve ever received as he patted us on the ass and sent us forth into the world at the close of our senior year: “If you come out of here thinking you know a lot, we’ve failed you utterly. But if you come out realizing how little you know, how much more there is to master, then we’ve given you a good start.”
I’m wading through a dreary winter rain, bound for Paris with Werner Herzog. Today dripped into existence more than dawned. From the cabin window, I watch water course through the diamond-patterned bark of a nearby ash that’s slowly succumbing to boring insects. More distant trees are a jumble of twigs floating in a cloud crowning invisible Peach Ridge Road.
Through the fog I hear Herzog’s voice, that iconic, unemotional German-accented English, while I read Of Walking In Ice: Munich-Paris, 23 November-14 December 1974. He was hiking toward the winter solstice 46 years ago, days growing shorter, world growing colder, while this morning I’m on the other side of the darkness, perched on the last day of February after a brutal cold spell, welcoming warmer temperatures and longer days while sodden with the knowledge that winter likely isn’t done with us. I picked this book up for two reasons: (1) It was highly recommended on the Backlisted literary podcast, which I’ve become a big fan of; and (2) I’ve been devouring nature books since feasting on Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek a few years ago. And there’s a third reason: (3) I love Herzog’s films, those strange mixtures of fact and fiction hybridized into an alternative reality at once recognizable and completely foreign. Whether he’s slogging through the Amazon jungle with a bat-shit leading man or slicing and dicing the video testimony of a nature nut who became grizzly food, his films never fail to leave me deeply affected as they bubble up in dreams and random thoughts for the next several days or even weeks afterward.
Of Walking In Ice is a nature book, sort of. It’s also a pilgrimage that he embarks on in the belief that his ailing mentor, Lotte Eisner, will not, in fact cannot, die until he arrives by her bedside in Paris and grants her permission to do so. It’s vintage Herzog in that regard.
I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death. I took a jacket, a compass, and a duffel bag with the necessities. My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them. I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot. Besides, I wanted to be alone with myself.
His ambling meditations pull you along, pull you in, refuse to let you come to solid answers about the veracity of what’s being reported. He breaks into houses along the way, seeking refuge for the night. Is this metaphor? Is he really shoving open dilapidated doors, hoping no one is home? Or is this just his forced entry into some small village’s consciousness as he plods from Munich to Paris. Imagine, coming home to a soggy German filmmaker dripping all over your threadbare carpet …
And it is a nature book in its way, paced by diesel fumes and lumbering trucks, populated by ravens, jackdaws, crows, sparrows, livestock, vagabond dogs. Wild nature is kept at a distance. The forest appears far off, on the horizon, but he doesn’t enter it. Not physically. It’s more of a mental construct, a preserve where his mind is free to range and rage in reaction to his current environs.
When I looked out the window, a raven was sitting with his head bowed in the rain and didn’t move. Much later he was still sitting there, motionless and freezing and lonely and still wrapped in his raven’s thoughts. A brotherly feeling flashed through me and loneliness filled my breast.
In this Appalachian winter rain, I find a like mind, 46 years removed. I struggled with Walking in Ice initially, trying to get into the flow as it bobs and weaves while walking through the ice and rain. Once I realize it mirrors the way I think while hiking, I fall in step. The rapid bursts of non sequiturs, the fragments and fleeting thoughts. It is sometimes sublime, sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious, as when he starts obsessing about the words “millet” and “lusty,” convinced he never could find a sentence that would accommodate both. Then he shoots off in another direction before landing the following punchline several sentences later:
“My output of sweat is prodigious, as I march lustily thinking of millet.”
Bang. There it is.
The conclusion is incredible, a warm embrace of Lotte Eisner’s impact on German cinema and acknowledgement that this movement is now ready to fly under its own power, carrying forward a fledgling rebirth of a tradition that had been ripped apart by Germany’s Nazi era. Eisner, in fact, lived several more years after Herzog’s arrival at her bedside in Paris, and the book provides the text of a speech he delivered in 1982 when she posthumously received the Helmut Kāutner Prize for her contribution to German film. It’s the perfect coda.
A 7-degree Wednesday morning. Dawn barely broken. Sydney the Cockatoo perched atop his cage next to the black walnut breakfast table. Normally, he’d spend the night out in the Forest Room, which stays surprisingly warm despite its three walls of windows. I keep the HVAC fan running to circulate warm air from the wood stove. But on nights when it dips into the low teens or single digits, I pull Sydney into the cabin and close the hulking oak door that seals off all that glass, all that icy air.
Suddenly, a small brown blur shoots past, leaving Syd startled yet intrigued. Me too. Maybe a house sparrow who wants what the giant white bird bobbing atop his cage already has — warmth, free food.
I lose track of the little bird as I Zoom into a leadership call for work, but I’m not overly concerned. I’ve lived in homes aflutter with small birds, cockatiels, love birds. Eventually, the little invader will be captured. Or, more likely, leave the same way it entered.
As I listen to updates about our nonprofit, the bird drops down from the ceiling, using the stacked stone of the fireplace as a series of steps, a sort of avian ladder leading toward new foraging opportunities.
It lands on the hearth, not 10 feet from the ottoman where my feet rest.
Not a sparrow. A wren. A Carolina wren, soft brown feathers with white-streaked eyebrow, long thin beak for hammering at this speck, that pebble beside the cold, quiet fireplace. I feel the warmth of the wood stove radiating behind me. Clearly, the bird does, too.
Where did he come from, this Zen pebble tossed into my consciousness, leaving ripples of amusement and mild concern about the seal between the fireplace stone and pine ceiling of the cabin? That’s likely how the flying squirrels who have taken up residence in the crawl space between the ceiling and the roof gained access. Et tu, Carolina wren?
The tiny bird alights, flutters up toward a thin, narrow skylight that rides the sharp pitch of the ceiling, right where it meets the chimney. When I first saw that skylight, I had a WTF moment. Why would someone put that narrow slice of sky there, between pine and stone. But when the sun bursts through on bright mornings, the stacked stones glow and ripple. That’s why. And the Carolina wren finds a tight gap between stone and skylight, disappearing from sight.
Problem solved. It escaped the same way it gained entry, presumably. Mental note to point out that gap to the contractor I’m bringing in to help me critter-proof the cabin. I Zoom back to where I belong, focused on work, until nature calls.
I turn off my video. Make sure I’m on mute, Rise to use the bathroom, just steps from the fireplace, and while I’m standing there, watching green tea that’s now urine splatter, I hear a non-liquid sound.
Twaaang. Alarmed at first. I check the wall heater behind me. Did it just cry out? Or did it come from back in the cabin? It’s not the notification tone of an inbound Tweet. More acoustic, and I look at my Yamaha guitar, resting in the corner between the fireplace and the entry to the bathroom. Clearly a suspect. But, how? What? And as I look closer I see a tiny pebble on the bridge of the guitar, having landed there after it plummeted from above, bounced off the low E string, and came to rest.
It was a Tweet, Sorta. A message from the little avian up in that crevice above the fireplace. All day long, the wren goes back and forth, hopping to the ground, foraging, gobbling a dead stink bug at one point ( a bird after my heart; why can’t the fucking cockatoo do that?). I’m at peace with this. I’m reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s incredible translation of the Tao Te Ching. I am one with this universe. I am water, flowing around this distraction, one with it.
Water hell. I am bird seed. I grab some and put it on the hearth, here and there, for the next time the wren appears. I start thinking, hey, I have plenty of room. Eat those stink bugs and we can live in harmony. But my Monkey Mind intervenes. It could be carrying some sickness that would infect Syd. I find droppings along the mantle. Time for an eviction. But a gentle boot out the door is in order.
With sundown impending, the Carolina wren re-emerges, lands directly next to the seed, and starts hammering hard at the safflower and sunflower, woodpecker like, not the nibbling I expected from so small a creature. It then wanders past the guitar and toward … the bathroom.
Opportunity knocks. And I quietly rise and close the door, trapping the tiny bird in the wee windowless bathroom. I hear it ricocheting around in there, panicked, trying to find a way out of the darkness. I grab a soft felt blanket and slip inside, pulling the door quickly closed, then flick on the light. After a few moments of doing a claustrophobic Benny Hill routine, I emerge from the bathroom, gently cradling the tiny bird in the blanket, and hustle it through the cabin, through the back room and out the door, where I gingerly unfurl the blanket and send it soaring toward the black walnut trees that border the utility cut between the cabin and the road.
I reflect, feeling a bit guilty about evicting the tiny creature into what will be another viciously cold night. But I take solace in the Tao.
Heaven and earth aren’t humane To them the ten thousand things are straw dogs
The universe is determined to test me, flinging Carolina wrens at my attempts to find the Tao. Thursday and Friday dawn much like Wednesday. Frigid. Trapped in close quarters with an antsy cockatoo. Work tasks waiting to be ticked off my checklist.
And, of course, the Carolina wren. Or wrens? Again. And Again. And again.
A scratching above me, somewhere up near the top of the chimney, maybe, hopefully, outside the east-facing window that overlooks the woodshed and its dwindling contents.
I go quiet. Silence the chattering keyboard. I hear the rustling of a tiny bird, foraging once more just yards away, a counterpoint to the ticks and clicks of the warming wood stove. The scene becomes Keystone Cops comical. At least from the cockatoo’s perspective as he watches me walk calmly behind the tiny brown blur as it hops here, scurries there, hiding under the couch, under the table, under the chaise lounge where I consume podcasts at the end of each day.
I catch and release the bird or birds five times over two days, mildly irked, then amused, Then irked again, even to the point where, in a fit of pique on Friday, I consider dashing its brains out rather than releasing it again.
I calm down. I come up with a plan to determine if this is some vast avian conspiracy or simply a single bird prone to recidivism. Friday’s fourth and final catch does not include a release. It ends in a cardboard Amazon box, where I deposit the wren and the dishtowel used to subdue it. This is where it will spend the night. The back room isn’t heated, but it doesn’t freeze. The bird should be fine. And in the morning, I’ll sit in my usual spot, watching the sun rise, waiting to see if a Carolina wren drops into my consciousness.
And it doesn’t. Saturday dawns cold. Again. I hear birdsong outside — nearby, but clearly outside. No Carolina wren in my cabin. I go to the back room, scoop up the box without opening it (I’m not risking another escape) and put it in my truck, already warmed up and ready to conquer the double-black-diamond ski slope I call a driveway. Thanks to the 4 wheel drive low setting, I reach Peach Ridge Road and head south, toward Athens, toward a grocery run at Seaman’s, toward a little pull off along the way where I can free this guy and be shed of him.
Visions of grateful creatures returned to the wild dance in my head as I pull the box out of the truck, crunch crunch crunch a few feet away through ice crusted snow, and open it. Inside, a crumpled dishtowel. A dead Carolina wren, its feet curled in tiny fists. So much for the feel-good moment of the snowbound winter …
The ten thousand things arise together; In their arising is their return.
It’s Saturday. Another 7 degree morning. I’m watching the candles flicker on the mantel as the sun slowly creeps into my consciousness, reflected through the caffeine prism that is my mind. It was a beautiful, icy night. A first quarter moon poured through my bedroom window in the loft, throwing the snow-covered forest into soft white contrast to the western sky.
Birdsong ignites outside the cabin. Today will be kissed with sunshine. No sign of intruders (though the flying squirrels were up and about a few hours ago, dancing in the moonlight.)
I’m still processing this. I was crestfallen to realize the bird paid for its trespasses with its life. I wonder what, exactly, killed it, settling on the likelihood that the stress from Friday’s antics were just too much for its tiny, exhausted heart. During my morning reading of the Tao I look for some answer. But it’s another poet, more contemporary, who brings it into focus.
I’ve been dabbling in Chinese cinema recently, with mixed results. I swung and missed with the Flowers of War, ostensibly about the Rape of Nanking, a topic that I’ve read about extensively, but it turned out to be a variation on the hookers-with-a-heart-of-gold film mashed up with an American action picture (though the lone Chinese soldier’s Rambo-like last stand against the Japanese invaders was pretty damned satisfying given the evil the Japanese were perpetrating throughout the collapsing city).
Then I came across “An Elephant Sitting Still,” one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Hands down. I hesitated on pulling the trigger when I saw it runs nearly four hours. I’m so glad I holstered my A.D.D. and dove in.
Like a Shakespearean tragedy, most of the action happens off camera. We’re left to see the close-up reactions — or often lack thereof — of the main characters. There’s a sense of hopelessness throughout the film — alienation, petty violence, ennui, and a web of lies, that would make Trump proud. Sadly, Hu Bo, the director and screenwriter, committed suicide shortly after finishing the film, a fact that hearkens to John Kennedy Toole and his New Orleans picaresque “A Confederacy of Dunes.”
The acting is subdued but powerful. I particularly liked Peng Yuchang as Wei Bu and Wang Yuwen as Huang Ling. And the final scene was transcendent. The camera, which often was close, intimate, even encroaching, becomes distant, but a transcendent moment occurs as the characters exit the bus on their way to a circus in Manzhouli, where there is supposed to be a circus elephant that can be abused and beaten but remains still.
E.M. Forster, when grappling with our solipsism, scaled back his expectations, I think, in urging that we “only connect.” It seems an admission that we can never really know another person, cut through the web of small deceits and lies and charades designed to hide what lives deep inside. But just making a connection, any connection, can be an end in itself.
And how bewildered is any womb-born creature that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way a crack runs through a teacup. So the bat quivers across the porcelain of evening.
— Marie Rainer Rilke, Duino Elegies, No. 8
I’ve been reading Rilke, driven by a bungled attempt to taunt Ray Wylie Hubbard on Twitter. I noticed Ray dropped the poet’s name from his version of “The Messenger” on Co-Starring. The lyrics originally were:
And the message I give you is by this old poet, Rilke He said, ‘Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures.’
Suddenly, poor Rilke was reduced to “this old poet.” No namecheck. I promptly switched my Twitter profile to Ghost of Rilke and jabbed at Ray, which, heavyweight badass Tex-ahoma singer/songwriter that he is, he didn’t even dignify with a reply. But through that process it dawned on me that I’d never read Rilke. Had no real idea what he was about. I thought, mistakenly, that he was French, for that matter, not a German whose mother dressed him as a girl for the first year or two of his life, named him Marie Rainer, and took some perverted solace in the echo she felt of an infant daughter she’d lost previously.
Being me and being diligent, I researched a bit and settled on reading a collection of Rilke’s work with a forward by poet Robert Hass and extensive footnotes, largely primary source explanations from Rilke’s journals, letters, etc., that explicate the poems. I tried running headlong at them but bounced off, for the most part. There are sections that seem crystal clear, bristling with sharp imagery and brisk pace. Others, not so much. Like many great poets, his work is infused with a lot of his personal, first-hand experience, and you have to peel that back to really see what he’s getting at. Trying to sum it up, no doubt too broadly and with a blunted spear tip, I’d say he grapples with the core ideas of existentialism, but there’s an embrace of the eternal nothingness as a force to be embraced, something worthy of worship, worthy of, well, elegies.
So after reading Hass I decided my best approach would be to start with the Duino Elegies. I’ve come away impressed, but I can’t say I fully have my head around them. I’m chipping away, each reading revealing some new nuance. There still are stretches where I’m bewildered, but it’s worth the time. The words are gorgeous (I’ve not read other translations, but based on Hass’ praise and my first-hand experience, this one is good. Each poem appears in both German and English, so anyone who’s interested in the subtleties of the translating process can dig in).
I love the way Rilke throws his arms around our mortality, embracing it lovingly and then smiling as it slowly slides away, back into the nothingness of eternity. The work spawns associations in my head with Alan Moore’s amazing tome Jersusalem with its Builders and the living and the dead all wondering around simultaneously on different plains of existence. And in December, as I do each Christmas, I revisited James Joyce’s “The Dead,” only this time I zagged a bit and listened to the audio version. Very rewarding, mulling these themes of mortality and death and remembrance. Gabriel watching the swirling snow fall across all of Ireland at the end of The Dead is an image that sits atop all of the other scribbling on my palimpsest brain. I also conjure Samuel Beckett, whose response to the existential abyss was a sort of Irish jig with the absurd.
Why all this? I’m looking ahead at 20 summers, and wondering what I’ll do with them. How will I spend this time I have left? I recently listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, where he was interviewing Wendell Pierce, hands-down one of my favorite contemporary actors (The Wire, Treme). This is where I was introduced to the 20 summers idea. Pierce mentioned it, can’t recall whom he attributed it to. He and I are about the same age, and this is the point where you realize life is finite. I’ll turn 59 this summer. Genetics and fortune willing, I have 20 summers left. Tops. I catch myself realizing the list of things I’ll get to comes with an expiration date that’s fast approaching. It’s already 2 years since I spent a summer in Costa Rica. Six years since I moved to Athens. Forty years since I staggered out of Swissvale High School, stoned, clueless, and utterly unprepared for reality. I’m honestly not sure how I’ve gotten this far. I’ve learned a lot along the way. But I want to learn more.
* * *
As COVID-19 grabbed us by the gonads and twisted, I retreated inward, a familiar route for me. My main realization has been that I am, at heart, a hermit. I really, genuinely prefer to be alone. I hate small talk. Socializing. Putting myself out there. I’m fine in my own head and for all those years that I was an exec or leader, it was excruciating to get out there and put on a gregarious grin. Even then, I failed as often as not. But I gave it the old college try, and overall the career went much better than I’d ever dreamed, a mix of good luck, good timing, and opening the damned door when opportunity knocked.
* * *
December 23 dawns in a bruise of purples and red teetering toward sun or gloom, still undecided. The nights are long, each now getting incrementally shorter. The wood stove is humming. After having lost my wood-stove mojo between seasons, I’m back, better than ever, cutting kindling and building coal beds that keep the house warm 24×7 without resorting to the grid. I no longer get up in the middle of the night to feed wood to the fire-belching beast. I let it go out and hop around in a hoodie in the 50-degree cabin while I reignite it each morning before dawn. Sydney the Cockatoo still slumbering in the Forest Room, his home and locus for destructive fun. Since Sunny’s death I’m letting him stay up later (He used to harass her mercilessly as sunset neared so I’d cover his cage and put him to bed for both canine and human peace of mind. Now he’s often up till 9 p.m.. And one thing we learned: He definitely needs his 12 hours of beauty rest or things can get pretty ugly.) This morning, 8 a.m. clicking into view, he is quiet. Not a peep. He’ll generally start clucking and making sweet, soft noises when he wants to wake up. This morning, all’s quiet on the cockatoo front. At least for now.
And I’m thinking. Taking stock. Wondering what the fuck the next 20 summers hold. Been thinking about Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality. But I guess my mental meanderings in this warming forest cabin that I call Innisfree are more accurately framed Intimations of Mortality. Intimations? Nah. More like that punch in the mouth Mike Tyson warned us about, the one that leaves all plans in a heap of blood and rags on the floor of a sweat-soaked boxing ring.
But the intimations, the punches in the mouth, they’re here. They’re constant, infused in everything I see. Everything I read. Life is ephemeral. But does it matter? Who really gives a fuck? Maybe Rilke has the answer, buried somewhere in elegies percolating with acrobats and Egyptian ruins and bats and all the baggage he built up in gathering the material for them.
I’ll keep looking. And keeping those 20 summers top of mind in everything I do …
If there was an upside to spending the better part of 2020 sheltering in place, it was that I had plenty of time to read. I generally had two books going at any given time, one audio and one text, with the text usually on my Kindle but occasionally buried in glyphs on wafer-thin chunks of dead tree.
I’ve grown so used to the Kindle that when I read an actual book I often reach out to click on words I don’t know the meaning of to look them up in the dictionary. I love that about the Kindle. Words I used to glide over and take in context I now look up and study a bit. And I love having enough books on it that I could probably spend the next year or three reading without adding anything else, especially given all the public domain titles I’ve downloaded from Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive. But it’s definitely been a love-hate relationship. I was using a 7-year-old Paperwhite that was slow and littered with ads. Just solved that by upgrading to a new, ad-free Oasis. It’s awesome. I love having page turn buttons, and the only downside I’m seeing is the battery life is more like 20 hours instead of a couple weeks.
The Oasis upgrade also made note taking easier. Between the crappy notes software on the Kindle and the slow speed of my Paperwhite, I’d pretty much given up. The Oasis is still saddled with Kindle’s crappy notes software, but it’s so much faster that it’s at least usable. Bring on 2021.
But first, a look back. What did I read? More than I’d realized, to be honest. I read a lot when I was in Costa Rica a few years ago, but that was concentrated in 3 months. This was pretty much year-long.
Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” Paul Stamets My impressions.
One of my tree obsession books. Very much enjoyed this. Great story well told.
“Pawpaw! The only tropical fruit ever to escape the tropics. Biggest, best, weirdest, wildest native fruit this continent ever made. Growing native, right here in Ohio. And nobody knows!”
The Practice of the Wild: With a New Preface by the Author, Gary Snyder
Snyder is one of my favorite poets. This is a series of meditations on wildness, wilderness, freedom, all that good stuff. This is where I heard about Cabeza de Vaca’s work (see below), which I promptly downloaded free from public domain sources.
The word wild is like a gray fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of sight.
And because it’s Snyder, one of my heroes, another quote:
Although the Chinese and Japanese have long given lip service to nature, only the early Daoists might have thought that wisdom could come of wildness.
The Narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
Astounding. The arrogance of the Spaniards. The trials and tribulations of their journey along the Gulf Coast of what is now Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas. Cabeza de Vaca is enslaved at one point. Just insane reading. Worth a gander at the Wikipedia entry if you want an abridged version.
Days in a Mad-House; / or, Nellie Bly’s Experience on Blackwell’s Island
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (translated by Edith Grossman)
Is it by chance frivolous, or is the time wasted that is spent wandering the world, not seeking its rewards but the asperities by which the virtuous rise to the seat of immortality?
This was my Big Book for the year. I’ve always wanted to read it. Bounced off once previously and hoped the Grossman translation would be worth the effort. It was. But I did struggle with it and almost abandoned it near the end of book one. I’m glad I persevered though. I’ve heard a lot of people say they think the second part, which was written about a decade after the first, is inferior, but I liked it more. It often drifted into metafiction and featured strange narrative framing that I found fascinating, but the “adventures” do plod on at times and become repetitive. I love the Blackadder/Baldric dynamic of Don Quixote/Sancho Panza … their verbal jousting is as amusing as their runs at windmills.
After Bread, Henryk Sienkiewicz
Part of my background reading for The Novel, which has been pretty much moribund since I returned from Costa Rica. Plotting a return to it, though …
This is an account of Polish immigrants in New York City. Very dark, naturalistic approach. Downloaded it from Archive.net, I think …
Fifty-Two Stories, Anton Chekhov
When George Saunders said he was working on a series of meditations on Chekhov’s sort stories, I figured I better get off my ass and read Chekhov’s short stories. They’re incredible. Minimalist at times, even imagist, but it’s not the spare writing of someone with nothing to say. Perhaps wading through Saunders’ book will be my Big Book for 2021. Still deciding …
Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America, Christopher Wylie
Horrifying look at what happens when fascists figure out how to use social media — and the data they learn about people one social media — to enrage sections of the public to do their dark bidding. Facebook’s culpability in all this convinced me to use that platform as little as possible for the rest of my days …
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake
Another great book on mushrooms. Nice complement to Stamets’ Mycelium Running.
The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock
Local guy from my neck of Appalachia who didn’t start writing till he was in his 50s. Pollock is a literary descendant of Flannery O’Connor minus the Catholic transcendence her work turns on. I’d already read Knockemstiff by him, which was incredible. Loved this book, but I couldn’t even finish the Netflix version of it.
The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, Eileen Welcome
This was fantastic and written by a friend who won a Pulitzer for her work uncovering horrific plutonium experiments conducted on unsuspecting U.S. citizens. I was an editor on that story when it ran in the 1990s. I read Katz’s brick of a bio on Pancho Villa last year. Eileen does a brilliant job of breathing life into each character in the Mexican rebel’s strange attack on a remote U.S. town. A tale well told and definitely worth reading.
The Heavenly Table: A Novel, Donald Ray Pollock
Probably the weakest of the three books I’ve read by Pollock, but certainly not a waste of time.
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
I’d read rave reviews of this, but I honestly remember little of it and recall it mostly as another junky’s ode. Just don’t care that much anymore.
Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
Perfect read for these times of rising white supremacy. A meditation on race, identity, and the South from the perspective of a brilliant, drunken White boy. It’s easy to get lost in the roiling flow of Faulkner’s writing and miss the incredible storyline’s he’s weaving.
The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, Herman Melville
I think I picked this up based on a recommendation on one of the literature podcasts I listen to, but I don’t recall which one. (perhaps Marlon and Jake Read Dead People, which I highly recommend and wish they would resurrect; Marlon James is one of my favorite contemporary writers — and he’s fucking hilarious.) They were discussing Moby Dick when this was recommended. It’s a reminder of what an incredible talent Melville was and a chance to see how deeply rooted Trumpism is in American culture.
Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians, Fanny Kelly
Don’t remember how I stumbled across this but I’m glad I did. It’s a fascinating story.
The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
Another recommendation I picked up on a literary podcast, in this case Should You Read Before You Die? by Josh Anish. It’s become one of my favorite podcasts. I’d circled Bowles’ book several times sensing it was something in my wheelhouse. I dove in based on Anish’s recommendation and wasn’t disappointed.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six o’clock, and another when he had done his day’s work. I thought it a detestable custom; but it was necessary, he suppos’d, to drink strong beer, that he might be strong to labor.
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stephen Mitchell, and Robert Hass
Duino Elegies, Rilke
I started reading Rilke based on a Twitter prank I tried to pull on Ray Wylie Hubbard that he either didn’t see or he (justifiably) wasn’t willing to dignify with his attention. It’s why my Twitter handle is still Ghost of Rilke. In the process of scheming, I realized I’d never actually read Rilke. Time to fix that. I found it dense but not impenetrable, and the intro by Hass was invaluable. I’m working on a Rilke post, but for now, here’s my shot across Ray’s bow:
Oh, Darling, James A. Jones Jr. Loved this. It was written by one of my first bosses. Jim was in charge at the Clewiston News when I arrived way back in 1984. This is the story of his Vietnam experience and, more specifically, how he met his wife while there. It’s the story of a normal guy’s experiences in turbulent times, and it’s also an inspiring love story.
Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio’s Natural Landscape, Deborah Fleming
It’s not exactly in my neck of the woods, but I learned a lot reading this and particularly appreciate Fleming’s pragmatic approach to managing natural areas, accommodating a variety of uses and interests.
Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (Narrated by Mark Deakins) (started 12/19, completed 1/20)
Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris (Narrated by Jonathan Marosz)
Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Narrated b: Robin Field)
Mythos, Stephen Fry (Narrated by Stephen Fry)
The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, Ned Sublette (Narrated by: Sean Crisden)
Tales from the Ant World, Edward O. Wilson (Narrated by: Jonathan Hogan )
Beowulf: A New Translation, Maria Dahvana Headley, (Narrated by: JD Jackson, Maria Dahvana Headley)
Perhaps the best version of Beowulf I’ve read. A daring, contemporary, thrilling, and yes, feminist take. I highly recommend this.
Beowulf, Translation by Seamus Heaney
One of my top two favorite translations.
The Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley (Narrated by Susan Bennett)
As I commented on Reddit, I loved this until I didn’t. But it’s a still a great book and definitely worth reading. Maria Dahvana Headley is someone I’d love to talk literature with over a bottle of mead.
Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl, Jonathan C. Slaght (Narrated by author)
Wow. This is about owls. Strange owls. But it’s also about the strangeness of remote Russia. Great book.
The Dead, James Joyce (Narrated by Michael Orenstein)
I read this every year at Christmas. Decided to listen to it this year. Great move. The narrator was fantastic and it was nice to sit back, close my eyes and let Joyce’s language filter down on me like the Dublin snow. It’s been called the greatest short story in the English language. I’ve yet to encounter one better.
With the temps dipping into the teens recently, I’ve been closing off the back porch at night and pulling Sydney inside since the woodstove doesn’t do a great job of heating that space. So we’ve been spending our mornings up close and personal, which means we’re watching parrot videos on YouTube and having breakfast together (the cabin is pretty tiny, so his cage is between the woodstove and the beautiful black walnut table I bought at Chesterhill Produce Auction.)
I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of “The Bird Way” by Jennifer Ackerman and she was discussing the incredible vocalizations of lyrebirds, prompting me to Google around so I could hear what she was talking about. That’s how I came across this example. Wow. This is the coolest 2 minutes and 54 seconds you’ll spend today …