Fierce love for urban trees

In few other paces do individual trees become so well known and loved as in the city. Many urban trees are given membership within the community. Or, from the trees’ perspective, the membership that they always had is seen and appreciated by people. The particularities of each tree’s form and place is celebrated. A looming death brings both anticipatory grief and zealous care.

This catalpa growing on a street in Chicago’s North Side (Andersonville) has a twisted trunk and bark marked by a long, vertical wound. In winter, the tree might pass for dead. So the human neighbors have pinned the tree with textual and photographic evidence of its vigor. The message: “they tell me you are crooked and I answer…” city workers, do not cut. The other message: we people, this tree, this place; we belong.

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The day after the eclipse… Through great forethought (read: coincidence), my class and I are reading David Hinton’s Hunger Mountain. Hinton explores the many ways in which classical Chinese poetry and philosophy (especially Taoist and Ch’an philosophies) evince relationships between consciousness, language, and cosmos that are almost unimaginable within minds constructed within the English alphabet (read: me). The “self” is also present in these old Chinese poems (through its continuity with uncarved being) in ways that side-step some of the duality and I-centeredness of English. Hinton’s writing is an interesting  complement to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s meditations on Potawatomi language in Braiding Sweetgrass: when the world is represented in verbs, it’s life is honored in a way that noun-heavy (“it”) English cannot achieve.

Back to the moon:

月 glyph means moon or month.
朋  is the glyph for the grapheme friend. (In classical Chinese. Modern written form combines the glyph with others, so 朋 is not now used alone.) Friend was originally a string of cowrie shells, then wings of a bird, then moons.

Now: friend is two, standing close. Two moons, standing upright, together. Friend, shells, wings, moon. Moon is alone. Moon is friend.

More etymological archaeology of relationship from Hinton:

情, to feel, to love, emotion. From “heart-mind” and “the blue-green color of landscape.” To feel is to be in the sensory moment of the land, inner and outer unwalled. “Consciousness and landscape” are integrated, momentarily. Mountain, forest, mist, mind.

然 “thusness of things in perpetual transformation” — dog 犬 meat 肉 roasting over a fire 灬, “an ontological process both grizzly and ablaze with itself.”

Of course, the shuffle of alphabet that is modern English has its own cosmic, bloody, soil-clodded roots:

consider: with the stars

pedigree: foot of crane

hood-winked: eye-sewn crane

regret: cry again

companion: with bread

environment: surrounded, but not part of me

human: earthly being, not of the gods

lunatic: periodic, moon-birthed insanity

On this last, note the Chinese poets made a practice of moon-watching, sometimes with wine and 朋, but often alone-but-not-alone, the cosmos finding itself. Lunacy. Eclipsed, a forsaking darkness.


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Powerpoint begone! Welcome, scorpions.

Extreme makeover for the curriculum: we tossed out the lectures and replaced them with embodied experience. Students in Field Investigations in Biology (one half of our introductory biology course sequence) have for several years now been tromping the woods, measuring skulls, and poking around in the sewage treatment plant, experiencing ecology, evolution, and biological diversity through feet, noses, ears, and hands. Why not use the apps that came installed (free!) in our bodies. We’re not yet brains-in-jars.

One of the sites that we visit is near Sewanee’s “Piney Point.” Near the point is a sandstone outcrop, home to plants and animals with a taste for lichen-crusted pizza stones. The exposed rock blazes. Fence lizards bask, Cladonia lichen crinkles.

Limbs shed from drought-twisted pines provide cover for animals on the hottest days. To supplement this meager shade, we’ve lain a few small plywood boards at the site. The boards are class-lures. There is nothing like prepared spontaneity. Let’s lift the board: oh my, scorpions! Who knew?

2015-09-19 scorpionDuring last week’s class, Kirk Zigler, my colleague and fellow poker-under-boards, found not only solitary scorpions, but paragons of arachnid family values. I had to scuttle out there to see for myself.

2015-09-19 scorpion with babies 011Scorpions jockeyed by their babies. The youngsters cluster on their mothers’ backs, finding refuge under the stinger. Each juvenile has its own curled, spiked tail. The overall effect is a jumble of gramigna pasta. The dish simmers with enough promise of spicy mouth-feel to deter even the more reckless eater.

2015-09-19 scorpion with babies 017Where-ever exposed rock meets jumbles of downed wood, scorpions will thrive. If your house happens to sit next to such a site, expect guests. Lydia Boroughs saved one such creature for me to show-and-tell in class and then photograph.

Archno-Adonis mirrored by a flashlight’s glare:

2015-09-04 scorpion 003The same scorpion, under ultra-violet “blacklight”:

2015-09-04 scorpion 022Ring-like molecules in scorpions’ exoskeletons snare the ultra-violet light, then throw it back as a blue-green glow. It’s unlikely that such a trick evolved just to amuse bulb-wielding primates. One explanation is that the glow lets scorpions receive and detect low levels of light, using their exoskeleton as another “eye.” When UV light levels are high,  scorpions hide, sitting out the bright day and sunset. Even when white light is absent, the animals detect and respond to ultraviolet.

This is a curious arrangement, but no stranger than the rest of the scorpions’ visual system. Scorpions have both median and lateral eyes. The median eye sits in the center of the “back” and forms images of high visual acuity. The lateral eyes vary considerably in number from species to species and are used to perceive subtle differences in light intensity at night, presumably letting scorpions orient as they forage at night and calibrate their daily clocks. The UV-gleamed exoskeleton shines into these lateral eyes, opening a new dimension of vision.

In searching for the latest information about scorpion eyes, I discovered that the most comprehensive study of their evolution and taxonomy was recently published by Stephanie Loria and Lorenzo Prendeini. Stephanie is a friend and former student now completing her PhD on scorpion biology at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Peering under cover-boards on Sewanee’s sandstone can be addictive… and lead to some interesting places.


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Curiosity should have no handcuffs

Dug out the old circuit boards whose hacked wires helped me to earn a PhD. Took them for a visit to the University of the South observation bee hive.


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September 11th Survivor Tree

A memorial pool at the site of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. Water flows over the lip, down to the void. Names of the dead ring the pool, marking the footprint of the towers.

911 memorial“Freedom Tower,” the tallest skyscraper in the Americas, lances the clouds next to the pools.

freedom towerI visited in winter, on a sleet-slammed, windy day. In addition to paying my respects at the site of the attacks, I wanted to see and touch a special tree. People clearing the remains of the fallen towers found a Bradford pear under the dust and concrete. The tree had stood in a planter next to the towers. Most of the pear’s branches were shattered by the attacks, reducing the thirty-year-old tree to a stub.

Now, after years of care in the City’s Arthur Ross Nursery in the Bronx, the “survivor tree” is back at the site. Unlike the rod-spined white oaks that line the wide walkways at the memorial, the pear’s body is scarred and fragile. The tree stands within its own hooped railing, its placement and form jarring with the metronomic plantings of oaks (trees that form a living, green roof for the museum and train station below). Straps loop the pear’s branches and trunk, stabilizing wood that, although it is partly healed, has fractures — tree memories — that will forever remain within.

survivor pearsurvivor pear 2Despite these wounds, the tree’s body speaks of vitality. Twigs are bud-fat and arched skyward. Rows of sapsucker holes spoke of the time that the tree spent regaining its strength in the leafier and more woodpecker-friendly nursery.

survivor pear 3A human interpreter and guide stood with the tree and translated its story from wood-words to human language, explaining to new visitors why the tree stood where it did.

Some visitors slowed, listened, and rested their hands on the pear’s skin, leaning into the sturdy life.

Others raced around, laughing, snapping smiling selfies in the sleet: Me with the Tree, Me with the etched names of the dead, Me with a big tower. Survivor Tree commemorative trays, umbrellas, mugs, and ornaments are for sale in the Museum Shop.

Sadness upon sadness, “As if there was no death.”


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Light, sound, hummingbird wings

From the dawn-light series (see also silk and moth wings)…

There is a moment in the early morning when the sun catpaws through the forest’s tangled blankets, illuminating my hummingbird feeder. The touch is gentle. The claws of midday are withheld. For two or three minutes, sun fires the blur of wings. For the rest of the day, the lights are off and wings move in gray-green, almost invisible.

hummer0hummer1hummer4Unlike other birds that power their flight with only the downstroke of the wing, hummingbirds flip their wings after the downstroke and generate more lift as they pull back their arms. The feather tips therefore scribe a figure-of-eight as the bird crams more gravity-fight into each back-and-forth. They do this fifty or more times every second. Humans can perceive only ten “images” per second and most movies are shot at twenty-four frames per second. To get an acoustic sense of the birds’ frenzy, I slowed a sound recording of the hummingbird in the photograph by one hundred times. The heart-beat thuds are the slowed wings, the strange wind is the sound of insects singing in techno-molasses:

(email subscribers, click on the header link to get to the sound file)


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On the beauty of rattlesnakes

This is the year of the timber rattlesnake on the Southern Cumberland Plateau. I’ve seen and heard of more in the last five months than I have in the last twenty years combined. They’re sleeping in gardens, gliding across porches, crossing wooded trails, and swimming on asphalt. Most seem to be one or two years old, suggesting that we’re seeing the result of a baby-boom in 2013 or 2014. What might have caused such a successful hatch year is a mystery: perhaps a good mast year of acorns and hickory nuts swelled the rodent population, echoing a year later in the abdomens of fecund snake mothers? Another possibility is that the last two winters have been colder here than any within the last decade, pinching the rodent supply this year, making snakes take to the road where we then encounter them. Certainly 2014 was chipmunk-poor after the “Arctic Vortex” made several visits. I estimate an 80% drop in chipmunks the following spring.

Whatever the cause, these snakes inevitably run foul of humans. Many are dead on the roads; others are killed around habitations. I’ve picked up a few of these corpses and, before giving them a respectful return to the woodland community, I’ve taken great pleasure in examining what must surely be called their gorgeousness. Each individual has a different mottled pattern, but all grade in tone and texture from head to tail.

2015-08-05 Rattlesnake head12015-08-05 Rattlesnake head2The nostril (higher) and pit organ (below) jut into the world. Inside the pit organ, a membrane hides a profusion of nerve endings and  blood vessels. Nerve receptors tingle when temperature changes; blood carries away last second’s heat, letting the snake know moment-by-moment how its thermal environment is changing. The pit organ’s information runs directly to the same part of the brain that receives signals from the eyes. So “heat” is seen by rattlesnakes. The pits are extra eyes, functioning like pin-hole cameras. Oh, to be able to experience such a synesthetic world, if only for a few seconds.

And down the body we go, a cascade of forested scales:

2015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0122015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0172015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0212015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0242015-08-05 Rattlesnake 026And the tale ends with the longest rattle so far among the deceased:

2015-08-25 Rattlesnake tailFor encounters with live snake cousins, I invite you to more sounds and sights.

Nemo me impune lacessit. Time to reclaim the Gadsden flag for all.

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“Nature” writing class

A big day in Sewanee: fall classes started at the University of the South. Being back with the students feels great. Their energy and insight is inspiring. It’s a great honor to spend time with them as we travel the semester toward the solstice.

This fall I am teaching a class on “nature” writing. I’ve tried to gather readings that touch on multiple perspectives, including texts by writers for whom the idea of nature is alien or oppressive. I’m not convinced that “nature” exists, at least not as it is usually formulated within the West as a collection of objects outside the self (“environment” is even more insular, deriving from environs, surroundings). We’ll dig into these ideas, guided by our authors. The reading list, which will have additions later in the semester, is as follows:

The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape. Robert Macfarlane. The Guardian, 27th February 2015.
The trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, William Cronon, 1995, In: Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, William Cronon, editor. W. H. Norton.
(1) The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Gilbert White. 1789. “Advertisement” through “Letter X” (2) Wasteland. A journey through the American cloaca. Frederick Kaufman. Harper’s Magazine. February, 2008.
Book of Ice, Paul Miller, 2011, powerhouse Books, 978-1935613145
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2015, Milkweed Editions, 978-1571313560
All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, Winona LaDuke, 1999, South End Press, 978-0896085992
(1) All Our Relations, and (2) Sumak kawsay: the written word, justice, and Ecudaor’s constitution.
Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton, 2012, Shambhala Press, 978-1611800166
Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder, 1990, North Point Press, 978-0865474543 PS3569.N88 P82 1990
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, 2010, Algonquin Books, 978-1565126060
The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, Eds: Alison Hawthorne Deming, Lauret E. Savoy, 2011, Milkweed Editions, 978-1571313195
Findings: Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World, Kathleen Jamie, 2007, Graywolf Press, 978-1555974459
Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, Rebecca Solnit, 2013, University of California Press, 978-0520274044
The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod, Henry Beston, 1928 (Holt Paperbacks edition: 978-0805073683)
The Peregrine, J. A. Baker, 1967 (New York Review Books Classics edition: 978-1590171332)
“Nature” writing in Islam and Christianity
Janisse Ray and William Bartram
Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard

Students will write essays weaving disparate strands of our readings and discussions into word-fabrics of what I hope will be interesting and attractive textures. The prompts for their two longest essays are: What is the relationship between language and landscape? And, What is a tree? I look forward to their responses.

In addition, they take on several “creative writing” assignments in which they can experiment with words and form. My syllabus has some advice on creative writing which I am eager to have critiqued by fellow ramblers, follows:

Drop “Creative Writing Assessment” into Google’s ever-open maw and the machine will regurgitate thousands of “rubrics” by which creative writing can be placed onto a linear hierarchy of worth. But “creativity” is not born in a rubric, nor is it received in two-by-two tables of check-boxes. The quality of writing can be quantified on an Excel spreadsheet, but this process fails to honor the participatory, context-dependent, and transgressive natures of art. The same is true, not coincidentally, for science.

In this class we will use part of our time together to converse about what makes good writing, creative writing, beautiful writing, and unsettling writing. There will be no single answer to these questions. Indeed, what and how we value writing depends on the narrative of our own lives, the particularities of our needs and affinities, and the tangle of political, bodily, historical, cultural, and philosophical influences from which our minds and emotions are made. When we read, we enter one portion of another person’s consciousness, leaping for a few moments outside the self. This suggests one way of thinking about writing: Do written words make possible this leap and, if they do, how startling, beautiful, entertaining, interesting, or troubling is the time we spend in your world?

Some tidbits of advice about the “craft” of writing, advice that we’ll discuss further in class. If you need a rubric to guide your work, start here:

“Show, don’t tell.” Shun clichés. For example, “Show, don’t tell.”

Attend to the senses.

Juicy verbs are your friends.

Flocks of adverbs and adjectives will choke the engines of your flying machine.

Form matters, sometimes. In the beginning…then an arc or a circle or some other geometric design.

Write, let it sit for a few days, return and revise. Repeat, repeat.

If the metaphor feels right, use it, push it almost to the edge of absurdity. Or beyond. Listen for the crash as it lands.

Confusion is OK, in small doses. “Difficulty” for its own sake is generally unhelpful, unless you’re writing within a deliberately obscurantist genre.

Mind-body-emotion: we’re unified, kinda. So connect ideas to the body, emotions to the mind, the body to the world beyond our skin. Find fractures in this unity and worry at them.

Connection and meaning: cast lines and hook your work into unexpected places.

Multiple realities exist in every place or idea. Honor this. Burrow or lift us to the more quirky layers, the ones that you know about, but the reader does not.

Put in the hours. Stand and stretch. Celebrate every gleam in your work.

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Tolling bell at Children’s Peace Memorial, Hiroshima

(email subscribers, click on post title to link to sound)

2014-11-21 Hiroshima 1432014-11-21 Hiroshima 1442014-11-21 Hiroshima 1482014-11-21 Hiroshima 1392014-11-21 Hiroshima 155

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Moon moth

2015-07-29 luna moth 002Morning light flows through another arthropod: the luna moth, showing the spring-leaf green of her wings. The brown leading edge is a great match for the viburnum twig on which she rests.

This species belongs to a larger grouping, the Asian-American moon moths. Like the trees on which they feed, these American and Asian insects look very similar (here are a couple of examples of look-alikes, and then some more crazy-winged cousins). They have a distribution that encompasses the east of North America and parts of Asia, reflecting the old biogeographic continuity of these places.

Unfortunately, parasitic flies introduced to North America to control gypsy moths are turning their attentions to the luna moth. So far, lunas appear to be more robust than most other large moth species, many of which are in decline or have gone regionally extinct, at least in New England. We lack long-term data (to my knowledge) on populations of moths in the south.

Why such long tails? Bat befuddlement. Ed Yong tells this luna-tale, with a review of some cool experiments, along with videos, on his fabulous blog at National Geographic.

Closing moth thoughts as they antennate the air’s breath, seeking pheromonal scent (attributed to Rumi from, as far as I can tell, Coleman Barks’ interpretations of English translations):

“At night, I open the window and ask the moon to come and press its face against mine. Breathe into me. Close the language-door and open the love-window. The moon won’t use the door, only the window.”

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