Monday, November 30, 2009

Good Night in Philadelphia

A cup of tea after good night's sleep on the morning of our first hard frost of 2009, November 11, 2009, Sourland Mountain

When we lived in Philadelphia and New York, we turned on a fan every night before retiring. In the summer we faced the fan towards the bed. In winter, we faced the fan away. It hardly helped to cool off a first floor Queens apartment or a third floor walk up in Philly.

It did help deaden the noise. Somewhat.

The sprawling family cackles on their porch all night. A fight between two lovers. A woman on the roof of the porch, wears a t-shirt and underwear, shakes a brush at the man standing in the middle of the street. "Get back here, you p***y!" she yells. A fight amongst the entire clan. A child yells, "Grandma, don't!" Folding chairs are thrown across the porch. Hair extensions on the sidewalk. Grandma, in her black burka, gestures like a opera singer in the street.

Other neighbors have pitbulls and dreary eyes with red circles below. Cocaine? Heroin? They play video games and electronic music through an immense sound system, including subwoofers. Not even foam ear plugs deaden the sound - actually a rumbling feeling. We bang on the door at 2 AM. "Turn it down. I have to work. I'm a teacher." "OK. Here's my number. Call if it's a problem again." He offers his hand to shake, and I shake his hand off because he holds on too long. We call the next night, 2 AM. No answer. Call again. I hear him scream. He picks up and calmly says "Hello?" "Can you turn it down?"

There's an animal scream from the street below. We wake with constricted hearts and crawl to the window. "Get back," he pushes me from the window. For me, duck means look. I come forward again. "Get back. It's our downstairs neighbor beating a woman. He has her against our van." I call 911, and we listen to the animal fighting. 911 is a good invention, but who the hell wants to speak louder when you are afraid your downstairs neighbor will scale the porch and beat you, too?

There's an animal wail from the street below. A kitten is mewing from the wheel well of our neighbor's car. We shine a flashlight behind the tire and try to coax him with food. We tire of hunching by the car, blacktop is imprinted on our knees and palms. We call an animal shelter. "Can't do it. Private property." "It's on the street." "Nope, it's up in the car. Private property. Talk to the vehicle's owner." We are awoken hourly by the cat. Mid-morning we observe a shirtless man is prodding the wheel well with a curtain rod. "Yep. Heard it all night," he slurs.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tunk Lake, Maine, August 2009

It's possible that writing might be more rewarding than producing a correctly proportioned print from Adobe Lightroom on a pokey computer. It's possible that I miss my darkroom, all trademarks and patents long expired. Besseler, Gra Lab, Time O Lite. Kodak, too. I miss my quick easel. I felt nostalgic smelling some terrible chemical odor that reminded me of fixer. It's only possible, because I also remember equipment breakdowns, spills, darkroom dishpan hands and an overpopulated Rutgers darkroom, a sweltering Philadelphia attic darkroom, a noisy neighbors uninsulated floors Philadelphia darkroom, a cramped Queens apartment darkroom, a suburban Michigan bathroom darkroom, a cold and damp Sourlands basement darkroom. Now, I have a slow computer next to the eye-drying woodstove Sourlands lightroom.


Balsam fir - the smell of Maine's spruce-fir forest and all the smaller souls that aren't valued by woodland eco-nomics. A single white cranberry blossom, the search for late baked appleberries, the reds of bog plants. Almost makes me forget the gloomy, musty cabin we rented, the chronic cough that we returned home with, the unmatched (I repeat, unmatched population of mosquitos; the bayside trail at Island Beach State Park in 2007 is a distant second) mosquito population at Bartholomew's Cobble, and the feeling that we should have chosen a new place to vacation.


I would like to thank the fellow that ran a bookstore out of his garage in Machias, Maine for the sun tea and the recommendation to walk Tunk Lake. We heard a loon call and saw the spruce and fir canopy stretch to the ocean, broken only by the lake and a bog.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Statistical Hawk, Individual Hawk

Solitary hawk, Catskills

Shortly down the road, I realized we had to turn around. I forgot something. Turning around always feels like a jinx.

Halfway up the lane, Jared pointed up. A hawk was perched on a low branch just off the road. We watched, amazed. He was so close. His feathers were ruffled - a red tailed hawk. He flapped to another part of the tree and fought with a 10 foot tall multiflora rose shrub.

Many of his his tail feathers were broken, breast feathers awry and a wound on his beak. We watched him fly laboriously to another tree.

I felt upset, worried. Could a cat have done this? I wondered aloud. I doubted this very much, but the ability to blame a guilty party (a loosed pet cat) seemed like a good way to direct my feelings. No chance, replied Jared. A great horned owl? Perhaps.

A neighbor came by a suggested: Another one of them could have done it. They attack each other. I felt irritated. He went on to talk about an owl hunting his pigeons. I realized "each other" meant all birds. Does a robin think, I'm being chased by one of my own, as the Cooper's hawk's talon grasps his body?

A hungry, hurt hawk. An individual, unlike the statistical birds that are eaten, die of old age or the tragedies that take birds in the modern world. The statistical birds that I don't see, the hungry, hurt hawks that alit just out of view of my rearview mirror as I buzz down the road.

For this individual hawk, I'm wishing him well. An easy meal of a mouse who I don't know so well.

We joked about feeding the hawk one of the squirrels who harassed both of us - separately - when we hunted in the back yard. No, you can't kill the neighborhood squirrel family. You have to go to someone else's neighborhood, and kill theirs.

Wait until we put up the birdfeeders. See what you think then, he said.

Yeah, but then they'll get the mange again. I'll stop being angry at the squirrels. I'll worry about them.

It's complicated. "What you don't know, won't kill you." "Not in my backyard." There are handy ways of manipulating and defining instinct, empathy, justice, fairness.

Friday, November 20, 2009



What would it mean if balance were not, as we often imagine, some static moderate point between frenetic extremes?

What if balance is really the infinite flux, the intricate neverstill place with infinities equally thronging on all sides? If change is the tightrope and time is the walker, now swaying, now poised? If the talons of the hawk the second before grasping hold universes of possibility, and the imminent wounding of the vole coincides with, sways with, the singing of whales, the orgy of flowers, the collision of distant astral bodies?

Then control would be a vain attempt at limiting the infinite. It would be a devil pact, an ultimately barren act, engorged on self-deceipt.

We tend to view productivity as springing from control. Think of the modern cornfield: tilled to a blank slate, sprayed for weeds, sprayed for insects, doused with fertilizers, irrigated with transported water, planted with a monoculture.

Controlled to just a few particular elements. Becoming more devoid every year. More barren. More susceptible, too, to sudden, autochtonous crises, plagues of insects and pathogens and other monstrous particularities, previously held in balance -- that is, embraced in the throes of the infinite.

The devil's contract of control leads to first to outrageous productivity, which ultimately produces only barrenness*:

For most of its history, the Asian longhorned beetle occupied a small, largely unremarkable niche in the forests of China, Korea and Japan. It was not known as a serious pest. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the Chinese government began to plant enormous windbreaks of millions of trees in its northern provinces in response to erosion and deforestation. These windbreaks were composed almost entirely of poplar trees, which mature quickly and tolerate the arid, cold climate of northern China. As it happens, the poplar is a tree favored by the ALB, along with maple, birch, elm and several other hardwoods. The beetle is unique among invasive forest pests for attacking such a broad array of hosts, which is partly why it is so dangerous.

Adult beetles feed on leaves, twigs and young bark. Females deposit anywhere from 35 to 90 eggs, one at a time, in pits they dig in the bark. When the eggs hatch, ALB larvae bore into the cambium, the tissue that ferries the tree's nutrients, and then they move into the heartwood. Over several years, this tunneling chokes off a tree's supply of nutrients and kills it—a death by a thousand cuts.

In the 1980s, as China's poplar forests matured, the ALB population exploded. Within a few years, hundreds of millions of trees were infested, and the Chinese government had to cut tens of thousands of acres of forest to prevent the beetle's further trespass.

Meanwhile, China, along with the rest of the world, experienced a surge in foreign trade. Since 1970, global sea trade has tripled, and today more than 90 percent of the world's goods travel at least one leg of their journey by ship. The United States went from importing 8 million sea containers in 1980 to more than 30 million in 2000. And most of those products—diapers, televisions, umbrellas—are packed in crates or on pallets made of wood. In the 1980s, pallets of infested poplar began to leave Chinese ports, carrying Asian longhorned beetle larvae. A stowaway on the global shipping network, the insect came into nearly instant contact with warehouses across the world.


A parable about control, the particular, and productivity. Why brutally deforest an entire ecosystem and then replant it largely with poplar? Poplar grows fast, all the experts would have recommended it is a quick fix, a straight line to a solution. Ignoring the worlds within worlds which had been destroyed in the deforestation, the balance of myriad poised universes.

Just like the cornfield, productivity was maximized. Until the inevitable slapback of teeming reality, the plague, the pathogen, the monster insect, emerged. Then, all was rendered barren.

Sometimes we mistakenly think that "controlled to just a few particular elements" is balance. Put bugs on one side, chemicals on the other, out comes balance.

Richard Hell sang that "love comes in spurts". Balance comes in universes.

Sometimes in ecology, we act as if there are means and ends. "If we improve plant habitat, we'll achieve higher bird numbers". Plants are the tool, birds the goal.

Ecology is not linear that way, not teleological. Neither is balance.

Let's return to that hawk, talons outstretched. What if she misses, her talons scraping Earth, voleblood vanishing into the unrealized future. Instead, some mud on a claw. In that mud, a seed. Eupatorium fistulosum.

The next day, she hunts a different wet meadow, plunges, strikes, kills. The seed dislodges and after the sleep of winter germinates. The Eupatorium flowers after two years, is attended by myriad pollinators. That winter, the stem withers and stands brown among the sedges. A vole cuts the plant's root-body, drags it, feasts on its sunbirthed sugars. The vole then awaits the fate of voles: a rapture of talons and blood... and the singing of whales, the orgy of flowers, the collision of distant astral bodies.

There is no means here, no ends. Birds are gardeners of plants, voles are the aftereffect of pollinators. Time is a line if contemplated by a dogmatist, but abuzz with hummingbirds, bees, heat, hunger, beauty, and claws if released to the infinite.

Balance is beyond our control. Monocultures, and mono-cultures, will strangle our reality. When you plant, dance, and do so with sway!

*I borrow this concept, clumsily, from Michael Taussig. See "The Sun Gives Without Receiving" in Walter Benjamin's Grave for more on the ecology of plantations, commodity fetishism, and the devil contract.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Birds on Film

Hermit thrush on blackhaw. Digital zoom through inexpensive binoculars.

The grackles sent the pin oak acorns raining down on the roof. Splat. Their droppings came down on the porch. We saw them thirty minutes later along Montgomery Road in a beech forest. Certainly it was raining beechnuts.

Grackles through two panes of cheap glass.

Over this week, we've watched several species of birds eat fruit. Some observations:

Cedar waxwings ate pieces of the already minute hackberry, rather than eating it whole. Usually crisp, sweet and just a bit dry, this year's crop of hackberries tastes terrible - mealy and bland.

White-throated sparrows peck at blackhaw fruit, eating just a piece of the flesh. A hermit thrush landed nearby and began swallowing the fruit whole. I've had some particularly tasty blackhaw fruits - fleshy and sweet; while other blackhaws bore "tasteless" fruit - much like a lump of snow.

The winter bird season has officially begun. The leaves are mostly down, winter compatriots have joined their mixed flocks, and blurry, through the window snapshots have been taken.

My mom shared with me her own. This afternoon, my mom, who used to dislike birds very, very much, says, "Oh, did I show you my bluebird pictures?" She flips through dear photos of their trip to Alaska on her digital camera (thank you, Jared, for helping my parents learn how to use that machine. My brother and I are grateful), and finds two bluebird photographs taken from the kitchen window. Two indigo bunting and birdfeeder photographs, one towhee and birdfeeder, one towhee under the birdfeeder. We cooed over the pictures, blurry, dulled by a foggy kitchen window.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A bright green katydid is not well-disguised in a red maple forest in autumn. Here, leaves were shed a month ago.

The time change - leave the dimly lit office and enter into the dimly lit evening.

Recent hikes - many caterpillars, many birds. Golden eagle, osprey, harriers. A male and female harrier took off from the hedgerow. I learned that harriers have a wobbly flight. Golden eagle was mobbed by the dozen crows. We got a good view - ID'ed it as a juvenile. Light-ish head and a strong white tail band. A flock of a dozen meadowlarks.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Spiders, mushrooms, caterpillars, bees, wasps, groundhogs and other maligned creatures and creepers

Forest tent caterpillars don't create tents, like eastern tent caterpillars do. However, they are "gregarious," meaning, they gather in large groups.
June 6, 2009, Catskills, NY.

Pine Barrens fungus. Out of the yellow sand, this mushroom emerged.
October 30, 2009, Franklin Parker Preserve, Chatsworth, NJ.

An insect visits the last blooms of a heath in late October.
October 30, 2009, Franklin Parker Preserve, Chatsworth, NJ.

An unidentified insect made these exit holes more regular than a Singer sewing machine.
October 30, 2009, Franklin Parker Preserve, Chatsworth, NJ.

Dewy spider web.
July, 29, 2009, Sourlands, NJ

A solitary forest tent caterpillar displays its jewel-like markings.
June 6, 2009, Catskills, NY.

I wondered why so many insects congregated on this single goldenrod. Oh, how interesting, a snail, two flies and a few others. What I saw was a day's catch for a well-hidden spider.
October 2, 2009, Creek Road, Frenchtown, NJ

"I like snakes," she said as she showed me around her yard. We were looking for invasive species. We found a few.

"Most people probably don't."

"I do."

She pointed out the various groundhog holes and deer bedding areas (no longer in use since the neighboring lot began to be developed). Pointing at the multiflora rose, she said, "That, I hate that, but the birds eat it."

"Hmm. Multiflora rose, a non-native, invasivvvv drzzz zzz..." I droned. She had an uncanny ability to point out invasives, "This, this is all over. I hate it. I cut it." Autumn clematis, wineberry, mile-a-minute vine.

I was pleasantly subdued by the grey clouds, her European accent and interest in all animals. I joked lightly about groundhogs in my garden, and she said, "Most people find them a pain." I didn't bother talking about the deer overpopulation. This unruly plot was a home for anyone who might come by, regardless of provenance or status.