Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ways of Counting Birds

In the early 1990s, a friend recruited me to help him with an annual wetland breeding bird survey run by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. At the time, they had an interesting method that they requested surveyors use for recording the numbers of birds they found at the census sites. It consisted of using a series of dots, lines, and boxes to represent numbers, like this:

The theory was, I guess, that these symbols would reduce transcription errors by either the surveyors themselves or the people at ODOW who would have to take the field data and input it into the state's database. As I recall, after a few years, they sent a note saying that we could abandon the symbol system. I enjoyed the symbol system, though: the little groups of boxes and dots next to Wood Duck or Mallard; the occasional single dot next to Virginia Rail or American Bittern; the excitement of four "10" boxes and one "7" box next to Cattle Egret the year that we had those hanging around for a season. It could be a pain to draw the dots and boxes, though, and I imagine that's why the let that standard fade away.

This is National Audubon Christmas Bird Count season, of course, so a lot of us who compile and participate in the counts are thinking about numbers and the various ways that people give them to us--by computer, on water-stained pieces of paper; on the backs of envelopes; read over the phone; on clearly printed taxonomically correct data sheets. There are lots of numbers and more ways than one to interpret or misinterpret them.

A few years ago, Vic Fazio began the Ohio Winter Bird Atlas project, which is now run by Black Swamp Bird Observatory. The atlas data collection period is concluded and Black Swamp and volunteers are working on writing up the results. This survey had a different protocol than dots, lines and boxes or "pure" numbers. The Ohio Winter Bird Atlas asked that observers provide estimates of most species using "Xs." A single X meant 1 to 9 birds of a given species were seen; XX meant 10 to 99; XXX meant 100 to 999; XXXX meant "thousands" and so on. This project was looking for estimates of abundance. For rarities, a simple numerical count was acceptable: 1 Rufous Hummingbird, rather than "X" Rufous Hummingbird, for example.

I got to thinking about other ways to represent bird numbers as well as ways to provide information about what the birds were doing while they were being counted. I came up with an imaginary and admittedly silly system that combines bird silhouettes a la the end papers from Roger Tory Peterson's field guides with a partially asemic alphabet, if you will.

Here are a few of the "S's."

I imagine they could be combined in different ways to tell stories about the birds observed on a particular day:

This might produce an effect of

Or perhaps just a senseless tangle of

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lesser Black-backed Gull

In Ohio, Lesser Black-backed Gulls are considered "very uncommon migrant[s] and winter resident[s] on Lake Erie; very rare migrant[s] inland," though the species "seems to be gradually increasing," according to the 2008 edition of the Ohio Bird Records Committee Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Ohio. The first Ohio record is from 1977 in Cleveland, and it hasn't not been that many years since the species began its invasion of North America. It will likely become a North American breeder, if it hasn't already done so. This fall I've seen single adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls at Huron over Thanksgiving weekend and on the Sandusky Bay on December 13. There have been a number of other Ohio reports this fall as well. For some reason, I didn't even bother reporting the birds I found over the past month. Lesser Black-backeds also wander well south of the lake, and there are a number of recent records from Southwestern Ohio. The first Lesser Black-backed Gull I saw was one that Hank Armstrong found one summer at East Fork Lake State Park.

A good and/or lucky birder can sometimes find other unusual, rare, and interesting gulls in the large winter flocks along Lake Erie and occasionally at inland locations. Perhaps there's a Thayer's, Iceland, or Sabine's Gull in this flock, in addition to the Lesser Black-backed? Maybe at least a nice frosty-winged first-cycle Glaucous. ("Click" on the image to get a better view of this flock for closer scrutiny). There don't seem to be any Great Black-backed Gulls here, but one assumes there are a few close by.

(Triptych: Lesser Black-backed Gull)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Christmas Story, Matthew Style

(The Slaughter of the Innocents)

The Gospel of Matthew includes a bloody twist on the Nativity narrative. In Matthew 2, the three wise men, or Magi, find their way to King Herod, who has gotten word that a messiah has been born in Bethlehem. He tries unsuccessfully to trick the wise men into finding the Christ Child for him so that he can kill the baby. Instead, the wise men, feeling at unease and being warned by God in a dream, decide not to see Herod on their way home. Herod realizes he's been tricked, and out of anger and fear he orders his soldiers to go to Bethlehem and kill every male child two years of age and younger.

The historians of the era recorded a number of crazy and murderous things Herod did in an effort to protect himself and to keep control of his kingdom, which he ruled in the service of the Roman empire. But there are no specific records of Herod ordering the "slaughter of the innocents" in Bethlehem. If you do a little reading, you find that writers often note that such an act, though unsupported by fact, would not have been out of character for Herod.

Whether the slaughter of the innocents took or place or not, it's a disturbing part of Matthew's account of the birth and early years of Christ. I was curious how modern Christian religious thinkers explain the slaughter and its place in the story of the birth of Christ. I don't recall any explanations of this part of the story from my years in Catholic school, etc.

The slaughter of the innocents seems like an eerie blood sacrifice that the people of Bethlehem had to offer up to deliver Jesus to safety and to allow him to become the Messiah. Perhaps not surprisingly, I can't find any accounts among the Christian sources I looked at online that supports that notion, though in a narrative sense, the murder of the male babies of Bethlehem seems to foreshadow the eventual crucifixion of Christ, "the lamb of God." I also realize that simply searching for online sources for theological issues is probably an exercise akin to skating on thin ice, and is inherently foolish. I should find a few serious and respected sources and read those. However, I think I vetted the sources I looked at online closely enough to get a sense of the general directions that Christian thinkers take when they approach Matthew 2: 16-18--if they approach it at all! A few writers I found online candidly admit that they don't really know how to deal with this part of the story. Who can blame them?

In a brief search, there were two general approaches for explaining Matthew 2: 16-18 that kept coming up. The first is, essentially, "the workings of the Lord are inscrutable," but one has to trust that there's a purpose for everything, even the worst possible things that can happen to people. Here's an example of that approach.

The second approach is an interesting one that says "look how much anger and hatred there is when people are faced with the truth of Christ." In essence, Herod couldn't deal with the truth, so he tried to kill it. When the world rejects the Truth or reacts in anger or violence, it only proves just how real the Truth is. The story is a reminder that evil is real and active in the world, and that we need Christ to counteract that evil.

Another analysis that both of the above approaches seem to accept is that the Matthew 2 narrative works to show that Old Testament prophecies, particularly from the books of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isiah, came to fruition with Jesus. There's also a clear parallel between the Moses/Exodus OT narrative and the birth of Jesus, the fleeing of the Holy Family to Egypt, and their eventual return following Herod's death.

Regardless of the explanations, it's still difficult to conceive of the workings of a mind that would purposely and maliciously destroy innocent human life . . . and from there it's no large step to wonder why anyone would purposely destroy any human life. Incredible effort is spent to understand human suffering, particularly of innocents, but it still remains difficult to explain the purpose of that suffering. Even assuming one has faith in Christ or a so-called higher power or a human leader, it remains a tremendous proverbial leap of faith to accept that suffering, regardless of how it arises, is part of some larger purposeful plan, particularly when it always seems so random and cruel, and especially when it strikes people who have no idea it's coming, no comprehension of what could be behind it, and no ability to defend themselves.

Matthew 2:16-18:

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

(Photo from the Cincinnati Enquirer, May 5, 2005)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Happy Birthday, John Milton

b. December 9, 1608.

Everyone in the world should read Paradise Lost. We wouldn't have any spare time left to get into trouble.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

ABA Logo Proposal

The American Birding Association is considering changing their logo. This might work.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Church Window

The falling sun through the high windows in church Saturday afternoon produced sets of creepy shadows.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

In Rainbows

I'm a good ten years-plus behind the times when it comes to music, and hopelessly un-hip. Lately I've been obsessively playing Radiohead's album In Rainbows, which until I looked it up on Wikipedia a short few minutes ago, I thought dates to 2001 or thereabouts. Shows what I know. It was released in 2007. The lyrics to the songs are included with the CD art, and they're arranged in a fashion superficially similar to Jessica Smith's plastic poems (check out 2005's Butterflies), but the disorientation or reorientation in the lyric pages of In Rainbows is produced by fiddling with the spacing between and among words--so if you're patient, it's easy enough to read Radiohead's lyrics "straight." Smith's poems, by contrast, allow a reader to wander through them, creating paths of his or her own choosing. There's not necessarily a straight way to read her poems. Maybe the difference is academic . . .

Regardless, I'm too lazy to take the time to read the lyrics for In Rainbows, and generally, the lyrics are not clear in the songs themselves, which is great: a listener can make up his or her own lyrics and occasionally out of the mix a few stray words or entire lines and phrases leap out. The lyrics, even if you don't bother to try to figure them out, are no less effective for being largely inscrutable: the emotion or sense of each song comes across clearly regardless of whether the lyric is intelligible. It reminds me of the lyrics to the songs on REM's Fables of The Reconstruction, which didn't make any sense to me when I first bought the album after it was released. Even after listening to it a few times I couldn't make out what Michael Stipe was singing. Then one evening, in that half-awake-half-asleep state we all find ourselves in from time to time, seemingly the entire lyric to "Driver 8" played out in a waking dream. Aha! Now I get it, I thought. Until then, I was pissed that I'd spent a whole $7.99 (1980's vinyl price and a lot of money for a 15-year-old at the time) on an album filled with incomprehensible lyrics. That's pretty much how I've listened, or not listened, to popular music ever since, aside from, say, Sinatra or Dylan. It's much more interesting to not know what the singer is singing.

I was talking with a friend a couple weeks back about manipulating photographs in Photoshop and similar software. He mentioned that one reason he likes to work with metal sculpture is that he can make something with his own hands--there's no computer manipulation involved. That struck a chord with me. Almost everything I've done has been computer manipulated! A bit self conscious perhaps, but I started paying more attention to what I might write or draw with my own hands, without aid of a computer. (This piece, which began as a hand-written glyph of the word "eyes," was manipulated and transformed entirely by computer; so even when I've started something by hand, the end product, for what it's worth, is computer-torqued).

Here are a couple In Rainbows-inspired doodles (Geof Huth might call such writing "fidgetglyphs," which is a much better word than "doodle") that I found myself writing during a meeting I attended a few days ago.

In the song "15 Step" Radiohead's Thom Yorke spits out the phrase "etcetera, etcetera" like a barbed retort roughly mid-way through the song. It's the only part of the lyric to the song I can ever remember. I find I often use "etc.," in my emails and letters and notes; perhaps I need to rethink that innocuous abbreviation. It's more powerful than I've given it credit for. Thank you, Radiohead, for making me realize that.

Before I bothered to read the song titles on In Rainbows I thought that the fourth track on the album was called "We're Fishing." Turns out it's called "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi." Here's a weird fish of my own, which like "etcetera" came out of the meeting Monday night. I couldn't help but to color this bit of writing in "Goldfish Cracker Cheese Orange," to match the roughly two million Goldfish crackers I've served up to the kids and their friends, and eaten myself, over the past ten years.

My handwriting is not good; my illustration skills are as poor as my lettering skills, but there's something interesting and satisfying about accepting whatever limitations one might have and working with them. And for some reason, looking at both glyphs, I can somehow remember just about everything we covered in that meeting . . .

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009


Ephemeroptera are persistent.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

This Time


Written in March 1993 for a couple friends; but hopefully others will like it, as well. It's not about anything specific, but it's been around in different guises and is one of the only things from that time I can stand to read. The two visual pieces came together out of nowhere recently, so perhaps that means it's time for This Time. Or not. Give it no time if it's deemed not worth it. Time is valuable: your time/my time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This is a fairly common fall scene in SW Ohio, which everyone is familiar with. Our fall skies can be an intense white-blue (or blue-white) this time of year. I hope you can see November and read November in the trees below the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the mob of Starlings. There are a few more red rectangle pieces to go through, but they're about done.

Friday, November 13, 2009


This is a Stenonema femoratum mayfly nymph, sometimes called a "Cream Cahill." Mayfly taxonomy has changed dramatically over the years, and unfortunately, the best sources for field or microscope ID available to the non-specialist are out of date. To make the sources sync with today's taxonomy requires various translation sheets. It gets rather confusing. Across the mayflies of North America are many genera and species that have been lumped or reassigned, in many cases to the consternation of anglers who point out that some lumped species contain two or more forms that have different hatch periods as well as different and distinctive body markings. Genetic work has had a huge impact on mayfly taxonomy and from what I've read, or at least from what I understand, the majority of the taxonomy changes have resulted from laboratory work.

Maybe a better explanation for some of the problems taxonomic changes have caused fly fisherman and interested non-specialists would be to consider how birders would respond if the Dendroica genus were to be rearranged such that there were only five or so "good" species, containing assorted lumps of species with distinctly different songs, plumages and even ranges. Blackpoll and Bay-breasted? A single species. Black-throated Green, Townsend's, Hermit, Golden-cheeked (toss in Black-throated Gray, too). One species. And then for a topper, Black-and-White Warbler would be moved to Dendroica, but since its genus, Mniotilta, was described before Dendroica, under the taxonomic rules, Dendroica would disappear and everything remaining in that genus would be called Mniotilta. In a word, we birders would go cuckoo.

The "" site has a brief explanation of the rather dramatic changes to the once mighty Stenonema genus, which used to contain a host of field identifiable species, but now contains a single species, femoratum, which is a lumping of at least two forms that many fisherman and even some scientists agree are field-identifiable critters.

Stenonema femoratum is a member of the family Heptageniidae, and like the other members in that family, the nymphs have distinctly flattened bodies, and are usually found clinging to the undersides of stones and debris in shallow, fast-flowing areas of streams and rivers. S. femoratum is a very common species in these parts. The specimen in the piece above is about 1 cm in length, not including the tails. The two cream-colored "x"-looking marks toward the end of the abdomen (grid "D3") are distinctive in this species, as are two rows of usually three or more black dots at the tip of the underside of the abdomen. One can usually identify this species in the field. Find a local stream, pick up a few rocks in a section of shallow riffles, and soon enough, you should find S. femoratum. If you don't find any, the stream you're crawling around in might not be the healthiest place you could choose to do your wading.


This is similar to "Drift Would" from a few days ago. The source photo was taken along the Great Miami River on August 31, 2008, on the edge of a contrived lagoon created by the outflow from the Fairfield water treatment plant. To the credit of the people who run the plant, the water in the outflow channel seems pretty clear and clean. It's not "gunky," never stinks, there are patches of duckweed, and the vegetation on the margins and in the pools leans towards smartweeds, sedges, and other (mostly) native plants. There was a Northern Waterthrush bobbing and chipping along the water edge when the original image was made and the photo taken; so in a way, this image is in the image of the bird. It's an example of photorealism in that respect, though I don't imagine many would agree.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How The Mayfly Created The World In Twenty-seven Steps

Owl Stretching Time

Owls, like most birds, undertake migrations or regular or semi-regular movements from one place to another. That's not news to anyone. Specific and new information on migration is still needed, though. There are a number of researchers out there doing interesting work on owl migration, particularly Saw-whet Owls. A few work in our area and are part of a larger network of dedicated owl stretchers. There's a history of Saw-whet Owl research in southwestern Ohio, dating back to at least the work of Worth Randle and Ronald Austing in the 1950s. For more information on the earlier research, see the article Randle and Austing published in 1952: "Ecological Notes on Long-Eared and Saw-Whet Owls in Southwestern Ohio. Ecology: Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 422-426."

Drift Would

Here's a piece based on a photo of a rock-and-stick-and-driftwood glyph from Four Mile Creek (Butler County) in August 2008. The original photo was reworked a bit with the grid lines and red rectangle box added to simulate a sense of a serious scientific approach to the subject: everything in its grid and every grid in its proper place. "Nature" can be forced into little boxes, after all. I'm certain this work was destroyed by flood, ATV, drunken teenagers, or bored river walkers soon after it was written; that is, something from nature rose up and erased it. I'd like to think someone altered it in order to make it really funny or to mock whoever it was who took the time on a hot day to arrange rocks and sticks into words . . .

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey"

Yoko Ono was involved as both participant and observer in a number of the recording sessions for the Beatle's "White Album." It used to be boiler plate to blame Ono for breaking up the Beatles. I think she made them much more interesting. The White Album is a collection of wonderfully odd, occasionally self-indulgent pieces, shaken out of a period in which the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein died, they began their up-and-down relationship with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, they released the unpopular and poorly received "Magical Mystery Tour" movie, and they began trying to live their lives as individuals following all the zaniness of the "Fab Four" mid-sixties. Eventually, of course, they went their separate ways; they grew up and moved on. Some critics point to the White Album as the beginning of the band's dissolution, claiming that the album is comprised of four solo albums, and that none of the four were really interested in what any of the other three were doing. I'm not sure that's a fair assessment, but within a year or so, the Beatles were basically kaput. Perhaps the critics are right!

Among some of the Beatles White Album classic rock hits such as "Back in the U.S.S.R," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and "Birthday," are the peculiar minimalist pieces "Wild Honey Pie," "Why don't we do it in the road?" (two McCartney songs) and they lyrically minimal Lennon number "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey," which he said was about his and Ono's relationship. The classic cover of the White Album is itself a minimalist gesture. As a group, they were working on angles quite different from the albums that preceded the collection officially titled simply "The Beatles."

There's also the famous--or infamous--sound collage "Revolution 9," which Lennon and Ono collaborated upon (George Harrison was involved to a lesser extent). While that piece is known among its detractors for creepiness, self-indulgence, and lack of structure, much of what moves "Revolution 9" is minimalist in nature. "Number 9, number 9" repeated over and over, purposely distorted baby-like cries and gurgles, bits of crowd noise--"block that kick"--odd snatches of dialog--"the watusi, the twist"--short pieces of orchestral music and sound effects, sometimes purposely distorted, sometimes not. It's all very purposely structured.

How much of the influence and structure comes from Ono, who had a lengthy and distinguished avant garde resume and had worked on different visual, sound, and written projects (most notably perhaps with Fluxus) long before she met Lennon in 1966? How much was simply "of the times," with the Beatles being influenced by the art and music and writing of other people working in the era? (I can't say that Lennon had heard of Aram Soroyan in 1968, but I think he would have liked his work). McCartney, the bachelor Beatle for most of the sixties, spent a lot of time listening to avant garde music, hanging out with artists in London, and exploring other "heady" interests, though that background is papered over by Sir Mac's Tin Pan Alley-style songs such as "When I'm Sixty-four," "Honey Pie," "Your Mother Should Know," etc. But the same guy who wrote "Martha My Dear" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" for the White Album also contributed "Wild Honey Pie," and "Why don't we do it in the road?" not mention "Helter Skelter," a dynamic and adventuresome recording that was sadly kidnapped and put to terrible use by a raving lunatic and psychopath in 1969.

The Beatles were doing interesting things at this time, and so was Yoko Ono.

I'm not clever enough to make the connections ("it's such a fine line between stupid, and clever"), but I can't help reading the lyric of "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" as cut from a similar cloth as some of Ono's pieces from her book Grapefruit, take "Snow Piece" as an example, or the minimalist work that people such Saroyan or Robert Creeley and others were doing in the late 1960s. Evidently, the Ono-Lennon influence went both ways. In 1970, Ono recorded "Mum's only looking for her hand in the snow," a piece sometimes listed as "(Don't Worry, Kyoko) Mommy's only looking for her hand in the snow," for her daughter from her second marriage, and which to my ears works as a melding of Ono's avant garde background with what we might call a roots-based rock-n-roll/blues accompaniment, which Lennon was using so prominently during this time on songs ranging from "Cold Turkey" to the pieces on his "John Lennon Plastic Ono Band" album--the (in)famous "Mother" album, some of which sounds as contemporary today as the White Stripes, with its basic, direct, and spare arrangements, no BS lyrics, etc. One source I found claims that Eric Clapton plays guitar on the Ono recording linked to, above. He was a guitarist in the Lennon/Ono "Plastic Ono Band," which played a few concerts and made some recordings circa 1969-70. Lennon's guitar playing was always rhythmically oriented first and foremost, and when I first heard "Mum's only looking . . . " I assumed it was Lennon's guitar backing Ono. Regardless, Ono and Lennon influenced each other in an interesting way. After years of abuse and scorn, it's nice to see Ono getting some of the respect she and her work have been due.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Cave Swallows

Soon, if the precedent set in recent years holds true, there will be Cave Swallows reported in our region, possibly quite a few.

Cave Swallows were first confirmed in Ohio in 2005. For more details and photos, first-person accounts, vagrancy habits, thoughts on subspecies etc., of Cave Swallows in Ohio from that period of long ago, you can read this article, if you wish. Birders along the east coast of the US have been finding Cave Swallows in the fall months for a number of years. Ohio's first records in 2005 lagged a bit behind other states and provinces in the Lower Great Lakes Region, where Cave Swallows had been found in years previous to Ohio's first confirmed records.

Semi-conventional wisdom or prevailing opinion used to be that once wandering Cave Swallows struck south of Lake Erie they must drop dead or dissolve into the ether. But in 2008, Rick Asamoto and John Habig found two different groups of Cave Swallows at Rocky Fork State Park in Highland County, for what I think are the first records of the species away from Lake Erie or the near lake shore. Jay Lehman joined them at some point in the morning and they discovered that Cave Swallows were simultaneously flying at two locations on Rocky Fork Lake.

At least a few Cave Swallows found their way south last fall. Likely it will happen again; likely it has happened before Asamoto and Habig first discovered them last November. There is a lot of real estate to cover in southern Ohio and a few swallows--even a lot of swallows--could easily escape detection, even by serious birders, of which we have a number in this part of the state. Hopefully, southern Ohio birders will find Cave Swallows on some of the reservoirs, lakes, and rivers near them. In southwest Ohio and nearby Indiana, sites where one could imagine catching sight of a Cave Swallow on a blustery November day include East Fork Lake, Hueston Woods/Acton Lake, the Great Miami River, the Ohio River (possibly near hot water outlets on the rivers?), the Oxbow, Brookeville Lake, etc., etc. That's just to name a few, and even that short list comprises a lot of territory.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I found a Ginkgo leaf in a parking lot last week, and it reminded me of the Ginkgoes along Stewart Street near the University of Dayton--possibly they are no longer there. When the female trees would drop their fruit on the sidewalks in the fall, the air, and sometimes the hallways of the campus buildings, would be tinged with the scent of vomit for a week or two.

While doing some research on Ginkgoes, I found a website and a blog run by Cor Kwant from her home in the Netherlands. Kwant's website and blog are devoted to Ginkgoes and they are a pleasure to read. Every possible aspect of the Ginkgo, including a section about how it came to carry such an odd and awkwardly spelled name, is covered in detail. It's evident that the author has a lot respect, even love, for this ancient tree. Ginkgoes have been around since the dinosaurs; have survived atomic bomb blasts; are used in medicine; are integral parts of the arts and religion; have gorgeous plumage and fall colors, and if handled properly the seeds are a delicacy. It's all there on Kwant's website and blog.

Here are some fall Ginkgo leaves offered for good health, good luck, safe travels, and to ward off or defeat any illnesses that might be pestering you and yours. I wish my Ginkgo leaves were as nice as these examples.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

riverside (november)

The original fits on one side of an 8.5 x 11 sheet folded "accordian" style, such that the poem opens two or three sections at a time, and the different pieces echo or play off of each other--at least that was the intention. The distant (t)rain rolls through both halves of the poem when one is reading the paper copy. It loses something in the presentation here, though it might gain something else with the bleed-through from the cover of the National Geographic magazine used to hold the piece flat while it was being scanned. Come to think of it now, a year later . . . the lat-long coordinates at the end might be a bad move; someone might think Angelina Jolie found one of her children at the site.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Around Goose Island

The Nellie, a hunting skiff, swung to her anchor with a sputter of the Evinrude, and was at rest. Around Goose Island, gray fog hung like cling wrap over a glass bowl of green beans in creamy mushroom soup. The blue-gray-green water, which only occasionally evinced the temerity to slip-slap wistfully at the gunwales, had the uncanny glare of a badly decoupaged brick. A crisp cold front had passed overnight; the air was filled with the calls of migrating ducks and geese; the waters surely abounded also with schooling bass, frisky now, finally, following their corpulent summer. One cormorant, then ten, then one hundred passed in wavering lines, like oil-stains across the November sky. The only thing for it was to come to with our thermoses of Celebes Kalossi coffee (black, neither cream nor sugar), and wait for some unseen flock of geese to escape the fog's greedy palms and pass near our reach . . .

I'm hoping to win the 2010 Federal Duck Stamp competition with this entry:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Louis Zukofsky and the Hidden Dangers of Haiku

Everyone is mad at Paul Zukofsky (links stolen from a list posted October 27, 2009 on Ron Silliman's blog, an author who many people are mad at all the time).

I've never been interested in writing about Louis Zukofsky*, although I like his work a lot. The American Poets Project volume Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems, edited by Charles Bernstein, served as my first real introduction to Zukofsky's work, though I'd read bits and pieces over the years. The Zukofsky Selected fits perfectly in a coat pocket and I read it a lot while waiting around for car repairs and doctor visits, surreptitiously killing time during boring church services, etc. The larger volume Louis Zukofsky: Complete Short Poetry seems, unfortunately, to be out of print, but I bought a used copy last year. It's not as portable as the Selected, but it's worth reading. I'd quote from some of my favorite Zukofsky poems here, but I fear getting sued, so I won't.

A few days ago, while flipping open pages of the Complete Short Poetry, I wrote down a word that leaped out at me from any random page I turned to until I had a list of eighty-seven words. I stopped at eighty-seven words because I became bored with the exercise. I typed out all the words in order and then got the great idea that I could separate them by "threes," mostly, though there are some twos and fours, as well as a couple ones, and create little haiku (I don't dare write "Hi, Kuh"). I didn't mix and match words; that is, I didn't think "word twenty-four would be better with word fifty-eight." Instead, twenty-four follows twenty-three and precedes twenty-five. The only place I fudged my system was switching the words "spider" and "grass" because I'm interested in spiders, and I thought the reference to Agelenopsis spiders was simply too good to pass up.

Haiku are dangerous things to write. They're like popcorn shrimp; easy to eat a lot of, but surprisingly hard to digest once you've eaten so many, after which you wonder, "why did I eat all that crap?" (replace "write" and "written" for "eat" and "eaten" and you'll get a sense of the dangers of haiku). It's also easy to make any banal observation seem intensely prophetic or sublime if one twists it into a haiku. And many will note that you don't even have to follow the general rules everyone learns, or used to learn, in fourth grade English, that a haiku has three lines of five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables, respectively; the poems typically have a seasonal specific element, etc. etc. So there! (I flatter myself to imagine I would receive angry comments in response to my jokes about haiku; it is, indeed, a beautiful form and there are many great examples, collections, and varieties. However, it's an oft-abused form as well, such that sometimes haiku seems to be to poetry what pornography is to the internet: so widespread [pardon the pun] that hardly anyone pays it much attention anymore. It's everywhere and always there and never going away.)

The eighty-seven words I found in Louis Zukofsky: Complete Short Poetry are words that could appear and have appeared countless times anywhere English is written. I happened to find them in a collection of poems by Louis Zukofsky. I don't think that means anything. Have I stolen Zukofsky's ideas or poems? I don't think so. Nor do I think this exercise means anything, really. Randomly generated haiku and poems are not novelties, but some of the haiku cobbled together from the eighty-seven words found in the Louis Zukofsky work are uncannily coherent as haiku. In some of the haiku, semi-intelligible statements and images crawl out of the pile like a pill bug from a rotting log despite the fact that the words were selected more or less at random. I didn't write the haiku, but nether did Louis Zukofsky. His stuff is much better, but you'll have to read it for yourself--and keep it to yourself! We mustn't let anyone know about Louis Zukofsky . . .

Louis Zukofsky and the Hidden Dangers of Haiku

A the beginning
in Thyme semblance--
wakes towing chicory

who happily gave
us mother Bach
horses time kisses

cinquefoil grass spider
sleepily lioness exalted:
five cradle ducks

winter snows fuzzed:
fall wood love--
Lascaux barely Valentine

breath potato ticks
body float

shadow villages
stonelike honeysuckle;
goldenrod epic

frigid her ray tomb . . .
Vesper Libra.
poet sabers window

clear cigarette birds
march music

sparrows paradise
blue barefoot flowers

bride flags love:
moist hush sea.
how sweet passion!

translucent Buddhist piping:
shall mind's economic mantis
butterfly foam?

(That's a very good question!)

*And I'm not mad at his son, Paul. I hope he makes a million bucks.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Apostrophe Flies

Here is an excerpt from a peculiar volume of natural history found in a used book and records store in Boston, near Fenway Park, in September 1998, on the day of Mo Vaughn's last regular season game as a member of the Red Sox. The original volume consists of 2500, unnumbered, beautifully hand-illustrated pages encased in a hand-sewn vellum binding and cover with velour accents stretched over mahogany boards. It was published in a limited edition of 257 copies, intended for subscribers, of which there seems to have been none. A number of pages are missing from the "Boston copy" (presumably dealers and collectors cut the plates from the book in order to sell them separately), but the following excerpt gives some sense of the scope of the ambitious multi-volume natural history of the Parenthesis. (Larger versions of the plates can be seen by "clicking" on the images, below).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Essential Bird

The Cincinnati Tablet was discovered during an excavation of an Adena mound in downtown Cincinnati in 1841, along with several skeletons and other artifacts. It was initially thought to be a hoax, but eventually similar tablets were found in Ohio and other parts of the Adena culture's range.

Many of the tablets from Ohio share similar engraved designs or motifs, which are sometimes doubled or mirrored or seemingly purposely abstracted from already abstracted sources. The designs have been variously interpreted as representing Aztec-style horned serpents, "raptorial birds" (as opposed to "birdy birds?"), constellations, human skulls, assorted anthropomorphic figures including gods, shamans (if it's old, mysterious, and we don't understand it, it must be the work of shamans, after all), etc.

The designs are idiosyncratic and the meanings or messages perhaps impossibly inscrutable to anyone other than the Adena who made them or used them. Some of the tablets have grooves on the reverse side. What are those for? The tablets are generally the size of a postcard, maybe a little larger. Were they tattoo or body art kits, some have wondered? (Duncan Caldwell's "Two Undescribed Adena Tablets and Some Speculations as to their Significance" is a well-illustrated account of a number of Adena tablets, including the Cincinnati Tablet, and presents some theories on how the tablets were used and what they meant. The Cincinnati Tablet illustration below is from Caldwell's article, but I think it's a reproduction of an illustration from yet another source).

The discovery of the Berlin Tablet, which seems rather clearly to depict a bird, albeit a fanciful and stylized one, led many researchers to see similar bird motifs in a number of other known Adena tablets. If you look at the Berlin Tablet and compare it to the Wilmington Tablet, you can see a similarity in the basic "bird" shape--"The Essential Bird" as I read in Robert N. Converse's account of Ohio Adena tablets in his book The Archaeology of Ohio--although the design in the Wilmington Tablet is doubled or mirrored. It's harder to see the bird(s) in the mirrored, abstract images engraved on the Cincinnati Tablet:

but maybe they're there.

(You can see the Cincinnati Tablet or a copy of it, at least, at the Cincinnati Museum Center).

Can the basic attributes of the essential bird--head, wings, talons, tail--be depicted in a language we might use and know in a stylized manner similar to an Adena tablet, but without poaching whatever it is they intended the tablets to signify or represent? Does such an attempt merely look like graffiti? Should it be scratched into asphalt or concrete--the materials we're surrounded by--rather than sandstone, which the Adena often used? Can "the essential bird," whatever that might mean, exist today when we prefer our images of birds to be accurate to the last barbule and filtered through expensive lenses straight into our eyeballs or onto powerful memory cards or trapped in nylon nets and cataloged and marked like trophies? (Not that there's anything wrong with those approaches . . . who am I to say? I've taken part in all of them).

Maybe this is our best example of The Essential Bird: