Sunday, November 27, 2005


It was a cold and still morning, bright, then overcast. The Broadmoor Sanctuary was nearly empty, and very quiet. The small marsh beyond the boardwalk had already iced over; I thought of the turtles I'd seen there last summer, and imagined them hibernating in the mud below. The paths were covered with leaves and a thin coating of snow; the branches of the trees and bushes were mostly bare. My eye was drawn to small, hard, precise things like these pods opening in sections,

and to red things -- like these Rilkean ripening barberries.

There's lots of red, in fact. The woods are stippled, punctuated in red.

Red berries, red buds -- the color of heat transposed into a cold landscape.

It is, I suppose, a reminder that a small flame still burns, be it in the cells of the hibernating turtles, or in the deep sap of the branches and in the seeds scattered over the ground. This may look like a landscape of death, there may indeed be death here, but death's not the whole story.

Advent begins here, among the decaying leaves and stripped branches, in the lengthening dark and the increasing cold. It begins here, as it always does, among the unspeakable horrors of the world.

God is off somewhere, distracted, bright and distant as the winter sun. Some days he barely makes it above the horizon. Nonetheless, things happen in His name. Holy ostracisms. Sacred violence. Scripture is invoked. God Himself is invoked.

Does He notice ? He strolls the autumn woods, admiring the subtle pastels of the decaying buttonbush fruit. He hears hymns pour from the small mouths of the seeds, and hums along. His voice sounds like the north wind pouring through oak leaves, something between a hiss and a rattle.

It's the season of thorn and tendril -- of rejection and of embrace. We are stripped, and poor and death-bound, horrified, petrified. But something moves among us, between us, thin as a filament, and secret, subtle, weaves us one to another.

We seek each other out for warmth if nothing else.

If only we could read the signs. Look closely --

there are mangers and cradles everywhere.

They are empty, to be sure --

-- but that simply means they're waiting to be filled. As we are.

Or maybe it's the emptiness we're meant to notice, maybe that's the point: nothing's there already, nothing's been there all along --

no-thing that will be made apparant, that will be spoken, drenched in ink, bound and codified as there and then and Who.

The days grow shorter and shorter. The wind cuts through me as if I were latticework. As night falls, dread arises. I dial up the thermostat, put supper on. If only there were a muddy marsh floor in which to hibernate. Time: dread, expectation, hope. The clock ticks, like seeds blown against glass.

This is Advent, the time before. This is the waiting room. The story unfolds in time: prediction, event, aftermath. Sowing, fruition, harvest. We must be patient. We mustn't thumb forward to the last page to see how it will all turn out. We already know. Nonetheless, in the deepening dark and cold, by the light of whatever fire we can manage, in the company of whomever we can find, we ask --

-- what is this coming thing, then, this no-thing, this word, this silence, this seed ?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

It Was Thanksgiving

You could tell because there were turkeys.

Even on the birthday cake.

And there was pie. Nice pie. Lemon meringue pie.

Sherry retired to her chamber.

Steve said the cricket had been there all week.

As we drove home I amused myself with tree sillhouettes.

What's that sound ? !!!

There was room at the inn. In Woburn. Woe Burn !

I have my mobile phone, I said. Mobile phone ? he asked.

There were cakes in a bubble.

And a triple A case number.

There was even some flora

a frond

and some leaves.

There was entertainment.

There was art.

Soon help arrived. (I wish you'd stop doing that.)

It was Ramsey Winch, from Tulsa. (Do you have to keep doing that ?)

The tow cab smelled nice. (Will you please stop doing that !)

It had a view out the back.

I bet you're just gonna put those in your blog.

Bittersweet, Lace and Rye


Monday, November 21, 2005

Through The Looking Glass

I have a new lens, an ultra-wide angle lens. It's a used lens, actually, a 14mm f/3.5 Sigma, and it's battle scarred: the printing's worn, and there's a long crack in the window of the focus scale. It's heavy, a beast of a lens, and the front glass is bug- eyed and bulbous, practically exophthalmic. I bet it's seen a lot in its day. If only it could speak.

I came into the weekend peevish and tired. Work's been rough, and I've been on call more than usual. As of 8 am Saturday I was finally off call, but multiple obligations would preclude long stretches at the river. Nonetheless, come 8:30, I rushed out to squeeze in a walk before the dentist at 12. I hated being on a timetable, hated wearing my watch, hated having to keep track of time. I was, as I said, peevish. I brought, of course, the camera. I was anxious to try out the Beast.

It was cold and bright, and there was some frost on the grass. I scanned the familiar terrain through the viewfinder. It was, to say the least, disorienting. The world receeded, stretched, bowed away. Distances increased. The greedy, hyperthyroid eye was drinking in everything. This was not the closer-and-closer-up photographic world I was used to. I was vertiginous, in freefall. I squatted and squinted ino the camera, trying to coax a delicate weed into the foreground. The beast would have none of that. The whole background screamed for attention. My neck began to hurt. I felt, for lack of a better word, nervous.

I remembered an experiment I'd heard about in medical school. Volunteers were given glasses to wear, special prisms that would invert the world. Initially they were completely disoriented, and staggered about trying to adjust to feeling upside down. Eventually they adapted, and were able to negotiate the world effortlessly again. Finally, when the glasses were removed and they were returned to their usual visual relationship to the world, they were disoriented afresh.

This would not do. I was risking brain damage here. So I detached the Beast, and replaced it with My Favorite Lens, my Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro lens. I felt better immediately.

The Tamron is a splendid lens. My copy is an older, used version, handsome and better preserved than The Beast. At 90mm it's a short telephoto as well as a macro lens so it's versatile, usable, as they say, as a portrait lens. I suppose I do take portraits. Weed portraits. Like of this pathside helleborine I've observed since last summer when it was covered with beautiful orchid-like flowers. It's still beautiful, regal and dignified as an ancient grande dame.

The lens lives up to its reputation of having beautiful bokeh. What's bokeh ? I thought you'd never ask. Bokeh (I learned recently) is the blurred background behind a photographic subject.

And with a macro lens set to a wide aperture, the depth of field, or the area in focus, is small -- sometimes vanishingly small -- so there's plenty of opportunity for bokeh.

The nebulous buff and blue and green background complements the cascading greens and purples and browns of the aged helleborine leaves.

I look. I see form; I see color. I know the trajectory: colors run, blend to a uniform, murky brown. The striped, billowing skirt-like leaves decay to a dull, brown paste. Everything tends to sludge and slime, to a dull pap that feeds the ground's hidden seeds.

The slime is where my hungry eye averts. It so prefers form, however bedraggled, and colors, however subtle. Slime is just not visually interesting. It is, however, metaphysically fascinating. And -- I admit -- horrifying.

Today, back at work, I was buried by an onslaught of tasks and demands. Late afternoon, sitting at my desk and writing, I suddenly came to. There I was, sitting there, looking at my hands as they wrote. What were they ? Who was I ? It was one of those awful, disorienting moments of Sartrean nausea, keener than usual. I felt poised and teetering on an abyss; a small panic fluttered inside. The Big Lens -- the wild, wide, all-seeing, goitrous eye of the Beast -- had turned inward. "I" dwindled to a grassblade in an enormous, ravening meadow. The world, viewed through the backside of the Beast, loomed large, extra large.

My pulse quickened. Bold, fascinated, I tried to follow the feeling where it was leading, to sustain it and investigate it. This was the crack though which I could slip into and out of the world. This could the Mobius path to enlightenment. This was my golden opportunity !

Or, I thought, I could become insane.

That would not do. I had progress notes to write. Email to send. And, furthermore, back at home, there was laundry to fold and put away and the dishwasher to unload.

I wrenched the Beast out of its socket and looked across the room. There was my pile of charts. There was my nurse on the phone. Things were neither too bright nor too dark. What was near was near, what was far was far. I pushed my glasses back up my sweaty nose. There. That was better.

Things were, for the moment, back to 50mm. Back to normal.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Love In A Beseiged City


Saturday, November 05, 2005


When I read that the Great Meadows Federal Wildlife Refuge had been opened up to hunting I was aghast. How could a place that claims to offer refuge to wild creatures invite other creatures in to stalk and kill the refugees ? It seemed, on the face of it, malicious, even diabolical. After all, "refuge" carries a quasi-theological promise of protection. Theists take refuge in the shadow of God's wings. Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Even the body of the church is called a sanctuary. As in Audubon.

The hunters, I read, could go after deer, but only with bows and arrows. Bows and arrows ? I pictured wounded deer fleeing, hiding in the brush, suffering prolonged and painful deaths. I shook my head and read on. Hunters would have to wear regulation amounts of "blaze orange." Great: so maybe they won't shoot each other, but what about shooting me ? There was nothing about visitors wearing blaze orange. Then I learned that the refuge had also recently banned dogs. Wildlife and visitors had found them too threatening. But what about the lurking presence of strangers with rifles and crossbows ? Not threatening ? I certainly felt threatened.

Nonetheless I went off to the refuge. I wanted to walk its pleasant, hilly trail, and, on the adjacent town conservation land, to revisit the meadow where, last fall, I'd found a host of splendid, bedraggled sunflowers. Maybe there would be no hunters, or maybe they would be off somewhere else, in some distant part of the refuge. How far can a bullet travel ? Or an arrow ? Two men wearing camouflage and tall rubber boots stood near the door of visitor center. There would be hunters. And nearby.

It was a pleasant, warm morning. The sun had retreated behind low, thin clouds, but, still, the light was good. I crossed a narrow paved road and headed toward the town conservation land. Soon I became aware of the sound of distant bells and an intermittant whistle. Had someone hung a windchime in the woods ? And what was the whistle ? I listened, puzzled.

I found the head of the trail and set off uphill. I was pleased to note the town's "No Hunting" signs. The Feds might count hunting and fishing as two of the six prime usages of public refuge lands; the citizens of Sudbury would have no part of it. Good for them.

The sound of the bells continued from down a steep wooded slope to my right. I walked, stopping to take a picture now and then. I found my eye draw to leaves caught mid fall. Oak leaves cradled by the twigs of a bare bush. A maple leaf caught in green pine needles. Errant leaves that have found temporary lodging on their way down. It seemed an image of tremendous hospitality. Compassion, even. Or mercy. Then I spotted him. The hunter. I spotted his blaze orange cap through the trees of the wooded slope. He was less than 100 yards away, and he saw me too. I tried to appear as undeer-like as possible. I followed the trail uphill, and then, relieved, found the entrance to the sunflower meadow.

I felt safer there, out in the open, among signs of last summer's public garden plots: low wire and twine fences, an overturned wheelbarrow, a seedpacket on a stick, a plastic swan. Surely this deserted field was benign, even vegetarian, home to peaceful, cultivating citizens. Surely it was a safe haven for deer and photographer alike. Surely it was a refuge.

We grew this lettuce ourselves, on the conservation land. Isn't it tasty ? Pass the snow peas. Would you care for more veal piccata ?

I remembered a newspaper piece I'd read last spring, about fiddleheads. It featured a photo of a portly, crewcut man holding a plate. He was interviewed in the article. Fiddle heads were, he said, delicious. Especially steamed, and with lots of butter. Later, photographing the sticky, webby, uncoiling ferns, I was stunned by their beauty, and my heart sank. How could anyone eat something so beautiful ? But weren't all fruits and grains and vegetable beautiful and miraculous ? I was already a vegan -- what would be left to eat ? Air ? What was it that Simone Weil, that great renunciate, had said ?

Beauty: a fruit which we look at without trying to seize it.


The beautiful is that which we desire without wishing to eat it. We desire that it should be.

Clearly, one had to go on eating. And, by extension, killing. But I could draw the line. I had to draw the line. Somewhere. As I photographed a bed of dried, drooping compositae, I heard a voice. I looked up. There was the hunter, across the field at the edge of the woods. He was waving and calling. His dog was at his side.

Hellooo ! Take my picture !!

I obliged. He assured me he'd simply be passing through the woods beside the meadow. I shouldn't worry. I waved back, unsure of what to say. What had our transaction meant ? Was he baring his throat to me in a primitive gesture of non-harm ? Was my snapshot a reciprocal gesture ? He intended ME no harm. I bore him considerable ill-will, yet did as he requested. He was eliciting from me more forbearance than I was from him. He wasn't out to kill me, after all. I, on the other hand, wanted to give him a piece of my mind.

How can you possibly kill a living creature ? They have a right to their lives just as you do and I do. As your dog does ! Surely you don't need to hunt to eat. And don't give me that argument about overpopulation and culling the herd. It begs the question of you chosing to become executioner: annihilating, in cold blood, one particular creature's existence. That's not abstract theory. That's the most intimate of acts. Chosing, stalking, wounding, killing. The creature feels fear and pain: what justifies your choice to inflict it ? Tradition ? It's fun for you ? You like the taste of venison ? God has given you Dominion over the beasts ? They're just stupid animals ? We're carnivores by nature ? Don't you see how killing debases YOU ?

His handsome dog trotted toward me across the field. There were the bells I'd heard -- a whole rack of them, almost as big as cowbells -- hanging from his collar. He clanged as he trotted. Like a belled cat, or a leper. What did it mean ? The hunter whistled, the dog clanged off

and I returned to the dried pods and fallen fruits of the meadow gardens. Whom was I kidding ? This meadow was no paradise, no pre-lapsarian eden.

It was, if anything, post-post lapsarian. We know all about good and evil, and by golly, we know that we know that we know with six degrees of blood-curdling irony. CEO of munitions plant by day, organic gardener by night. All is possible. All is granted. Just wear a little blaze orange, will ya please ?

It was an accident, your honor. I swear !

Little wonder I've spent the last year or two dreaming about monasteries and lauras of hermits. Where is refuge in a world where lines are seldom drawn, where restraint is rarely advised, where appetites are freely indulged. Where everything is fair game. Where we are all sitting ducks.

Fragments of text -- birds of the air, lilies of the field -- remind us of the holiness of everything; and, we are reassured, all shall be well. All manner of things shall be well. Sometimes, gazing into the heart of a flower, I can almost believe it.

When the gun finally went off it was almost a relief. Startled, I fell to my knees in a bed of rotting peppers. My body could fall among them to this ground, fail, relinquish its nattering "I" and, like them, turn to wormholed slime. I and all my siblings -- peppers, birds, deer, dogs, hunters, planets, suns -- will eventually tumble from our precious, temporary lodging, back into -- into what ? God ? The Void ? The Mother of All ?

There, in the field, on my knees I was neither wounded nor praying. Or was I ?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

High Autumn

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