August, November, January

August, November, January




I’m getting somewhere. I have to believe this. I have to keep coming back to see where it is that I might be getting. Piedmont says, you have gotten there. Piedmont says, you have so far to come, so you come and come. Back I come, forthcoming. So much to lose. I have to lose so much, even hope. In order to see I must lose it all, everything I thought I knew, every way I went through my days, all the quenches I learned for fear. To shed the skins, smash the lenses. Even my words (these words?) are lying to me. Even my breath is going to a place that isn’t even real. Nowhere was always part of getting somewhere. Who are you? And where? I need this. The ache of joy that pierces everything. The way the limbs dance, their quivering choruses of nod and shimmy. Less is it need so much as breathing. I’m dirt, if that – best if less. Don’t be hemmed by the noise. Life doesn’t always begin with birth. The dark is often the only light. Thick could be the first knowledge of empty.

July drifts into August. A kind of rain, a kind of bleeding. I try to slow down enough to keep up. One day a box turtle stares at me, markings on its shell the color of mullein blossoms. Now plows out of the way, now stops to stare again with determined eyes. One redorange blossom from the trumpet creeper vine lights the woods just beyond the turtle. The blossom could be made of wax or leather. The woods are damp. Fungus stands or lies broken among the sweetgum nut husks and leaves. It’s cool, low sixties and fresh-smelling, as though September has showed up early. There are always days like this in August, they are always strange.

Another day I might prefer the nettle to the smilax, but not today. The birds, smilaxing, are vocal, their song a kind of vacuum, being in the round. My ears ricochet from peep to chirp, touch all compass points. But – listen – the locusts sound tired.

The woods smell like rot. Reflections of trees and sky, shadows and shine, stain the mud-stained river’s surface. The river is thirty or so feet across and slow-moving. One rock stands visible in the river, exposed piece the size of a crib mattress, who knows what’s underneath, what size and being.

Some acid seems to leave my body and especially my brain as I walk. It leaves through every pore, breath, and passing thought. I feel like a hunter whose prey is another self, one buried not deeply but with cunning and luck. The only weapon is a longing powered by the powder of calm and grace’s spark.

The smilax contains the history of every swimming lizard. I’m climbing the mushrooms that I walk too fast to see. This is the exit I once passed into the world through. What lies on the other side is another side. The poison ivy vine is prolific, too. Leaves rot. A fish, a bream, lips the river’s surface near the squirrel’s nest. The jays go back and forth. Bubbles rise, break. Silt settles.

Earlier I went about my days. Now they haul me along. This was the secret of the buttonbush and the ferns.


Meanwhile, amoebas of foam drift by the mud-stained boulder. They speckle the river’s surface with pale mottlings. The water is clouded but clear as with a film, and it quietly courses around the boulder. Only a waterstrider breaks the glass of the river’s smoothness. No fish lipping flies, no falls, dimples, pourovers, creases.

Upstream and down is another story. The river curves and bends through the clay bluffs. I can only see fifty yards sourceward and downstream’s windier yet.

The sun lies low over the far bank, a milky shine through the third growth hardwood. Cirrus are as fish skeleton in the one pocket of sky. There’s a chemical smell to the water as though hassled by detergents or chlorine.

A squirrel chuckles just as I’m taken by the svelte elegance of a stump near the water’s edge, some ogham in its lines. Stump seems so damp as to be a monument of soil, very little wood left in its cells–something of wings about it, like those angel wing shells that sometimes wash on the beach. Probably a good home, lovenest, battleground for various critters.

Movements are sudden and brief — a soft splash, a thump, a crinkling. Around the bend upstream water breaks, the one constant sound above the pulse and whine of crickets.

With each moment and fraction of moment the pattern of foam on the river changes. The single pieces of foam shift in shape as well. They are not thick, but they are dense, a conglomerate of bubbles. Their motion resembles a pilgrimage, souls streaming towards some nothingness so graceful and great as to be magnetized or just alluring. Bubbles in circle pattern allow one unit of foam to resemble a number of persons holding hands. There’s a hollow place, a browngold dollop of water in the middle of the white.

Silt has gathered on a submerged slab of stone, and on it are grooves, the trails of larvae, stonefly perhaps or salamander. No, when I kneel and reach to explore in the shallows there, a crayfish darts and turns, claws forth. I see that the marks are not hers either. A black thing at the end or beginning of one trail turns out to be a snail, a snail the length of my thumbnail, a fleshy mass filling the hollow of its shell.

Snail doesn’t say, Let the tropical storms arrive. The storms do arrive – Bonnie, Alex, Chris – each with its own character.

The rain splashes up an inch or so when it hits the river, perfect circle of its wake already dilated to a diameter of four inches by the time the splash subsides. The world’s miracles are exact, if not random enough. But they have a motion that seems entirely traditional, ingrained.

The river is the color of an old leather suitcase. It’s slow here. The rain makes it feel slower, almost still. I’ve always loved swimming outside in the rain. Now open my eyes, see the surface, little bursts of activity so formful and constant.

What was drizzle is now a shower. I can feel the regularity of its falling and splashing. What seems to be a faster pace is only more rain falling. The world may not be slow or exact or even, for that matter, the world, but it is regular.

There’s a spider on my arm telling me something else. There’s a thick bundle of poison ivy dangling from a hairy-looking vine attached to the next boxelder down. The cardinal lobelia will not blink–it is watering. A branch falls, exciting the spiders beneath my skin. Or are those little birds?

I watch a leaf quiver in the cross-hatched pulse of a raindrop’s wake, probably an earlier drop knocked from its place on a limb or leaf. There are a lot of yellowbrown leaves floating or half floating on the river. More of them fall. When I look up at the trees everything is green or else it is yellow. The locust fires its jambox, says yellow, but the world confirms nothing. I love it anyway, love it every least way and moment I possibly can turtle, can bug, bird, fish. Even persistence is haphazard in a consistent way. Who has fallen like rain, made on the river a million perfect circles? Or even one?


Downmountain the river is a muddy fist blooming, tearing at its banks, exposing roots. It stinks of runoff. The plain style of dry days is dead. Nothing is flat and hardly a nuance dances now. All baroque and swollen. Seeds and nuts litter the ground. There, simply there. Soon they’ll be gnawed, eaten, digested, or picked up and who knows what then.

I know the seasons are not the Piedmont. The seasons are the Piedmont’s. What is the Piedmont, America’s most lived-in region, mountain-foot, place of succession, secondary succession – soil building, soil retention – post climax. The trees know. Ask the trees. The trees are the voices the seasons use to tell their stories, sing their tunes, and the breeze knows best their complaints.

Everything swims. Even the lichen holds its breath, comes up gasping. There’s no other side, no far bank. The day is erosion and sprawl.

So I sit, soaked with sweat and the wet kisses of leaves. Past all eventually, summer’s nectar ferments. The sky is goldenrod, ironweed to the west. A yellow warbler hops and flits from branch to branch in a dense stand of mountain laurel, sweetgum, oak. Lichen covers the limbs like a kind of bark. The bird has eyes of opal, a kind of void in them, swallowing space

Meanwhile, the mountain keeps giving itself to the river – don’t say one thing about generosity. Rain is cloud spit. I am not coming up for air either. The trees are chainsaws. They are slicing up the names for things. Here is some of that sawdust, it isn’t green and it isn’t brown. It is flight, it is landing. Here is a leaf.


I paddle in the August dusk, air a heat-drenched lover after a feast of flesh. It hardly slumbers. Crickets are as goose pimples on its flanks and limbs. They purr, echoes of screeches from brighter greens. Of course they are invisible. They’re behind the eyes. They nibble at the ears. The river’s wakes grow abdominal, silent with vast communities of spiders, trilogies of silk.

Something about the Piedmont that lets me speak, that gives me voice, even if this is nerve damage talking. Planet damage? Look, an empty head with too much room for wandering is the sky. Come now, mist, be subtle again. My canoe is too long, still. It leaks but floats me finer than any flying.

The flood has browned the nettles on the banks. The slopes shine with an earlier swelling, a peak, an ebb. Unclear runs the river now and slower, if at all. It shivers with landings, puckerings, a curdling of fins. Heads bob. A wake grows. Who can speak for the interior thick and green like moaning. Beyond, the river oats thick with seed. The tail rises. Lately gets busy again. The tail slaps, each nook vine-tangled or not descends into shades of darkness and the glows and sloughs of cooler heat.


I lately visited the cedars in the grove by the abandoned speedway. How stringy and purplish was their bark. And green with moss. The strings, when they peeled, hung from the trunks like the markings of a distracted whittler. Not until a height of thirty feet did needles grow on the branches. A dense barrenness, that cedar grove. Was prickly, too. I walked carefully so as not to poke an eye. But the eye gets poked. The feet were happy, though, the ground soft with needle, sphagnum, ferns. Few shrubs or vines grew there. It was a cedar grove seeded twenty or thirty years ago. A lot of spleenwort, the occasional maple sapling and holly. Weeds tolerated it, too, their fruit cropped by deergrazing.

There was owl scat beneath a triple-trunked beauty of a cedar nappy and spiderwebbed. The scat was dry and grey and soft as though with mouse remains. There was a skeletal aspect to the stand of trees as well, dead limbs like so many ribs. No wind moved the cedars. If there was movement, as there must be movement in anything dead or alive, I could not discern it. Yet beneath, an array of roots like a giant golf ball torn open, rubberbands broken from their compressed roundness and splayed now in a myriad fusion and unspooling.

I sat a while beneath a tree and heard the occasional jay. Geese passed over, though I hardly saw them through the canopy. Of a cedar’s needle what can be said? – that it is barbed, that it can be forked or not, that fallen it yellows more than browns, that to see it fall requires no certain prayer, that it is a rough tickle on the skin, that it is a kind of skin, that it is buoyant, tanniniferous, green; that it whispers hints at the shape of the grain, that even when nibbled it says so little.


The canoe could care less. I paddle it, slip through a shower of leaves, yellow and brownmottled hickory, hackberry, and maple leaves falling in a breeze. Upon landing they drift, glow, float, host dragonfly, spider, shadow, and light. Their stems sink as though rudders. Their moss seems unabsorbant. The river, stained with itself, is a dot to dot of their peculiar shapes and pigments.

Leaves fall in August. The maple is gold-streaked here and there. By now, it seems that all greens tend toward blues. A kind of purpling, August, because red’s everywhere all the time.

So the river has foliage now. It always has limbs; indeed it is a limb, the river, in the tree of a larger river, one more in the ocean’s forest.

My eyes go to mimosa, its delicate sway in the breeze, the way it hangs over the river, the way it touches, passively, the air. The breeze blows the canoe against the bank where poison ivy, nettle, jewelweed, and sedge reach their flood-stained, bug-gnawed glory. Or is it sadness. August’s is a feisty melancholy.

Morning, the river holds the sky carelessly. The water is no longer high but it isn’t low. A river is no richer in flood than it is in drought. In drought it exposes itself, its bed, its edges and hard places. In flood it grows obese yet graceful with devour, slap, cluck. If floods reorganize, so does a drought, the world a mess of constant remodeling.


I wonder why the oak is dead that extends from the bank, five or six years old. The beavers might be responsible, the water too, the bugs.

Once I was dead and now that I’m not, people look at me funny. Leaves fall in August. They say I have problems. Issues. They do not know how to read me anymore, if ever, as if I breathe another air and out of that air form new translations for things that are, things that seem.

Even in August, even now, the leaves do fall.

As though the air I exhale is not the same air I once exhaled, as though the air has too much yum in it now, too much being.

I don’t hang on to things as I once did. As though I’ve destroyed the means of cling. Saddens me how it scares some people, people close to me who seem to need me to stay where I’ve been, in that stuck, that heavy heavy scared place. So I can be managed.

Have the anchorlines snapped? Sickness needs sickness to hide. Am I drifting?

All I know is every day I don’t get in the woods I feel I’ve betrayed my own birth. As if I owe my birth a thing, some gratitude. As if I’m talking about creation, talking about God. I am talking about accidents. I am talking about pain and mothers and inheritance and resentment. I am giving birth to another layer. Of soul? Of seeing? Of lungs, a remodeling of body and being? I’m mothering, fathering, childing, but mostly I’m dying and growing and shrinking at the same doggone time. It’s not as if I owe it to all the suffering of all things. To breathe this way, among all this. To breathe it in. And give it away. Yes, I owe it to the suffering of all things.

The woods, at least, don’t care about me, and suchwise I feel in the woods more cared for than anywhere else.

Here come the leaves again and a breeze as though from another season. But there is only one season anymore.


I was bushwhacking around the other day and stumbled on a big poplar at the edge of the floodplain. The bark seemed to have melted to its present shape. Nubbined and scaled stood that flesh. A riverine mosaic. A stretch and an opening and another gap. I could peel it but it had peeled me first, had left my face, if that, a remnant, some derelict feature in its flank.

I sat near the base of it. Twenty feet up the tree disappeared in a lake of green. No breeze ruffled that veiny water. It would have taken four of me to hug this poplar, were I the type to hug poplar. Maybe I am, all four of me. Maybe the poplar is a leg and a hug would have tickled it, and it would have lifted me, all fourteen of me, as it stepped back to the Triassic. Big trees seem to be the sky’s ambling, the roots of its gait.

In ways, I was fortunate that I couldn’t see the top of that tree or even close to the top. Its branches were trees themselves. I have never cut a tree so large, but it must provide a thrill and a sadness like any flirt with death, with slaughter. Hundreds of rings. Each of its burls warted as big as a child’s skull and more cratered.

I sat there above the invisible planet of roots. Looking at the tree kept bringing to mind a picture of the moon that I’ve never seen. The brown, the pale mottlings, had that kind of glow and outerness, a distance though close.

At least it was cool beneath the poplar. At least the birdsong kept putting me back down lightly.


Now the river’s a mindfield of beaver or muskrat or big carp slapping the surface as I paddle upstream, trying to get a little speed, trying to ignore the swarm of ants under my canoe’s seat and the big spider nesting near the bow. They throttle me up, the bursts of water – five now, six. They appear every several strokes, peace disturbing the peace again.

The air is cool, it’s dry, too, and sweet with a smell of mealy apple and other fruits, their skins and pulp. Probably grapes rot under vines on the banks. Probably the ants smell and the river itself. I dip my hand in the water, but against my nose I can only detect remnants of the sandwiches I made for lunch.

What could be better than a lunchbreak canoe jaunt on a good Thursday afternoon. I’m a lucky animal inhabiting a luckier life. Leaves are everywhere on the river like some run come unstitched. A dog barks in the distance, traffic spells tiresounds on the bridge. The breeze pushes the canoe such that I brush a limb with the back of my head. Something drops in the canoe, a grape of nearly perfect roundness and a dark burgundy. Specks like stars dot its plump surface. A green of bleeding leaf is the node where lately it was attached to the vine that hung, laden.

I’m now blown further upstream, but not before shaking a good number of the fruit into the puddle at the bottom of my leaky craft. Bitter but savory are the grapes on tongue, lips, and gums. The skin is thick, gets all up between my teeth. The pulp globular and seedy bursts as if encased in a membrane. This is a gift, another gift in a life of them.

How yellow the river appears where sun filtering through the canopy illuminates it. I want nothing more, but there is more. There is a katydid on my gunwale. It crouches and then hops into flight, a gossamering of wings, kind of awkward but hellbent, too. The shore isn’t close, but the bug finds a flood-licked place to land again, a leaf.


And more. The days are more. The heat is more.

I paddle, drift, paddle some more. Two vultures scraggle-winged and dark turn beneath a cloud the color of window trim on a long abandoned house. They orbit a few times and then are gone. There’s a limited space in the sky visible, as trees are a wall on either side of the river where I sit again letting the breeze blow the canoe where it will.

The jays don’t stop their screeching at the deep rumble of the approaching train. The horn blows four times, and it sounds each time more yellow.

A shagbark hickory has fallen here. It lies at a forty-five off the bank. Shoots from a poison ivy vine splay off the flank, everything stripped of leaves and also moppy with other leaves washed to a place bent around vine, twig, branch. Emblems of thicker currents. Scrolled messengers of rain.

There’s a spider with a legspan the size of my hand walking up a jewelweed plant on the bank. Alternately it caresses the leaves and flowers as though terrified of its steps. It could be waiting for a bird. How bilious beauty can be. There’s a hummingbird. I hear it before or if ever I see it, that sound as if air in love with wings.

The spider trips some wire in me. It must be six feet away as the mosquito flies. What could eat such a form? Only hate knows the angles of those joints, the heat of that abdomen. Hate is witty, is a nit, and it’d take an umbrella of a web to hold and feed such a spider. Therefore it stalks, I guess. No wasted flesh. No need for color, for camouflage, for singing – spider is the adamant. It makes new endings. It sees with its motions all darkness to shame.

It’s going to rain. The clouds have that thickness thing going on and the river keeps spitting bubbles as though from its silt, as though the body beneath the body of the bottom is breathing hard, puddling with sweat.

August is an intensity, a thickness like abandon. It grips the jugular, climbs it. It buries me in layers that I delight in the taste of even as they bury I with insensate longings.

For instance, how lost is home. How seeing is hearing, as being is, for instance. How a word can be kneaded, a word for all senses firing at once — oversense, th(o)roughsense — no stillness but in the trying. For instance, the soft frill of the lobelia blossoms, that scarlet so vibrant the shadows are a nectar.


Storms dumped enough rain overnight for the river to crest its bluff. Ten foot bluffs. I look at one matted with leaf. Trod and silted, a kind of windblown look. In water normally still I drift downstream among puckering lines – eddy, crease, dimple. The river is carrying some tropical storm oceanward again. Flow breaks against logs just under the surface, breaks with blooming dimples, each ripple from the getgo doomed.

High water is high water. The storms come. What’s amazing is the aroma of the land drying out again. Damp mud, damp leaves, damp wood. Isn’t a sweet smell, isn’t sour either.

It is rich, dirty, the kind of odor I could smear on my body and feel clean again. Smells like a pelt, like blood musky and dense. A smell that was sharp an hour ago before the sun used it to carve a new face on pretty much every log and bank. A smell that creates this day I’ll remember years from now. Somewhere I’ve been already, too placental and utter all over again. The fish feed anyway. And the frogs begin their questions – are? are? are?— never to finish them.

So the world spills its guts and gets bashful about it the following day. The hazards of the confessional are many.

An odor of evaporation, of receding. The kind of damp, ribald, cuckoldous indulgence that conjures another thunderstorm just as the bark’s about to dry out. A fish rises towards a spider. It pauses, strikes, recedes. Something in my nose itches at the sight of it – the water has a name for it, but only the mushrooms know what it is.



November flirts with silence everywhere I look. The leaves slump and cover their ears. Or else the leaves are ears and cover each other. Either way, it’s an ear jam, a clog. It inspires quiet, emptying-of-canopy does. Quiet is not silence. Silence is more harsh, more total in its withholding. Either way, space grows, perspective stretches, and sound travels through the spaces, but there is still less sound.

The woods are an orchestra of skeletons. Limbs, the trees’ winter language, are so numerous now on the horizon. Slow as the changes October wrought, the barren canopy, if it can be called barren, startles. Or maybe it’s the larger sky that surprises. The Piedmont sky shrinks in the warm months, leaves become the sky, the thick canopy a cumulus of greens.

Silence is never accurate. What I hear is clackety, abrasive, raw.  Something to do with breathing, the land’s, and the changes in that throat. Body is perception, soul is too. The joints ache in November. Blood, like the days, grows thin. The ground is a litter, highly mulched.

As the quiet grows broad, I sit against logs that have known floods, been moved. They make good seats. Often they are smooth, not hard to mistake for stones, but their colors are warmer. One, for instance, is black, brown, and beige. I sit on it and picture latitudes, clouds in hues enmeshed on the breeze, a breeze made by moving water, the water’s friction and slip (its yearn) as it encounters stone.

Fewer leaves fall. They can only fall further and become silt. It’s slower than falling, closer to integration than falling — veins to silt, silt to mud. I walk the logs to know this. The logs that teeter explain it best. When I fall, I go carefully, letting gravity have every atom.

A stick bobs in the current. More and more, neither here nor there, is nor was. Stick’s third is under water, doesn’t take much. I am — some conglomeration, a finaglering – and it’s perfect. Thrice-forked, this delicate branch, and lichen-mottled, a miniature of the clouds in splotches on the blue. And then a certain stone takes me in its cold fingers. It drags me from colder water and shakes. The stone is greyolive and its lines suggest that it has recently broken from another stone, that it is a fragment. It wears a poplar leaf that retains a spark in its yellow, a spark that most of the other leaves have subsumed. The rock throws me – it has a good arm – but I do not skip. I boomerang. I orbit the stone. It’s lovely, orbiting always was. There are many sticks and logs. The stone has spirit and up and orbits me. I all do this a while, careful as I can be among the pointed sticks.

The less said about roots the better. They tempt me still, their stretch and depth and probing. Fallen tree’s rootclump speaks of dizziness and tears. Rootclump says, go on, hunker on. The mass of soil and stringy, woody material almost resembles a shrub were it not so sagging. The one on the bank now holds rocks in its cavities; this is not unusual (what is?), yet it reminds me of the grip inherent in growth.

Roots are the cirrus of the sky beneath. Roots are orbitsource. The fog of topsoil hides their shapes and motions. I wonder if legged bodies, like the tree, grow down and up as well as out, and at what proportions. Probably individuals vary according to gene codes, but the ratios, I suspect, are similar across the species.

Though the vistas expand and there is more sky visible, my thoughts in fall tend earthward. Nothing new. I find myself with a shovel more than with a ladder. Often I’m on my knees. Likewise the shadows dig, seek interiors previously buried by summer’s outgoing ways.

Earlier I saw a mink while biking the short way to the river. I was crossing the train tracks, at the edge of an industrial park, when the slender black creature shuffled with marvelous hurry into a ditch between the tracks and the road. Strange place for a mink.

Leaves orbit or else they drift haphazard. Strange is every place, strange and all its traditions. Leaves orbiting nothing, leaves orbiting other orbits. The world is so many bodies constantly making whoopee and getting on with it all the same. What will knock my socks off next? What will level me? What will make my eyes never open the same way again, make each new breath even newer with its being?

So many stories, each of endless chapters, each a constant chaptering. This story, the bark writes it in bark with bark, and just as the lines fall apart, the insects keep tunneling through that bark, lichen and moss setting up shop where they will, little stillnesses, tones, clues.


November the eighth and frost for the first time since March. It lies on the land, a thin fur. It gets me moving early. The river is warmer than the air. I walk, propelled by cold toes.

Where I sit is not a choice but a motion closer to falling. There is climbing involved. Galax is busy at the low flank of an outcrop, and it draws I forth with its waxy, thick-veined leaves. For a while I feel scribbled by its presence. A little crazily its scribblings flit and form. I scratch them like so many bug bites.

Frost gets me giddy. It is like some long awaited visitor I am never sure will arrive. Frost is a kind of faith again, though to sense this requires a measure of its absence.

Beech leaves are prominent on the limbs. In places they are the view. I dance through them by the thousands. They twirl me into a near seizure and I surface before I’m under. I’ll never understand (nor overstand) the meaning of sanguine again, though it’s the bones of November’s stock.

A few maple leaves haven’t let go. One branch holds ten or so. They dangle like butterflies anchored to another sort of flying. I’m coming to believe, contrary to knowledge, that the breeze is the trees’ breathing, but often I hold the birds responsible.

A checkerback knocks on a rotted trunk. Its silhouette glows a thousand shadows. It flutters its wings. It hops and swings and then puts beak to wood again, and I no longer can see the names of things but I see the things and hear them unsaying every name until their namelessness names me, again: fool.

If woods, if their frequencies. If Piedmont, if fertile upland, mountain-foot.

If I close my eyes even when my eyes are closed, such that they are opened as from within and under the river’s bottoms, the canopy’s elevations, the bark’s furrowings.

If these Piedmont woods give my blood a kind of sunburn (sunborn), if amplification, if this land is, in essence, a complaint and a rebirth.

This is not protest, this place, not yesterday’s either. This is not resentment, not resistance. This is not what’s flammable in me or them or anything else. Nor douse, wiggler, nor dowse. This is witness – no, it’s not witness. This is making love – no, it’s love, making. This is succession, a soiling.

Yes, this is not walking around in the woods. This is witnessing’s footprints. This is the woods walking around in the woods and a guy trying to catch a glimpse. This is not (definitely not) nature loving me calling nature my bitch. To follow without trying to—this is Piedmont’s essence. This, and to know etymologies of every common name, the catches in the breath, the releases.

Fused themselves, motion and sound fuse color with feeling. The world a torch in the hands of a mad welder come lately to the craft. There are no Band-Aids, thank goodness, solvent enough for such bleeding.


November means exposure. The river drops, displaying sandbars and edges and stones that were buried by hurricane season, or if not buried, simply existing in a wetter world than this, wetter but no more fluid. The big hill they call a mountain is streaky too. From the canoe, I see its interior flanks – the cliffs and gulches and groves. Trails appear as thin, worn lines in the leaves. I pull the canoe over at a break in the bank’s steeps and discover floodsam previously buried in the foliage of alder, yellowroot, and boxelder, the latter strung with samaras. I know less and less each day, about why I’m here, how I get here, what and who drives me, but the intimacy of exposure is always blowing my mind, bringing me closer to the distances that make proximity and, henceforth, dying possible. I paddle the canoe in circles. I pick up rocks thinking they are arrowheads and find they are balls of mud. The deer that’s barking grows me a tail. Isn’t weird. Only a crow fluttering its wings against a cloud-thin sky brings me down to earth. It’s like waking from a nap I didn’t intend to have in a place I never knew I wanted to be. And there is a beech leaf on my cheek and so many on the rest of my body that I am warm as though in the quilt of another body.

Even so, more animals are dead now. I see them on the streets – possum, coon, deer, cat, dog. Their smells travel delicately on the cold air. Summer was a forgery, brilliant and fun, though a little long in the staying. Fall isn’t about death, not melancholy either. And less exposure than a kind of bearing, a giddy distilling and dance of skins.

Each day, the woods have just been born. It won’t be the last time either. How many rattles can the land possess? There are many answers everywhere unattainable, just waiting for the proper dismay. It is windy and all the dead had never been so alive. And that’s the thing about love – this is where it leaves me after stealing my white flags.

The rocks crumble like voices. I begin to scale a boulder and drag a piece from its side. November cultures the land’s milk. Opposites unite. Shrinkage allows expansion. Just try to hide. The sky’s lips purse before smiling. Then they open and gnaw on me with puppy teeth. It’s a matter of suspension. An illusion of matter. The poplar tree was always a river, only the leaves drained it for a while. Those little goblets on its limbs raise a toast now – to fishsmells of damp leaves, to lines the eyes ride – log rot, the shadows’ shafts, spaces between the laurel leaves. To the way things go canary and later fires kindle.

I walk only to discover a floating world in which I’m carried, dragged, and then harnessed to pull. Old mushrooms like balls of spidersilk. And the sky chewing and swallowing beyond all examination or even taste.


Rain falls. Maybe the land summons it. Yes and no, the unfixing. Maybe it runs from the clouds or maybe it’s been banished – late, late rent. I find a small gulch where an outcrop provides dry harbor. Though the day is apparently windless, breath hurries behind me, wafts under the rocks and then out. The world loud with patter and slap. Leaves bound and limbs tremor. This is not drizzle.

I wonder how long the rain travels before meeting the land – seconds, minutes – and if it breaks as it falls, does it separate into equal sizes? I like to watch the rain conform to its surroundings even as the surroundings transform with it. Hardly three seconds pass without a drop landing on a stone shelf the size of book. Moss wears the stone, absorbs the moisture.

Pools form in many of the leaves scattered and bent and torn on the stone and dirt slope. What was a crinkly, delicate strata is now limp smudge. Color deepens – these are mostly beech and oak leaves – to a brown more red than brown. Earlier these leaves tended toward yellow. Even now they resist being pinned to a single place in the spectrum. Purity belongs to another season, although the laurel leaves are always close to pure green. In various lights, however, I’ve called them purple. As usual, words fall short. Like rain, the paths and distances of falling short are worth a little time and sometimes more.

Today – and many other days – the words are rain born in vision’s clouds. But vision is ignorance, and the words fall where they will, bouncing down the mind’s leafladder. Woods. Or words. In fall, the mind bears a changing canopy too. It is as though foliage was a ceiling and now it has fallen to the ground.

The trees’ details – bark, burls, hollows – are hard to see in the mist, which is rot-aromaed and bears a heavy sweetness. My lungs feel lined with fine silt. And still the trees more than ever appear present. They appear to be part of the sky. There is no border. The rain brings everything together in a soggy, sensual commons.

And sometimes it stops, little lenses, little eyes variously irised.


The milky, mineral-stained granite is a quilt on which my clothing is another and as patchworked. The moss fuzzy and tubered like some coral leftover from a sea long receded. It isn’t chance that stops me here, it is chance’s crazy aunt – I’ve lost her name.

I sit on an exposed flank. There are trees and fields and buildings. It isn’t so busy. The sky is heavy, a copper and blue, cream-streaked and softly aglow – a low stucco ceiling sagging as though from years under a leaky roof.

Scrub pines frame the view. They are of uninspired height, but the way they sway in the wind, the limbs anyway, is worth much coin. Their cones are small, the largest not much more than a golfball in size. And how abundantly they appear, twenty or more per branch, the branches ununiform in terms of their growth angles. They are sloppy, disheveled trees, creatures of exposure, weather-weary, battered. They’re birdshit-stained and sap sloppy. But as if from that ooze, they exude an aura of persistence. It isn’t hard to see them as nearly dead as they are deadly alive.

And now for heaven’s sake the nuthatches invade. Their song is like so many phones left off the hook, though creamier. They bounce and flit from one place to the next, heads so ying-yanged and quick on the neck. They remind me of lumps in a snake’s gullet. A black snake, to be specific. They look so gullible and delicious, easy prey for felines and other lovers of meat that know air, flight.

It is decidedly evergreen on this thumb of the flank – laurel, moss, lichen, pine. Fall grows slower and more stubbornly each day. Perhaps it’s the mild air, the rain at night smudging leaf colors into deeper degrees of shine. Fall in the Piedmont flirts with winter the way spring plays with summer. The transition is slow and sometimes frenetic. Just when I think it’s winter, my body fills with the brisk emptiness, and the leaves seem to last forever.


Another day, and I sit by the creek, watch its slate brown waters rise. Even if they fall, they rise. Fog lifts, slow as fog when the rain still falls and the sun hasn’t broken through the clouds. There is rain.

Rain and spleenwort. Rain and yellowroot gone mustard. On beech and chestnut oak, on laurel and limb. And densely in the moss, the clouds a hatchery. Nothing dry, not one thing underneath the other side of darkness there parabalaed between believing’s spheres. Only the plural of it and in a breeze the displacement of falling olive and brown. Drabber smears of rain. Particulate almost. Rain squared and the round root of each grey bubble unverbed for a while – little warps, little returnings.

The bank is steep here. Yellow Japan grass, honeysuckle, and leaves smear together on it. A place of dangle and slide. A sapling red oak is as an umbrella growing slightly lower than horizontal, its leaves crimson at the veins and brownish pumpkin without. Six growths stem from the roots. There is nothing desperate in its bearing, nothing emotional at all.

A crow lands on the point of a big dead oak and begins to imitate its mama. Earlier a catbird hissed, feathering my bones. There’s a beech tree fallen parallel with the tree where I sit, and its roots are so entangled with this one’s roots that the two trees seem to have toppled together. But the beech is still alive, its leaf-bearing branches emergent from its edges’ upper sides.

The creek is thirty feet wide and cutbanked, its banks rising two to ten feet before the floodplain. Though I sit on a rot-soft log, the creek carries me. I’m carried, and what else is new. In these parts, many creeks are named for churches. But it is the rain that baptizes me. It is always the rain, whether the rain is falling or moving in the river, the clouds, the blood, the ground.


Strange to still find spiderwebs in the woods. I see a grasshopper, too; it feels me first and part hops, part flies to a sapling beech limb. It is more brown than good maple syrup. I never knew that grasshoppers lived nearly to December. Probably their life spans vary according to the season’s whims.

I sit on a log beside a lusty seep that patters and slaps down a boulder’s face. The land feels more exposed to me than ever. It doesn’t seem barren; it appears wide open, as though its thickness and essence shifts inward and downward with the falling of the leaves and the containment of growth processes.

The falling water soothes. The breaking water soothes even more, its music drowning the trafficsounds from roads nearby. Roads are always nearby. There is usually traffic on the roads and in the woods.

Water drips down the moss-shaggy cliff, over and through beech and chestnut oak leaves pasted there, the motions barely audible through the more consistent splattering of the flume beside me. The energy and form of the heavy flow resembles a tongue, as if the cliff has some kind of mouth and throat and is thirsty. I offer it my breath, and what happens next is nothing, as usual, and everything.

That flank of the hill rings with pigments of many lands and times. Many selves, continuous and changing. I like how the colors, what I perceive them to be, are not the colors. That every color I see is a reject, the one wavelength of light that the stone or the lichen or moss on it does not absorb. I, too, am what I cannot absorb.

Echos of gravity, echos of light – November reeks of traveling aromas, smells that escort me further into the present and the past and future all at once. Like most things, I spill what I cannot absorb and shine with what I do. Time is always sensual, many sensations converging, diverging, fading, flaring. I look at the tree before the next tree – doesn’t matter what kind – and know that I’ve been dead longer than I’ve been alive. Yes, autumn guts me as sure as any roadkilled red fox. The rain makes a soup of light out of those bones. I don’t know what feeds on it now, and such ignorance nourishes, some cosmic nut butter.

Speaking of mast, I don’t see one acorn or even a husk of any fruit or nut. There are many leaves on the ground. As many grounds in the plasma. There’s an aerial view of a boreal forest in miniature on a chunk of granitic quartz. The lichen resembles cliffs and boulders. There are hawthorns and highbush blueberry in the mix. A seed could be a chestnut-sided warbler. Nothing is horizontal anyway.



The listenings are more ample in winter. Barrenness breeds them. They are everywhere in the trees and soil and plants, but they even more prevalent in the scraggly, wilted edges. The vines sing the melody of larvae feeding under stones that are underwater. Placid licks its chops. The silt on the boulder’s low flanks bears the river’s fingerpaintings. I hear a squirrel. I see a log and then a bird where I thought there was a squirrel.

I’m in the canoe. The air is warm. The sky ferments. Maybe it lactates. The sun hides, but I can hear it laughing.

To get to know this place, I’m going to have to leave it. By trying to know it, I are leaving it.

The water dimples through a tangle of sticks near where I drift midstream. The river, where its flow is broken by wood or stone, resembles the clouds. The pattern is slightly washboard, the reflected clouds more orange than they appear in the sky.

Rivers are the clouds of the earth. The trees are the birds. Every rock is a star. I paddle through galaxies near and exploding. Nothing is large, but things are not close either. The beech trees hold their leaves. The beech leaves hold their trees.

Now the sun appears like the sky was opening its eye.

I look up and see the outcrop, a house-sized boulder. I did not expect to come this far. There are winter-dead weeds in the crevices. They seem to be spilling. The whole rock moves by virtue of its electrons.

Each day, the river dives into me. Everywhere does not mean everywhere anymore. There is a pine and looking at it sprinkles my tongue with cayenne. Something surfaces that’s a bubble but more accurately breath.

A vulture turns against dark clouds. The land is thick with winter heat, smells of leaf and ground and water that is cooler than air. The big black bird holds, facing south against the breeze. I sit in the canoe. I look at the river, the stones, the sticks hung on the stones. A light drizzle fell overnight, but there hasn’t been significant rain in a couple of weeks. The air remains above fifty degrees even in the small of morning.

Many stones are blue. They’re long and rectangular, good for staring, sitting on. The vulture is out of sight. My eyes go to a branch-end that tremors midstream. A foot of the branch extends from the water, the rest of it hangs underneath. It appear to shiver. I sit more solidly, watching as though the thin wood is registering the river’s pulse, soothing my own. The motion’s a steady, frenetic twitching like the tip of a fishing rod against which a fish, alive, tugs and yanks.

May’s in the air like food in the teeth. It’s not unusual, nor is it confusing. A burst milkweed pod lies within spitting distance. The innards resemble plucked feathers, breast feathers. They’re downy with a hard white sheathing at one end. I rub the mass in my fingers and my flesh seems to whisper with the softness. I’ve been closer to ecstasy but never for so long or warmly.

The river is a book of sparks. Here’s one page. Pages are always being torn from the oaks. Though it’s morning, the day with its warmth after a night of warmth feels very old. The stones print the music while the words for that music are born in the gaps between thought. The stick tremors still, gives the river’s surface a widening mouth. My teeth turn to milkweed. The river has no shadow, but there are ridges where the sky descends for a time.

Now more than twenty bluebirds flit in the depths of a beech tree that leans over the river thick with last summer’s leaves. Yes, they’re bluebirds. The tree is backlit and the birds’ features were not apparent until a few of them flew to the other side of the river, where there’s another beech about the same height but with fewer leaves. The bluebird’s breast is the same copper of beech leaves. Their noise mirrors their motion. It almost seems that what’s audible is their movement more than their throat.

And what of the heron whose slow, labored growl conforms to its flight. The fast chatter of ducks with their quick wingbeats. How the crows bob and flutter both in the throat and in the air.


It has been mild for days. I’m easily distracted and led astray towards some new, terrible wonder. The cool morning fog has lifted. The river continues to drop, exposing new layers of cutbank – the whiskers of roots, clay grottoes, and beds of moss. The holly trees have never seemed so present. There are no holly trees here, only mountain laurel, and they will do.

The woods feel busy with gaps. The more I focus on them, the more full the emptiness feels, especially the sun explaining the ferns’ translucent fronds, how the beech leaves’ flesh is kin to that of elephants. The body finds the underwater far from water. The body finds what it needs. It needs what it finds. One is never far from water when it comes to the terrain that links thought. The river does not stop in its flow. It may back up, but it finds its way through, over, under, or around in due time.

The sun is not strong enough to burn off the fog. The sky is pale lavender and the beech leaves seem whiter now. There are no flying squirrels, but a tangled piece of fallen branch resembles the one I watched years ago when winter camping in the north woods. The branch appears to be a squirrel in mid-glide, seen from the rear and at a slight angle.

The grey squirrels that are native to these woods are nowhere in sight. The grey stone brings them back. For being such quick, fidgety, sprightly animals, they seem to know, too, the stillnesses of stone.

The woods never lack activity, but they are rarely more subtle in their motions than at winter’s heart. The myriad forms and their equally far-ranging colors, smells, textures, motions, are no revelation. There are constant surprises. They constantly play with me. When I sit long enough, I’m surprised by what is in front and around I. I could sit forever and a certain bend of leaf, its mold or its veins, would throw me in wonder’s time capsule.

These woods have been here for a long time, yet they are changing and staying the same with all the regularity and mystery as the sky and the sun that drives their being. It is a melting pot of landscape, the Piedmont, a place through which by water the mountains meet the coast. It was once mountains and it was once coast and now there is a squirrel. I don’t know where it came from, but it’s a ruckus in the leaves. Is it feeding, messing around? Is it bearing the voices I once tried so hard escape by coming here, by looking at squirrels? There are three beech trees near it, each with many leaves, each tree’s leaves a different shade of brown. The tree with the darkest leaves is not the smallest. They grow on a slope that faces east.

I can’t see or hear the squirrel anymore. It hasn’t moved. It isn’t gone. It is somewhere else.

More often, this winter, I walk. It has to do with time. And curiosity, its legs and arms, paddles and hulls, breathing and drifting. One lunchbreak I walk where the prior day the river ran. My feet slide in the soft mud left by receding water. There are coon tracks, impressions of toes rich with detail. It seems that the raccoon stepped carefully, was in no hurry.

There are new logs on the banks. There are old logs in new positions. Everything is soggy. Flood-abandoned leaves tangle the laurel bushes. The laurel tangles my way.

There is no untangling of the Piedmont woods. A tree has fallen recently – it seems the river clipped it. It might have been rotten. Where the runoff moved down the slopes, there are gouged paths in the leaves, banks of clumped sogginess as well as bare places of exposed soil.

Even now leaves as they dry roll the slopes. The wind is brisk, but it feels thin. It’s not a nourishing wind. The rain has ushered a cold front. I probably won’t see another string of mild days for some time.

Weather is simple. It changes. I say the clouds are gray and the wind is thin, but the clouds are as purple as an iris and the wind could house a nation. There is no wind now. The limbs shiver yet. The only tense of weather is past perfect. There is no here and now except the now where then is here and soon is here.

Only water lives in the present. Downstream is upstream and the mouth is the source. Time evaporates even as it nourishes the gilled ones. I turn at a tributary and leave the river. I no longer worry the being here. I bring the voices with me that I once tried so hard to escape. I hold the voices close to my heart where they sometimes bloom, sending gentleness from petals down to the roots. Soon there are small cliffs and a stream breaking down rock faces. The bark is swollen and the moss damp. There are pools where the trickling is in stereo. Landscape’s secrets are its gifts. Much is buried and more has gone to rot or washed downstream. Every rise is a bottomland too.


The water is clear in the small stream along which I now stand and sometimes step. It is shallow, but the depth is more visible than in the river that runs clouded and thick with mud. I poke around. I duck through a stand of laurel, scale a boulder, mount a steppe. The more I look, the more I am entangled. The sphagnum resembles millipedes and ferns. The horizon foams at the mouth. The Piedmont is the easiest landscape I’ve ever known. It is the least simple, however. Its only threat its lack of threat. The sky shuffles its deck, readies a new trick.

The limbs grow foliage as they lie reflected on the breeze-rippled water. I sense it being far too cold for foliage or growth, and move forward by being wrong. Perception is always accurate, even when it is wrong. The sun shrinks to an oval as it squeezes between the pines. Raw, cold air liberates. I’m another crack in the world’s lips – let it bleed.

It’s no longer difficult for me to call a place sacred. Forever I’ve believed, without knowing it, in the sacred, but mostly I spelled it scared. If now and then I feel a sacred energy, it involves a response to everything I love, though I’m not aware of that then, in that moment. The cold is greedy even as it’s spare, allows room to roam. The eyes see further while the body feels less and much more tingly. Back at the river and I have no word for the way the leaves hang matted and clustered from the vines. The flood left them that way. Flood might be the only word.

The birds are very quiet in their presence. I hear their cheets and chorts as though underwater and they just above the surface. When the body is cold, the mind works slower and more efficiently too.

The earth has turned so the sun is dilated again. The pines are where they always are and won’t stay. A gnat drifts on the shine, its wings in motion holding the light like a minute cloud. The cold teases every next breath with a trusting abandon.

I am slowly ecstatic. Even in warm weather, rapture takes its time with me. The vines seem to emigrate. Because the world is sacred, there’s room for rapture. Always the ferns shrink with the cold. When the air grows warm, will the ferns assume their prior size? The sand and silt linger a bluer brown. On days like this – everything green no longer green, ice at the edges, the ink hardening – the sycamores run the place. Their legs may be asleep, but look at the bark. Gracious, the mistletoe in the hickory is a shambles. I’m not talking about a neck of the woods, but the woods’ feet and fingers, its ribcage and seething organs.


Another day. Snow falls. Ice hangs from the rocks like lichen drool. The flakes stick to the rocks and leaves and trees and ground. I see things that I might not see in sun or clouds or rain, the texture of stones, how the flakes stay on the flatter, more horizontal places and in the sinuous grooves, but not in other spots because they’re too steep or wet. It’s the same way with the trees and even the leaves and limbs. Tufts of snow gather at the crux of limb and trunk and in the nubs of old limbs, the burls and grooves of bark. Technically, they call such snow a dusting, but it falls steady so who knows what will happen.

The big flakes are numerous and seem with their size to fall slowly, so many commas on the sentences of air. Snow makes me earnest. It loves me slow, ignores me slower. I enter a pace like falling. My heart beats differently. I walk. There is nobody, no footprints of human or other animal. The crowded woods along this river can be places of exquisite privacy, despite its proximity to busy highways, cities, and towns. It’s hard to find this kind of intimacy in well known, more dramatic places, the ones on the covers of the glossies — I’ve tried.


I return to the gulch. The gulch always rewards my visits with a surprise or two. I always leave it both more and less sure of the woods. Today a beech tree stuns me with its forked trunk. It resembles certain sycamore trees along the creek one watershed from here. It resembles cypress trunks, too. It appears as though the tree has grown two arms that reach one to the boulder and one to the ground for added stability.

I look from the beech to the icicles on a moss-emerald seepage cliff, the shriveled yet deep green polypody. Something swarms in my belly, a nest of bees, a blizzard, the flakes light and the accumulation deep and honeyed.

The icicles are wet. It isn’t cold enough for them to tinkle and glimmer with the dry hard shine of ice in extreme cold. Now one falls with a sequence of high pitched tinkling along the cliff behind which I sit under an outcrop. Another falls, then another – it sounds like the recycling being emptied. There are trafficsounds in the distance and water running over rocks and leaves on the rocks in the nearground.

Small, rounded lumps of ice grow at the base of the seepage cliffs – a gentler version of the more spiked and pointed ice above them. Maybe, if such weather continues, the two units of ice will grow together, making one.

There’s a bubble on a rock down which water slides. The bubble hangs from a leaf matted to a place more level than the steep-lying stone. The membrane of liquid quivers as other bubbles traveling down with the water bounce and slide from it. It’s okay to hold the world this way, lightly, letting what comes touch me and move on.

The bubble pops. The smaller, more rattley, sleet-like precipitation might have punctured it. I don’t know. I don’t even know where I’m going. There is something the woods will show me, whether they mean to or not.


These days, even when I’m not in the woods, I’m in the woods. And I love it when the wind hurls bits of slush from the limbs, when the slush splashes on the leaves, is sliced by pine needles. I’m in the woods, and I won’t stay long. I never stay long. I stay forever. The sky is bruise and the air lukecold. A glaze that won’t harden covers the land.

A messy, delightful scene. The heavy and damp air makes a kind of womb. I sit at the edge of land that was clearcut not ten years ago. Foresters seeded it with loblollies which hang in all manner of bend, luscious with the weight of half-hardened water. A hawk flies over the tracts’s far edge. It’s more than a grove; the green mass of young pines extends many acres downridge to a drainage feeding the creek.

From a place on a rise, the trees appear as a green pond. When I walk through it, it’s a kind of swimming, a cold dip. I wonder what sort of animals inhabit the place. The hawk must be attracted to something – fieldmouse, songbird. The place resembles a pond because there’s a distinct border where the pines end and the winter-bare hardwoods begin. The needled density, thick with mixed precipitation, creates a different sense of depth than that of the hardwood forest. There’s more breathing room for the lungs and eyes among the lower reaches of oaks and maple, beech and laurel.

It’s not the barrenness of the clearcut, but its density that impresses me. There’s nothing close to dormant about these woods. The plants, weather, sky, and critters are always scrambling, it seems, to fill in the gaps by making more gaps.

Like the sky is a not too young child that has recently learned to spit and may have an obsessive quality about it. Lord knows my boots are wet.


Accuracy is not everything, but it’s close. I don’t come to the woods to be an expert at anything. I come here to see where I’ll be led and let myself be lost enough to be led.

My destination is wandering, my motive not clarity but surprise. Emptiness means acceptance that the void is full of everything and nothing, more crowded than God’s voicemail.

I walk differently. I walk the same.

The ground is slippery and makes walking a discovery of muscles in my legs and hips between which vocal, feathered things fly and perch. The Piedmont does not reward experts – no place does. Anyway landscape is always an event, a play that never stops running. I try to catch a scene by entering it. Maybe love will join me. Probably love is already waiting.

I grab the trees as I slip the steeper slopes, and they sprinkle me with hardened lenses. I would like to know more about the crows. I’m probably closer to crows when I’m elbow deep in being afraid, maybe, or doing the dishes, taking my time with them.

There’s a mountain laurel, a young one. Many of its leaves are torn. Various shapes and shades of green – variations on oval. I can see how the flesh holds waves formerly known as purple, especially when I look through the blobs of frozen water. Not one leaf is bare of root-colored mottlings, little Rorschach bullseyes where the pigment has changed.

The woods are metamorphic. I don’t walk, I crunch. There’s another mantle now. The light is broken to new wholes and halved more than twice. The river looks burnt — the ashes and coals of all the diamond fires in the trees. My feet are tongues on a giant rock candy. Cold is a kind of teething. There’s no time for liquid unless it is deep enough to generate its own heat. The freeze is general in a hard, specific way. I’m also shrink-wrapped, my fingers especially.

What has happened to the slush is a model of what happened to the ground that it exists as it does now. The pines have a new, temporary skin, but it’s a shell, a plastron. Awareness was always promiscuous.


And now I’m walking around the pond. Two otters are playing – yes, playing. One keeps popping through the ice. There are twenty holes at least.

It’s good to be back at the pond. I look for the grebe that visited last winter. There are geese and otters visible. There are signs of beaver and cold weather.

Bluebirds flash along the perimeters of the fields at the pond’s southeast edge. Edgeplaces delight me with the depth, their intermingling of light and shadow and life. Breath is less breath than a saying thank you for such being. Wind is chapped air. My lips have not for long been so smooched. How the suntongues do lick, cold with beginnings. The icy, wintry mix feels more indigenous than the pines. Complaint has no room to breathe among such shining. The shadows grow legs and burrow at the ellipses of their becomings. I am not empty. The emptiness fills me with the rhythms of all promise. I cannot see the end of existence. There’s no warmer bed than simply walking. Look at the ferns, the dead Japan grass’ milky saffron glow. Elsewhere could not be any closer than now.

I walk the pond and another pond awakens in me. I see the land before there was a pond – the former forests, the former seas and sediments. In the Precambrian the Piedmont was underwater – all possibility. The air is alive with creation. One breath, the next, and I sing the motions of the otters’ emergences and divings. I sense them inside me no more than I sense myself inside them. One otter bursts through the ice just as the wind accelerates. We have a brief stare. The illusion of the world before me glows with the illusion of the inner world, and the two illusions make it real. There are no beginnings. Everything is beginning — who cares how long it’s been going at it. The otter dives. I still stare. The hole begins to freeze. The ice’s drift. I am singed with cold. I sing.


A few days cold and then deeply mild. I’m back at the river. The water bulges in its course through a run of small boulders and cobble. The air smells like thaw. Bright sun scrapes its nails along every wave. I can’t look for long. It’s good to be warm in a t-shirt. There are great mats of flooddrift at varying intervals along the bank. I scan them for treasures, wood in pleasing shapes and with a polish soft as cool flesh. I find a doll’s head, plastic with silt-matted hair and a face on either side – one is awake and one is sleeping. I hold it and see for a moment out the back of my head. The view is nearly the same – a holly tree instead of ironwood, more woods instead of river.

It could be the temperature or the lengthening days. Last night the moon was full and I loaded my canoe as though to paddle it. When I paddle a river in moonlight, I don’t paddle a river, I paddle the moon. I don’t even paddle, or if I do, I don’t know it. Space claims me. I sense more fully my kinship to dust.

Some relative of moonlight abides in the pourover waves and the curtains of flume on the downstream edge of barely submerged stones. There’s a promise of salamanders in this light. And now the air is both the taste of warm butter and the texture of cold butter on the tongue. Thaw is a kind of cream. I want to say honey, as I do, but I cannot. Winter’s pollen is more grey than gold. I say beeswax. I say flame – not of burning but the image emblazoned on the eye the moment I’ve blown the fire out.


I sit on a log. The bark resembles scales, seems overly dry, curls and clings like tired shingles on a house long condemned. Out here nothing is condemned, not even a lack of rapture. The beavers know I am here. They know that I abandoned hope a long time ago, that I am emptying, diminishing into another realm, another seasoning. Is zings, zing a kind of tryst, turtling. They know, the beavers.

The river is a roof also, of slate. Beneath it is an atmosphere or just more being, and beneath that is the bottom, which is always, no matter how far down I travel, a roof. The only ladder is that of the body loving what it will as well as it may.

The holly leaves are motionless on the wind-swaying branches. Their stems and their flesh are too rigid for bending. The green river appears as a motion picture of the holly leaves’ essence. Flared with every wave, and the water turning white along the peaks and ridges of the textures, is as spires. I’m pricked through and through. A surface is never less than depth.


One day near the end of January, I sit on a boulder that’s a grove of moss and polypody and silt and a few shrubs and small trees. I’m near the river. There is ice on the banks. From a distance the ice appears as wads of soggy tissue partly submerged, a lavender tint to that smudge.

What is a grove? The body is a grove and a body in the woods is a grove on the move. But can any two plants existing in certain niche of a landform, as responsible for the landform as the land and weather — erosion processes and such – can a small system like that be a grove?

I know that the ice, the more I watch it, warms me. I know that reckoning involves muscles, and that memory is body as much as presence is. I know, too, that the fat and water and blood and sinews and bones of reckoning define a place as a sum of groves, of loves and growths.

I am this place (don’t say it). The sycamore tree with white trunks and limbs, a white brighter now than any cloud – and there are clouds – the sycamore makes the oaks and other brown-barked hardwoods seem redundant, endless with shadows and angles and an endless variation among them.

I breathe heavier now. There are roots in my lungs. My breath smells like the stuff that clings to my boots after some wading. I taste the smell. I taste the muck. Between being and thought is a grove and I tangle there even as the sparrows drag me as if an aphid into the warmth. The canopy is a maze of capillaries. Slowly the gaps between thought stretch out. The only language I breathe is that which the land offers. It tastes like sky.







Thorpe Moeckel teaches at Hollins University, and is the author of six books, including the newly released Down by the Eno, Down by the Haw: A Wonder Almanac. A middle grade novel, True As True Can Be, is forthcoming in fall 2020. His writings have been widely anthologized and honored with NEA, Javits, Hoyns, Sustainable Arts, and Kenan Fellowships.


(Haw River photos by Belle Boggs)



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PoetryMay 19, 2024

“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”: On Elizabeth Bishop and Disappointment

In prose that’s erudite and accessible, former Editor-in-Chief of At Length, Jonathan Farmer, explores why “[s]o many of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems end with something audibly, willfully unsatisfying.” Covering Bishop’s career from “The Map” (1946) to her late elegy for Robert Lowell, “North Haven” (1977), Farmer’s claim will send you back to Bishop’s poems with new eyes.

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PoetryFebruary 16, 2024


“[W]hat am I to do / about beauty, about / my fear that beauty // has made me arrange / every experience in a word / and image too neatly // for them to bear / much semblance to life,” Paisley Rekdal asks in this confessional, ekphrastic poem written in response to George Stubb’s famed painting of an Arabian thoroughbred, “Whistlejacket” (1762), on view at the National Gallery in London.

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PoetryFebruary 9, 2024


“[H]ow do they bear this heat Who / knows who can say what will change,” Joanna Klink writes of this poem’s eponymous plant, also known as trumpet pitchers, as she explores our climate crisis and her relationship with her father in language that is both colloquial and catastrophic, meditative and urgent.

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PoetryApril 11, 2023

Three Weeks

“I am going to try to write / A little. // I have nothing at stake but my life.” In Dawn Potter‘s sequence, a 19th century woman alternates between diary entries and poems, trying to make sense of her life, her obligations, her hunger for holiness, and a feeling of disaster or deliverance just out of view.

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