Hidden River.

July 23, 2010 at 9:36 am (adventure, urban exploration)

I rode my bike to Jameson’s house and locked it to his front railing. I went inside to admire his roommate’s ironwork and listen to a ghost story, and then we stole that same roommate’s truck. It was an ancient thing, practically burnt out on the inside. Given his profession as a smith, I can imagine a few scenarios in which that actually could have been the case. We didn’t need a key: Jamie climbed into the truck bed, opened the small window in back and contorted himself in order to squirm inside, unlocking my door for me once he’d managed it. I’m not sure what he used to turn the engine; a screwdriver, perhaps? The seat belts no longer worked. I’m under the impression that the tags might be forged, that the fishmonger-gone-puppet-maker might not have a license. But we lowered the canoe and paddles down from the deck on the roof of his house, secured it to the truck using nautical knots I’ve been practising, and carefully made our way to the entrance to the Schuylkill River bicycle trail where we intended to shove off.

While our adventures in the truck ignored all possible legal formalities, Jamie had called the river authorities to ask where we might be allowed to drop the boat. They assured him that the river belonged to everyone, and we could start anywhere. They warned us that if we tried to start from Boathouse Row the rowing teams would likely try to tell us otherwise, but they would only be misinformed or putting on airs.

We put on our life jackets once we’d brought the canoe to a shallow spot where the river met the grass. I climbed inside and pushed with my oar while he pushed from land. I didn’t see how he climbed in while or after he’d done so. Perhaps it involved getting his shoes very wet? We set off with much laughter. He’d done this once before bringing me out, but neither of us could quite make sense of the fact that we were paddling under Market Street, next to Thirtieth Street Station, rowing in the very centre of the city. I’d always been under the impression that Schuylkill was a Lenapé word, but it is Dutch. It means something like Hidden River, and that felt accurate. I’ve ridden the bicycle trail on the shore a thousand times, as it is the closest means I know of getting to trees and wild growing things from my neighbourhood, but I’d never explored the river quite so intimately. It felt like discovering a secret, like going into a room you’d somehow never before noticed at the end of the hallway in your house.

We saw fish leap out of the water next to us. We rowed under the arching branches of trees between the banks and the places where their leaves touched the water, and touched the stones of the bridges and waved to people and to ducks. We wondered aloud how deep it was, what the river gods were called, how far in any direction we could row before we’d be stopped by a dam.

We started out against the stream but with the wind in the direction of the art museum and the Waterworks. The first dam met us there, so it wasn’t the longest of trips. On his first time out the tide had been much lower, and Jamie and his brother were able to explore the rainwater run-off tunnels that feed into the river. He showed me the tops of the entrances they took when they poked above the level of the water. We only came close to tipping out of the canoe twice, and righted ourselves both times.

There is an island downstream, and we thought about rowing there on some other trip in order to go camping. Jameson has since been back to explore. He found a floppy disc next to a long since abandoned camp fire, and no other evidence of human exploration. Next time we’ll row out with a tent.

Philadelphia Waterworks and Fairmount Dam


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A snake in the garden.

July 20, 2010 at 11:05 am (a gentleman farmer, the gods)

There is a snake in the garden.

Last year, just before my birthday, three keys were left on the ledge next to my door. I left them there, not wanting to take them from whomever may have lost them. But when three of my neighbours tried to return them to me, including an old man with a python coiled about his shoulders, I felt certain of the shape of the ritual and accepted the gift. I have those keys, still. This year, on the day before my birthday, my neighbours knocked three times again. The first time they informed us that quite a large snake, possibly two large snakes, had been seen crawling into my garden. The second time they told us that they’d called the police. And the third time we learned that the police wouldn’t be helping us, and that we should really be careful.

I live in the ghetto, and my garden is only a few raised beds in an abandoned lot. To protect from the rare less well-intentioned of my neighbours, I’ve allowed the front half of the lot to be claimed by underbrush and weeds, low-growing paulownia trees, a tangled net of grasping green. Anything lurking there would be quite invisible.

What happens, I wonder, next year, on my third birthday with this snake spirit that clearly coils in threes? For now I’ll wear my fishmongering boots when I’m outdoors checking on my tomatoes and kale, and hope that the snake, if angered or frightened, is feeling lethargic and not up to lunging above the level of my knees in this heat.

Horrible death--a man eaten by rattlesnakes, near West Chazy...

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We’re all crows.

July 6, 2010 at 12:35 pm (bears, crows, the ancestors, the sky gods)

I have always worked with crow. The corvids lead me to and in my trance work. Even in this city in which there are no crows, they appear when I am attacked, when I take or leave a lover, when family dies or is born. They fly like a black tear in the sky through which these changes come.

When my father was dying and had his stroke, the words he spoke were disconnected from any meaning. Occasionally, with great effort, he could speak in riddles and symbols, and when we solved them he’d nod furiously, fatigued by our ignorance. In one of his last efforts, he called us all crows. He was annoyed at the end by the constant visitors, and wanted time alone with my mother and my sister and me. It was supposed that he felt like the extended family was picking over his corpse while still it breathed. But I wondered what it really was that his elf-touched brain was seeing.

When I go dreaming, there are black feathers and rasping calls. When I die, I’ll crawl off to let those birds pick my bones.

My older niece, who just recently reached the age of reason, spent the other evening in my company, and together we watched the sky. There were bats, fireflies, fireworks, stars. She hoped to see Ursa Major and Minor, or, as she called them, the Mommy Bear and the Baby Bear. And, as she has done several times before, she asked me about those birds, the black ones. She never speaks of them by name, only waits for me to offer, “You mean crows?” and solemnly nods her assent. She tells me that she is afraid of them. She tells me that she just doesn’t like them, that she feels like they are watching her, as if one day they might come after her. It was dark enough that she couldn’t have seen the odd expression that took my mouth.

Because, really, they might.

The Raven

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June 27, 2010 at 8:41 pm (books, crossroads, integrated pest management, the culture gods)

My mother is currently wandering Portugal with her gentleman friend, visiting vineyards and enjoying getting lost on old streets. They found a university library filled with ancient texts where, to protect the books from being damaged by insects, they release bats into the library every night.

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Goddess of the Crossroads.

June 25, 2010 at 9:12 am (life! a lover!)

An old bit of witchcraft recommended drinking blackberries muddled in wine with a touch of honey to cure passions of the heart. Lover, we have been drinking from the same well for years. Now we drink from the same wineglass, you and I.

You came here and I gave you your first taste of mango, the Atlantic ocean, and lesbianism. I liked the surprised joy on your face as I fed you the pieces of overly ripe fruit. The ocean met us, rough in its affections: it pressed our bodies down, tried to strip me, stole our breath, made our skin taste of so much salt.

And you. Gods. We bled for one another, this first time that we met, our bodies offering sacrifice. There was blood on your lips, your chin, pooled in the dip of your throat. There was blood on my hands, my thighs, and where your fingers marked my chest. You painted me like a cave. We are hunters, magicians, men who shout into the night. We are the ideas of beasts. We are prey.

I’m drinking the glasses of water we left scattered around my room in these last days, making a sacrament of taking the last of what is left of you here into my body. I give some to my plants, and I’ll kiss them some night, like a woman whose lover’s head was buried beneath her basil.

I had to offer you to the sky three times before the crossroads gods allowed it. You came back to me twice, and still you left me bruised and wanting.

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Zeus in the form of a cloud.

June 24, 2010 at 7:06 pm (books, quotations, the gods, the sky gods)

I spent this morning in the company of The Cloudspotter’s Guide, which I’m only getting to now, approximately four years after I was made aware of the fact that I’d quite like it. Reading the chapter on cumulonimbus clouds, I idly wondered what an approaching storm of that type might look like. My apologies to my city; such thoughts are dangerous.

I was biking home from the market a few hours ago, vaguely considering riding a bit out of my way to explore a garden shop I’d not visited before. But the sky seemed to be darkening, and I thought it best to return home. Turning onto my block I saw the first line of lightning, but all was still dry.

The raindrops began to fall as I lifted my bicycle inside and pulled the door shut behind me. Not a minute later the trees were bent by the wind, their branches flailing as if fending off an attack. The rain came next in terrible waves, and my windows shook with the onslaught of hail. The wind pressed at my door, driving in the rain beneath it: it crept into my house, making its way halfway across the room. The pretty girl with whom I live and I joked that it was like a Hitchcock film, all subtly threatening incursions of nature and unresolved homosexual plots. We were certain that we’d be slowly drowned.

The book indicated that unless one is at some distance, one can only know the shapeless black covering of the cumulonimbus by its sudden violence, by rain and hail and noise. Quite so. It also states that the Japanese god Raiden, the god of thunder and lightning, prefers to feast on human navels, and that Japanese children cover theirs with their hands upon hearing thunder. A wise precaution, certainly, and one that I intend to adopt. How my navel, of which I happen to be quite fond, lasted as long as it did without such safeguards is certainly only a matter of luck and rigourous personal shielding of a more general nature.

I may have to look into the referenced book, The Man Who Rode the Thunder, by  William Rankin, the only pilot to survive falling through the entirety of a cumulonimbus cloud. His engine died while attempting to fly over a storm in 1959. His recollections of his suffering at the hands of the sky gods are magnificent and beautiful.

This was nature’s bedlam… an ugly black cage of screaming, violent, fanatical lunatics… beating me with big flat sticks, roaring at me, screeching, trying to crush me or rip me with their hands… I didn’t hear the thunder… I felt it.

My full admiration goes to those who have fought the gods and survived, but, as for me, if I take on a storm like a mad old Lear, I don’t see the thing as a true antagonist. I might feel differently if I ever get so close to one as that. The storm gods are trusted friends, rather, of the sort that will let you wrestle them when your fury has grown too impotent and must be released with shouting, with a good friendly fight. They’re good enough to give me something against which I can struggle and press, to play their role in crashing and irreversible rituals. The sky gods feel too distant for me to know them properly, but I long for them. I embrace them, then, when they come nearer to my low realm.

A diversion: while writing this, I went to sit outside on my steps and watch the sky. It cleared almost immediately after the storm, and the sun is looking undaunted and annoyingly self-assured. The debris of felled branches and leaves are everywhere, and I’m afraid to check on the state of my garden. A half-blind grey cat was watching me. My neighbourhood is owned by its strays: there are more of them than us by far, and only they know the secrets of this place. This one was only barely more than a kitten, or perhaps it was hungry too much when it was young. One eye was a curious pale green, a setting for a line of onyx, and the other a shocking but useless blue, like labradorite held to the light just so, and an old scar ruined it. It was too affectionate for a stray. If I stopped giving it my attention, it reached up with its paws to embrace my wrist. I could feel its claws, but it was such a gentle thing. For which of the gods are you named, blind little cat? Odin? Bowie? Are you always page to the storm? One eye for the lightning, one eye for the rain? Be safe, little thing, and be well.

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Low culture and high magic.

June 18, 2010 at 6:36 pm (quotations, the standard of questionable taste)

I’ve grown silent. The number of things about which I do not speak has grown until I do not bother touching fingertips to keyboard, or even sucking air into my lungs, at all. These things I have written: let them be a piling of stones on a grave. I arrange them in a circle; I mark them with signs. Through them I call on the serpent coiled about my neck, the feathers caught in my throat, the things I do not say. It is a reminder that I have spoken. It is an evocation. Forgive me this: the only ritual I know is self-indulgence.

Tell My Wife I am Trolling Atlantis: on the various fictions that comprise half the truth of lost love. Saturday, 27 March, 2010.

I’ll Shake You From Your Sleep: on farm cats, crows, laying hens, honey bees, frost, snakes, deer, hunters, and farm work. Saturday, 17 October, 2009.

These Leaves Cover Up All That I’ve Become: on the Venetian magicians, youth, lies, and glamours. Thursday, 11 December, 2008.

For Science!: on travelling in the Netherlands, natural and unnatural history, unabashed worship of the culture gods, antique and modern science, and quite a lot of absinthe. Friday, 12 September, 2008.

I’d like to think it was Orlando, but A Room of One’s Own might be more accurate: on fine literature. Sunday, 27 April, 2008.

For These Thy Gifts: on oysters. Wednesday, 26 March, 2008.

Trickster Makes This World: on Virginia Woolf, Bosie, renommierschmiss, Ota Benga, and choosing a strange alliance with culture. Wednesday, 6 December, 2006

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A Flower of the mountain yes

June 16, 2010 at 5:53 pm (books, quotations, seduction, the culture gods)

In celebration of Bloomsday, Flavorwire offers a mixtape of songs inspired by modernist literature. Colour me seduced.

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And before this image hundreds of human hearts were offered up each year.

June 2, 2010 at 12:22 pm (books, hedonism, quotations, the ancient world, the gods)

I am a fishmonger, and the day’s catch calls me early. Most days, I’m shovelling ice and sharpening my knives well before the sun has plotted its ascent. I get them so rarely that when I find myself in possession of a free morning, I toy with it for hours like a housecat who doesn’t know what to do with a mouse. Today is one such morning. I lazed in bed to watch the sky shift and change with the awakening sun. I enjoyed a floral green tea sweetened with a thought of raw honey, and a great quantity of berries with fresh whipped cream left here after last night’s gathering of friends. And I perused my favourite bookshelf for something I’d not yet enjoyed.

What I found today was Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels: The Occident, published in 1937. It’s precisely the sort of book a child ought to have: lush, lurid, and inspiring the sort of morbid curiosity about the past and the world that burns in the mind of anyone with whom it might be worth spending an hour’s conversation.

Behold, an excerpt on the Aztec’s sacrificial pyramidal temple:

…Popo, to the Aztecs, was the most sacred and the most commanding, because it smoked and roared. Then, too, it played a grim role in their religious ceremonies. This volcano was directly west of the Cholula teocalli, so that the sun, if one watched it from the great pyramid, sank right into the smoking crater and was gobbled up. And when the last gleam disappeared – that was the signal for the priest to strike.

Popo is still there, still soaring above Cholula, still smoking, still crowned with clouds and snow. The brush-covered teocalli at its base is still there too.

And we are going to Mexico from Fort Jefferson, to see for ourselves this wonderful pyramid and this wonderful Popo.

We get off our bot at Vera Cruz, and travel inland. What glorious scenery – wild mountains and canyons, smothered in hanging moss and ferns and flowers! Arriving at Cholula we easily spot the teocalli because it is 180 feet high. Today, it looks like one more forested hill, but its pyramidal shape has not changed.

In the late afternoon we reach the base and find the steps that zigzag up the face of the teocalli. Up these same steps, five hundred years ago, the Aztec sacrificial procession began its climb. We can imagine what such a procession was like – chanting priests in their barbaric feather headdress and feathered cloaks, escorting the victim and followed by many worshipers.

Higher and higher climb the Aztec multitude. The summit is reached. The sacrificial stone beside the image of the god is ready. There is no time to lose. The sun is all but touching Popo’s snows.

Standing on the summit ourselves, and using our imagination, we see the victim seized, his garments stripped away, his body stretched, chest up, on top of the stone block. We see five priests press down his limbs and head. A sixth is poised, knife in hand, above the waiting breast…

A thousand people hold their breath.

Popo, in respect to the Aztec gods, is pouring forth a shaft of smoke into the high heavens. The sun has dipped into the crater crest… a half remains – a rim – a final gleam.

The knife descends…

Mount Popocatepetl seen from near Amecameca

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Perhaps it’s the gods who have flawed taste.

May 29, 2010 at 8:11 pm (the ancient world, the gods, the standard of questionable taste)

We pagans have always had terrible taste. This pagan altar found in Israel looks like something that one could find on a lawn in New Jersey. The article hardly need mention that this was purchased by an upper-middle class family; it’s more than obvious.

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