29 December 2010


I, too, live where there are no roads
the pinhole in the top of a pumpkin
the mirror in a puddled footprint

Now it is time to say all those things you've thought in silence
The seeds of my sleep
worthy to pluck the petals of my smile

26 December 2010

after, early

snow fell Christmas night.
this morning the pasture cuts glowed
white like soft avenues of arctic pelts
rabbit, bear, clouds
scuttling past in huddled clumps
southeast towards the coast
out to the broad blue
catching light and the clarity
of early morning after Christmas

02 December 2010

Christmas Creek time lapse

Christmas Creek from Laura Candler on Vimeo.

Would it be better to sit in silence?
To think everything, to feel everything, to say nothing?
This is the way of the orange gourd.
This is the habit of the rock in the river, over which
the water pours all night and all day.
But the nature of man is not the nature of silence.
Words are the thunders of the mind.
Words are the refinement of the flesh.
Words are the responses to the thousand curvaceous moments—
we just manage it—
sweet and electric, words flow from the brain
and out the gate of the mouth.
We make books of them, out of hesitations and grammar.
We are slow, and choosy.
This is the world.

Mary Oliver

23 November 2010

tower wisdom

Empty window panes cut out identical square patches from the day's white beginning.  From this perspective, it's the only color there is.  Bullet holes burn in the roof like constellations in a steely sky.  The sun is arriving.  Glowing.  Growing.

I used to come to this fire tower when I needed that glow or when I needed to give it to someone else.  It has been the subject of geology papers and love poems.  It has appeared  at the beginnings of friendships and marked the end of others.  For me, the tower is a centering place.  Up here, you're everywhere, you're nowhere.  You're floating above the treetops, swaying with the wind, mediating between the pileateds and the blue jays, the sun and the treetops, the clouds and the plateau.  The color orange doesn't exist anywhere but here a few breaths after sunrise.

Flocks of passerines swoop and duck like schools of fish through the air, the deer steps cautiously in the leaves, and the blue jay persists.  The wind picks up and all of a sudden, you realize that you're 100 feet in the air, in a metal box peppered with bullet holes, abandoned long ago by any badge-wielding Ed Abbey imitation.

There is a line now above the crater of South Pittsburg where the sunlight has taken refuge and sequesters all the color from the rest of the sky.  The wind has weakened.  The blue jay now mimics a hawk, but betrays itself with a signature rasp.  The day swims on.

I come up here for silence, not of the world, but of myself.  I pause at the top not a thought in my head and watch.  (Meditation, western imperialist-style.  Find the tallest tower and climb it...)

Who gets to see so many miles otherwise, listen to the day begin, witness the orange glow and question the integrity of a creaking tower?  (The wind is back with some gusto.)  All of a sudden, I have a lot to think about, but none of it matters.  The day grows.  I watch and take note.

It is mid-November and the treetops wear hats of color but nothing else below.  The poplars are yellow, the chestnut oaks and hickories, a duller version and the beeches gave up long ago and turned brown, although all of their leaves remain.

Brighter.  The thin line above the horizon has spilled onto the other rim across the gap of the town.  Every time the wind picks up, the creaking commences and the tower swoons like an unwieldy toddler on stilts.  I watch.  There is no other option but to be a sponge.  A servant to sound, light, hunger.

The first time I climbed these steps, it was a September morning five years ago in the dark.  I sat in this same spot, in silence, for nearly three hours.  There were more railings then, less rickety boards.  Or perhaps I just imagine it that way.

There is nothing to do but to be patient.  Even as I try to stuff the silence with words, I realize the futility of the endeavor.  The day grows around me.

I will be absent from this place tomorrow morning, but the day will unfold nonetheless, whether I play witness to its color or not.  The tower may creak, but chances are no one hears it. 

I go to the fire tower to learn patience and the transience of light, of sound, of life.

21 November 2010

dawn from above

I have no face
I am two eyes, and the land rolls away beneath them.

The world has no history - some roads, odd trees and absent animals, the folding and eroding of rock in the distance, and the shoes I wear on dangling feet - but I am not
in Tennessee, off this so-named road or any amount of feet in the air
the wind is nameless and so am I.

 Memory is the the spine of a hollow cave I slept in last night, the bony disc of a full moon setting as I ascended stony steps this morning, and the vague familiarity of a sun rising from a hole in the forest.

Clouds swing on strings lightly like puppets, old voices are no voices, and we all lose our humanity to politeness when she demands it.

 The top floor slats, rotten boards, a penny in a crack on its back. E pluribus unum.  Who else?  I see no one.

 Silence arrives as a humble wave, indivisible, too scarce to remember how to embrace.  Even eyes have become rare enough for words.

 But eyes or no, the echo of the rock, the sway of the tower, the sound of dawn munching apricots and spitting its pits into the valley - the world spins
and dawn tears apart time and history and direction in an ancient ritual rise.

13 November 2010


returning words, Williams Island, late summer.

As wind withdraws in dying light,
we fold our wings post fledgling flight
and perched, gaze perspicaciously
at ruffled clouds here gathering.

The evening swells with silence cleft
by rheumy notes on insects' breath.
Our feathered burdens of the day,
let darkness fold and tuck away.

The stars adorn their skyward rim
like a burnished diadem
and as moth caught in a web
the moon flutters on a rippled bed.

Anon a pacifying rain
relieves the day's expectant strain.
While nightjars spin a cryptic song,
the river ambles humbly on.

Our antiquated island host -
a shape-shifting, alluvial ghost -
rests now elongate in her pose
between the banks, beneath the crows.

A year investigating sky
ended as the evening died
and hands recalloused in the toil
of an old, familiar soil.

Ferried to this watery loft
adrift with caddisflies and moths
I gently land the fugal glide
and slumber on the other side.

07 November 2010


 It hangs from heaven to earth.
There are trees in it, cities, rivers,
small pigs and moons.  In one corner
the snow falling over a charging cavalry,
in another women are planting rice.

You can also see:
a chicken carried off by a fox,
a naked couple on their wedding night,
a column of smoke,
an evil-eyed woman spitting into a pail of milk.

What is behind it?
--Space, plenty of empty space.
And who is talking now?
--A man asleep under his hat.

What happens when he wakes up?
--He'll go into the barbershop.
They'll shave his beard, nose, ears, and hair
To make him look like everyone else.

Charles Simic

I love the sequence of disparate scenes opening this poem.  It reminds me of the numerous worlds we enter everyday - the worlds in books, in the newspaper, on the internet, the radio, and then our own physical world, of our hands, the things we smell and eat, the space we create.  Modern technology and media seem to be pulling and twisting us into places that are often difficult to define, and sometimes it feels a bit like this poem, like we're flashing through disconnected spaces without stopping to consider the consequences of our participation.    In an introduction to a collection of Wendell Berry's essays, Norman Wirzba writes:

What the purveyors of conventional wisdom often fail to ask, however, is whether the social and economic transformations they facilitate lead to an improper or inauthentic sense of human identity and vocation.

Although Wirzba in this passage refers to the mass migration of farmers to urban centers, similar effects can be observed from the mass migration of human minds to social media outlets.  While there are obvious benefits to the ease of communication created by these outlets, the result he describes - the inauthentic sense of human identity - echoes with an eerie familiarity to a generation whose friends include scores of people they have never shared a meal with, much less even met in person. 

"What is behind it?" "Who is talking?"  Simic asks us.  In a society where we are encouraged to communicate with just about anyone anywhere at any time, these things might be worth asking.  Sure, it may be gratifying on some level to know that we can instantly connect from anywhere, but that connection seems awfully tenuous when placed beside a physical one.   There are trees in it, cities, rivers, small pigs and moons.  What does your tapestry look like?

20 October 2010

Land in light of clouds

Space.  We need space.  So much of everyday life unfolds inside a feeling of tightness, a tightness that we've created to promote efficiency and up our output.  Buildings, cubicles, cafés with tables so close together you can't scoot your chair back without bumping into someone else.  Hostels with 6, 8, 14 bunks to a room.  Portapotties, rows of portapotties - they're always standing in rows.  Like they'd be afraid to stand alone, staggered - HOLD RANKS!   Parking lots, where so many paint-scratching mishaps occur, tempers boil, the speedbumps and brakes alerted suddenly to pedestrians marching obediently over asphalt walkways, painted to denote the place where walking is allowed, where stopping is allowed, where fire engines are allowed.

It's all about organizing space.  The chair you're sitting in?  Space. Comfort and space.  Even writing has come to be confined.  Our thoughts, as they hit the page, are prohibited from tumbling wherever they please.  They are hemmed, margined, top and bottom, line after line - the blue ones, not the red.  Space.  Since when were we ever freed from this sense of outlined, projected space?

Space becomes a funny thing when you step outside.  Outside the boundaries of wall, ceiling, window,  suddenly you have...well, space - but not entirely devoid of limits.  Trees, houses, buildings, people, clouds.  The space is not bounded, but filled with presence.  You feel it more than you notice it.  An open field feels a lot different with a single tree in the middle; an open horizon feels a lot different with a full moon above it.  And the sky - the endless shape and pattern and movement of the sky creates an endless number of different senses.

Watching a giant cumulonimbus billow out into a thunderstorm feels markedly different from watching the fragile filaments of cirrus clouds shoot across the blue.  It's the difference between feeling hemmed in or utterly free.  I never fail to feel this overwhelming sense of liberation when I see wisps of mare's tail cirrus splayed out across the sky.  I don't know why, I just do.  I want to leap, I want to sing, I want to read poetry all day.  That is mare's tail cirrus for me.  I remember speaking to someone who thought that a gray sky - that ubiquitous, enveloping gray - was the most beautiful of all the sky's colors.  I had never considered that before, but now I can't help but think about it when I encounter a sky that color.

 Some people say that we think of the weather as a projection of ourselves.  A foggy day may be depressing to the depressed and beautifully mysterious to someone more adventurous.  American artist Roni Horn did this project called WEATHER REPORTS YOU, which plays with the idea that the weather is a metaphor for energy - the social and physical energy of a person and place.  I think she has a point.  I find myself doing this sometimes, deriving my energy from or blaming it on the weather.

But I also can't ignore the fact that a certain  pattern of clouds across the sky reliably produces a distinct feeling in me every time, no matter how I felt beforehand.  Like the mare's tail cirrus.  Many a gloomy day has begun for me that has transformed into a beautiful one at the sight of those clouds.  I say sight, but really, it's that sense.  The feeling produced by their presence.  The simple arrangement of space. 

both photos - All Saints' Chapel, Sewanee, TN

07 October 2010


Tomorrow, I visit 5 other Watson fellows.  This is what was on my mind when I re-entered the country two months ago, after a year of absence:

Without the sky and without its eyes, without the solicitous peace of the sail, no sound of waves kissing the bow, no cutting wake to watch disappear, without the quiet and without the calm, without the weight of an empty horizon, no birds to watch and ponder how, no chart to plot or knots to count - the return is one small death,  dreams half-sown, watered, and left to the mercy of the sun, to the sea, and any vagrant wanderer who happens to pass.  I'm diving back under to fish for something - something else, something more...

03 October 2010

When the daychild runs out

When the daychild runs out of laughter
and the riley wind rounds the corner
from summer and plunges headfirst down
the steeply graded hill to autumn -
Who, then, will giggle back the stormclouds
before their ire erupts and embrace
each tender wave of darkness washing in
the day's dismissal with two lungfuls of air
and a lullaby so sweet and final
that even the stars struggle to keep
from blinking out and drifting away
into another trillion year slumber?

When the daychild goes,  trust your bones
have rattled so thoroughly with her glee
that you never have to remember
how to laugh, to grow older,  to sleep.

30 September 2010

word strings

I find myself in a funny place. I could go anywhere.  I could be anything.  I could go back to school to specialize in Pleistocene megafauna or to learn how to design websites selling at thousand dollars a pop. 

But the part of me that values simplicity knows, deep down, that those choices won't change anything.  The dreams that tug at my soul aren't intricate or complicated.  At the end of the day, I am happy if I've sung a song, read a poem, written a letter, let myself be transformed by a string of words or the landscape of a melody.

In a world in which you can choose from scores of ways to communicate and interact, I still feel impelled to choose my methods carefully.   Perhaps it's because I ride the terminal cusp of a generation that was born listening to Fisher Price LPs, learned its first songs from cassette tapes, amassed a CD collection in high school, and now tosses around mp3s like penny-candy.  (The MiniDisc, I should add, deserves an honorable mention between the CDs and mp3s.)   We witnessed the blossoming of the internet, the rampant spread of cell phones, and the introduction of a hundred all-in-one camera/phone/computer PDAs that can't stand to remain pocketed for too long.

I believe that what we invest of ourselves in the medium of communication comes across in the message.  A phone call, a letter, a song, a tweet.  I don't think it obtuse to consider some media more substantial than others.  Yesterday, I called a person in a remote town on the north coast of Australia.  I also opened a handwritten letter from a friend in Tennessee.  It will be a long time before I forget either one.

A couple weeks ago, I finally extracted myself from facebook. There's something to be said for simplicity, for time spent communicating directly, meaningfully, deliberately.  I'm not trying to lead a stomping Luddite brigade through the backyard of social media.  But I am pulling the plug on a desultory way of communication I found myself nodding to more and more often.  And I am making simple decisions now that will affect the way I interact with the world in the future.  I want my norm to be different.  Give me a letter over an email any day.  A song over a tv show.  A voice rather than a silent screen.  Here's one less soul plugged into that space and one more for the type of world I want to belong to.  

Photo from a dry lake bed near Burketown Australia, October 2009

17 September 2010

and seek

We go to seek new songs.  Landscape. Silence.

To follow our rabbits, hope the hole never ends, just gets too dark too know.

We go to seek new origins.

Think of me as a sound, as a peculiar type of wind, as a shade of darkness in the unknown contours of a cave. The path of a water droplet. The after-twang of a banjo.

Nothing stays the same for long.

A leaf-beetle's dance,

the ache to become a song.

12 September 2010

nacreous clouds

January 11, 2010
Institutet för rymdfysik
Kiruna, Sweden

05 September 2010

sometimes it all comes

Sometimes it all comes pounding back to me
like a flash flood writhing and twisting through
an empty river bed, swallowing every remnant of dust
and turning the world into a velvety slur of carmine
and deer leather brown, as if to convince the desert
that water exists. And water can still win.

Sometimes it begins as a far-off drone, like locusts,
and slowly approaches in a gradual growing
buzz that makes your fingers tingle and interrupts
everyone's front porch conversation, ties our tongues
and halts the rockers on their planed oak beds.
We look up, but we don't have to.

And sometimes it just falls, like suddenly a child
too weary to stand up slumps over at the neck
and surrenders to the lull of that recalcitrant cloud,
sleep, lucky that mother stands by to take over
life's secondary details, like transportation and warmth.
Sometimes, it just falls.

02 September 2010

"We think by feeling. What is there to know?"

We start out doing it for our self.  Humming. Not because the trees are listening, the walls have ears, but because we do.  We are. We go.  We make.

And after a while, we learn different melodies, we might learn how to whistle, to trill the ends a little, to respond, add, incorporate, grow. 

And after a while, when we can't remember how or why it all began (because why does it matter?  who needs to know those things?  you hum because you hum)  inevitably, someone hears you. And they stop, they listen, and maybe they say something, maybe they say nothing.  But now it is no longer your humming.  It has crawled into the ear of someone else.

And, after a while, perhaps a handful of people - through whatever medium, in passing or intentionally - have heard your song.  And some of them (bless them) have told you.  It is beautiful.  Thank you. For being. And this is the highest compliment you could ever receive.  You hum because you do, because you are; humming is as inseparable from your self as a scent from its flower.  And someone said thanks.

Learn where the title came from here.

The photo was taken last year in Burketown, Australia by Russell White and can be found in this gallery on his website.

21 July 2010


As much as I despise wrenching cohesiveness from a story and stamping a lesson on top just because it is ending, I have to admit, this one does have a bit of a theme.  And there is an ending, if not of thought, at least in time and place.  Today is day number 365 of this wild cloud pursuit. Tomorrow, I fly home.  So in celebration, in thanks, in reflection, here are three images from three very memorable moments this past year.  Here's to wrapping up!
1. Morning Glory clouds in Queensland, Australia. September.
2.  South Island, New Zealand. November.
3.  nacreous clouds over Kiruna, Sweden.  January.

20 July 2010


we move like glass
words through a tunnel
bow to the wind and away
from sky.

like clouds clotting air
obdurate confidence
and scarce of color

wearing things too tight
in places where the wind
pinches us uncomfortably
and whips us into attention

we lull and we stir
awe with saturation
in steps. black rock

unfinished tunes
distraction and always
the wind

running running running like
it forgot to turn off the oven
somewhere on
the other side of the world

sharing our photos taken
from unsuspecting prey never
to be put back in the right

filtering light from water
and wind. we all delve
deep unto the black things between
our hands.

except these machines
are always mercilessly leaving
our fingers bent and our eyes
with a metallic residue, but somehow

11 July 2010


The everpresent perspective in a treeless place. Telephone poles add a bit of dimension, and I've developed a penchant for these wooden processions of wire and glass.  Funny how the trees found their way back.  Same substance, different space.

07 July 2010

between pilots

Happy birthday, Dad.

05 July 2010

soapball madness

The soapball madness is rolling out of hand
to lengths we could never comprehend
in legs, in hair, forgotten like the wind
that rolls up the years behind us in a great re-raveling.

Re-raveling because we've come undone in traveling.
And soap is never on my list of things
to bring.  What I search for I must conjure -
silence and space and places with words that cast shadows.

In any case, we've gone through rucksacks apiece
and what's in them never matters.  There's rain,
there's snow and sometimes the birds that rain
to render temporary backlumps useless and spectacular.

And sometimes it's the uninvited we take to most -
the hitchhiker seeds that cling to your shirt,
the small mountain stones that stick in your boots -
because the best parts just fit and noiselessly go

like there's some overarching symbiosis that our bodies know.
So if we had soap, we'd wash it away
and keep memories spotless and fresh and new
and withdraw them often and never let ourselves roll out of hand.

photo: Vestmannaeyjar runway

01 July 2010

centre de la terre

standing before this giant, it's easy to see how Jules Verne's imagination ran wild when he saw Snæfellsjökull.

In Sneffels Joculis craterem, quem delibat umbra Scartaris, Julii intra kalendas descende, audax viator, et terrestre centrum attinges; quod feci. Arne Saknussemm.


30 June 2010


some people claim that the weather is a metaphor for our self-perception.  I don't think it's just the weather.  conscious of it or not, you notice what you want to notice. 

In Grundarfjord, the thing to notice is a mountain called Kirkjufell.  It's there, somewhere...

27 June 2010


Snæfellsnes coast

26 June 2010

S. paradisaea

we all need a good dose of this from time to time.  somehow, kids just know and aren't afraid to show it.  I learned a thing or two watching these little people in Anarstapi.

19 June 2010

Remembering Burketown.

14 June 2010

what's hot and what's not

Reykjavík's hot water source is covered in moss.  And it makes clouds. You might even call it pretty.

In this steamy valley lies Nesjavellir, the power plant that pumps geothermally heated water from the island's volcanic innards, through a 27 kilometer pipe, and out my showerhead. Over the course of that 27 km, most of which runs above ground, the water loses less heat than your diurnal fluctuation in body temperature. That's not a lot. In fact, that's damn efficient. And at what cost? Well, given that the water came from the sky, the heat from the ground, and both of those things continue to produce without any sign of faltering, it's pretty low.  The plant even uses the excess steam to generate electricity via steam turbines.  As for greenhouse gas emissions, the yearly total equates to what a coal-fired power plant burps out over about five days.  Or what the United States's fleet of 614 produces in about 12 minutes.  Ouch.

What's the deal, America?  Even Hawaii, our own island hot spot, has a coal-fired power plant, and generates 90% of its electricity from fossil-fuels.  While our Hawaiian president opposes the coal-chomping beasts, he gets pretty excited about emission-less nuclear plants.  He's using your tax dollars to help energy giant Southern Company (the owner and operator of 22 coal-fired power plants) build two nuclear reactors in Burke, Georgia, about 180 miles from my home.  The question of where to keep the waste remains on the table.  And apparently Obama and Steven Chu have no qualms about paying Russia to be our number one uranium supplier.  (Are Obama's efforts to "restart" with Russia grounded in our uranium lust?)

So maybe nuclear is the lesser of two evils, but come on - with the burgeoning development of renewable technology, can't we make a bigger effort forgo these icky questions of mining and drilling and controlling for emissions?  The Recovery Act passed last year allocates a chunk ($61.3 billion) of money to clean energy projects, however with our yearly military budget topping a trillion dollars, it's pretty clear where our priorities lie.  I know we're not Iceland, but we can do better, and it's painful to watch the U.S. continue to ignore the obvious.

more about energy use in the states

04 June 2010

on being a tourist

Left to the blathering masses we take our time
to take our pick, sifting, as eyes do when pressed
with peddler´s arrays of cloud, mountain, stream...
(after a while don´t they all look the same?)

The sun will set, too, on these hallowed hills
on the dead queen´s cairn, the elves´ hidden rock,
and come winter snow will cover them deep
and eyes then will graze without stopping to see.

The clouds come and go. We breathe and we breathe.
In spring the lupines crowd each mountain fold.
The geyser lets loose every minute or two, yet for most
eyes and hands an instant´s enough. We saw it. We´re through.

Set me down gently and let me go softly. Don´t curl your arm
round my neck or my side. I came here freely and freely I´ll go
when the flowers have said all they have to say
and cirrus cloud feathers blow softly away: tell me a poem

sing me your lines, something to carry without pocket or lens.
How do you whisper to poets and painters and no one
else, though many see you?  Why do you call
to a dwindling few?  Many who pass by seldom see true.

Take your time giving and I´ll thoughtfully accept,
you bow and I´ll curtsy, we´ll call it respect.
One sky´s enough. Two eyes will do.  For seeing,
though simple´s a hard thing to do.

31 May 2010

a lucid moment

I realize my posts have been sparse lately (what a classic way to begin a post, right? I feel like every blog author has to say this at least once, the coming-to-terms-with-ones-blog-keeping-duties post). I think the next line goes something like, "I've been really busy lately (you wouldn't believe the number of clouds I've had to watch) and traveling with no computer makes things tricky, especially the whole posting photos part." Okay, done. Whew.

The real story is this: I haven't put my pen down. It's just that paper is easier to come by than electricity and wifi in most of the places I've lived, and so now that I have better access to both, I've resolved to post some of the bits and bobs I've omitted over the past several weeks. Old posts might sprout photos. New ones will appear. If you are reading this, read on! Like this island's dear (cursed?) volcano, I, too, have been dormant. But don't worry. I doubt my eruption will wreak as much havoc. I mean, I hope to wreak havoc - to let loose! to tear it up! However, my writing tends to be a tad less directly confrontational. So don't cancel your flights. I wouldn't even bother buying travel insurance. But I am posting again, so don't say I didn't warn you...

23 May 2010

On trying to reach Iceland

to play
with air between two countries, suspended
swinging like on a string
close enough to catch
a whiff of either side, close,

05 May 2010

smoking suitors

News of the Icelandic dragon's latest belch has everyone on edge. Crick-necked.  I'm still in Scotland, if you can call it that.  "Hae du y seh ut?" Orkney, swapping cigarette smoke with bearded old catfish in woolen caps. They spend every lean day hanging around the pier waiting for business. Taxidrivers, fishermen, ferryboat captains.  At night (if you can call it that - daylight licks us from 4 to half past 10) the crew dissolves into the pub like midges into heather, folding themselves into darkness in a way that's only natural.  Peat-smoke, fingernails, whisky...

There are 28 labelled whiskies behind the bar. I heard from one sly midge, however, that there are ample homespun vareties babysitting the odd pocket. "Du see thet greht loomp in George's syde?" I didn't know they even made pockets there...Orcadians are resourceful folk.  Why else would the rest of Scotland be so wild about the way it tastes? Oatcakes, ice cream, porter...

 I read in a poem that "folk seem to spark 'wae da wedder'" in this place, which is serenaded by gales and rain and seawater like an obstinate suitor after a lesbian queen.  Somehow, it wakes up everyday in the same place - a trait I am growing to admire.  Let the cloud drift to you, let the weather spark your fire.  Orkney, Iceland, ...

18 April 2010

narrow morning

a Scoraig haiku.

This morning the sun
squeezed my shadow, a string bean
making its way west

05 April 2010

a poem of thanks, to dear friends

How to bend light
around a worn name
-in a helical frame
wrapped like a gift
-but not all the way,
so it's able to grow,
like DNA

How to catch light
at its slippery prime
-without keeping time
or naming moments
-the sink or the rise,
the hanging apex,
or crepuscular slide

How to keep light
in a memory preserved
-not pickled with words
and slapped on a shelf
-but tenderly stirred
and lovingly given
the grace it deserves

How to pass light
on to a dear friend
-letting it bend
so it fits in their palm
-but careful to send
it freely of heart
so it blooms to no end

photo - Callanais stones, Isle of Lewis

30 March 2010

hello spring.

winter still squats on these last feathers of March.  looks like April might feel the burden, too.  further south, the birches are swolen red. no buds yet. soon, it's goodbye to all this empty-limbed freedom, and spring will send us something new light upon.

10 March 2010


out my window, Oban Harbour
music by Pete Gillies

08 March 2010

death of light

hiding. a stone on two legs.  another self-same sky.
no escaping the light.

06 March 2010

Svalbard, II

Out my window nothing but blue. Tall blue shadows falling from dark dolerite pillars standing guard over a fjord filled with abandoned mines and coal dust, crawling with a new kind of explorer - people on snowmobiles and roads dotted with street lights - they make a funny world out of a fjord.  But the ground remembers.  The blue, they can't shake the blue, nor can they bid the sun to arrive any earlier than it did 3.3 billion years ago.  There is something immovable about the rhythm of this place - the plunging of peak to core and the long slow rise of depth to surface, granite cutting through time regardless of what we call it (intrusion? Caledonian Orogeny?) or what it will be called in millennia to come (?).   What we see between Sørkapp and Isfjorden is not what the mountains behind our backs or under our feet know it to be - consolidated moraine, glaciofluvial deposits and drop deposits from melting icebergs calved from glaciers 600 million years ago.

Time is just a word.  Age could never be classified when crust and plates and ranges are all just stories in your long-shadowed memory.  An island, even, just for a moment. The snow, the ice, the unnamed shades of blue - just shadows passing the long afternoon, a single day in a lifetime of color, shape, sound, names.  The dark pillars standing sentry will have forgotten it all by tomorrow, and when the light finally comes back, the word blue will have long vanished from the mouth of the sky, and some new brave utterance will be carried by the wind to fill the hollow of a new valley, a different rock standing guard on its edge, a new set of eyes to watch the people run about and classify everything.  Without time, no one carries a name, has a place or a color to call their own.  But with it, I can stare out my window at a mountain made of 200 million year old rock and smile because it is undeniably blue.

25 February 2010


White.  All white.  The mountains peak like crests of whipped cream sinking into a smooth pool of black coffee, buried to their necks in snow.  Our wingtips caught the sun over Spitsbergen, but when we sank to meet the clouds they became ghosts again, white and grey, and I remembered our place not 800 miles from the North Pole.  Blue, white, grey - the polar winter in Kiruna bounded back to me, and I even thought I glimpsed a host of polar stratospheric clouds to the northeast.  Clouds below, clouds above.  The clouds finally won.

No more whipped cream mountains. The peaks that would soon become giants slipped into the stratocumulus like acolytes robing themselves humbly before morning mass.  Shortly after, the clouds took us, too.  The plane started to shake and when we could finally see again, the summits stared sternly at our jostling craft, unmoving, majestic, and monotone.   The pilot turned the lights out inside and everything grew instantly brighter.  The jostling stopped.  Outside our windows loomed the ice plateaus of Templetfjorden and below us white shards of sea ice on black ripples. The sky still furrowed in streaks of grey, the runway was the brightest strip of ground.  The island above us, beside us, soon to be beneath us, entirely and unmistakably white.

17 February 2010

on Time, with Irene

Tall Pines in Georgia stands for more than trunks and needles, resin and fire-signalled seeds.  It is a song.  And a song can be with you anywhere without the weight of a pack slung around in turbulent flights.  Songs pass the time without pages or folded corners, and bus stops reverberate splendidly in dry winter air.  Crisp, clean, clear.

One morning while waiting I envisioned a man saddle a horse and cross the Blue Mountains through tall, dark pines filled with mockingbird mimicry  - all the way to the Allegheny, and all for love.  The same day showed me Sweet William and Lady Margaret flowering beside a bench in musical ignorance, oblivious to seasons, to sunlight. It was winter in the air, on paper and peoples' faces, but nevertheless, Tall Pines in Georgia clung to their needles white-knuckled and didn't mind being the only ones in green.  They grow on.

And the song.  The song stays in my head like stars in the Arctic darkness, hiding above clouds that pass by below but there all the same, all the time, light years away, and fills me with warmth.  The clouds today are lithe, stretching thinly over the Barents like a furrowed field of Mama's white hair. Sometimes the earth needs a gentle covering; sometimes the stars shine too sharply.  The ocean needs its islands, as much as it abuses them.  And empty bus stops call out for songs from travelers' mouths, even if only in passing.

Irene on Sommerøya, Troms, Norway

29 January 2010

on Ofotfjord

It could be Sewanee, it could be anywhere - snow-surfaced forest floor, rocks, dirt, trees, saplings standing atop tumbled boulders resting halfway down the slope into the water - it just goes, goes without stopping, and eagles swoop out to scare away the ravens and their individual feathers separate and spread like fingers tilted upwards at their distal edges, and over the water they soar, skim the sea, the fjord, the mountain pass bridged only by wind, the sound of a train, and snowfall in the winter, shadowed only by a midsummer's midnight sun, despite the height, softening the shallow soil and sending birch leaves into a salacious frenzy, steaming, while their neighbors in stout-tufted needlestiff conebearing wisdom grow stunted because of too much light, or not enough. Sometimes, they learn, it is never enough.  A view of the fjord, the knowledge of wind and flight, the sun in its fullness and absolute absence - even the water rippling so tangibly below, the air clean enough to count the spouts of spray cresting each swell - is not enough.  The suspicion of current coming up from below cannot be traced, tagged, understood.  For the boulders resting on the slope, it is prosaic.  They watch, they wait, they rest under snow.  And though Sisyphus left long ago, they still feel the grooves where he placed his fingers in hope of change.

28 January 2010

Sometimes you have no idea what lies in front of you.

Can you ID this cloud? 

20 January 2010

all that jazz

Polar stratospheric clouds are astonishing.  Nine days ago a whole host of them flung themselves into the post sunlit sky and their freakshow left me speechless.  Hence the terse caption dangling from this photo.  But in a week and a half, I have caught my breath, relocated my tongue, and will try to sputter a few words in honor of these dumbfounding beauties.

Despite the flashy examples I've exhibited, not all polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) are nacreous, or pearly.  In fact, what makes polar strasospheric clouds polar stratospheric clouds is not the color, the shape, or even a specific composition.  PSCs are simply concentrations of solid or liquid aerosols suspended between 15 and 30km during the Arctic or Antarctic winter.  For a PSC to be iridescent, it must be comprised of similarly sized particles whose size is comparable to their wavelength.  The wispy orb-like shape above results from orographic lift, in this case generated by strong tropospheric winds rushing over the Scandinavian Mountains. (As a side note - these mountains are fascinating.  You can read about the Caledonian orogeny here).

Yet despite their pizazz, nacreous clouds are not the most common form of PSCs.  Lately, the lidar at Kiruna has been detecting  a layer of PSCs above us which act nothing like their iridescent kin.  Without forceful winds to whip them into a colorful frenzy, they resemble subtle gray streaks, like soapy residue on a poorly washed window.  On the right-hand side of the photograph below, the sky appears to have a ribbed texture.  These bands are also PSCs, only not nacreous ones.

I must admit, the flare and mystery of a nacreous cloud floods me with admiration, but when I glanced above the trees this weekend while skiing through the woods, I was also amazed to see this warm spectrum of reds and oranges spread before a different kind of polar stratospheric cloud.

15 January 2010


It's the dawn of a brutal day.  The type of day that arrives after a spell of fair weather, clear skies, stirring light.  The kind of day that signals change in some realm of experience difficult to pinpoint.  You open a window or step across an icy roof and breathe a different sort of air, a newness, an arrival.

There was hoar frost on the railings.  The fog was back.  Only the bulldozed mountain of the iron mine caught direct light, golden, clean, radiant.  The smokestacks coughed up lumps of cumulus that drifted over the town, the sky all to their own.

12 January 2010

histogram schmistogram

If you happen to know a thing or two about photography, you may be casting a critical eye on this picture, thinking: there's nothing like a blazing ball of fire to throw off your histogram. And yesthankyou, I am aware of this. HOWEVER, when you consider the fact that this photo was taken by an Arctic hermit whose skin, after last feeling the sun four weeks ago on an island in the South Pacific, has long forgotten all notion of pigmentation, perhaps you will reconsider the value of this image.  I had to do it.  To document the fact that - YES, THE SUN STILL EXISTS  and yes, dear epidermis, you are still capable of synthesizing vitamin D.  The sun rises, the sun sets, and the world - at least this small corner of it - is a brighter place.

11 January 2010

at last!

I spoke too soon.

10 January 2010

lidars and lingonberries

I realize I have not yet said anything about where I am or what I am doing.  Let me explain.  I live at the Institutet för rymdfysik - the Swedish Institute of Space Physics - outside of Kiruna, Sweden, a town which squats on roughly the same latitude as Coldfoot, Alaska, the Kangerlussuaq fjord (Greenland), Lake Gorodetskoye (Russia), and the middle of Baffin Island.  Due to the proximity of the gulf stream, winter temperatures average around -15 C, but in the month I've been here, they have fluctuated between -35 and -3.5 (I didn't add the 0.5 to be cute; that data came from the institute weather station).  This minute, it is -3.9 degrees, and I'll bet every hill in town is crawling with miniature people chasing after sleds and slamming into snowbanks, turning them the color of lingonberries.  Technically, the sun has already set, but twilight will last for another hour or so.  It is about 1:30.

My job at the institute is...well, what it has always been.  I hunt clouds.  The greatest part about living here is that there are researchers here also trying to track polar stratospheric clouds.  And they have the world's best technology to do it.  Sheila has hooked up a spectrometer to a telescope the size of a small child and hopes to measure the light spectrum of a particularly nacreous cloud.  Peter shoots a lazer 50 kilometers into the atmosphere, measuring backscatter with a couple giant telescopes and a tangle of fiber-optic cables.  Last week, I helped him realign the mirror reflecting the beam via tiny motors contolled by computer.  When in the same room as the active lazer, we had to wear goggles that could have come from Arakis.  Since polar stratospheric clouds are usually only visible for a handful of days each winter, the window of opportunity to study them can be slim.  So I just keep watching.

For anyone Celsius-impaired, google has a handy built-in conversion tool just for you.  Search "-15 Celsius to Fahrenheit" and voila, a conversion.  This also works for just about any other unit you can think of, including bushels, cubits, hands...

07 January 2010

sun pillar

Here at IRF I am always looking out the window - every few minutes, if I can.  While I tend to glance at the daily forecasts for polar stratospheric clouds, aurora borealis, and tropospheric weather, you never know what you'll see that cannot be predicted, like this sun pillar I noticed last week.  A solar pillar is created when ice crystals whose surfaces are nearly horizontal reflect sunlight.  In the twenty-five days I have been in Sweden, I have yet to see the actual sun.  Any day now!

03 January 2010

sky tracks

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