Wednesday, December 31, 2008

An Ancient Broken Giant:

When Bobby took me across the branch to see the new calves, I also saw this remnant of a giant tulip poplar, contemporary of the enormous oak on Dutton Hill, cut down in the 80s, and believed to be 400+ years old. This is the only "old growth" tree left for many miles in any direction. Bob Vaught, a family friend who used to come and help us strip tobacco, told me that he was in the timber crew that cut down a forest of giant trees that stretched for over a mile, from the oak on Dutton Hill to Holtzclaw knob on the northern horizon. This tree would have been in that woods, and may have been spared for already having a hollow in it.

The white barrel holds a salt block for the cattle.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Prayer of Removal:

Gods of sentiment, enclose
The past in an overarching crystal
Globe. Seal
The edges of the firmament
To the rim of what is known.
Inside the split rail fences of the Dutton Land
And to the four horizons
Circling round the hill
I pray to you remove
The asphalt from the roads,
Remove all metal from the roofs
And make them shakes that wind
Can whistle through. Remove
The sounds of every engine but
The creaking waterwheel, the pedal lathe, the
Distant huff and whistle of a train.
Take away the subdivision
Cul-de-sac. Take back the taxus
And the yews of landscaped yards,
Return the hawthorn, the thickets
On the knobs, the creek banks green with cane.
Take these painted walls away, have
Only logs chinked in with clay.
Remove all clothes sewn by machines,
Return the slow-stitched wool
Spun on a wheel, make a rarity of soap,
Commerce of eggs and cream.
Make the sudden flash
Of the photograph
Remove what we’ve discovered since.

More Questions for Charles:

Voice X, accompanied by the Darkey Choir:

“Sun and Moon and Stars
Decay; Time
Will soon this Earth
Remove. Arise
My soul and haste
To seats prepared above.”

Before he left, nothing is said
Of Charles except that he was six
And came, via horse,
From Missouri.
That’s all until
“He left.”
Before he came he did not:
“Assemble in considerable numbers” (20 lashes)
“At places of religious worship” (20 lashes)
“At schools for teaching them reading or writing” (20 lashes)
This was so he could not write his own passes
And without a pass he could not go
Without his Owner’s supervision

Because, in Virginy, in 1831 for instance,
A misguided Owner who was
too, we must conclude,
Deluded in Methodism, taught
A niggra Boy (He called him Nat.) to read
The Holy Writ
(As tho it mattered to a nearly ape.)
Tho this was broken law, and once
He’d turned from Boy to Buck,
Styled himself “Prophet”
Preaching to his dark-
ey choir about the fiery wheel
He and his followers
In the heat of that August
Did begin:
“A Most Murderous Rampage
Which left
Sixty good white people dead,
Including his (fool) owner.
The militia pursued him
And did discover ten
decapitated little White Children
Tossed in a bloody pile.”
(Hanged November 11, body given to physicians
for dissection.)”

So Charles, we will, for convenience sake conclude
You could not read or write
Your name, unless
You made an X.

Did you know anything at all?
Did your Mammy tell you from whence you came?
Could you say, at six, how the world was made?

Voice X:
“The Crossroad is the moment of decision.
Oludumare, the encompassing divine,
Sent his Prophet
To deliver a snail shell
To the world.
It was discovered
That only water lay below.
Inside the shell
The Prophet found
A net, some dirt,
And a rooster with 5 toes.

The net was thrown on the water,
The dirt upon the net,
And the rooster set
To scratch it, and
The land commanded to increase.
“Be expanded quickly!”
Said the Prophet
And the Earth was made.”

How you came to be here is known -
But Charles,
When you left,
Where did you go?
Today did I meet
Your dna walking on the street?
Have I loved some relic
Of your shape?

The shape of the hill
Is silent,
The primordial sea
That reflected these same stars
Has receded
And left the mystery intact
Knowledge sleeps in the
Barn, a child burrowed into the hay,
Watching the hard glint and twinkle
Of heaven far away. The sweet
Cloy of manure below, the winey
Cattle breath in frosty clouds -
No mama to hold onto now,
It’s just him and Pete.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Missing Calf:

This morning was a great combination, foggy and frosty. The fog froze onto the intricate tips and twigs of fencerow weeds, queen ann's lace and goldenrod, then the sunrise made everything sparkle. It looked fabulous.

After Bobby finished feeding the heifers and steers here on the hill, he took me with him over to see the new calves in the fields on the other side of Dry Branch, like this little girl, one day old.

We rode on a 4-wheeler all over the hillsides, under a gorgeous deep blue sky, checking to see that each new calf was up and nursing.

We found them all except one, the only bull calf in the batch. Cows can be very tricky about hiding their calves, and a newborn black calf, curled up into a ball and perfectly still, can be very well hidden. After riding for two hours I had to give up and tend to things at home, so Bobby dropped me off and went back to continue the search. When I saw him again, just before dark, he'd found the little bull, in a swag between a couple of rocks. We'd gone past him a bunch of times, looking hard and seeing nothing - the mother cow standing smug way out in the field - "You'll never find him."

She underestimated Bobby's determination.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Meditations on Charles:

“He left.” (That’s all
they said
about Charles.)
Where did the 6 year old slave boy sleep?
Voice X: “On the low ground. On
A pallet on the floor. Colored people
Didn’t have no beds, no shoes - Boys wore
A dress till they were 13. Charles, YOU
wore a dress?”

Charles did you run away
Or were you sold?
Did my great-grandfather trade you for a horse,
Or a cow?
Charles, did you join the Ohio
7th Calvary to fight the Rebel dogs?
Voice X: “The rain was falling in torrents on our camp.”
Charles, were you no better than a dog?
Voice X: “Two hundred dollar reward
Runaway from the undersigned,
MAN, called
Aged about 22 years, about
5 feet 10 inches
high, dark Chestnut color, polite,
when spoken to,
and has
a scar
on one cheek, (He turned the other.)
,--- his clothing
is not recollected; (He was no longer in a dress.)
he has been living with W
H. Bowdle, Esq., (paperman)
Near Cambridge, during the
The above reward will be given if taken out
Of the State, one hundred if taken in the State
And out of the county, and fifty dollars if ta-
Ken in the county, and in either case lodged
In the Cambridge (Md.) Jail
( leasing slaves) Sept. 24, 1856”

Charles did you escape
With Harriet Tubman? Did you see her use her gun?
Did you go to Canada?
What did you think of Pete?

Voice X: “He stayed.”

On the same hill of rocks
Until he died and they buried him there
By the cemetery gate.

Going back
To eight or ten
Trying to look through my eyes then
The fields are grass, picked close by cows but
Empty now and enclosed
By the fencerows grown
Over with wild honeysuckle and multi-
Flora roses, white, but not in bloom. The
Fields are empty, like empty rooms,
You push through a gap
In the tangle of vines and briars,
Because you’re small you can get through,
And then you stand inside the boundaries,
Sides that are fencerows, tall enough
To hide you, out of view, inside
The empty fields.
Like a game board where a pawn is removed.
Charles, where are you?
Are you buried in Oh –

Voice X: “There’s a
low green valley on
the old Kentucky shore,
 Where I while’d
many happy hours away.

A-sitting and a-singing by the little cabin door,
lived my darling Nelly Gray.

Oh! My darling Nelly Gray, they have taken
you away,
And I’ll ne –
ver see my darling

I’m a sitting by the river and I’m weeping all the day,

For you’ve gone from the old Kentucky shore.

One night I went to see her but
“she’s gone,” the darkies say,
The white
man bound her with his chain,

They have shipped her
down the river
for to wear her life away,

As she toils
in the cotton
and the

Dancing in Dandyland

Saturday, December 27, 2008

You'll Always Come Back:

(Pete and Charles arrive:)

Curvilinear flats of mud
Laid under brine in unmeasured time
Crushed ‘neath the wheels of the unfeeling stars
In layers of eons and molecules

Piled to a hill you can stand upon, a
Hump of stone riddled with channels and holes
Clad in a blanket of root-woven clay
Laced down by the oak and the cedar spire

Wind that sings the living breath
Lifting flesh to toil and spin
Raveled threads into a tale
Awake the phantoms buried here
To stride new dressed through veils of death
Shimmering just
At the edge of sight
And show
Lips poised to speak
for ears pricked up in the darkness here.

But do not, I implore you, let
them break the silence of the past -
Let their presence
Unperturbed by all this fantasy
As is the stone,
The tree,
The spring.

(Voice X:)
Call me Exu, or the Cross,
Or the very Devil
If you must;
“I am the way.”
I am sign that spans
The inbetween us – to you
I am a demon unless I bring you luck
Nine times of ten you will not recognize me
Even then, be
Cause I have no shape
But those you give
At the threshold I live
malleable as clay
And forever your Elder
Outlining your
Defining footprint
In dust.

I give you your choice of four directions
And everything you need to know to go; There,
Here, Then, Now.
You picked your head;
so understand it.

Stage hands - interpret this play -

Show that it is August; burn the Dog Star
Over the knobs; have the night drone thick with
Insect songs, the cattle’s hooves churn paths
In dust. In the suspended air
Hang heavy heat, have nothing move
If it can still, but waves
Of a Mirage, and let this corrugation of the sky disclose
A man, Daniel, age 23 in 1845,
upon a horse, arrive
And climb the ancient slope
With two black boys, age six and eight,
Named Pete and Charles
In bondage from Missouri, brought
To Dutton Hill, to labor
Or be sold,
As slaves.

“De rocks, de rocks, sez Pete
When at last they see
The fields where they will work
One will leave, and one will stay -
And of the spring that bears his name
Pete, perhaps, will say; “If you drink from here,
You’ll always come back. ~
To be this very place, where the coolness gushes out
Clear as window glass
And on the other side and looking through
You’ll fuse into
A lingering spell
And may tell
The healing words that
Into murmurs on the stone.

Mirrored sounds
Speak inner thoughts –
Are we more than light-suffuse’d clay
Got up to walk?

(Speak, Son of the Seventh Son:)

“The Devil was flying over
this hill
with an apron full of rocks.
When the strings broke
And the load was dropped.”

In the details of proliferating chance
I dance
To your provisions, to
Your rhymes and reasons –
I am black. My wings, like unto a Buckeye
And a bat,
Beat thunder in midnight black,
Black horns, mad corkscrews of my horne’d thought
Twist reason to a maddening point,
Each night I grow black scales from scratch
My claws are black owl’s grappling
Hooks, where dangle gibs of meat
As black as sin,
As black as you, little men,
Who fear me crouching at the crux,
Holding one side of a black mirror up
To the nothingness within.

“Servants be obedient to them that are your Masters”
(And I will drop before you accidental stones – )
“That servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared
not himself, shall be beaten with many stripes”
(And I shall have a quilling serpents tail
Striped black and red
Tipped with vengeance whip
And my face, which mirrors yours,
Looks down from high
Scarred with grooves
By the god-set stars.
And you shall soot your groin like mine
Maleficent joys.)

Listen Pete, to your mother’s voice,
Before the sound recedes:
“De gwine take you fore the sun
You eber be de good man
And don’t be cryin fo
Things dat don cry fo you.”

The Sun, mute, immutable,
Beats down upon the stones and dust,
The little black cricket rings
His incessant lust in the weeds,
Scraping wing on wing
Pete and Charles descend,
Legs spread to an ache
And limed with horse hair and sweat,
To set their feet
As though at first
Upon the earth
And stand looking
At the blunt knobs who merge
Into the sun-stroked sky
Until, as the eye flies up,
They are two specks
On a vast
Rolling orb,
Flickering nights and days,
While the water pours
Out its song upon the dust
And signs of living land
Are lost in the tumult
Of stars
Whose cinders fall
And scatter
In the timeless deep.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Snowdrop:

Yesterday the hill was frozen hard as a brick. At some point in the night, the icy winds abated, or shifted into a warmer mode. By morning the ground was sodden again, the air mild, the sky low with damp grey clouds. In spite of the very hard freeze, there by the path to the studio stood this snowdrop, sending out a brave and tentative bud. In the language of flowers, the snowdrop, also called Maid of February (because traditionally it blooms on Candlemas, or Groundhog day as it's more generally called...) - signifies Hope.

I happen to like gray and brown, and moody weather of all kinds, but the darker months can be a challenge to cheer ~ and that's why the winter holidays are here, to boost moral until the indomitable spirit of spring returns. In dandyland, having no patience with the peculiar and wrong-headed Georgian calendar, we celebrate that on the old traditional day, Feb. 2nd - but really the change from sap descending to sap ascending is already taking place. Scratch away a few of the damp leaves and underneath you may see the emerging tips of daffodils, coursing with some sort of vegetal anti-freeze. Owls are already sitting on their eggs - by Easter they'll be adolescents. And yesterday Bobby told me that one of the cows down by the branch has a new calf.

This Christmas Eve we've much to be grateful for - Cebah & I are both in good health, the house is secure and the farm is in good shape ~ and the hillside has a budding flower, right in the depth of winter, signifying hope. Here's wishing all you gentle readers a most Merry Christmas & hope for a year of peace and plenty in 2009.

Monday, December 22, 2008

b,d,b,d,b,d, S.B.D. ~ forget me not:

The other day I finally remembered to stop by Paul's Surplus ("If Paul's doesn't have it, you don't need it.") and look for a topographic map of Dutton Hill and the surrounding countryside. The contour lines of the land are an essential part of the design for You'll Always Come Back ~ they remind me of sound waves.

Dutton Hill was on the edge (of course) of one map and another, so I got both. It's nice to have them just for the names of the knobs that lead off toward the eastern horizon, once a part of our everyday vocabulary because we climbed them on foxhunts; Red Bud Knob, Bald Knob, Hewey Knob, Sugar Hill Knob, Buzzard Knob, Saltpeter Knob, Jingling Hole Knob... on into hazy blue distance. Not many people know their names nowadays.

Looking closely at the map I saw that there was another Cundiff cemetery, (my grandmother's family) one that would have been within sight of The Old House, out in a field sloping down toward Pitman Creek, so I went to visit it.

The stones were very old, all turned over and broken by vandals, embedded in the earth, most impossible to read. Some were cut by hand, from field limestone, with initials and inscriptions scratched in, now nearly worn away, some with no inscription at all that I could see. I could make out one early date; born 1777, died 1823. Cemeteries frame life (and death) - b,d,b,d,b,d. + dates and a name- the most basic information. The contents of the frame are more mysterious ~ the ancestors probably stood on that same slope where I stood, looking across the knobs to where the sun rises in the east, arcing over the hill to disappear in the west ~ b,d.

Yesterday I was looking through the studio bookshelf for something and happened to spy a book from The Old House that I'd never looked closely at ~ titled "Siegfried and Beowulf"; sure enough, a condensed version of the medieval blood-saturated Nibelungleid I'd just finished. The Nibelunglied is sited mainly at Worms, nearest town to the ancestral home of the Duttons (then Duttings) in the 1630s. But who in the old house read it?

On the frontispiece was the answer, the words "forget me not" and a little drawing of a sprig of myosotis (latin for mouse-eared, a description of the fuzzy little leaves of the forget me not flower.) - the emblem of my grandmother, Sarah Belle Cundiff. I've seen it now in a half dozen places, in books and ledgers - the sprig and the words, sometimes with her initials.

Remembrance ~ that's the meaning of the forget me not. So says her copy of The Language and Poetry of Flowers ~ with this poem by Byron on the subject:


But ever and annon of griefs subdued,
There comes a token like a scorpion's sting,
Scarce seen, but with fresh bitterness imbued:
And slight withal may be the things which bring
Back on the heart the weight which it could fling
Aside forever; it may be a sound -
A tone of music - summer's eve - or spring, -
A flower - the wind - the ocean - which shall wound,
Striking the electric chain wherewith we are darkly
And how and why we know not, nor can trace
Home to its cloud this lightning of the mind;
But feel the shock renew'd, nor can efface
The blight and blackening which it leaves behind,
Which out of things familiar, undesign'd
When least we deem of such, calls up to view
The spectres whom no exorcism can bind, -
The cold, the chang'd - perchance the dead - anew,
The mourn'd, the lov'd, the lost, - too many! yet
how few!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Shagbark Elf:

There are lots of these on the knobs around dandyland. They are nuts. Once you make clothes for them they disappear until the next solstice.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cebah's Birthday Cake:

THE POSSUM’S DELIGHT ~ A Persimmon Cake for Cebah's 88th Birthday:

Cebah recently turned 88 and we had a long wknd of celebrations, with a lot of wonderful things to eat made in her kitchen. Cathy can attest to that! Cebah's older sister, Francis, used to say that when she died she wanted to come back as a possum, so she could ramble around in the woods and eat wild grapes. Wild grapes are long gone, but this year there are still persimmons lingering on the trees, and they are the possum food of choice. (Cathy, if you have that wonderful photo of the persimmon tree in jpeg form, do insert it here!)

Alan said this was more butter than cake ~ but I don't think that was a critique. I was afraid the cake might be tough - persimmons react somehow with flour in a very viscous way - but my fears were unfounded, the texture was good.

Lacking wild, not Japanese persimmons, I think the closest approximate for substitution would be a 50/50 puree of Medjool dates and apricots, cooked with just enough water to make them soft and pureed until smooth.


Preheat the oven to 350o. Butter two nine inch cake pans, line the bottoms with waxed paper, butter that, then dust the pans with flour.

Sift together into a small bowl, 1 & ¼ cup flour, 1 tsp baking soda, ¼ tsp salt, ½ tsp nutmeg, ¼ tsp cinnamon, and a tiny pinch of cloves. Blend in ½ cup of chopped black walnuts.

In a large bowl, beat 2 eggs, ¾ cup brown sugar and a stick of melted butter (4 oz) until smooth. Add 1 cup of persimmon puree and mix it in. Follow that with the dry ingredients and beat until everything is moistened. Scrape the batter into the pans and bake just until an inserted broomstraw or a toothpick comes out clean. Let the cakes rest for a couple of minutes out of the oven, then turn them out onto a towel.


Butter a heatproof glass measuring cup and have it at hand. Beat 6 egg yolks until they are thick and light. In a small saucepan bring 3/4 cup sugar and ½ cup corn syrup JUST to a rolling boil. Immediately pour the syrup into the cup to stop the cooking.

With the mixer going, slowly and gradually beat in the syrup in a steady stream. Continue beating until cool. Cut 2 cups of salted butter into 2 tab chunks and beat them in, one at a time, until the buttercream is smooth and silky. Beat in ½ cup of persimmon puree and 2 tabs of Barenjager (a German Honey Liquour) & ice the cake.

I used a “gold” cake decorator’s powder to gild the waves of the buttercream by lightly brushing it on with a watercolor brush.

Afterwards we danced to Egyptian club music as wildly as any possums might.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Here's the bluejay painting, mate to the redbird in the "Daughter of the Sun" post. Odd that the two related myths would echo in this pair. I tried to show the gold background in this photo. A viewer, if there were one, familiar with all of my paintings, would recognize this pair as one of many "primary paintings" - where the subject is, in part, the primary colors; red, blue, and in this case, gold standing in for yellow. I think they were painted about 5 years ago.

The trees; a dogwood for the bluejay, an oak for the cardinal, are by the studio porch.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Alf's playmate, Baby:

If Alf hears Bobby's truck coming up the hill, he goes to the door and begs, so that he can go out to the barn and play with Baby, Bobby's stock dog. I did this drawing last night with a brush and Japanese stick ink, some that my friend Chisato gave me, ground on a stone.

It feels good to be drawing again. I can't understand now why I couldn't see anything to draw for such a long period of time after finishing work on The Faun.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Daughter of the Sun:

I promised Mary Beth that I'd post this myth, one that I used to tell to children. I read it first in James Mooney's 19th report, "Myths of the Cherokee", made to the Bureau of American Ethnology around the turn of the last century. When I took singing lessons from Walker Calhoun, my way of thinking about the story underwent some subtle changes.

The convenience of writing, that it can be read at any time, is its exact shortcoming as a medium for recounting myths. A myth is told for a reason, to a particular audience, and the skillful teller tailors each cadence to that end. A myth must proceed by mutual agreement to work its particular magic ~ which is to explain things by telling how they came to be this way. Balkers, who would explain their particular brand of second-hand information, tediously and rather tenuously as fact, are just rocks in the unending stream of wonder; the story goes round them and gradually, but inevitably, wears them away.
Their days are numbered, but the days of myth are not.

I do wish that a direct transliteration, Cherokee to English, of Mooney's collections would be published. The Cherokee language is so unlike English, articulating a world so different from any world that English can describe, that by the time a story is translated, written down by an "ethnologist" who could not help but condescend on his culture's behalf, what you have left is a very pale imitation. Still, we're lucky to have the tales at all, considering the the long trials of the Cherokee people. How wonderful it would be if their language, or any tribal language in the United States, was a part of our general education. Our world would be deeper and richer for it - but I digress...

Before embarking on the story, a minimum of the cosmos in which it takes place must be described. It's not beyond possibility that all of my gentle readers know how the world was created and what the various portions are called, but I trust you'll pardon me for setting the stage. Speaking of portions, missionary translators who made a Cherokee version of the bible, translated the word "God" with the name of the sun - Une lanuhi - which means "the apportioner", or measurer of days - mistakenly thinking that the sun was in charge of portioning everything. Even the idea of being "in charge" is a mistake! In ordinary conversation, both the sun and moon were known as "Nunta".

The Sun, male in so many mythologies, is female in the Cherokee cosmos. William Bartram, one of the first English explorers to spend time in Cherokee country, called them "... a nest of apostate hornets ruled by women". Sounds like my family.

The Cherokee portion of the country, at one time, was enormous, including all of Kentucky except the purchase, most of Tennessee, and portions of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Below that land was the Underworld, below even the water in caves; above, and just beyond comprehension, was the rock crystal vault of the sky, like an invisible turned over bowl. On the other side of that was Galunlati - "the high place" and it is there that the Sun resides, traveling each day across the half orb of the crystaline vault.

The Sun's daughter had a house at the halfway apex, directly overhead, and the Sun used to stop there every day at noon for dinner, as we call it here in the country. One day the conversation, between the Sun, her brother the Moon, and her daughter, came round to the people living far below. "I can't stand to look at them!" said the Sun, "the way they screw their faces up when the look back at you. I hate to say it, but my grandchildren are ugly - grin squint grin squint." The Moon, who was paler, and romantic, said, "I like my younger brothers; I think they're very handsome."

This ticked the Sun off royally and made her jealous. She immediately began planning how to kill every single person. Every day, as she neared her daughter's house, she would work up her most sultry rays and beam them down directly until there was a great fever and hundreds bit the dust; everyone lost someone, and they feared that soon no one would be left. In desperation they went to consult the Yunwi Tsunsdi ~ the Little People ~ who said that obviously the only way to save themselves was to kill the Sun.

The Little People made medicine and changed two men to snakesl the Puff Adder and the Copperhead, and sent them to wait at the door of the daughter of the Sun's house, and bite the old Sun when she came the next day. They went together and hid by the door, set to bite, until the Sun came, but when the Puff Adder was about to strike, the bright and sultry rays blinded him and he could only roll over on his back and spit out yellow slime, as he does to this very day. The Sun called him nasty and went on in. The Copperhead crawled off without doing anything. So much for plan A.

For plan B, the Yunwi Tsunsdi changed two more men into snakes, the great Uktena and the Rattlesnake, and sent them to wait and bite. They made the Uktena VERY large, with horns on his head, and everyone thought that he'd be sure to do the deed, but the Rattlesnake was so quick and eager that he got ahead and coiled up right by the door. When the Sun's daughter opened the door to peer out and see if her mother was coming, the Rattlesnake got rattled and sprang up and bit her instead and she fell dead right on the threshold. He forgot to wait for the Sun and went back to the earth, and the Uktena was so put out with the whole affair that he went back too. Once back amongst the people his temper kept getting worse, until if he even looked at you your whole family would drop dead instantly. It was decided that it would be best for the Uktena to go live in Galunlati too, or the Underworld, someplace not close.

When the Sun found her daughter dead, she went in the house and grieved. The people no longer died of heat, but now it was dark all the time, because the Sun would not come out. The people consulted the Yunwi Tsunsdi again, and were told that if they wanted the Sun to reappear, they would have to retrieve her daughter from Tsusgina, the Ghost Country, in Usunhi yi, the Darkening Land, in the west.

They chose seven men to go and equiped each one with a little sourwood rod as long as your hand. The Yunwi Tsunsdi told them they must take a box with them and when they arrived at Tsusgina they would find all the ghosts at a dance. They must stand outside the circle and when the daughter of the Sun came round they were to strike her with the 7 rods whereupon she would fall to the ground. Then they must put her in the box and return her to her mother, being very sure NEVER to open the box, not even a crack, until they were home again.

This they did, and the other ghosts never even seemed to notice what happened.

They took up the box and started homeward, toward the east. In a little while the girl came to life again, and begged to be let out of the box. This they ignored. Soon she called again, and said she was hungry, but they gave her no answer. After awhile she spoke again, this time pleading for water, as she was dying of thirst. This was very hard to listen to, but they steeled themselves, said nothing and continued on the trail. When they were very near home, she called again, in a faint voice, and begged them to raise the lid just a little, because she was smothering. Then they were afraid that she really was dying again, so they lifted the lid the tiniest bit to give her air, but when they did there was a fluttering sound inside the box - something flew suddenly past them into a thicket and they heard a redbird cry "kwish! kwish! kwish!. They shut down the lid and went on to the settlements, but when they got there and opened the box it was empty.

So we know that the redbird is the daughter of the Sun. If the men had kept the box closed, as the Yunwi Tsunsdi told them to, they might have brought her safely home, setting a precedent for bringing other friends back as well. As it is now, that is not possible. As Cebah says, "When you die you're dead as hell."

The Sun was glad when the expedition to return her daughter started, but now that it failed she set in crying "My daughter! My daughter!" and such a flood of tears that it looked like everyone would drown. Good grief! The people held another council and decided to send their best looking young men and women to amuse the Sun and turn her temper. They danced their most gorgeous and fetching dances, sang their best songs, but for a long time the Sun kept her face covered and paid them no mind. At last, the drummer suddenly changed the tempo - she lifted up her face, and was so pleased with the sight that she forgot her grief and smiled.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Christmas Tree:

Yesterday Cebah & I went hunting for our Christmas tree. We lucked out and found a nice one easily - an eastern red cedar by the branch down in the bottoms. According to the Cherokee, the fragrant inner wood of the cedar is stained red with power. It seems that in days of yore there was a conjurer who attained so much power that he upset the balance, leaving the tribe no choice but to cut off his head. This was hung atop the cedar. The power, being in the blood, dripped down the tree and imbued it with magic. I thought I'd take you on a little trip round the tree, to see the ornaments...

My friend Chisato made this snowman.

There are little bouquets of Rabbit Tobacco, which Cebah loves (she chewed it as a child) ~ also known as "Life Everlasting".

There's a Snake Egg...

And a Rabbit... Brer Rabbit to you.

Last year when I was working on The Faun, my friend Flo gave me a plastic faun, a fastfood toy I think, from some (dreadful) movie. The glass bell is our oldest ornament, older than me, even.

This little white deer is familiar both to the Cherokee and the Japanese... it's the guardian of the deer. Any hunter who sees it is blessed with luck in the hunt. This one is made out of clay from the spring in Ralph's field.

This angel is a nut, from dear Cathy. (appropriate, no?)

The Elves are made out of peckerwoods. The globular shape is a gall, bio-engineered by an insect to make a nursery in the stem of a goldenrod. He's painted with red and white clay.

This is an earthstar - a fungus in the puffball family. The legend is that the grow where shooting stars hit the earth.

This angel is almost as old as I am. It was made, out of cornshucks, by a family friend back in the 60s.

And here's the tree, bespangled with light and keeping the ancient darkness in balance. Merry Christmas to all you gentle readers!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Darkening Land:

Time is always a place.

The dark has negative connotations for many, and is the common fear ~ add cold to that and no wonder people have ambiguous feelings about midwinter. The longest night is approaching, and if you're one of those creatures whose moods correspond with the amount of available light, there's a potential for a funk. My wariness about winter comes, I think, from spending lots of time with older people - it is hard on them.

The Cherokee call the West the Darkening Land. The color of that direction is black, and that's where the trail of the dead leads, toward a distant place, similar to here, but darker. It's the past. And the future. And yet we imagine it exclusively now.

I imagine it as being partly like sleep. Hardly original, but when we lay down and surrender the present, our body involuntarily twitching at the loss of being which we give, like a coin to the ferryman on our styx of dreams, we begin to descend into ever inkier realms of darkness. Darkness, in this case, equals not knowing. Who knows if the being that wakes up is the same one that went to sleep?

"No sooner do we start to fall asleep than space relaxes and falls asleep too - doing so a little ahead of us, losing its struts and fibers, losing its structural forces and its geometric coherence. The space in which we shall spend our nocturnal hours has no perspective, no distance. It is the immediate synthesis of things and ourselves. If we dream an object, we enter into that object as a shell." (Gaston Bachelard)

If the abyss of dreams is not the same as the abyss of the past, they share a lack of border. As I look at the tintypes of family members, tiny dark images that have to be looked at with a magnifying glass to make out the features of a face, I feel as though I'm descending, or traveling westward, into the darkening land. My imagination, slight candle in vast labyrinth, barely illuminates these ancestors, not enough to reveal their names, their loves, or even what they were thinking when the camera flash changed them from a person to a momento. It was important to them to be preserved in an instant for something like an eternity ~ see how they put on their best clothes, and their most representative mask of what they would be seen as, very still on the surface of the black mirror.

(tintype - my grandmother, Sarah Belle Cundiff is on the left. No one, as far as I know, knows who the others are.)

Dreaming about the past we anticpate our reunion with the ancestors. And what else is there to dream of? ... Do you dare dream of the future? Be advised: "There is about all divination a keen and melancholic spirituality, a blend of secret serenity and faint anguish, for the diviner always gives a little of his own light to illuminate others." (G.B. again)

So into the dark world of the tintypes I journey - to trade with the dead. I will give them a little of my fading light, and they, in turn, allow me to try on my mask, one which all the flashbulbs of restless time will not illuminate.

(sketch for The Darkening Land)

Friday, December 12, 2008


Last night, in the wee hours, while a hoot owl intoned his bass mating song in one of the big trees near the house, it snowed.
This morning, far too early, Alf was raring to get outside and run around. On the snowy mornings of childhood, my parents, after the stove-stoking, breakfast making and animal feeding, almost always took me for a walk around the farm, to see how pretty the snow was. I think that of painters, only Peter Brueghal, the Elder, captured the feel of Winter for people like farmers who live close to the land, exposed to the elements, kept and hindered by the weather.

For my Dad, the snow was also an opportunity to look for tracks, and the best sightings of all, from his point of view, were the tracks of his beloved foxes, not often seen, even back in those days when there were more wild things about. This was one of the thoughts that I was rolling over in my mind as I walked, interspersed with bits of work on You'll Always Come Back - what, for instance, to make of the bloodbath at the end of Das Nibenlungenlied, sited near my remote ancestors home in the Rhineland so long ago? A snippet of rhyme that my Dad sometimes recited, printed on the frontispiece of "The Chase" magazine, (never was a magazine read with more relish) apocalyptically warning that if the foxhunt should ever dissappear, then; "Goodbye to the Anglo-Saxon race; farewell to the Norman blood." I never did know quite what to make of that. He was even bemused at his own extinction.

The thought had barely formed that fox tracks here in Dandyland are a thing of the past, the sly and beautiful foxes long gone, their green castles uprooted for subdivision abominations, when there, on a log right in front of me, were the tracks.

It was one of the things, useless perhaps, but so dear to me, that my Dad taught me ~ how to tell fox from other canine tracks. The front two pads of the foxes foot begin side by side and ahead of the central pad, unlike the radial fan of a dog's foot. And the fox, unlike dogs or wolves or coyotes, places its feet one after the other, the back foot falling on the front track, so that the tracks are not staggered, but in a straight line.

The tracks were very fresh, made just ahead of our own, or just a bit in the past, depending on how you look at it. We followed them for a short way, but of course, being fox tracks, we soon lost the trail.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Inverted Oak:

In the spring of 1998, shifting sands revealed a 4,000-year-old secret on the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. Nicknamed "Seahenge", it was a circle of 55 oak posts enclosing a huge central oak stump - a tree which had been uprooted and planted upside down in the ground, its roots stretching out like fingers.

D.H.D. ~ The Golden Oak:

Here's the altered sketch for the first D.H.D. Oak painting/collage. The idea came in part from looking at a carpentry manual that he used, and which I suspect came from his father, also a seventh son, also a Daniel. One, maybe both of them were Masons. One of the concepts of masonic lore, late 19th century spiritualism cloaked in Egyptian imagery, is that God is the master architect, with the supreme level and square. Power is a getting things right - accurate joints, proper handling of well chosen materials, a master plan. How did this square in his mind with the supernatural power to heal? What I've read of Pennsylvania Dutch healers puts the crux at faith - though there is some sense that the power can be automatic, a matter of following certain procedures in the correct order - knowing the words to speak. And even within communities where such powers are relatively common, there are reservations as to where the power originates from, and disagreements as to whether it is sanctioned by the bible or not.

I haven't identified any example of his hand writing with certainty, but he did carve his initials on the (oak) handle of one of the chisels in his toolbox.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sketch for D.H.D.

Today I started making a sketch, rather an involved one, for a painting. I think the actual piece may need to be done with encaustic (melted wax mixed with pigment) instead of oil or acrylic paint, but we'll see. When I was a child I liked to color a piece of paper thickly with bright crayons, then cover that layer with an even thicker layer of black - THEN I would scratch through the black layer with something sharp to expose the colors underneath. The drawing would appear lke a reverse etching, colored lines on a black background. It seems to me that there might be a correspondence in such a method to the layers of time, what is hidden and revealed by graving into matter.

Here are two images of the sketch. Because the layers respond to the direction of light, a single pic hides as much as it reveals.

This may (finally) be the project where I work with gold leaf. The gold in this sketch is mica flake in acrylic.

The image is composed of with a cluster of things connected with my grandfather, Daniel Hoskins Dutton - the ancient white oak, the number seven, diagrams from a carpentry manual, the gilded decorations in the album he gave to my grandmother for xmas in 1896.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Merry Mixtecmas:

Some years ago my friend Lucy B. & I hosted a Mexican Christmas party in the old studio. Lucy, a fantastic artist living in Mexico, brought her amazing collection of wood carvings for decorations. For my part in the decorating I painted this set of posters. The style is ancient Mixtec. I studied one of the rare codex that escaped being burned by the Spaniards, then took some of our mythic beings as subjects treated in that style.

In this one Mixtec Santa is calling Rudolph:

Here is the baby Jesus and a Christmas Tree. The bird at the top is a Quetzal, a subtropical bird whose long iridescent green tail feathers were much prized for headdress decorations:

This is Frosty with his magic broom:

And this is a singing Angel of Christmas:

Memory & Identity:

"...I can see how meaning begins and proceeds from memory. Back-seated children able to find only boredom beyond car windows - if they're looking out - are nevertheless laying a foundation for meaning to arise one day when they'll need significance far more than experience."

William Least Heat-Moon

I think I've reached those days, and, luckily, the foundation was laid extremely well. Not that I'm planning to minimize experiences, but, in the Bachelardian sense, my time, as I work on You'll Always Come Back, seems to be opening into mysterious depths, extending, via imagination, beyond the site of my emergence. This, in one sense, is the gift, unpredictable as it may be, of the ancestors.
More like an exchange of energy perhaps; extension for extension - giving shape to their persistence as I articulate our mutual identities; as one, and as a different one - a new one come out of the old ones, as we like to think of it.

I can remember a couple of rare occasions, all connected with performance in the theater, when I happened to catch a glance at myself in a mirror unawares and was transfixed at the strange seperateness of the being I glimpsed. Mostly I was bemused at the odd creature, so driven by passions and so unaware, in many ways, of being watched, even as I prepared myself to be seen. In my favorite Christmas movie, Fanny & Alexander, the (awful) Bishop tells his wife, an actress, "You have many masks. I have only one, but it is burned deep into my flesh." Prescient that, since he'll soon be burned alive and become yet another family ghost - in this case one that Alexander cannot be rid of; in exchange for removing the Bishop from the physical plane, he's stuck with him in the far more troublesome metaphysical one.

A few weeks back I was taking photos on my morning walk to the mailbox and to that end left my camera on the table by my bed. I usually leave the house just before the sun rises, but this particular morning I awoke with golden rays pouring in through the Christmas cactus, hanging, for the winter, in my window. The pattern of gold and shadow on me was so wonderful that I picked up the camera and took a self-portrait of the artist as projection screen.

The Christmas Cactus came from the Old House, and according to my sister Phyllis it is at least 70 years old. (Its ancestors came from Brazil, but that's another story...) I connect it with my Aunt Gladys, who was its caretaker, not the Gladiator, who married my father's brother, but his older sister. She was, as they say, an "old maid" ~ and for much of the time I knew her, she sat in a rocking chair in The Old House, holding court on sunday afternoons. There was an ancient set of time-darkened wooden blocks on a little board that I could play with, while the clock on the mantle ticktocked the endless hour of visiting, the sun, and all his sunny world outside, was barricaded by old lace curtains, and the silhouette of the cactus. It wouldn't take much for me to begin calling the cactus Gladys.

I was shocked to learn, in my 40s (!) that Aunt Gladys supposedly had a long time intimate woman friend. It was known, but not spoken of, like so many of the secrets of The Old House. How differently I would have thought of her, in my teens, if I had guessed her secret. Now I think back to my conversations with her and wonder at them anew. I thought I was clever, but no doubt she guessed more about me than I did about her. The cactus only flowers when certain conditions are met - long cool nights mainly. During the rest of the year it is an odd looking plant, a chandelier of flat segments bearing soft spines that wouldn't scratch a baby ~ it's only the darkening of the year that calls forth the lovely cerise blossoms, shaped like ones magicians make out of cut paper cones.

Gladys was the family geneaologist of her generation ~ in a time when that meant writing letters and waiting, not just clicking a search function on ancestry dot com. She knew so much that is exactly what I would like to find out for You'll Always Come Back - but, as a teenager I did not yet have the power either to say the password, or enter the room - my light was too unfiltered then.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Broken Rose and the Chrysalid:

Here's my great niece, Emma, studying the lichen encrusted tombstone of her great great great uncle on my father's mother's side of the family, with the wonderful name of Fountain Fox Cundiff. After Thanksgiving dinner, our crew loaded up for an expedition to two family cemeteries, the Loves and the Cundiffs, one (the Loves) a weed-overgrown tussock enclosed by an ancient wrought iron fence out in the middle of a soybean field, the other on a subdivision surrouned hillock overlooking Pitman Creek. We couldn't read Fountain Fox's name on the stone. That had undergone a "structural reorganization", but we were able to read the birth and death dates and match them with the suspect. Fountain Fox was a miller, presumably with a mill on Pitman Creek. Other than that I know little besides his burial site, the names of his wife and children, and that he was born in 1819, died in 1889.

His wife and children, as far as I could tell, are not buried in the Cundiff cemetery with him, unless they are marked only by field stones, as several graves there are. It seems unlikely... Next to Fountain Fox's stone there was a broken one. Someone had leaned the broken pieces together, concealing the inscription, a symbolic decoration, and a metamorphosis in process.

Having spun a tiny black thread to suspend himself from the arc above a broken stone rose, a swallowtail caterpillar, or larva, made himself into a chrysalid in the shadow and protection of the tomb.

"...the period between larval moults is called an instar or stage. The series of instars continues until the larva is full grown. It then transforms into the inactive pupa, or chrysalis, a mummy-like object which neither eats nor moves about. Within the pupal shell most of the larval tissues break down, then build up again into the organs of an adult butterfly. The structural reorganization completed and the adult fully formed, the pupal shell splits and the adult emerges. It spreads and hardens its wings and flys away."

The word Larva has Roman roots. The former meaning was a specter or mask, connected with the Lares, a tutelary god or home-guarding spirit associated with Vesta, goddess of the hearth.

The broken rose carving that this larvae chose for its structural reorganization was apparently a symbol favored by the Cundiffs for their gravestones. There were two in the their cemetery, and another like it on a Cundiff stone in the Dutton cemetery.

When I was a child my dad asked me if I knew where all the rocks came from on Dutton Hill. His explanation was that the Devil was flying over the hill with an apron full of rocks when the apronstrings broke. This is an old story with origins in Wales, where there is a rock formation called the "Devil's Apronstrings". But even that story is a newcomer. Older still in Wales is the "Hag with the Dribble" (there's a fiddle tune by that name...) said Hag having the original overloaded apron strings. She was, or is, the Bean-Sith, ( = woman + Elf ) or, as we know her, the Banshee. The Banshee is a supernatural attachment to certain families, said to have an Elf in their woodpile, who appears, usually at night and singing or wailing, depending on your aesthetics, to foreshadow a death in the family. Families who are averse to elfin harbingers find the courtesy horrifying, more integrated types consider it inevitable and something of a comfort. The Cundiffs were Welsh.

Millers have uncanny associations too, due to their involvement in the structural reorganization of grain ~ a story that is at least as old as Osiris. In the British Isles the ballad source is John Barleycorn. Here's the first verse:

"There were three men come out o' the west their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn must die,
They plowed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throwed clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn was dead."

John comes back, of course, when, like the chia pet-style figures of Osiris covered with sprouted grain in the tomb of Tutankamen, he emerges from the earth to be reborn and provide beer. Oh one's throat gets dry as a mummy during structural reorganization, I can tell you.

The Old Mill is a site in The Stone Man, in fact the millstone is one of his instars. I do wish that I had a good recording of that opera that I could share with you. There is one song, by the Bean Sith of the show, Elizabeth Huling, on the 2nd mp3 downloads page of - "Haunted."

I realize that I've left some gapping holes in the suggestions of this post, but this is all I have time for today!