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Violent Snow

When I heard that snow was in the forecast here, I sneered. Something called snow has been seen here: early in the morning, dusted like frost on the fields, white blots in shallow puddle-basins.

Nature has instructed my disdain.

I woke to look out on a white world, a white weird and awful as the white hand of Moses. Snow lay thick on the roof, thick on branches, thick on evergreen leaves. Snow had inverted the forest: straight-trunked trees that reach branches up to the sun, instead lay them down along their sides, like fronds of Christmas trees; titan limbs of spreading live oaks that float twenty feet in the air, strong as iron and thick as pillars, curved under the weight of the snow loading their leaves until they arched against the ground.

And the snow was still falling: wet, heavy snow, good snow for snowmen and snowballs, falling so fast and thick that I could hear it. I cannot compare the sound. And faintly, from deep in the woods, came another sound like hunters’ guns or holiday fireworks – the first cracks of breaking branches.

My last snow fell ten years ago: weeks of etherealizing snow on the Pine Barrens, another country with other pines and other oaks, a slow, thin, steady fall like the gradual deposition of a pearl, and still the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Snow in Louisiana: I had to see it for myself. So I put on a helmet, grabbed a camera, and walked out, listening for snapping branches, stepping over branches I knew only from beneath, over ranks of hedges that lay prone as young sleepers after long days.

Along the way, in the shelter of the Quonset hut, I looked back into the woods and saw – too fast to watch – a 60 foot tree (it must have been long dead) simply slide three lengths past one another and disappear like a closing telescope.

Beyond the Quonset hut, the field – white, empty, white. And from the field, back to the house, where disaster had arrived. I lost the stomach for pictures. Each casualty was the same: first, the fatal shot; then, as if in shame of defeat, the slough that sends up a white lace veil; last, so many tons of wood swing or plummet almost silently into the muffling snow.

It went on for hours, snow piling impossibly on the green leaves. It was good snow for snowmen: the snow made its own snowmen over the leaves, half-formed homuncular snowmen, snowmen without faces.

Hour after hour I watched a day’s snowfall work so much destruction that a human lifetime will not see it all repaired. As after hurricanes, the debris will go, and the summer’s growth of leaves will hide the rest. They hide much. The forest grows; wind and now snow destroy; and I do not know anymore which is winning.

Three days later, it was warm enough to breed mosquitoes. Ten days later, winter was declared.


The only virtue worth teaching is to acknowledge mistakes without shame and correct them without perversity. If a vice is worth avoiding because it is dangerous, then in time it must manifest as a mistake; so that what is worth teaching is that if your mistake is pointed out to you, you should take it as a favor; and that the only shame in a mistake is loyalty to it.

To acknowledge a mistake is not the same as to reflect on it. Sometimes, when you have taken on a serious responsibility and made a mistake with irreparable harm, then you should be asked – you should ask yourself – what went wrong. But, for most mistakes, to reflect on the mistake is to compound it. Inevitably, if you do many things, you will make many mistakes. If you do few things, you will make few mistakes. But only if you do nothing will you make no mistakes.

The most demoralizing condition possible is capricious punishment. There is more cruelty in mild punishment for no reason than in the harshest punishment for clear reason. Such punishment, if sustained, is too horrible even to rouse the will to die.

To look for hidden faults to blame for the statistically inevitable is to punish yourself with such random cruelty. And even when a mistake is the consequence of a remediable fault, self-reflection is the worst way to discover it. Self-reflection is hard; so hard that, after the difficulty of the inquiry, only a dramatic answer seems plausible, and you diagnose as depravity what was due to indigestion.

The virtue of acknowledging mistakes must be instilled, because it is difficult to acquire. It slows the development of a sense of identity; the contempt for the corrections you receive from certain kinds of people is one of the ways you distinguish yourself from them. And it is probably impossible for an unpracticed adult to acquire – impossible for an adult to face, too late, that what had seemed to be the limits set by nature were only the limits set by pride.

This virtue is so rare, and so unreliable even in those who sometimes have it, that you may ask if it is worth having at all. Can it really be good – even if it is right, can it really be wise – to be without shame among those who blame you? And though this virtue removes self-set limits, it may cost you time making slow progress where your talents do not lie – time you could have saved if you had, at the difficult outset, simply chosen pride in your incompetence.

Yet I believe it is a virtue; the more so because, like all virtues, it can be immoderate. A little uncertainty about your nature saves you from overspecialization and obsolescence; a little time wasted in spreading your roots, saves you from exhausting the soil.

Nondefinition #29

Eer. A bodiless, malevolent supernatural being. The eer must not be confused with the ghost: a ghost is a remnant of a human being; an eer never was alive. Formerly, cities were inhabited weirdly by ghosts; but since the beginning of urban sprawl, deprived of their natural habitats in wastes, wilds, and deserts, eers have become common in cities, where their prolific breeding has displaced the native population of ghosts. Many young people today have never experienced a real ghostly whisper or flicker in the corner of the eye; sadly, they take it for granted that all silence and dimness is eerie.

A Memory of Infancy

I believe that anything can be said. There are always words, if not always the strength to find and use them. Anything that can be experienced can be communicated. Communication from one mind to another cannot be perfect; but it can at least match the imperfect communication by way of memory between yourself then and yourself now.

This is a test case. I have what seems to be a memory of infancy. I do not insist that it is true; it could be a neurological glitch. Nonetheless, it is an interesting problem of expression.

I call it a memory, but I cannot remember it directly: I must remember being 11 remembering being 6 remembering. Eventually this chain must slip away from me; that it another reason to write it down.

I call it a memory because I have access to it by remembering, but it is not like other memories. It is smooth, hard, incapable of subdivision. It contains no data. In itself it is more of a feeling than a memory – as if at that stage the faculty of feeling supports not broad, generic emotions, but discrete pegs of experience. When I remember, the memory is not retrieved; it comes over me, I feel it as if I were feeling an emotion.

The senses are not distinct. They do not blend; there is no cacophony or synesthesia; instead, the senses are one – one unitary sensation that is not processed as sight or hearing or touch or smell, but absorbed as emotion. This one sense subordinates not only the usual five, but also proprioception – awareness of the position of your own body. There is a quality to the memory like marshmallowiness – an association, not a translation – that I think is the best my adult brain can do in rendering an experience recorded by such an alien scheme of proportions and powers.

Something happens – something unpleasant. My best guess is that I am receiving an injection. The memory somewhat resembles the nauseating feeling of a needle under the skin, but magnified until – fleetingly – it becomes my entire experience of the world and myself.

World and self are not distinct. Because no such concept as control yet exists, I have no way to tell what I can control – myself – from what I cannot control – world. I do not experience the world as part of myself; I do not experience self; I just experience. Note that while this is an unpleasant memory, the distinction in an adult between something bad that happens to you (with anger, indignation, or fear) and something bad you do without meaning to (with embarrassment, shame, regret and uncertainty) – this distinction is absent. The simple unpleasantness of something bad happening here compasses both – though, without future, I am without fear or uncertainty.

In this alien being that I was, I recognize only one thing.

Imagine that you have just begun to study something very interesting, but which you know nothing about. You throw yourself into it. You learn fast, getting your bearings, absorbing the terms of art, feeling out the areas of concern. It is like hunger – better, it is like a stomach: a void with agency, asserting its need.

This, infinitely amplified, is what I recognize: the absolute ravenous void where words would be.

Nondefinition #28

Guitar. The occult instrument: not played, but addressed with secret hand-signs, transient hieroglyphs of a Mystery whose hieratic rites are carried out before audiences; one hand for Apollo, quiet, smooth, rapid, precise; and one hand for Dionysus, simple, restless, free and frantic; and the whole portable, companionable as a familiar, the conjurer’s circle wherein the shade of the ideal orchestra is called up and given voice to tell its secret.