The Understory

from Proxies

The understory is the second, subsidiary layer of growth in a forest, the fern and moss layer, the groundcover and shrubs that necessarily proliferate early and late in the season when the canopy overhead is patchiest and light can break through. Saplings from parent trees grow to a point in the understory, but ultimately it’s not their realm. It’s the world, rather, of small shade-tolerant trees and hard berry bushes, currants, holly; of rhododendron in squat enclaves; and, deepest in, perhaps a surprise lily or orchid, suggesting maturity of ecosystem. Dogwood is a very early bloomer, mid-March, showing itself thereby as an understory tree even when planted alone and central in front-yard redbrick North Carolina or Virginia, where, as in several southern states, it is the state tree. A white-blossom branch of it extends beneath a perched cardinal on license plates. One wishes them back in the woods.

The understory so defined, so described overhead, is a theater of sorts, and of course the word seems narratological. My novelist friend Samantha once reminded me walking in the forest near Woodstock, New York, where fog collects in the hollows and routinely some kind of chittering cannot be identified, that this is the faerie realm of leprechaun and hobbit, of elfin activity generally. Samantha is a dark, imaginative writer of Irish extraction and some of her stories sneak up on the real or legendary, legendarily lonely, figures who wander the wilderness behind the MetroNorth villages of Sleepy Hollow or Mount Kisco in Westchester and Duchess Counties. A man who walked a circuit around the Catskills for thirty years after the shock of the death of his wife was one. The genus loci possessing the woodlands in the British Isles rose again from damp similarity in the fresh rot of deciduous New England.

In the South, where I’m from — where, once, off the Blue Ridge Parkway I demonstrated for Samantha you can work your arm elbow deep down in the loam under the overhang of old rhododendron — the derivation is less direct, more perverse. I think of the Disney animated version of Robin Hood that I grew up with, which had an accompanying children’s record and storybook I believe. In it, Sherwood Forest is still Sherwood Forest, and the voice of Robin Hood, animated as a fox in a feathered green toque and trim green vestments, is debonair, intelligent, quite British, and might well be Peter Sellers; but the narration from the very opening scenes is delivered by a down-home heavyset-sounding country raconteur: a Tom T. Hall, but more molasses. The narrator rather soon in the movie breaks into song as we watch the two friends travel a trail: Robin Hood and Little John were walkin’ through the fowrest / each one a gigglin’ at whut the other’n had to say. The camaraderie is sylvan, a little magical, but in the mix of heritage the voice suggests whose woods these are: light-dappled, Appalachian. The episteme is lyric nostalgia: for shirtless, carefree white American summer boyhood south of the Mason-Dixon. Outlaw wandering into woods, fraternity under the radar. This adaptation, and its narrative voiceover, must have been a model for The Dukes of Hazzard, the early eighties TV series whose heroes’ guerilla social services and efforts at rural redistribution of resources were at odds with their county’s sheriff and magistrate. “Lost sheep to shepherd” was the call on the CB by one of the Duke boys, either one, to Uncle Jesse back home. It was pastoral. Their nature was unreconstructed.

What between cousins was granted concealment that would have been criminal out in the open; how free was “just a little bit more than the law will allow,” as the show’s theme song confessed? Atavism is built into — and the active agent in — the good ole boy; it’s the element that signals mischief (he’s just a good boy without it). A vestigial order outside present law, an old South, is evidently his lost Arcadia. Everyone on hand is there to tend and protect his errant revenant ways (Bo Peep is cousin Daisy’s handle), or drive the lost sheep home. Iconography of the white supremacist order is confined to the Duke boys’ vehicle, the General Lee; its horn plays the first bar of Dixie, the confederate flag is emblazoned on its roof, its blue-belted X visible only by aerial vantage. The macro message is clear. But each time the plot involves Bo and Luke’s evasion of the law, their vindication of a way of life upholds not sullen, menacing Jim Crow injustice but, rather, the family’s distillation and distribution of moonshine. Uncle Jesse has a still somewhere on the farm. (Seems like a cover.) To protect the family business from law enforcement and the community from corrupt meddlers was why these good ole boys “straighten the curves” on the back roads, which they know best. Each episode, in short, one is asked to overlook a certain amount of unease or opaqueness to support a campaign of tried-and-true, on-the-ground familiarity over synoptic, monitory knowledge.

The tangle of back roads through Patrick Springs and Horse Pasture and Bassett and Critz, in Patrick and Henry Counties in southwestern Virginia, are ones my father and uncles and aunt know well. My grandparents Walter and Irene lived right on Route 58, the state’s longest east-west thoroughfare, wending from Virginia Beach all the way to the Kentucky line. Their small brick home was on a stretch of open road between Martinsville and Galax. For me it had diametric energies. At the rear of it, the cinderblock basement opened onto a (most years) fallow plot and a gravelly clay lane down into the forest. And, from the small front window, at her seat at the flecked Formica kitchen table, my grandmother watched the traffic roar past or else pull in to poke around the perpetual yard sale. Most of her children grew up to be highwaymen of one sort or another, including my father, Curtis, who left home for truck driving school in Winston as soon as he finished high school. In their sixties, he and my aunt Janice each still ride their Harleys down to Key West and out to Sturgis. I should not have been surprised that, the night before Grandma’s funeral last winter, the visitation line was full of family friends paying respects in their best black leather jackets. My uncle Paul, before his early death from diabetes and alcoholism, was her roughest, most worrisome child, in and out of trouble with police and probation officers, and certainly the most recognizable on the road. He drove a boxy, bug-eyed brown 1960s Ford Econoline van, on whose side he had painted the words Lil Brown Jug. Three lethal X’s on the jug itself.

It wasn’t until her final sickness that I got from my father stories about how Grandma as a young girl had been assigned the job of lookout in her family. Halfway down the hillside was her daily post. Her role was crucial: to run up to the hilltop house and report what kind of vehicle was winding up the road to pay a visit, patrol car or customer. The still and its works were prepared or vanished accordingly. She had been private, ashamed maybe, about the facts of her childhood. But it gave a context for her later habits, her constant occupations, at that table at which I sat with her long hours as a little boy, while wrestling or Dukes of Hazzard blared in the living room where the men cussed and snored at turns. On the table were her three mainstays: the CB radio, the police scanner, and her ashtray. (On Sundays a fourth: a transistor, for Preacher Corns’s sermon from Spoon Creek.) We would listen to the static feed of trucker communication in and among state troopers on duty. I could dial for a frequency that was active: good buddies establishing location, relaying positions. Lots were men whose families she knew. We understood each other; we were both quiet, observant, even furtively vigilant, clever. In our games (endless dominoes, cards, fly-swatting) she let her rascally manner emerge; it was also in her asides and maneuvers, holding her own and staying above the fray, in the company of men. We were attuned. We made good scanners.

It was in this particular legacy and landscape and their concealments that my imaginative life developed. The fort-da dynamic was most determinative here. Without fail I could always return to this person who seemed to see me clearly, and occupy with her the seated center of all the transit and crosstalk she had surrounding her, and meantime set out age eight, nine, ten, into the woods out back to explore, unwatched, unguided. Often alone, or sometimes with my younger cousin Tammy following me, I made shallow expeditions, prowling the leafy territory with a long stick until “stations” suggested themselves, according entirely to the propitious qualities of certain areas in the understory. A mound surrounded by fallen pinecones and a nearby small clearing might suggest a factory floor, a labor to oversee, a procedure. We would set to work. Tammy and I neatened our barracks at a moss bed or made distress calls from a phone booth (tree trunk) or leapt into position in a small earthen recess I recall fitting us like bucket seats. We’d sound the horn that sounded like getaway, and holler the yell. Or, we agreed where Kmart and the pool hall and the hospital were and made our rounds, reporting to each other in a stream of pretend what office of adulthood we were managing under what duress and what next, intermittently cresting in present, phenomenal reality when we found a black widow or terrapin or a shotgun shell to study.

A similar energy obtained to the years-long indoor practice I was developing about this time, in privacy, indeed with — as I recall it now — almost abject secrecy. I made maps. Each map I made invented a place, a place suggested by the schematic of the place, as beheld from an implicit aerial vantage. There was a procedure. A kind of early experiment with determinism. With my hands on the white knobs of an Etch A Sketch, and with eyes closed, I would dial in a line drawing of what would be, when I had finished and could review, a region or countryside, with creeks and borders — or a town with roads diverging immoderately from north-south or east-west axes, suggesting landscape. Surveying, one could assess where the area’s prominent intersections were, and one could imagine where families lived, where schools or theaters or ponds or prisons were. One could even — before Google Maps — transmit oneself down to ground level to imagine tableaux from certain spots. I would fastidiously and laboriously copy the map over to larger dimensions on paper, on a plat of many sheets of 8½ by 11 notebook paper taped together. I suppose I knew then what I found articulated much later (by cartographic theorist James Corner): any image can be a map and any map can be a game board. To wit, it was my job, furthermore, to create sets of outcomes according to dice rolls — and limited to my narrow estimation of the range of possible human doing. All of this was preparation for play. By the time I rolled to determine the daily “turn” of each “player,” I had mostly exhausted the fun of the game. It was about the activation of potentialities. Another key feature of these maps was that they could be folded quickly and put away if I heard anyone approach. What is it I would have been caught doing had I been discovered in this reverie by, for instance, my mother’s new boyfriend Jeff? Corner would answer, by extension of Donald Winnicott’s theories about spatialized play: I was supplementing a self, building a selfhood. These maps were integral to me. As I write this, longhand, in seat 21E on a flight from Tucson to New York, my urge is to cover it as I would a poem, with the shell of my left hand, to shield it from the passenger in 21D. Meanwhile, 21F looks out the window onto the colorful rectilinear floor plan beneath us.

The first map I can remember seeing was a large, minutely detailed road map of the United States, on the wood-paneled wall of my father’s largely metal office at the corner of a freight warehouse lined with loading bays. Cracked, compacted black rubber at the lip of each. In Charlotte, he was, for a time, while we were all still together, a tractor trailer dispatch manager. The long-haulers reported in to him from routes all over the country. It was partly his job, as I recall or as I imagined then, to update their positions frequently, all day long. He preferred driving. I’m sure my map play was a way to attain perspective on, and manage, my father’s absence after he left. I could oversee and play out the courses any number of lives were charting simultaneously, mine and his but two of them. He had given me, Christmas after Christmas, several toy semi trucks; but any page of an atlas was more alive for me. A map is a depot of futurities, a staging ground, a theater of operations, James Corner says, its performative power comes from its being both analogous — indexical — and compositional.

As you drive east to west across this continent, past the Mississippi, past the Missouri River, there is a certain point by which the interstate road kill has changed, where flattened gray squirrel corpses have given way to the spilled piggish innards of armadillos, bright red butcheries, each one. It means that the constant tree canopy of the eastern seaboard has subsided, there is more sky overhead, and one’s line of vision is here and there unbroken by anything at all. The thinning begins perhaps in western Indiana, and by central Oklahoma, except in rare riparian areas, there is mostly open sky. The terrain more closely resembles the map of it. Here one may project, as mapmakers long did, a prospect, from which the overview too is unimpeded.

For eight of the last nine years I have lived in the West. It is a fact of life that we are exposed here, exposed by the sun, exposed to one another. There is no understory, because there is no leafy shade in southern Arizona. Everything that grows is groundcover, but coverage is spotty; the pervasive scatter of rubble is the degree zero look of planetary entropy. Nothing about the landscape is opaque or concealing. If the presence of something animal is undisclosed, it is due to its alert stillness, or its celerity out ahead of you, or its subterranean or nocturnal life. My own pet theory is that human morality, competitiveness, and prurient interest in one’s neighbor are reduced here, not encouraged or conditioned by tree cover and mutual obscurity, as in New England. Puritanism didn’t make it this far, or not without significant reform. And without an atmosphere of cover, pretenses for rearguard behavior do not thrive, as in the South. In the Sonoran desert, one knows well all four kinds of tree that grow without special irrigation: mesquite, ironwood, acacia, palo verde. The latter two are sometimes referred to as bushes. Where biodiversity is relatively limited, one knows what one is looking at, makes note of when and where, in which saguaro knothole the Gila woodpecker is nesting. He becomes a student of how a gradual climb of fifty feet across a half mile brings at that altitude an entirely new subspecies of agave, or peculiar single-stitch knitted grasses, or signs of pack rats amid the thatch of dropped fingerlings under teddy bear cholla. Baby quail arrival means it’s April, and it will be early summer when the little ones have sprouted the clumsy curlicue plumes on their heads long enough to bob. Today John and I looked out on the circus of our backyard, where a young twitchy bunny was querying each fellow resident: the quail chicks in their family retinue, the standing ground squirrels sunning front feet up, the stone-pumping lizard, and the leggy roadrunner. Beat it, bunny.

Where I grew up, under the pine and hickory and maple of the central piedmont, I spent my private, creative life enacting a wish to rise up and out, to see the thing in full, attain a supervisory perspective. My familiarity down below with surface conditions, on the ground, was only ever great enough to keep myself safe, to stave off danger assiduously, to forgo and aver and beg off situationally, and I never found how to blend in or belong, not without covering who I was, which was exhausting. So, to keep part of myself outside and beyond the realm of my family and peers was a service to my authentic self, wherever he was. The prospect I projected (and projected from) was more or less the vantage of advisement, a guardian angel’s eye view. Consider the prospect poem, at its height in the eighteenth century; it was set here, at more or less standard Romantic counseling distance, Wordsworth high above Tintern Abbey (sister Dorothy gets an earful of perspective), or Thomas Gray above Eton College. And, pointedly, so were many early queer autobiographical novels, often in an omniscient, reparative second person point of view, self-supervising, for instance, Christopher Isherwood’s Down There On a Visit, which lowers into Christopher’s life at various junctures, looking in on the pilgrim’s progress. Shuttling from present vantage, after the heretofore. This is the method, too, of C. S. Giscombe’s Here, my favorite book of poetry, the one I get the most inside. I come to feel and trust the appeal to what he calls “the long view,” a kind of practice of surveying at large the “outlying areas” in the urban South, the unincorporated areas, “distributorships,” “service track,” where race is in the land. There is a point in the book where in the span of like ten words he tries on the Look Away of Dixie and the Dear Sister of Wordsworth, throwing shade and taking umbrage, both.

But since I have lived in the West, in Missoula and now in Tucson, two valley cities where total overview is imminently attainable, indeed where arguably (in the case of the Bitterroot Valley, where Missoula is the county seat) the positional sense of an “us down here” characterizes the living there, beneath the mountains alongside, I am becoming the other kind of knower, the empiricist, aground and terrestrial and canvassing about. Merrill Gilfillan, a poet of the Western high plains who has a genius for this above-below shuttling, calls the shift in attention, this tightening of referents, moving “from the realm of savoir to the realm of connaître.” Perhaps it is because now I know I can climb out that I am also content to be in the weeds.

There is a point precisely at the ridgeline of Water Works Hill, north end of Missoula, in the high cinquefoil grasses that dry out midsummer and give the Bitterroot its bright hue, where the grasshopper behavior changes. I mean, presumably, one subspecies gives way to another. My guess is they’re territorial. Walking on the south face of the mountain, you find that at about one stride’s distance the grasshoppers leap away from you, forward or to either side, hip high, an insect fountain effect, sedulously avoiding contact with you; whereas, in the small canted plateau at the top and on the north and northwest face they leap blindly as you approach, springing chaotically into your body as often as away from it. When I made this discovery it was sonic, musical, before it was conscious; the metal water bottle I carry was all of a sudden pinging, like a Brian Eno composition, and I had walked twenty feet before I understood what was happening.

I felt like Gilbert White of Selborne and wished to start a letter with this finding, a “letter to the same,” as each new entry is titled in my edition of his 1770s issuances about the minutiae of the natural world in the village where he was pastor. In any one dispatch he might modify with a new observation an earlier years-old assertion about the habits of martins around the barn in autumn, or correlate the darkness of alluvial mud to the health of tortoise hatchlings, or speculate on the nature of congenital mental illness, or detail how it seems a goldfish prepares to die. In my edition there are no letters in return, but the preface says he’s sending to someone in a county north, a sort of botanist, I think. White is a pastor, a protestant, and so for him all the data are evidence of divine reach; but he doesn’t seem interested in synoptic conclusions. His trade is in neighborly empiricism.

I have an old early hazy memory of sitting with Grandma on her back step, each of us with a fly swatter, concentrating on the busy industry of the inky black ants at our feet, on the little square of cement jutting into the grass. Just watching, remarking their little fellowships, wanding over one another with antennae, then moving down the line. Maybe it wasn’t that same day, but I remember my father had yelled at her and slammed the storm door, and I was too scared to join him. I knew the way he tore up those roads when he was angry, so I stayed behind with Grandma. Eventually my mother remarried; I grew up, moved far away, became so different. We were so seldom in touch I felt guilty for the relative impunity I had in that family, as her favorite. We connected again in her last years, and a few days before she died she left me a harrowing rhapsodic message, from the hospital, a minute or so long (I still have it) in which she simply repeats my name, the way she said it, in one long syllable, a dozen waves of the live word and sometimes “O!” in between. When she died, I lost membership in an “us down here.” My oldest one, the surest, my first, one I never had to conform or fabricate to fit. I never saw her go off into those woods we were facing. But she must have; she knew what I meant when I told her about how, when you lie in the leaves looking up, the whole mood could change if the wind blows the tall trees together and apart.


Flowering dogwood is the state tree of Virginia and Missouri only. The state tree of North Carolina is the longleaf pine.

In the years 1858–89, as dated by scientists measuring grease deposits consistent with human habitation in caves where he slept nights, Jules Bourglay, a leatherworker immigrant from France, walked by day, every day, in a continuous circuit of 365 miles, many times over. In her essay “Jules Bourglay, Notable Walker,” novelist Samantha Hunt describes his loop as limited to the area east of the Hudson River (opposite side from the Catskills) and west of the Connecticut. He was never married but had been engaged in France to the daughter of the man for whom he’d served as apprentice, whose leathercraft business he had inadvertently destroyed, some say, in a lantern fire.

Roger Miller, a novelty singer-songwriter best known for his 1964 hit, “King of the Road,” is the singing narrator of the 1973 Disney version of Robin Hood, in the role of Allan-A-Dale, the minstrel understood to be one of the Merry Men, animated as a Rooster with a lute. Miller was not Appalachia-born, but rather from Erick, Oklahoma, where he grew up farming cotton. Johnny Cash once remarked that Miller’s bass voice was closest to his own.

Waylon Jennings was the narrator of The Dukes of Hazzard (1979–85), known in the script and credits as The Balladeer. His narration assumed an omniscient vantage and is best remembered for the entre-nous teasing remarks and asides to the viewer during freeze-frame cliffhangers at commercial breaks, e.g., “Ain’t this fun?”

Jennings, central to the 1970s’ “outlaw movement” in Country music, also wrote and performed the show’s theme song, “Good Ole’ Boys,” whose lyrics end with the line “Fightin’ the system like a true modern-day Robin Hood.” In the show, the Duke boys are said to be former bootleggers sentenced to probation, under which the owning or carrying of firearms was a violation.  It is ostensibly for this reason that when Bo and Luke Duke are armed, it is usually with bows and arrows.

Elder Leonard J. Corns (d. 2003) had a radio ministry for thirty-eight years on WHEO AM1670 in Stuart, Virginia, which he recorded separately from the sermons he gave from the pulpit of Old Spoon Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Critz, where he was pastor for fifty years.

James Corner, author of several essays on aerial vantage and the agency of mapping, is prominent in cartographic theory and postrepresentational cartography but is also well known, internationally famous, as a landscape architect. He was principal designer of The High Line, the elevated greenway and linear park that repurposes the abandoned railway viaduct extending from Gansevoort Street to Thirty-Fourth Street on the West Side of Manhattan.

Three pages into Christopher Isherwood’s 1959 novel Down There On a Visit, the author-narrator writes, referring to the protagonist Christopher, “now, before I slip back into the convention of calling this young man ‘I,’ let me consider him as a separate being, a stranger almost, setting out on this adventure in a taxi to the docks.”

The concluding stanza of “Look Ahead — Look South,” the first part of C. S. Giscombe’s 1994 book Here, reads: “Ohio then, / metaphoric, principled / out past the low gates to school / our clear selves in my memory of school, 3 grades apart / in w/ the other children (some white children always present as well / & big Ohio on the train lines / not the end of the road either but / the destination of chance / — Now why these rueful looks / away, / Sister?”

The cuddly-looking teddy bear cholla cactus has branches that grow in short tubular segments, most commonly called “arms.” These segments, once mature, rather easily detach from the entire plant, especially if their bright-sheathed sharp spines catch a passerby.

Gilbert White of Selborne was a “parson-naturalist,” that is, a country clergyman who saw the study of natural science as part of his religious work as curate of his parish. His letters about the appearance and behavior of birds, insects, and animals in Selborne, in the county of Southampton, had two addressees: the prominent Welsh zoologist Thomas Pennant and the Hon. Daines Barrington, a barrister in London; but many were never sent. White had been a thoughtful reader of Virgil’s Georgics, and began at some point to think of the highly observational letters less as correspondence and more as units of his eventual book’s form.

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