The butternut chronicle: Nov. 10, 1998

This entry is part 10 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle

For those who just tuned in, I’m transcribing and reworking the notes from an old journal consisting entirely of thoughts and observations made while sitting on my front porch. The butternut tree that then dominated the view has since fallen over, and I have yet to reconcile myself to its loss – or to the imminent loss of its species, currently being wiped out throughout its range by a disease of unknown origin and poorly understood epidemiology.

The warm spell continues: fifty-seven degrees at dawn. I notice, however, that the bird activity doesn’t seem any greater than it would be were the temperature twenty degrees colder. All the species that would have responded to this warmth that way have gone south for the winter, I suppose. Except one: the Carolina wren. It may be just my imagination, but the wrens do seem especially wound up this morning. Given their susceptibility to extreme cold, this makes sense. We’re near the northern edge of their range. Every few years, a cold snap wipes out most of the local population.

Speaking of migrants, the first tree sparrow showed up at the feeder yesterday. For these birds, who breed not in trees as we think of them but in the muskeg swamps of northern Canada, central Pennsylvania must seem like a balmy winter vacation spot. My mother recently wrote about her quest to discover the true identity of a mysterious singer, a ventriloquist whose warble would emerge seemingly from the ground at odd times in January or February, often during thaws. She finally figured out it was the tree sparrow.

Thinking about tree sparrows last winter, some lines from Confucius prompted the following poem:

JANUARY THAW

Confucius said:
Wherever a bird comes to rest, it’s right at home.
Is it fitting that a man should have less sense than a bird?

–Da Xue (Higher Learning)

A tumble of hurdy-gurdy notes
from the forsythia hedge

What memories of summer muskeg
this wet warm spell must trigger
in a tree sparrow’s breast

His gypsy song says courtship
however fleeting is always definitive
& no spring can ever be false

The sunrise glowed red on the side of the ridge to the west as I hung out a load of dark wash. Red in the morning, sailors take warning, they say, but I’m hoping the rain will hold off at least until late afternoon to give the laundry time to dry.

Well, here’s one bird species that responds to warmth: the bluebirds are calling from the very tops of the tall black locust trees around the main house at 8:35. Though bluebirds do over-winter here, they can spend most of that time in a kind of torpor, as I understand it, piled into communal nests in hollow trees or (naturally) bluebird boxes. So one can expect to hear them on any really warm, sunny day throughout the year.

I’m not sure how I’d describe the bluebird’s song to someone who has never heard it. If the Carolina wren provides a soundtrack for day-to-day happiness, the bluebird’s squeaky little phrase somehow evokes pure joy. Birders’ onomatopoeia attempts to approximate the shape of the syllables (and some echo of their effect on humans) as Cheer, cheerful charmer! It may be due in part to the fact that they only sing when the weather’s fine, but I can’t hear bluebirds without experiencing a kind of giddiness, a heart-in-the-throat feeling reminiscent of first love.

I’m out on the porch for an hour in the early afternoon, between 1:00 and 2:00: lots of squirrel watching. There are five of them in and around the butternut tree at the same time, and they demonstrate quite a high tolerance for each other’s presence. The general order of the afternoon seems to be gathering black walnuts from beneath the tree behind the house and carrying them back to their nests up in the woods. Now that most of the leaves are down, I can watch most of their progress back to their respective homes. It’s amazing how acrobatic they still can be with such large, heavy nuts between their teeth.

Gray tinged with brown and white: the woods now match the squirrels in coloration. I allow myself to zone out a bit as I watch the squirrels running, leaping, flowing through the trees, like spirits of the woods. Though I think that’s an example of a simile that’s too close to the plain truth to have very much suggestive power!

At 2:07 a smaller squirrel descends the butternut and occupies the Thinker’s favorite spot on the stump of a limb. But rather than ape the other’s pose, it lies prone with its tail twitching spasmodically. All the while, another squirrel slowly climbs the trunk from the other side, repeatedly pausing as if to listen. When it starts to come around the tree, the first one chases it off, then returns briefly to its perch before going off to forage.

I wonder if this nearly constant tail twitching by squirrels might be in part designed to send vibrations through the wood, a sort of telegraph? Given the intimate relationship between gray squirrels and trees, I’d actually be a little surprised if they didn’t use them to send messages of some sort. It would be as unlikely as finding humans who didn’t use fire and smoke to communicate with heaven.

According to an article in the October issue of Natural History, katydids and other arboreal insects do communicate in this fashion, sending vibrations through wood as well as through the air. And I gather that there are plenty of other animals that can pick up vibrations through various media: cetaceans through the water, of course; salamanders and elephants through the ground. Actually, the well known ability of a wide range of animals to “predict” earthquakes suggest to me that humans are among the few species that can’t listen effectively with their whole bodies.

When I return to the porch for a smoke at 3:30, the Thinker has reclaimed his favorite spot. He stops grooming as soon as I come out and affixes me with what I am tempted to call a gimlet eye. I stare back. (No one ever beats me at staring contests!) After five minutes he looks away, turning his attention to the chickadees bathing in the stream below. (Oh, sure, pretend like you were just looking around!) He holds this new pose for three minutes before going back to grooming, drawing his magnificent tail slowly through his teeth.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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