The butternut chronicle: Nov. 4, 1998

Out on the porch at 6:30, coffee and a cigarette. Thirty-two degrees and clear as a bell (interesting synaesthesic simile, that!). Venus and the crescent moon are less than a hand’s breadth apart.

The birds are very active and vocal this morning, in contrast with yesterday. Carolina wren begins the dawn chorus, as usual, followed by dueling song sparrows, a white-throated sparrow, juncos and chickadees.

Out again at 9:40. The sun’s in my eyes; I go get a ball cap. It seems a little odd even to myself that I don’t own a pair of sunglasses, but I just don’t like what they do to the light. Besides, this is the first day for a visual treat that I’ll be savoring for many months to come, as long as the sun stays low in the sky and my view up the ridgeside remains unimpeded: the sunlight glinting off the waxy leaves of mountain laurel. Picture a hillside of white light on dark green leaves, the straight dark trunks of trees and the blue sky beyond.

I ponder the paradox that, with the leaves gone, I actually have more opportunities for sunbathing in the winter than in the summer. Not that I’m going to take off very many clothes, of course. At any rate, the strong sun feels good on my face, despite the chill in the air: it’s just what the doctor ordered for my stuffed sinuses. And I’m cheered by the exuberant calls of chickadees. It amuses me to think about the likely gap between the way we perceive these “clowns and acrobats of the avian world” and the way they probably see themselves: as scouts and vigilantes, often the first and most fearless at scolding predators. Last week when I burned trash, three chickadees flew in to chirp their defiance at this dangerous intruder, darting as close as they dared to the leaping flames.

I wonder if the chickadee’s more wistful-sounding fee bee call is ever heard before the turning of the year? This is a good example of the pathetic fallacy, I guess: what strikes our ears as somewhat mournful almost certainly carries wholly different connotations for its author. Given that it seems a response to a lengthening photoperiod, it probably expresses excitement at the approach of another breeding season. In fact, given the way music can affect emotions, I’m willing to bet that singing their two-note fee bee song helps stimulate the production of hormones. (Any takers?)

12:45 p.m. It’s now forty-seven degrees in the shade. With the addition of the strong sunlight, that’s warm enough for the birds to bathe in the stream. The first pools below the butternut tree are, as always, the preferred spots, and juncos and goldfinches take turns there. The male goldfinches are now in their duller, gold-green winter plumage, but they still look spectacular as they immerse first their heads than their bodies, flinging water about with flailing wings. Half a minute of this and then it’s up into the butternut tree to dry in the sun and the light breeze, shaking the water from their tails and wings, sticking their breast feathers out like pins in a pincushion.

From watching the birds I’m led to admire the tree itself. I love the way this butternut changes color so dramatically at different times of day, even without rain to bring out the lichens. Whereas in the morning the trunk was a gunmetal gray, now it’s a river of shining white broken by thin black furrows. It’s almost like having my own, backyard Uluru.

I go out again at 2:00, and the squirrel I call the Thinker comes and sits in his usual spot. I guess he’s decided I’m not much of a threat.

2:18. The resident naturalist emerges from the woods. (Hi, Mom!)

2:25. I’m still here. There are falling leaves to watch, you know. It’s amazing how long it can take a large red oak leaf to reach the ground. Here’s one sailing down from the ridgetop, where the harder winds can scoop leaves right off the ground and send them spiraling hundreds of feet into the air. It rotates on its axis while dodging left and right, like a prizefighter crossed with a ballet dancer.

Seconds later two military jets – F16s, I think – come roaring over the treetops right on the other side of the powerline, about two hundred yards from where I sit. When the thunder dies away and my heartbeat returns to normal, I notice for the first time how really quiet things are this afternoon. The winds and barometric pressure are just right to screen out all but the sound of train whistles (which I really wouldn’t want to do without). I wonder, too, with a bit of envy, how intimately those pilots must know the topography: every wooded fold and wrinkle in this old, old land.

A quarter till three and my afternoon coffee is starting to kick in. Despite my head cold I feel so good I could cry – I don’t know what keeps me from it. Nobody’s watching except for that squirrel, and he looks like the close-mouthed sort. This happiness seems wholly without justification – an irrational exuberance, as Alan Greenspan is fond of saying about an overheated market. Well, but of course I can feel as justified in my happiness as anyone else. It’s simply that joy without cause brings a special burden on its owner, I think, one that isn’t exhausted by the mere recounting of it. The world asks me for poems. I wonder if I shouldn’t take this vocation a little more seriously?

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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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