Voting by signs

I got up this morning on the left side of the bed.

This was not as straightforward as it sounds. I had to push the bed away from the wall to get out on that side.

At 5:00 a.m. the moon, symbol of wisdom, cast a fairly strong light despite the thin cloud cover. The truth will out, as they say.

As I sat outside drinking my coffee, I could hear water trickling in the spring and in the stream. That’s very unusual for this time of year.

The first train whistle was from the east, just three short blasts.

It’s 6:30 and I have yet to hear a single white-throated sparrow sing. According to birders’ onomatopoeic lore, its song says, “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada!” Not that Canada would necessarily be a bad place to live . . .

Instead, the song sparrow seems eerily insistent this morning: “Hip hip hurrah, boys! Spring is here!” Spring in November? It’s possible!

In fact, the long-range forecast from the U.S. Weather Service calls for mild temperatures and sunny skies starting tomorrow.

Yesterday afternoon the great-horned owl began calling well before dark. It began in the deepest part of the hollow, but as darkness fell, it moved higher and higher up the ridge.

For my first breakfast I peeled an apple, keeping the peel all in one piece. When I was finished, I passed it around my head three times in a clockwise direction and let it fall to the floor. It landed in the rough shape of the letter “D” if you sort of squinted a little. Not “R”. And certainly not “W”!

It’s said that if you dig a hole when the moon is waxing, you’ll have more than enough dirt to fill it up. But if you dig a hole when the moon is waning, you’ll never have enough dirt to fill the hole you’ve dug. The moon’s on the wane, Mr. President. You might want to think about patching things up with some of those pesky trial lawyers.

When I went out to take a leak just now, a crow flew overhead from north to south. Hey, where’s your usual gang of obnoxious friends? It held its tongue.

Too late I realized that I had pulled my left boot on first, contrary to the superstition. Well, I don’t believe in any of that stuff, anyway. Luck is where you find it – and what you make of it.

Still, as a poet I must admit to some, slight belief in word magic. What we say influences what we think and how we act, insinuates itself into the very fabric of reality! Yep. Therefore, I’m calling this election for John Kerry BY A LANDSLIDE. Alert the media.

Now let’s all get busy and put the “ex” back in “Texas”! See you at the polls!

The butternut chronicle – Nov. 2, 1998

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


6:30 a.m. Fifty-four degrees and overcast, with rain imminent.

All Souls/Dí­a de los Muertos. I can make out the dim figures of deer moving through the trees, hear the rustle of their hooves in the dry leaves. The only birdsong comes from the ever-ebullient Carolina wren. Without that, the mood could fairly be described as somber.

Five minutes later: O.K., that sound is rain. But is it a sprinkle or a drizzle? I sure wish the English language had more words for that sort of thing! (One of the few vernacular Chinese expressions I still remember from college is mao mao yu, “fine hair rain”: used for when it’s just barely misting out.)

The 7:00 a.m. factory whistle coincides with the onset of harder rain. This in turn precipitates a chorus of twitters from the assorted dickey birds in and around the yard: juncos, titmice, chickadees, maybe a goldfinch or two.

Here’s a rundown of the colors I’m seeing from my front porch. Straight ahead, right at the driveway curve where the stream flows under the road, the big French lilac retains most of its leaves, which have faded to a sort of pea-green. Down along the edge of the woods to my left, several hundred yards away, the four big quaking aspens also still have their leaves – that lovely orange-gold. Lighter yellow leaves adorn the river willow down in the old corral along the stream this side of the aspens, as well as the two elm trees in view: one right to the left of the lilac, the other along the edge of the woods to my right, next to the leaning-over wild apple. Closer to the porch in the same direction, the tall tulip tree is still in yellow leaf, as are a couple small black birches to its left. The Japanese cherry right in front of my herb garden has yet to lose its leaves, which tend more toward orange than yellow.

Three quarters of the trees I’m looking at are bare, including most birches, red maples and black walnuts, plus of course the butternut tree. The oaks are a mixed bag. Many of the red and scarlet oaks still have pretty full crowns of leaves, which are only halfway toward brown.

The unmowed grass in my front yard is still green, despite the drought. I’m hoping for a couple hours of hard rain to bring out the colors on the tree trunks.

The feral black cat appears from behind the lilac bush and trots down the driveway. The pileated drums over at Margaret’s, answered a few seconds later by another pileated up on the powerline. This woodpecker drumming contest will continue sporadically for the next fifteen minutes. Pileated woodpeckers are one of my favorite things about living here, I think.

A flock of chickadees moves down from the crest of Laurel Ridge and into the yard, heading for the bird feeder. Word’s spreading.

At 8:30 a low-flying “V” of geese goes honking over the corner of the field in a southerly direction. These are, I presume, local resident geese, not part of the migrating flock from Chesapeake Bay. I enjoy the reminder that the only thing we’re cut off from, here in this mountain hollow, is the company of our fellow humans. Otherwise, the romantic notion of escape from the world is a complete (and dangerous) fantasy.

9:30 a.m.: It’s raining, it’s pouring! I’ve enjoyed sitting here watching and listening to the rain’s slow, steady acceleration for the past three hours. But what’s to say about it? Nothing much. When people ask me what I do with my time, how can I explain?

Coincident with the harder rain has been a gradual lowering of the cloud ceiling (I love that phrase – it makes the world seem so homey!) and the formation of a very thin fog: perfect weather for All Souls’ Day. The juncos are unfazed, singing and flitting through the trees on a quest for (I think) birch seeds.

By 10:00 the rain begins to slacken off. All the upper surfaces of the butternut tree’s splay of limbs are glowing in a half-dozen shades of gray and green. As I had hoped, this was just enough moisture to coax the lichens into opening the pores of their skins. And of course since the butternut tree is pretty advanced in age – well over a hundred years, I’d say – its bark hosts a nicely varied flora.

It’s now past eleven o’clock, and only a fine mist is falling: mao mao yu. A gust of wind shakes free a shower, a torrent of leaves from the treetops. I am reminded once again, as I am every year, that “fall” is far from incremental. Some years it’s more “blow” than “fall”. Given sufficient wind, all these trees could be bare by tomorrow morning.

The butternut chronicle – Nov. 1, 1998

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


I recently found a journal I had kept for a few weeks back in November of 1998, consisting mainly of nature notes, all recorded from my front porch. At that time, an old butternut tree in my yard dominated the view, so I’m calling this the Butternut Chronicle. The American butternut (Juglans cinerea) is on the way out, the victim of a mysterious canker that is expected to result in the extinction of the species. The individual in question was still half-alive and fairly sturdy-looking in 1998, though (as it turned out) hollow at its base and full of carpenter ants. It toppled over suddenly one morning in August 2003, fortunately doing little damage to the house. Of the four or five butternut trees that once stood on this end of the mountain, I know of only one that still clings to life.

Unfortunately, most of my observations were pretty humdrum, and I lost interest in journaling after only 18 days. Now, inspired by the Middlewesterner’s Morning Drive Journal, I’m curious to see if I can make any lemonade out of this lemon.

First light. There’s a thin layer of thick fog, if that makes any sense. I walk a little ways up the side of the ridge and am already above it, looking down on a white blanket with clear sky above. I return to the porch and the drinking of my morning coffee.

There’s intense activity from first light on, lots of chips and cheeps. A caroling song sparrow doesn’t seem to care about a pair of screech owls calling back and forth between the powerline right-of-way and Margaret’s woods. But when I try my screech owl imitation, I’m roundly scolded by a Carolina wren.

The fog shifts, rising and falling with the abruptness of a malfunctioning theater curtain.

The gray squirrels are chasing each other through the treetops; the click and scrabble of their claws against the bark makes quite a din. The big one I call the Thinker has taken refuge in the butternut and is squatting in his usual pensive position, motionless on the stump of an old limb, staring up toward the apple tree. But eventually four more squirrels come racing and leaping into the butternut’s great “V” of outspread limbs.

This is quite obviously about play, not sex or territory. (Gray squirrels don’t really defend territories, the experts say.) From time to time one will pause to scratch itself, and then one or more of the others will follow suit. Pretty soon I’m feeling kind of itchy myself.

The pileated woodpecker drums on his favorite, most resonant snag over at Margaret’s. A pair of golden-crowned kinglets works over the Japanese cherry, gleaning tiny insects, it appears, from the undersides of the leaves.

At 7:15 I go up to the main house for the season’s ritual first filling of the bird feeders.

By 8:00 the fog is gone, and the squirrels with it. The Carolina wren lets loose with a volley of teakettles. The guest house chipmunk emerges from its burrow beside the walk. Without reference to the clock I anticipate the blowing of the factory whistle in Tyrone, and five seconds later it goes off. I am pleased with myself that my internal clock has already made the adjustment to standard time.

By the time the sun has cleared the treetops, at 8:30, the woods are silent. Most of the excitement, as usual, is in the in-between, the liminal time between night and day – and again, in late afternoon, between day and night. So, too, with this halfway point between the equinox and the solstice: Samhain, All Hallows Day. Steam rises from the damp woods. Squinting into the sun, I stub out my cigarette, think about finding something to do with my life.

Falling back

Not until after the hike would I figure out how to reset the clock on your car radio. For now, on the first day of the return to standard time, we have to keep subtracting an hour -because, paradoxically, an hour has been added, smuggled in from last spring.

I wasted the windfall by sleeping in, however, and now, mid-afternoon, I feel a little torpid.

“I don’t feel as if I belong here,” you say, meaning the car and the road itself winding up & and up through the Seven Mountains. The leaves are mostly down, save for the yellow-orange of tulip poplars and reddish-brown of the oaks. As we climb higher, even the oaks stand mostly bare.

“We’re down to just three colors,” you say, and name four: brown, gray, sky-blue and evergreen. And having made that observation, we both begin to notice the spots of yellow: the odd birch sapling or green-briar vine beside the road, a few tamaracks.

“From inside the car, you could easily assume it’s 20 degrees out rather than in the low 60s,” you observe. This is the way things will look for many more months, with the possible addition of snow.

It’s windy. In some places, blown leaves obscure most of the gravel road. The sky has already attained that mid-winter blue, dotted with fast-moving clouds. I don’t have much to add.

We park, walk down to Keith Spring. This is a rock-lined, rectangular pool the size of a large grave, with a couple of steps leading down into it. Due in part to its location right on top of the mountain, it always has an air of mystery about it – diminished a little today by a skim of oak leaves.

At the Indian Wells Overlook, the view is as clear as I’ve ever seen it. Toward the east, I can count a half dozen ridgelines, the farthest maybe 50 miles away. We’re looking down into a bowl two or three miles wide, all wooded except for the wide finger of Bear Meadows bog right in the middle of it. We sit on the rocks and watch the cloud shadows. It’s very quiet.

Pondering the dozen shades and textures of lichens growing on the white quartzite and on the trunks and limbs of these gnarled old birch trees, wondering how I might possibly put any of it into words, I feel more strongly than ever my inadequacy as a poet. Maybe I can blame it on the English language itself? Somewhere, perhaps in northern Canada, I imagine there’s some native people who have a hundred words for lichens.

I don’t tend to notice clothes too often, but at some point I stop to admire the color and texture of your long-sleeved shirt, a soft, muted green. When we try to find its match among the lichens at the overlook, however, nothing seems especially close.

On the way back, we pass through stands of pitch pine where the fallen clusters of yellow needles, three to a bundle, festoon the branches of mountain laurel and blueberry like Christmas tree ornaments. The wind changes tone as we move between pitch pines, white pines and spruce. Only in the limbs of the long-needled white pines can the wind really be said to sough, I think. It makes me want to hollow out a bed for myself among the rich pine duff and sleep until spring.

Just as we prepare to drive off, I notice a new color on the ground: small, sky-blue flowers on a six-inch high stalk sprouting from the gravel. You get out, circle the car. “Lobelia inflataIndian-tobacco. See these little inflated parts? That’s how you recognize it.”

Four plants, each still producing blossoms despite the swollen seed pods lower on the stems. And here, just this morning I had been looking with some disgust at the myrtle in my garden, thinking that only plants from other climes could be so out of sync as to put forth blossoms now. What will pollinate them? Nothing. They are blooming for nobody, like Paul Celan’s Niemandsrose.

But I see I was wrong. Or rather, I had hold of only one end of the truth, like a dog playing shake-the-rag with its bemused master. This morning, before I even went to the bathroom, I jabbed at the little buttons on the digital alarm clock until I got the numbers right. It’s standard time now. Would somebody please let these flowers know?