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.