The butternut chronicle: Nov. 16, 1998

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. It ran from November 1 through November 19, 1998.

I’ll also submit this as a late entry for the Ecotone wiki topic Cats and Place.

If I were a good ecological citizen, I’d be reaching for the .22 right now. And I might yet. But I have such a hard time pulling the trigger any more.

A cold wind has kept me off the porch for much of the day. I’m beginning to think I might have picked the wrong time of year to start this record. It was still 34 with a stiff breeze when I came out at 2:00, and I don’t last for more than ten minutes. But the wind did allow me to sneak out without disturbing the black and white cat hunting in the overgrown front yard below me. Out of habit, I grabbed the rifle from its usual spot behind the door, setting it down on the wicker sofa beside me.

Though completely feral, this cat’s relative lack of wariness by daylight distinguishes it from, say, a red fox – another non-native that occupies a similar ecological niche. Actually, given that we have both red and gray foxes on the mountain, with coyotes moving in, the few wild-living housecats may only survive because they are able to switch to a more diurnal pattern than they might otherwise prefer. Thus are new niches pioneered.

Not that this ecosystem needs another prolifically fertile mid-sized predator. In the absence of top carnivores, and with the highly fragmented landscape offering lots of access to formerly inaccessible deep-forest spots, omnivores such as raccoons, skunks and opossums are devastating populations of songbirds through nest predation. Seen in this context, feral housecats are just one minor piece of the puzzle. It’s the unnatural proliferation and consumption patterns of human beings that are at the root of all this, of course.

This cat is, I suspect, a regular resident of an old barn down in the valley, less than a mile to the east. I have tracked it up over Laurel Ridge in winters past. An all-black cat sometimes shows up as well. They both seem to specialize in rodents – mainly chipmunks and meadow voles – but I’m sure neither would hesitate to raid a song sparrow or ovenbird nest in season, if they happened across it.

After a few minutes of fruitless stalking of the semi-subterranean voles, the cat goes out to the driveway and pads down to the big log that lies at a right angle to the road. Using the log as cover it sneaks back toward the stream. At the base of the butternut it surprises a chipmunk, attempts to pounce. But the chipmunk easily dodges and disappears in the dense weeds.

The last couple days it’s been warm enough for the birds to bathe in the stream below the butternut tree, but not today. I wonder whether the cat’s interest in this spot stems from familiarity with its frequent use by birds? Quite possibly so. I picture the cat crouched low among the sedges, waiting for its chance as an unsuspecting junco whips up an instant fountain with its wings . . . As much time as I spend out here, I still miss so much of what goes on!

The cat climbs the bank and works its way over to the corner of the house. Some new movement in the weeds prompts it to freeze once again – more voles, no doubt. Finally it heads up the slope and out of sight. I suspect it may be headed for an old woodchuck hole that gives access to the crawlspace underneath the kitchen, which is fine with me. Plenty of white-footed mice there. I’m getting as tired of setting traps as I am of taking potshots at feral housecats.

The whole time I tracked the cat with my eyes, I was remembering a story that the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once told on himself. He was trespassing in a fenced game preserve when a strange-looking magpie startled him, brushing his face with its wings on its way to a nearby branch. He raised his crossbow to take aim at it, but just as he did so,

He noticed a cicada, which had just found a beautiful patch of shade and had forgotten what could happen to it. A mantis hiding behind the leaves grabbed at it, forgetting at the sight of gain that it had a body of its own. The strange magpie in its turn was taking advantage of that, at the sight of profit forgetful of its truest prompting.

‘Hmm!’ said Chuang Chou uneasily. ‘It is inherent in things that they are tied to each other, that one kind calls up another.’

As he threw down his crossbow and ran out of the grove, the gamekeeper came running behind shouting curses at him.

(A. C. Graham translation, Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Hackett, 2001)

To be a part of the food chain does involve one in a sort of infinite regression. But what Zhuangzi is critiquing here, I believe, is the way the focused awareness of the hunter can be so easily spoiled by thoughts of gain. The instant one thinks “I have forgotten myself!” all is lost. As soon as Zhuangzi loses his mental equilibrium, the game warden is after him. There are so many ways to participate in the lives of others – and the majority of them seem to involve some sort of ego-projection. I wonder if my squeamishness about killing doesn’t derive primarily from my own fear of death.

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