The butternut chronicle: Nov. 19, 1998 & an afterword

Clear sky, thirty-six degrees. I’m out on the porch as always. At 10:05 a lone blue jay flies in, lands in the upper brances of the butternut tree. With its large beak it begins probing the crevasses and lesions in the bark, just like a nuthatch or chickadee. They all do the same thing, I think – me too. But the tree can hardly pick at its own wounds.


With that, my note taking came to an end. It’s too bad I did not then realize what the true focus of my journaling had been – I probably would have been inspired to keep it up for much longer. I had been thinking that the focus was me, my observations, the record of an inveterate porch sitter. And no doubt there was something to that. Just the other day, I was struck by a reference to the back deck in a poem by Robert Haas. He’s a native Californian, so it seemed perfectly natural – not just a suburban thing, as decks are elsewhere, and not a symbol of Americans’ chronic inability to be content with where we are and accept the vagaries of the local climate.

The front porch in small town and rural Pennsylvania performs many functions that a back deck cannot. Even with cable TV, video games and the Internet, a lot of people still sit out on their porches in the evening – which begins at 4:00, with the end of the second trick. As I mentioned here once before, the front porch is an extension of the threshold, blurring the boundary between home and street. It affords a safe vantagepoint for watching the world go by, as the world is wont to do. Friends and strangers don’t need to feel shy about dropping in – no invitations are necessary. If all the seats are taken, you can sit on the stoop. The back deck, by contrast, is a wholly private space.

I knew of course that the butternut was dying a slow death, and I knew that I would miss it when the last green branch withered, girdled by the canker. But I figured it would stand for many years after that, remain a wildlife condominium in death even more than in life. I never expected it to just topple over one day in August, at around 8:30 on a calm, clear, humid morning. We cut it all up for firewood except for the bottom eight feet, which were full of carpenter ants – the proximate cause of the grand old tree’s demise.

In its absence, I don’t know that I could really gather enough material for a daily front porch chronicle. I have of course recorded a number of observations in these virtual pages, and someday there might be enough to gather into a small chapbook. But the gap between the porch and the edge of the woods is too large – about 75 feet – for close observation of whatever goes on there, and I don’t like using binoculars. The only other tree that’s close to the porch is a Japanese cherry that I will probably cut down this winter to put it out of my misery: it’s terribly afflicted with a disease of its own, black knot. This spring I need to knuckle down and plant some stuff – a bigger job than it might seem, because virtually everything we plant must be fenced against the deer.

I don’t much like fences. But I can’t help thinking that a project like that might give me plenty more to write about.

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