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.

Series Navigation← The butternut chronicle – Nov. 1, 1998The butternut chronicle: Nov. 3, 1998 →

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