The butternut chronicle: Nov. 6, 1998

This entry is part 6 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


Last dream before waking: I am visiting a little-known reservation for an obscure sect of Messianic Jews in central Pennsylvania on land granted them by William Penn. I remember a string of white ponies approaching me one by one and thrusting their wet noses into my face. A little later, I’m walking in my stockinged feet between huge trees padded with incredibly thick moss all the way up their trunks, as high as I can see.

It fifty-three degrees on my front porch at 6:00 a.m. Thin, low clouds. A warm breeze rustles through the dry leaves at the edge of the driveway; otherwise, it’s dead quiet.

A doe ran off when I opened the door, as on nearly every other morning. But something about the way she spooked suggests she might be a newcomer, not a member of the resident herd. The latter have grown so used to me, they’ll only run a little way, and quickly return as long as I stay reasonably still. Located as I am right next to the highest year-round open water in the hollow, I see so many deer on a daily basis it’s hardly worth mentioning them in these notes.

At 6:15, my coffee finished, I go off for a brisk walk. I’m back by 8:30. One member of the resident pair of Carolina wrens lands on the old bluebird box on the butternut tree, bobbing up and down with great apparent earnestness while reciting its usual teakettleteakettleteakettle litany. Not satisfied with this display, it flies right in over my head and lands briefly on the porch railing beside me, chipping loudly. I’m not quite sure what it has in mind, but I have a feeling my presence is not required.

A flock of cedar waxwings moves through around quarter till nine. I hear them whistling to each other as they move through the treetops, but I never do catch a glimpse of them. Not that I expend much effort. I’m busy reading (or trying to read) Jorge Guillén: Sí­, tu niñez, ya fábula de fuentes. “Yes, your childhood, already a legend for fountains.”

After lunch, I cart out the radio, thinking I might enjoy listening to a Penn State football game for once. They’re playing Minnesota, and it’s shaping up to be a good contest. The temperature has climbed to 60, and there are only patchy clouds. It’s a good afternoon for leaf watching: huge flocks of red and scarlet oak leaves (actually all brown now) keep swirling down from the ridgetop. It’s always fun when some of them turn out to be birds and just keep on going. I sit there open-mouthed for a second or two, like a football fan watching an interception.

It seems like excellent weather for ravens, but I’ve yet to hear one. Of course, having the radio on probably has something to do with that. It’s been so long since I’ve listened to commercial radio, I’m agog at all the ads. I’m wondering if maybe this doesn’t have something to do with the gradual ascendancy of football over baseball as the new American Pastime? There’s so much more room for ads in a football game!

I’m fascinated by the rigid division into play time, evidently measured by some sort of official clock, and irrelevant time, which is far from useless. I get the impression that this time-outside-time is integral to the game, somehow. The announcers constantly talk about which team has how much timeout remaining, for example, and it appears there are other ways to stop the clock. Considering football as ritual drama rather than mere sporting contest, it seems fairly obvious that our cultural fascination with the fight against time is at the center of things. For both teams, the clock seems to stand in for Death itself, just like the bull in a Spanish bullfight. But I don’t know enough about the rules for timeout and overtime to speculate any further.

Needless to say, the precise meaning of much of what I’m hearing escapes me. The descriptions of the plays are impossible for me to picture, but the repetitive, stylized language is undeniably poetic. Too bad my high school gym teachers always assumed everyone already knew how to play the game; I might’ve learned something. Instead, they were content to let me run back and forth as the occasion seemed to demand, and left me alone – except for that one time when M. K. made the mistake of throwing me the ball, and I proceeded to run in the wrong direction. I scored a touchdown for the opposing team! Hey, it was wide open.

Funny I still remember that. It really didn’t bother me at the time, all the ribbing and abuse I came in for. I was already the class pariah – what could they do? “It’s not my fault,” I said. “I didn’t ask to be here!” I don’t remember if anyone had an answer to that.

First down. Second down and three. Third down on their own fifteen yard line. The wingnut formation. Now they’re in motion. The quarterback drops back, he’s looking, looking . . . Now here comes Minnesota’s 41 over the line . . .

Second quarter. Pine siskins briefly enter the butternut tree, their calls blending with the (to me) indistinguishable calls of the goldfinches. Purple jerseys versus yellow. The stands go wild.

It’s more than background noise, the roar of the crowd. I’m reminded of the contemporary philosopher Alfonso Lingis’ resonant phrase, the murmur of the world. Except this ain’t no stinkin’ murmur. These people sound as if they want nothing less than triumph for their team and complete, shattering humiliation for the other side. WE ARE . . . PENN STATE! Like hell you are, I think with an alum’s smugness.

At 3:05, two Apache helicopters flying in tandem along the ridge pass low over the houses. You talk about LOUD!

At 3:10, I scribble in my palm-sized notebook my admiration of the lilac leaves, still light green when almost every other bush and tree stands bare. Beautiful the way they catch the low sun, all a-flutter in the breeze. “No more can you get a little extra – ’cause you want a lot extra!” says the radio, pimping for McDonalds.

Forty minutes later the setting sun turns the limbs of the butternut tree to gold. I’m reading Stephen Dunn with my usual astonishment at his retrograde insistence that words should have something to say. I notice a typo, its for it’s. Typos are a much better example of the sort of thing Lingis intended by “the murmur of the world,” I think. Basically, it’s all the stuff we screen out: typos, slips of the tongue, spoken ums and ahs – all of them part and parcel of the normal functioning of any organic system. Or at least, that’s how I recall his argument. It was one of those things where I was reading the book (The Community of Those who Have Nothing in Common) before I gave it to someone (my brother Mark) for Christmas.

By 4:00, my notes indicate I had turned the radio off; no mention of how the game turned out. I’m marveling instead at how much more natural sound I can hear now: the nearly constant chirps and twitters of foraging birds, the wind in the crowns of the few oak trees still in leaf sounding so much like distant applause.

4:05: The Thinker slowly descends the butternut, ambles across the stream and over to the old log beside the driveway. I wonder what makes this one squirrel so placid? He acts more like a fox squirrel than a gray.

Stephen Dunn, in a poem called “The Liar”: “Facts are what I love, their insignificance,/the clay I can make of them.” I like the way he avoids the unnecessarily logical formulation here. If it had been me, I’m sure I would’ve tried to say something like, “…the unlimited number of ways I can twist their clay.”

At two minutes before 5:00, a hunter emerges from the woods, gun balanced on his shoulder. I set my harmonica aside to say hello. “Do you know any Bob Dylan?” he asks. (Jesus, I didn’t think my playing was that bad!) His blaze-orange coat and cap glow like foxfire in the gathering dusk.

Series Navigation← The butternut chronicle: Nov. 5, 1998The butternut chronicle: Nov. 7, 1998 →

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