The butternut chronicle: Nov. 7, 1998

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


I slept in this morning, maybe because it’s Sunday. Or maybe not.

It’s thirty-five degrees and partly overcast (does that make sense?) at 7:30. As usual on a Sunday, it’s pretty peaceful outside – just a very slight bit of traffic noise, the sound of a jet, a distant propeller plane.

The drumming of the pileated woodpecker over at Margaret’s sounds especially resonant this morning. A crow calls. I listen to the wind in the trees as attentively as I can, mindful of the fact that I only have a week or two longer until all the remaining oak leaves have blown down. The winds of winter can be fierce, but – except when they rattle shutters and whistle through the cracks around doors and windows – they’re quiet, the quietest of the year.

The pileated drums steadily. I try counting the beats per call, but they’re just too rapid. Somewhere between five and ten is as close as I can get. At 7:35 he switches to a higher-pitched snag. This may be the most exciting thing to happen here all day.

The trunk and limbs of the butternut are flat gray. The sun has just cleared the ridge and is shining weakly through a thin screen of cloud, so there’s light without shadows, almost. I can hear chickadees down in the pines along the stream, while finches move through the trees across the road from me on their way to the bird feeder up at the main house. There’s already a considerable amount of twittering, tapping and yankyanking (nuthatch) coming from that direction.

The wind up on the ridgetop to the west is blowing steadily, drowning out all the noise from the trains except for their whistles. Here’s one at a more or less baritone pitch with an unusually rich and nasal tone cluster. It’s answered a moment later by a soprano, whistling either for the same or for an adjacent crossing. Two trains running, says the old blues song, and neither one goes my way.

But I’m not listening to records; I’m still reading Stephen Dunn.

I should mention the leaves
are changing, it’s lovely, this time of year,
when only the hopelessly literate
are reminded of death.

(“Letter to Minnesota from the East Coast”)

By 12:30 the sky is almost clear. A large shadow comes gliding through the woods: a turkey vulture circles low over the treetops, searching for a thermal to ride back up to the slipstream current along the crest of the ridge. I watch as it tilts in the strong wind, then veers around and heads back north, its shadow sliding up and down the bare tree trunks and across the shining waves of mountain laurel like an eyelid in search of a missing blink.

I’m out on the porch again at 2:00 when three chickadees drop in. Out of a slightly larger flock foraging in the top branches of the butternut, these three fly down onto the balustrades, the porch floor. One lands on the table at my right elbow while another inspects my boots, which are propped as usual on the topmost railing. They hop and flutter, never holding still for longer than half a second. Chickadees are rarely dull. Their lack of fear toward humans is a trait usually found only among species of the far north. It’s easy to romanticize swans or ravens, but of all birds I find the chickadee the most symbolic of the life of the spirit in its comic seriousness, its constant activity, its propensity to wager everything for a closer look.

Three-thirty. A titmouse – close cousin of the chickadee – lands on the rim of my ashtray. It peers down at the cigarette butts as if deciding whether they’re worth a taste, then pivots forty-five degrees, tilts its head and looks again. It holds this new position for five seconds, then flies off.

At 3:46 the Thinker slowly descends the butternut, ambles across the stream and over to the old log beside the driveway. Exactly the same as yesterday, but nineteen minutes earlier.

Series Navigation← The butternut chronicle: Nov. 6, 1998The butternut chronicle: Nov. 8, 1998 →

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