The butternut chronicle: Nov. 8, 1998

This entry is part 8 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


Thirty-five degrees on my front porch at 7:00 a.m. A gentle breeze from the west brings the traffic noise from I-99 so close, it sounds as if the trucks are coming right through the yard.

The fallen leaves also act as an amplifier of sorts. A gray squirrel on the other side of the driveway makes as much noise as a deer. And in fact an additional rustling sound leads me to spot a pair of deer a hundred feet up the hillside. One week ago, I wouldn’t have been able to see half that far, and three weeks ago, I probably wouldn’t have heard anything, either. Both deer are small and antlerless, and both have fully changed from their reddish summer coats to their gray winter pelage, matching the general color of the November woods.

A single bluejay lands in a nearby oak. Now that almost all acorns have fallen, the big flocks of jays have mostly gone elsewhere. Spots of bright color become increasingly rare as the season advances.

At 7:35, some sort of inter-species dispute breaks out in a mixed flock of chickadees and titmice around the spring house, signaled by a lot of calling, scolding and agitated flying about – no actual beak-to-beak combat that I can see. Possibly this is part of the meshing of hierarchies attendant on the formation of a larger mixed-species flock for winter foraging. Such flocks are invaluable for protection against predators, such as the resident sharp-shinned hawk, because the larger the flock, the greater the chances of survival for each individual. Or so the theory goes. I suppose some similar, perhaps subconscious calculation is at work in the formation of human collectivities, too.

This morning I’m reading a translation of poems by Georg Trakl entitled Autumn Sonata.

Who are you, resting under tall trees,
Rustling with lament beneath the autumn reeds?

This is apt: as I read these lines, the breeze is rustling the dried cattails and hissing in the reeds over in the miniature wetland next the springhouse. I don’t care what the critics may say; such resonances from beyond the text are inseparable from the experience of reading, I think.

But what struck me at first as pleasantly bluesy in these poems gradually comes to seem a bit affected. Trakl could easily be Exhibit A in a catalogue of the “hopelessly literate” for whom, according to the Stephen Dunn poem I was reading yesterday, autumn presages individual dissolution and death.

A few minutes before 8:00, I watch of pair of nuthatches in the butternut tree exchanging – what? -greetings, hostilities, acknowledgements? So little of what we see in nature every day has easy reference points in human experience or language. A nature-writer friend of mine recently criticized a poem I wrote about the golden-cheeked warbler, “In the Texas Hill Country”:

Making oneself at home in
a bone-dry thorn scrub no one
else could love
& hailing all visitors:
this is the golden-
cheeked warbler’s
perilous way

I had originally written “greeting all visitors,” and my friend pointed out that that was simply too anthropomorphic, too precious. I’m not sure that “hailing” fully escapes this charge, either. But a certain amount of anthropomorphism is unavoidable in talking about the natural world. Moreover, I’m not entirely convinced it’s undesirable. Unless we’re scientists, what language should we use for the encounter with the other-than-human – especially when it, too, wears what looks like a face? (“Golden-cheeked” indeed!)

Thinking along these lines, I grow tired of Trakl, whose lines, for all their outdoor imagery, smell more of the drawing room than the open air. (I stole that description from an interview with Pablo Neruda, who was talking actually about Mallarmé. But unfortunately it’s a characterization that would fit all too many modern poets.)

The baritone blast of the factory whistle from the paper mill in Tyrone is accompanied by an energetic song sparrow duet and a flurry of rustles from the woods. Get busy, y’all!

Out again at 9:30. (If I didn’t smoke, would I spend half as much time sitting on the porch?*) The sky is now completely clear of the few, high clouds that had dotted it at 7:00. I enjoy the back-and-forth signaling of the usual two pileated woodpeckers. The one drumming from the other side of the powerline has found a snag or dead limb that’s exactly one octave lower than the other one over at Margaret’s. It’s like listening to a song in a foreign language: I may not understand exactly what’s being communicated here, but I enjoy it as much or maybe even more than I would if I did. This is call-and-response at its absolute best.

Chickadees are foraging in the trees at the woods’ edge with the sun directly behind them from my perspective: dark, round, darting figures with translucent wings. This is why I never wear sunglasses!

A quarter till twelve. I’m watching two pileated woodpeckers, presumably either a mated pair or parent and offspring. The larger one humps its way up a trunk just beyond the apple tree, while the smaller one circles the hollow oak snag across the driveway from the lilac bush. Its crimson crest is lit up by the sun, just as the wings of those chickadees had been. They come in for a mild scolding from the squirrels. The big one flaps over to a locust tree, then on to the base of the oak snag where it begins to work its way up. It has chosen the side facing the porch, so I enjoy excellent views for the next fifteeen minutes as it taps and probes for ants. Pileateds always seems like such a married of the ungainly and the magnificent, the sublime and the ridiculous! They’re finally spooked by the approach of the Resident Naturalist, and flap off through the woods with that peculiar, undulating flight.

It’s a busy afternoon on the Plummer’s Hollow Boulevard. At five after four, here comes the second walker of the day: an archery hunter, my friend T.S. A wave, a few brief words and he’s heading up into the woods along the Guest House Trail. With sunset due in less than an hour and a half, he’d better find himself a good spot soon. Given all the noise the dry leaves make, hunting should be easy as long as he stands or sits absolutely still.

Archery is the deer hunting method of choice for those who confess that their primary need is to spend some quiet time out in the woods. Though it seems a little odd to call it “hunting” when all they really do is watch and wait.

Well, O.K., that isn’t all they do. Fifteen minutes later, I start hearing a series of not-too-believable buck grunts from up near the top of the ridge. Safety regulations prevent modern hunters from following the lead of the Indians and disguising themselves with deer hides and antlers. But they do their best with artificial scents and sounds to impersonate their quarry. It makes perfect sense: a buck in rut is far more of a hunter than they are. The “buck fever” to which over-eager or inexperienced hunters can succumb is nothing compared to the testosterone-charged blindness that leads so many bucks to their undoing.

At 4:25 the Thinker slowly descends the butternut, ambles across the stream and over to the old log beside the driveway. I’m starting to see a pattern here, though I don’t have the slightest clue what it’s all about.

*No, as it turns out.

Series Navigation← The butternut chronicle: Nov. 7, 1998The butternut chronicle: Nov. 9, 1998 →

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