Nature in 140 characters: microblogging from the front porch

view of my front porch in mid-May

For years, I’ve greeted the day by sitting out on the front porch of my 150-year-old cottage in a mostly wooded hollow in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. It’s a habit I began back when I was a smoker, I guess. Fresh from a hot shower, I find if I bundle up enough and cradle a thermos mug of coffee in my hands, I can sit outside even in the middle of January, though I might not last for more than 15 or 20 minutes on the coldest days. The porch sits high above a small, overgrown yard, which is adjacent to the woods’ edge, the headwaters of Plummer’s Hollow Run, and a small cattail marsh next to the old springhouse. Due to this strategic location, it’s probably one of the best spots for watching wildlife on the mountain. If I sit still enough, the animals quickly forget I’m there.

This daily habit of quiet observation is very important to me. Even if the rest of my day is taken up with busyness and distractions, at least I’ll have had a short period of attentiveness to the natural world to keep me grounded and keep my writing from straying too far into the ether. When I began blogging in December 2003, I had some idea that I would focus on religious agnosticism — whence “Via Negativa” — but within a very short time, morning porch observations began to creep in, and pretty soon I dropped all pretence of a focus in favor of writing about whatever popped into my head first thing in the morning.

In November of 2007, I started a new online experiment: using Twitter to record daily observations from the front porch. I unexpectedly found the 140-character limit a goad to lyricism. Like the French writers in the Oulipo movement, I’ve always been interested in “seeking new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy,” especially those involving artificial constraints. I hadn’t meant to write poetry, but readers on Twitter began to assure me that’s what I was doing, and who am I to argue?

I soon began backing up these posts to a blog — The Morning Porch — and in July of 2008, switched from Twitter to the much more reliable and feature-rich, open-source alternative as my primary microblogging platform, though I continue to forward my updates to Twitter via an automatic bridge.

My main goal with this project, I suppose, is to excite curiosity about and appreciation for the natural world among other users of Twitter and (and to some extent, my contacts on Facebook, where my Morning Porch posts also appear via an application for Friendfeed, another micromessaging service which I use mainly for lifestreaming purposes). Both as a poet and as a nature-lover, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to reach beyond traditional audiences, and not just preach to the choir. A loose-knit community of poets, geeks, and other assorted misfits has sprung up on, which is to Twitter roughly as a very cool party is to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. There are many more birders recording their observations on Twitter, perhaps influenced by that service’s songbird iconography, but I don’t consider myself a birder — I’m not particularly interested in keeping lists or identifying rare nonresident species — so I haven’t made an active effort to connect with them, beyond following those whose blogs I already read. There are also active groups of poets, gardeners, eco-freaks, and other compatible folks on Twitter, though they’re slow in discovering each other due to the lack of effective, platform-internal semantic tagging and group tagging — features I’ve grown used to on

Oddly, perhaps, given its origin on social networking services, I haven’t installed a comments system on the Morning Porch blog. The posts themselves are so short, I guess I’m resistent to the idea of burdening them with commentary; if folks want to comment, they can simply join and respond there. Also, the platform I’m using, Tumblr, doesn’t have native comments, and I’m reluctant to commit to an external commenting system because there’s a good chance I’ll move the blog to a self-hosted WordPress installation at some point. (Tumblr has promised to introduce an export tool.) (UPDATE: The blog has now been moved to a self-hosted WordPress installation with comments ennabled.)

I hope to keep the Morning Porch chronicle going for at least five years, and I envision a synoptic nature book with one page for each day of the year, five paragraphs or stanzas per page. Since I hardly ever leave home, this seems doable. But it’s also fun to go back and re-read sections of the journal in the order they were written. Looking at my posts from last May, for example, one can gain some appreciation for the two great dramas of a northern Appalachian spring: the return of neotropical migrant birds and the leafing out of the forest canopy. In May, more than any other time of the year, the forest is a-twitter.


May 1, 2008
Roar of the quarry in my left ear, burble of a wren in my right, and in the front yard a catbird sits in the lilac, silent, head swiveling.

May 2
Two Jurassic-like things, both of them “great”: the call of a great-crested flycatcher, and seconds later, a great blue heron in flight.

May 3
The air smells of rain. A large robber fly buzzes into my weed garden and lands on the underside of a dame’s-rocket leaf.

May 4
The bleeding-heart I bought yesterday, still in its pot, pulls in the first hummingbird of the year: shimmery red gorget, grotesque blooms.

May 5
Bright sunny morning. A hooded warbler bursts from the white lilac; for a moment I think it’s a yellowthroat with his mask on wrong.

May 6
Full leaf-out is still a week or two off. In the green wall of woods across from my porch, the dawn sky leaks through a hundred holes.

May 7
Behind the lilac, the sounds of a fierce wood thrush altercation. A third thrush lands close by and swipes its bill against the branch.

May 8
Rain at dawn. In the half-light, the green is intense. Add the bell-like tones of wood thrushes, and the effect is other-worldly.

May 9
Rain. Have robins always had white spots on the ends of their tails? Yesterday afternoon, four eastern kingbirds in the field—unmistakeable.*

May 10
Two myrtle colonies are closing in on what’s left of my lawn. In the grass, the green fists of bracken open complex fingers to the rain.

May 11
Sunday, and one can hear between bursts of oriole song the creaking of wings, the drone of a bumblebee, a deer snorting a quarter-mile off.

May 12
Black-throated green: the warbler lisping at the woods’ edge, but also the woods itself, green-feathered, trunks running dark with rain.

May 13
Cold and clearing. The black cat pads up the driveway, coyote bait still in her belly** and the usual hungry, hateful look in her yellow eyes.

May 14
At first light, the silhouette of a hawk in a dead tree above the corner of the field. A small rabbit grazes in the yard, ears twitching.

May 15
Cloudy and cool. A tanager’s plucked string; no glimpse of scarlet. Where are they off to, the hummingbirds that keep zooming past my porch?

May 16
At 6:00, the sky grows dark again as a storm approaches. Wood thrushes start back up. The lilac’s white torches all point at the ground.

May 17
The same woodpeckers and nuthatches that we heard all winter, but with flickering leaves. The same wind as yesterday, but with golden light.

May 18
A black-and-white warbler’s two-syllable whisper; drumroll from a Good God bird. The clock is blinking—what time IS it? The patter of rain.

May 19
Birdcall like the chant of some demented sports fan: the yellow-billed cuckoo is back! The forest canopy must be full enough to skulk in.

May 20
A gray squirrel seems to be in heat: as in January, the slow-motion chases, the soft scold-calls, but now mostly hidden by the leaves.

May 21
Sun! I hear the crow that thinks it’s a duck, a catbird’s simultaneous translation of a wood thrush song. Last night, I dreamed of bluejays.

May 22
A male robin scours the forest floor for twigs; the female combs the lawn for dead grass. The small thorn bush shakes when they both fly in.

May 23
The gibbous moon no sooner clears the trees than the sun comes up. First crystal-clear morning in weeks, and I’m off to New Jersey.

May 26
Robins mating on a branch: one-second contacts spaced half a minute apart. Each time the male flies off and the female ruffles her feathers.

May 27
Warm, humid, and overcast. In the side garden, the first twelve yellow irises opened in the night. Small flies walk all over my legs.

May 28
The flower heads on the white lilac are half-brown now. Two phoebes take turns flying into the bush, momentarily quelling insistent peeps.

May 29
Clouds like scales on the belly of a blue fish. In the garden, ants immobilized by the cold cling to the sweet pink seams of peony buds.

May 30
In one direction, a singing wood thrush; in the other, a red-eyed vireo. Evocative refrain or dull repetition? It’s all in the delivery.

May 31
In the light rain, a squirrel feasts on red maple keys. Reduced to pieces, the blades flutter straight down, robbed of all ability to spin.

*A white tip on the tail is a diagnostic feature of the eastern kingbird.

**In other words, she was still pregnant.

14 Replies to “Nature in 140 characters: microblogging from the front porch”

  1. I like the idea of a five-year synoptic nature book: like the Kalendar Thoreau envisioned, except he died before completing it.

    I’m glad you footnoted the coyote-bait reference: I assumed the cat had eaten poison left out for coyotes.

    1. I’ll probably re-write obscure entries like that one when I put the book together. But otherwise, it probably won’t require a whole lot of extra editing, since the editing is done during the ten minutes (on average) that I spend boiling each observation down to 140 or fewer characters.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. This is the second post I’ve read today extolling the virtues of I’ll have to give it a look.

    I love the book idea. It would be interesting to see how your observations for any given day differ or relate from year to year.

    1. If you’re already familiar with Twitter, then much about will be familiar. If not, it may seem kind of intimidating at first — but there’s a newbies group you can join.

      I’ve been surprised on more than one occasion to find that I’d written about the same or similar things on the same day the year before. I never look until after I’ve posted the new entry for the day — that’s one of my rules.

  3. That’s great that you’re considering a synoptic book of observations! Thanks for this post and the closer look into your daily practice.

  4. The details of your physical situation and Morning Porch practice are of great interest to a regular reader like me.

    One thing I like about Twitter and its ilk is that everyone shares the same character constraint. It’s as if we’re all Elizabethan poets tossing off sonnets to one another. Only — perhaps, overall — not as good.

    1. Good feedback. I tend to think regular readers already know all this stuff — in fact, this started out as a post for the group blog The Clade, where I’ve been cross-posting some things.

      Glad you agree about the usefulness of the character constraint. It puzzles me, though, that a growing number of writers use Twitter simply to broadcast links. Seems like such a waste.

  5. Wonderful to see the photo of your house and porch, like suddenly emerging from the woods into this welcoming presence. Wish I could stop by and share your coffee thermos some time.

    1. Thanks. Yeah, it’s good to reach out, though with Twitter one always has to wonder how many people are really reading, and how many just follow in hopes of amassing more followers in return.

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