The butternut chronicle: Nov. 19, 1998 & an afterword

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Clear sky, thirty-six degrees. I’m out on the porch as always. At 10:05 a lone blue jay flies in, lands in the upper brances of the butternut tree. With its large beak it begins probing the crevasses and lesions in the bark, just like a nuthatch or chickadee. They all do the same thing, I think – me too. But the tree can hardly pick at its own wounds.

***

With that, my note taking came to an end. It’s too bad I did not then realize what the true focus of my journaling had been – I probably would have been inspired to keep it up for much longer. I had been thinking that the focus was me, my observations, the record of an inveterate porch sitter. And no doubt there was something to that. Just the other day, I was struck by a reference to the back deck in a poem by Robert Haas. He’s a native Californian, so it seemed perfectly natural – not just a suburban thing, as decks are elsewhere, and not a symbol of Americans’ chronic inability to be content with where we are and accept the vagaries of the local climate.

The front porch in small town and rural Pennsylvania performs many functions that a back deck cannot. Even with cable TV, video games and the Internet, a lot of people still sit out on their porches in the evening – which begins at 4:00, with the end of the second trick. As I mentioned here once before, the front porch is an extension of the threshold, blurring the boundary between home and street. It affords a safe vantagepoint for watching the world go by, as the world is wont to do. Friends and strangers don’t need to feel shy about dropping in – no invitations are necessary. If all the seats are taken, you can sit on the stoop. The back deck, by contrast, is a wholly private space.

I knew of course that the butternut was dying a slow death, and I knew that I would miss it when the last green branch withered, girdled by the canker. But I figured it would stand for many years after that, remain a wildlife condominium in death even more than in life. I never expected it to just topple over one day in August, at around 8:30 on a calm, clear, humid morning. We cut it all up for firewood except for the bottom eight feet, which were full of carpenter ants – the proximate cause of the grand old tree’s demise.

In its absence, I don’t know that I could really gather enough material for a daily front porch chronicle. I have of course recorded a number of observations in these virtual pages, and someday there might be enough to gather into a small chapbook. But the gap between the porch and the edge of the woods is too large – about 75 feet – for close observation of whatever goes on there, and I don’t like using binoculars. The only other tree that’s close to the porch is a Japanese cherry that I will probably cut down this winter to put it out of my misery: it’s terribly afflicted with a disease of its own, black knot. This spring I need to knuckle down and plant some stuff – a bigger job than it might seem, because virtually everything we plant must be fenced against the deer.

I don’t much like fences. But I can’t help thinking that a project like that might give me plenty more to write about.

Notes from a school for solitude

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Solitude . . . bears us away
Into its icy comforting, our pain and our happiness.
– Charles Wright, “Half February”

I have been cold. All day yesterday & the day before my hands stayed warm to the touch – or so I would imagine – but inside, behind the knuckles & at the base of the thumbs, a spreading numbness. My enormous kneecaps have begun to ache, poor things, even under long johns. When I climb the stairs they make audible clicking noises. They feel as if they might come unattached, somehow.

Equinox. Who’s there? In last night’s dream, a random remark prompted the poetry teacher to assign the making of masks – right now, drop everything! Some were carved & painted, some forged, some molded in clay or – like mine – built up with flour paste and strips of yesterday’s news. They were glorious.

I find myself longing for another cigarette – it was just this time of year I stopped smoking back in 2000. The cloudless mid-September sky seeps in through every pore. I sit in the woods & listen to the oak trees tapping everywhere with their acorn mallets.

The best tones come from things that are the most hollow: logs, of course, but also certain flat rocks with ant or termite galleries underneath them. Sometimes an acorn strikes another acorn on a lower branch & one hears a rapid tick-tock as both hit the ground.

I watch a mourning cloak butterfly glide from one patch of sunlight to another, dark brown/magenta fringed in white lace. This one will over-winter, I know, will find a suitable piece of bark to crawl behind & let itself freeze solid, the glycerol in its blood keeping ice crystals from growing in the narrow cave of its heart. I’ll see it again on the first warm day in March, wings duller, flight path more erratic.

A chipmunk clucks from six feet away, standing erect like the world’s smallest grizzly. It stares right through me until I begin to question my own presence. A doe and its almost-grown fawn drift in and out of sight among the laurel, chewing loudly. Archery season begins in little over a week.

I decide to stay put until the oaks can incorporate me into their on-going composition. My body’s own distracted percussionist slows to match the chipmunk’s insistent metronome. My scalp begins to tingle, anticipating its Chicken Little moment. With what tact, I wonder, will an acorn strike – a sound I hope to hear inside & out? Or maybe it will merely test for a reflex, a one-two tap on these knees I hug to my chest . . .

Stories and understories

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Another clear, cold morning. The leaves of the red maples across the driveway are beginning to turn, and up in the woods the black gum understory glows yellow and orange, a foretaste of glory soon to come. The water in the stream has finally returned to normal after last Friday’s thirty-year flood, revealing newly carved, raw banks, sand and gravel bars, and even some new waterfalls.

This morning I am afflicted with a kind of restlessness I rarely feel at other times of year, a sort of map hunger. It is not specifically a travel bug, though certainly hopping in a car – if I had one – and following back roads all day would be one way to assuage it. Exploring more intimate landscapes – if I had a significant other – would be another way. Instead, I shall attempt to distract myself with the usual mixture of busyness and woolgathering.

It has always struck me as a bit sad that the coloring of the understory doesn’t play a bigger part in most peoples’ autumnal narratives. In another couple of weeks, those who can spare the time will drive north, perhaps to Pine Creek Gorge (a.k.a. the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania), to goggle at maples and birches in their fall plumage. But in my view, the obvious colors of those young forests can’t hold a candle to the range and subtlety of black gum, found widely as a sub-canopy tree here in the oak forests of central Pennsylvania. Whether or not the oaks themselves will color up properly is always impossible to predict; when they do, the deep, earth-toned reds and oranges provide a pleasing contrast with the incandescent sugar maple and dependably yellow tulip trees and elms. But by then the black gums will have shed their leaves, opening up the understory just in time for the witch hazel to show off their pale yellow blossoms against the year-round green of mountain laurel.

For many of the forest’s most charismatic inhabitants, of course, “the story is the understory,” as the title of a local conference for forest landowners put it a few years ago. Though foresters shudder at the thought of a future forest dominated by commercially useless species like black gum, the fact is that their many lateral branches, abundant fruit and (eventually) generous hollows provide numerous benefits to many species of songbirds and mammals. The dominance of black gum is of course unnatural – like virtually every aspect of present forest composition. Or, to put it differently, it represents a natural response to highly unnatural conditions, especially the regeneration of an even-age forest following the virtually complete clearcutting of the state a hundred years ago, and the absence of top predators and other keystone species and processes (especially wildfire and the passenger pigeon). Severe overbrowsing by white-tailed deer has created unnaturally open, park-like woods throughout much of Pennsylvania; ridgetop oak-heath forests are among the few communities where some sort of understory and even limited regeneration of canopy species has continued, thanks largely to the protection that mountain laurel thickets afford to tree seedlings.

I have dwelt on these themes here only once before that I can remember. That’s one of the most prominent ways in which Via Negativa does not fairly represent my day-to-day thinking, which is haunted by specters of environmental degradation on a daily if not hourly basis. An amusing – and, I thought, highly flattering – comment yesterday prompted the realization that, yes, this blog functions as a refuge of sorts for my most handicapped, maladapted and ill-begotten musings. An asylum, you might say. In response to yesterday’s brain fart about calla lilies, Leslee wrote, “You are completely insane, ya know. And the weird thing is, after reading your blog I sometimes start to think in a similarly warped way. But just for a few minutes. I don’t know if this is good or bad. Probably both.”

But I’m not like this in real life, honest! Or am I?

*

I wrote up our September 11 “Poets for Peace” reading for a local, alternative newspaper yesterday at the urging a friend, who is helping them get through a difficult transition period between editors. It would have been a little awkward, I felt, for the moderator to try and write a piece of objective journalism, so I cast it instead as an editorial. I had planned to try and quote a few lines from almost everyone who read, but that didn’t work out. The first few paragraphs described the rationale and modus operandi, which will be familiar to readers of my original blog post about it. I went on to quote from a couple of the readers whose work I thought would most resonate with a general audience. But for y’all, let me just quote from the conclusion:

Two different readers opened with poems by Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great 13th century Afghani-Persian poet and mystic. But possibly the most haunting of the afternoon’s poems were those of Lee Peterson, the “Emerging Poet-in-Residence” at Penn State’s Altoona College, from her just-published Rooms and Fields: Dramatic Monologues from the War in Bosnia (Kent State University Press, 2004). Reading in a quiet voice, barely above a whisper, Peterson channeled voices like that of Sabiha, in “The National Library”:

I had decided to study history at university
the day the library started burning.
I was loaded down with books on my way to my parents’ home.

People darted. They jerked like fish
caught on a huge, dry stone. . . .

As this, the lead poem in Peterson’s book, reminds us, written words are among the first casualties of war. Even in the United States, it is becoming increasingly easy to imagine a future in which certain forms of expression are banned; under the so-called Patriot Act, libraries and librarians have already witnessed government-sanctioned assaults on our constitutional rights. I don’t think any of us who organized the “Poets for Peace” reading expected that it would be controversial, and we sent out press releases in good faith. Thus, for me, one of the biggest surprises of the afternoon – aside from the high quality of the readings – was the complete lack of coverage by the local press. That evening, I perused the September 11 edition of the Centre Daily Times. It contained a special feature on “What the Flag Means to Me.”

I worry that the meaning of September 11 will be increasingly confined to themes of patriotic martyrdom and wounded pride. In the future, will American schoolchildren remember the World Trade Center attacks the way Serbian schoolchildren remember the disastrous Battle of Kosovo in the 14th century? As poets, I feel we have a special responsibility to honor all points off view and give voice to all perspectives in order to forestall the tyranny of a single, acceptable interpretation. Lee Peterson’s “Kosovo Polje: The Field of Blackbirds,” imagines what such a reduction has meant for this archetypal battlefield, the ground zero of Serbian epic poetry:

. . . even the worms found new homes.

Now only crows play in the weeds
or watch from the swinging heads of pines
while men root the dust

for the one thing they claim
will take them back and back and back.

*

And let me finish up here by saying what I didn’t have space for in the editorial: Serbian epic poetry, for all its focus on violence and nationalism, is great stuff! Check out the translation of The Battle of Kosovo by John Matthias and Vladeta Vuckovic (Ohio University Press, 1987). The complete text, which includes a preface by Charles Simic, is available on-line.

Simic describes what a performance of the oral epic was like:

One day in school, in what must have been my fifth or sixth grade, they announced that a guslar would perform for us. This was unexpected. Most city people in those days had never heard a gusle being played, and as for us kids, brought up as we were on American popular music, the prospect meant next to nothing. In any case, at the appointed time we were herded into the gym where an old peasant, sitting stiffly in a chair and holding a one-stringed instrument, awaited us. When we had quieted down, he started to play the gusle.

I still remember my astonishment at what I heard. I suppose I expected the old instrument to sound beautiful, the singing to be inspiring as our history books told us was the case. Gusle, however, can hardly be heard in a large room. The sound of that one string is faint, rasping, screechy, tentative. The chanting that goes with it is toneless, monotonous, and unrelieved by vocal flourishes of any kind. The singer simply doesn’t show off. There’s nothing to do but pay close attention to the words which the guslar enunciates with great emphasis and clarity. We heard The Death of the Mother of the Jugovici that day and a couple of others. After a while, the poem and the archaic, other-worldly-sounding instrument began to get to me and everybody else. Our anonymous ancestor poet knew what he was doing. This stubborn drone combined with the sublime lyricism of the poem touched the rawest spot in our psyche. The old wounds were reopened.

The early modernist Serbian poet and critic, Stanislav Vinaver, says that the sound of gusle is the sound of defeat. That, of course, is what the poems in the Kosovo Cycle are all about. Serbs are possibly unique among peoples in that in their national epic poetry they celebrate defeat. Other people sing of the triumphs of their conquering heroes while the Serbs sing of the tragic sense of life. In the eyes of the universe, the poems tell us, the most cherished tribal ambitions are nothing. Even the idea of statehood is tragic. Poor Turks, the poet is suggesting, look what’s in store for them.

Listen:

Yes, and from Jerusalem, O from that holy place,
A great gray bird, a taloned falcon flew!
And in his beak he held a gentle swallow.
But wait! it’s not a falcon, this gray bird,
It is a saint, Holy Saint Eliyah:
And he bears with him no gentle swallow
But a letter from the Blessed Mother.
He brings it to the Tsar at Kosovo
And places it upon his trembling knees.
And thus the letter itself speaks to the Tsar:
“Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,
Which kingdom is it that you long for most?
Will you choose a heavenly crown today?
Or will you choose an earthly crown?
If you choose the earth then saddle horses,
Tighten girths- have your knights put on
Their swords and make a dawn attack against
The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.
But if you choose the skies then build a church-
O, not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,
For all shall perish, perish utterly,
And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them.”

Heart’s Content

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

My second maxim was to follow resolutely even doubtful opinions when sure opinions were not available, just as the traveller, lost in some forest, had better walk straight forward, though in a chance direction; for thus he will arrive, if not precisely where he desires to be, at least at a better place than the middle of a forest.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

The buzzy songs of half a dozen species of wood warblers accompany my surfacing from the shallow waters of an uneasy night’s sleep. What in the world could possess an otherwise fairly sane human being to spend ten dollars a night for the privilege of sleeping on the ground? It’s 5:30 on an overcast Sunday morning in the Heart’s Content campground of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, “Land of Many Uses.”

I fire up my backpacker’s stove, boil water and, with the help of a cloth filter, turn myself into a percolator machine: drip, drip, drip at about the same speed the coffee will exit my body an hour later. The trees still drip from yesterday afternoon’s soaking rain.

The mostly full campground is quiet. I can’t get over being amazed at how many people, some of them not even active outdoor recreationists, will go to such trouble to get out in the woods on a rainy weekend. I admit that this is a pretty nice spot, as campgrounds go. Though bordered on three sides by a 45-year-old red pine plantation, the campsites themselves are tucked into a maturing deciduous forest, each with just enough vegetation around it to lend an impression of privacy and intimacy. I think about how most of the time that people spend in public lands is devoted to doing fairly simple things: eating, sleeping, tending campfires, walking or driving around, looking at stuff.

By contrast, the official management philosophy of national forests stresses Multiple Use, with a strong bias toward economically productive activities. In the Allegheny, this includes primarily logging (especially of black cherry, a fast growing, first-succession species prized by the furniture industry) and oil and natural gas drilling. The Forest Service also favors high-impact, industrial recreation, especially on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles. Yet statewide surveys show that most outdoors-oriented people can’t stand the noise and (in the case of ATVs) the destruction caused by these machines, which represent exactly the sorts of things that the average forest “user” goes to the woods to try and escape. Surveys also show most people are against commercial timbering on public lands, even though its cessation is currently outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse.

I wonder, as I drink my coffee, whether it would be possible to start a movement to counter Multiple Use that would advocate “no use, just appreciation”? I guess the way to sell people on an alternative philosophy like that would be to emphasize the extent to which wild places should be above and beyond all considerations of utility and profit. Then I remember the unofficial slogan of the Rainbow Tribe, which a few years ago held its annual gathering just about a mile from this spot: “Welcome home,” they say. Imagine if that were written at the bottom of every National Forest sign, in lieu of “Land of Many Uses”!

But the forest is a very different kind of place for humans to come home to. When we try and impose our own aesthetic values, the results can be frightening. Leaving the campground for an early morning walk, I cut through the pine plantation and am able to walk in a perfectly straight line between rows of virtually identical trunks to reach the parking lot on the other side of the road. There is almost no ground cover, only a scattering of star flowers and a couple small patches of hayscented fern. From one patch a fawn leaps to its feet and clatters awkwardly away, visible for many hundreds of feet in this unnaturally uniform, Cartesian space.

I’m surprised to see a total of eight vehicles in the parking lot, which also serves a trailhead for the Hickory Creek Wilderness Area, the only area so designated in this national forest (except for a few, tiny islands in the Allegheny River). It’s a fairly unexceptional stretch of forest; the fact that so many people are backpacking through it on a rainy weekend testifies to the magic of the word “wilderness,” with its implicit promise of ultimate escape.

For me, however, the allure was the 120-acre old-growth remnant at Heart’s Content – and the more than 4,000 acres of old growth contained in the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, where we planned to spend the rest of the day. We had botanized happily in Heart’s Content for several hours the previous afternoon; now I simply wanted to discover whether it’s possible to get lost in such a small tract of old growth. It is!

When I return to camp an hour later, refreshed by the rich sights, smells and sounds of a natural forest, I’ll be surprised to find I’ve been sapped of enthusiasm for theorizing about forest values – or much else. In fact, I’ll be uncharacteristically taciturn for much of the rest of the day. I realize I may be a little more impressionable than most people, but once disoriented, I find it difficult to re-orient, even after many hours of hiking and successful pathfinding in the Tionesta. A day later, back on my own front porch, things will still seem a little “off” to me; I’ll be struck by the oddness of the straight line of the driveway against the edge of the woods, for example.

I’ll still be puzzling over how, when I left the loop trail in Heart’s Content determined to “walk straight forward . . . in a chance direction,” I could’ve ended up back on the same section of trail I left – still inescapably “in the middle of a forest.”

But unlike Descartes, I am perfectly happy to be here. “Trees, trees, murmuring trees!” sings the black-throated green warbler. The long and endlessly supple call of the winter wren is a rare treat, and I could listen to the piping of the hermit thrush all day. So whence this nameless clutching in my chest, whence this hollow thudding, this clatter of hoofs?

Just-so story

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“It’s all so tightly regulated, so professional and commercial now,” he sighs, remembering his wild days of wrestling lions and grappling with live boa constrictors in the depths of the Guatemalan jungle.
–interview with former Tarzan actor Herman Brix in The Christian Science Monitor

Liana, liana. Lovely on the tongue & in the mind’s jungle. Reaching obliquely for the yellow flowers & the crown, dark slash between lines of verse transcribed as prose, dropping fat figs to lure the parrots & howler monkeys, in whose bowels will gestate the insidious seeds that want to hover up there like UFOs & send their landing gear down in the form of lianas.

Wait, bear with me! Soon enough I’ll completely hedge the host tree in: a real live tree fort. And having given such generous support the tree dies as conveniently as Jack’s beanstalked giant. Because as the free marketeers proclaim, in the jungle it’s grow or die. The slime molds & fungal mycelia colonize the heartwood, soon followed by hordes of miners–whole companies of ants, grubstaking beetles & bees. And after the bottom falls out there’s room for a menagerie of snakes & bats & spiders in this hollow column shot through with light from the chinks in the lattice-work of what once had been such pliant vines–yet even then had been strong enough for a New World figleafed Tarzan & a clinging Jane to swing from, so lithe, so blithely unaware of how (for example) the black jaguar got its spot, or where the guerrillas learned how to lord it over the ranks of high society. And this, for the curious, is the story of the strangler fig, which is also delicious.

In lieu of an omen

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

First natural observation of the New Year: a gray squirrel running through the branches of the five black walnut trees in the yard of my parent’s house. I’ve drunk my coffee, have gotten up to go back inside my own cottage (it’s 30 degrees F) and I notice the squirrel as I glance west, toward the sunlight seeping down Sapsucker Ridge and across the field. The walnut trees are still half in shadow, their crowns glow a rich gold. The squirrel – probably resident in the cavity of the largest tree – is racing up and down the sunlit limbs and flinging itself from tree to tree in a manner I can only describe as ecstatic. When it pauses, its tail vibrates spasmodically and it rubs both sides of its face and neck against the tree bark, left side then right.

I know this behavior from having observed it often among squirrels in the butternut tree that stood in my own front lawn until this past August, when it toppled over onto the porch one morning shortly after I’d gone inside. (Losing this butternut was almost as traumatic for me as the death of my grandfather the month before; both left a sizable hole.) I assume, based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve read in the scientific literature, that this behavior is associated with the onset of estrus. But something can have an “explanation,” be fairly familiar and still seem strange and wondrous. My only resolution for the New Year (and lord knows I could make many!) is to see the world more frequently in such a light.