The butternut chronicle: Nov. 10, 1998

This entry is part 10 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


For those who just tuned in, I’m transcribing and reworking the notes from an old journal consisting entirely of thoughts and observations made while sitting on my front porch. The butternut tree that then dominated the view has since fallen over, and I have yet to reconcile myself to its loss – or to the imminent loss of its species, currently being wiped out throughout its range by a disease of unknown origin and poorly understood epidemiology.

The warm spell continues: fifty-seven degrees at dawn. I notice, however, that the bird activity doesn’t seem any greater than it would be were the temperature twenty degrees colder. All the species that would have responded to this warmth that way have gone south for the winter, I suppose. Except one: the Carolina wren. It may be just my imagination, but the wrens do seem especially wound up this morning. Given their susceptibility to extreme cold, this makes sense. We’re near the northern edge of their range. Every few years, a cold snap wipes out most of the local population.

Speaking of migrants, the first tree sparrow showed up at the feeder yesterday. For these birds, who breed not in trees as we think of them but in the muskeg swamps of northern Canada, central Pennsylvania must seem like a balmy winter vacation spot. My mother recently wrote about her quest to discover the true identity of a mysterious singer, a ventriloquist whose warble would emerge seemingly from the ground at odd times in January or February, often during thaws. She finally figured out it was the tree sparrow.

Thinking about tree sparrows last winter, some lines from Confucius prompted the following poem:


Confucius said:
Wherever a bird comes to rest, it’s right at home.
Is it fitting that a man should have less sense than a bird?

–Da Xue (Higher Learning)

A tumble of hurdy-gurdy notes
from the forsythia hedge

What memories of summer muskeg
this wet warm spell must trigger
in a tree sparrow’s breast

His gypsy song says courtship
however fleeting is always definitive
& no spring can ever be false

The sunrise glowed red on the side of the ridge to the west as I hung out a load of dark wash. Red in the morning, sailors take warning, they say, but I’m hoping the rain will hold off at least until late afternoon to give the laundry time to dry.

Well, here’s one bird species that responds to warmth: the bluebirds are calling from the very tops of the tall black locust trees around the main house at 8:35. Though bluebirds do over-winter here, they can spend most of that time in a kind of torpor, as I understand it, piled into communal nests in hollow trees or (naturally) bluebird boxes. So one can expect to hear them on any really warm, sunny day throughout the year.

I’m not sure how I’d describe the bluebird’s song to someone who has never heard it. If the Carolina wren provides a soundtrack for day-to-day happiness, the bluebird’s squeaky little phrase somehow evokes pure joy. Birders’ onomatopoeia attempts to approximate the shape of the syllables (and some echo of their effect on humans) as Cheer, cheerful charmer! It may be due in part to the fact that they only sing when the weather’s fine, but I can’t hear bluebirds without experiencing a kind of giddiness, a heart-in-the-throat feeling reminiscent of first love.

I’m out on the porch for an hour in the early afternoon, between 1:00 and 2:00: lots of squirrel watching. There are five of them in and around the butternut tree at the same time, and they demonstrate quite a high tolerance for each other’s presence. The general order of the afternoon seems to be gathering black walnuts from beneath the tree behind the house and carrying them back to their nests up in the woods. Now that most of the leaves are down, I can watch most of their progress back to their respective homes. It’s amazing how acrobatic they still can be with such large, heavy nuts between their teeth.

Gray tinged with brown and white: the woods now match the squirrels in coloration. I allow myself to zone out a bit as I watch the squirrels running, leaping, flowing through the trees, like spirits of the woods. Though I think that’s an example of a simile that’s too close to the plain truth to have very much suggestive power!

At 2:07 a smaller squirrel descends the butternut and occupies the Thinker’s favorite spot on the stump of a limb. But rather than ape the other’s pose, it lies prone with its tail twitching spasmodically. All the while, another squirrel slowly climbs the trunk from the other side, repeatedly pausing as if to listen. When it starts to come around the tree, the first one chases it off, then returns briefly to its perch before going off to forage.

I wonder if this nearly constant tail twitching by squirrels might be in part designed to send vibrations through the wood, a sort of telegraph? Given the intimate relationship between gray squirrels and trees, I’d actually be a little surprised if they didn’t use them to send messages of some sort. It would be as unlikely as finding humans who didn’t use fire and smoke to communicate with heaven.

According to an article in the October issue of Natural History, katydids and other arboreal insects do communicate in this fashion, sending vibrations through wood as well as through the air. And I gather that there are plenty of other animals that can pick up vibrations through various media: cetaceans through the water, of course; salamanders and elephants through the ground. Actually, the well known ability of a wide range of animals to “predict” earthquakes suggest to me that humans are among the few species that can’t listen effectively with their whole bodies.

When I return to the porch for a smoke at 3:30, the Thinker has reclaimed his favorite spot. He stops grooming as soon as I come out and affixes me with what I am tempted to call a gimlet eye. I stare back. (No one ever beats me at staring contests!) After five minutes he looks away, turning his attention to the chickadees bathing in the stream below. (Oh, sure, pretend like you were just looking around!) He holds this new pose for three minutes before going back to grooming, drawing his magnificent tail slowly through his teeth.

The report

“A line waiting for its story,” says he. No longer!

But one does have to wonder: what’s an Iowa farm boy doing, thinking of such things?

She raises her knee, turns slightly towards me. There’s no way I’ll have this report ready for tomorrow. The cursor blinks and blinks in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, a little upright stick offering itself for my use, endlessly patient. Help me stop time, I plead with my eyes as she pulls me into her orbit. I wish you were a drug that I could inject directly into my bloodstream.

I sink to my knees, bury my face in the pleats of her skirt to hide the sudden, inexplicable rush of tears. I want to be saved, to be raised from the dead, but not by Jesus.

Some time later we are lying on the couch waiting for our breathing to slow. The sweat, saliva, tears, and other slick juices freshly exuded from our bodies as they struggled to exceed themselves are rapidly drying and hardening into a new crust. I stare up at the poorly centered ceiling fan rocking from side to side as it spins. One of her legs lies heavily on top of mine. She is a burden to me now as I am to myself.

I search for something original to say, but my mind is blank – and not like a clear sky, no. Like a sky gone white with snow, and snow on the ground. There are so many ways to be lost!

She props her head on her hand, turns my face gently but firmly toward hers. “It’s only me,” she says. “It’s only me.” Yes, of course. The report will have to wait just a little longer.

A week later we’re standing in front of the Justice of the Peace, a middle-aged black woman with wire-rimmed glasses. “Do you know what to do when the romance runs thin and the sink is overflowing with dirty dishes?” she asks sternly. “Wash the dishes,” I say without a moment’s hesitation. “O.K., you’ll do!” she says with a little more warmth. “Now I advice you to pray for thanksgiving from Whomever – or Whatever – you choose. I’m no preacher, but I tell this to every couple. When it seems like there’s nothing else left, there’s still this one thing. You can always give thanks.”

She’s right, of course. That next morning when I had returned to the office, I had found a memo from the project manager in my inbox. “If you haven’t finished that report yet, don’t bother,” it read. “In light of recent developments, we have been forced to reassess our complete marketing structure. I’m terribly sorry for all the time I know you put into this. To make it up to you, I’m giving you a week of paid vacation, starting tomorrow.” Thank you, I had murmured to no one in particular. The sky had looked as if it might clear soon.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 9, 1998

This entry is part 9 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


For those who just tuned in, I’m transcribing and reworking the notes from an old journal of mine I just found, consisting entirely of thoughts and observations made while sitting on my front porch. The butternut tree that then dominated the view has since fallen over, and I have yet to reconcile myself to its loss – or to the imminent loss of its species, currently being wiped out throughout its range by a disease of unknown origin and poorly understood epidemiology.

Forty degrees at dawn under partly cloudy skies. The highway is LOUD.

Two pileated woodpeckers in the tall white pines off to my left set up a racket – their usual insane clown laughter. A moment later a red-bellied woodpecker lets loose with a peal of its own, and not to be outdone, a nuthatch starts yelling for all he’s worth. What’s this argument about, I wonder? All three tap on tree bark for a living, but it’s not as if they’re after the same things.

I’m off to State College for the rest of the day. I always have mixed feelings about leaving the mountain, unless it’s to go walking in some other woods. Today, the thermometer climbed to an unseasonably warm high of seventy, and I could kick myself for wasting the day in town.

It’s still sixty-three degrees on my porch at 5:30 p.m. It feels positively luxurious to sit outside at dusk without long johns on.

Oh my god, there goes a bat! You’d think it would have either migrated or gone into hibernation by now. I suddenly remember two nights ago, when I caught a glimpse of something bat-like out of the corner of my eye. I had dismissed it as impossible then, but now I’m not so sure. It was in the low forties that night, so it’s hard to believe there had been any flying insects to catch.

Tonight, though, is another story. When I take another drag on my cigarette, I feel a brush of moth wings against my cheek. I quickly cup my hand over the glowing cherry. I imagine that this bat, atypical as it is, still prefers its food raw, unburnt.

Three Days That Shook the Blogging World

It took me at least until Friday to fully absorb the impact of Bush’s “win” on Tuesday, and I was hardly alone. I’ll leave it to others to compile links from the better-known, political portion of the blogosphere. Bloggers of a cultural, spiritual and literary bent have reacted to last week’s election with no less passion. And I think it’s of vital importance that we not leave politics to the political. The price of distancing ourselves from politics and politicians cannot fail to be, as it has always been, an endless procession of snake-oil salesmen and psychopaths occupying the halls of power.

If we want a government that is truly “of the people,” we have to start acting as if we ARE the government. This would mean a huge sea change in our thinking, away from fear and paranoia and toward – yes – faith and values. It would mean engaging in honest and open dialogue with our friends and neighbors about our authentic hopes, dreams and fears – as opposed to the wet-dreams of money, power and alienated so-called freedom peddled by those who seek to keep us forever divided and thus easy to rule. It would mean taking responsibility for our own and each other’s well being. It would mean, above all, slowing down and re-learning how to live.

I don’t want to limit myself to links alone here, because how many people would take the time to click on them all? But by settling for longish quotes, obviously I won’t be able to include more than a small fraction of what’s out there. Please feel free to e-mail me (bontasaurus at yahoo) with suggestions of possible additions to this anthology. And please keep in mind that these quotes, suggestive as they are, represent in most cases just one facet of one argument selected from among several related posts, and that many are followed (and some prompted) by readers’ comments fully as interesting.

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Looking at today’s front page, I was drawn into an AP photo of a young campaign volunteer sitting, head in hands, on the steps of a rally stage in Des Moines, an “Iowans for Kerry” sign hanging behind her dejected form. She’s not from Keene, this Iowan campaign worker, but in my imagination she could be, an idealistic co-ed in faded, fringe-tattered jeans, sneakers, and a white linen jacket, a curious mix of little-girl dreams and grown-up disillusions. “Nervous Wait,” the caption reads: there’s an entire story in those two words, isn’t there? All that picture and all that caption needs is a storyteller, even a Fucked Up one, to step out of the shadows and get her hands moving. The first 5,000-some words might have been Total Bullshit, but the beauty of writing lies in the next line, the next word, where there’s always a chance to change and start entirely anew.

Hoarded Ordinaries

My America is liberal, tolerant, interested in globalism; in my America religion is post-triumphalist and universalist and coexists happily with science; in my America all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are entitled to the rights and privileges of citizenship, marriage among them. But my America is a marginal America, and the bulk of the nation feels differently. The chasm which divides us is deep and I don’t know how, or whether, it can be bridged.

I’m giving myself the day to grieve, and I’ve been moving steadily through those five stages everybody talks about. I know that despair is neither responsible nor tenable longterm; action and faith are called-for. I hope that by tomorrow, or by next week, I’ll be able to take a deep breath, look at the situation clearly, and figure out what I can do and which stone most needs my shoulder.

Velveteen Rabbi

It’s tempting to indulge in unconstructive name-calling. Lord knows I’ve done far more than my share. But it is statistically rather unlikely that half the electorate in the US is composed of either the feebleminded or sociopaths. There are millions of good, honest, sincere people in the US who voted for Bush because as far as they could tell, he best reflected their beliefs about right and wrong.

At least a few of these people will have their worldviews shattered due to the actions of the man they voted for in the next four years. They will need us. If there is an opposition to articulate a cogent, humane alternative to the lying and looting that will characterize official US policy for at least the next four years, the screwed-over will have a constructive place to channel their outrage.

Creek Running North

There are nice things about this little historical moment, this pause between disasters. On the residential streets of the Castro, strangers usually don’t greet each other, often avert eyes. This is partly an aspect of “cruising” behavior, partly an adaptation by ordinary residents to other people “cruising;” I’ve accepted that it’s not a rude habit, just a big-city inevitability.

But last night, everyone I passed gave a nod. In a subculture often defined by posturing and distancing, everyone was allowed to be lonely, frightened even, just for one night …

Creature of the Shade

Thursday, November 4

I don’t accept a lot of how this looks. It is true that many people in this country voted for Bush. It is true that when you look at the big red states and surrounding clusters of blue we look like a country full of dopes in the middle and the south. But I think that’s too simple. If you look at the numbers on a state by state basis the numbers are close. I don’t accept the idea of a conservative mandate.

There is no doubt that the next four years will be difficult. There is no doubt that this dubious notion of morality exists and that there is a vigourous conservative Christian coalition. But I want to keep resisting ideas that divide things into simple and alienated terms. And I don’t want to be in such a hurry to feel better.

I found myself working pretty hard to keep my emotions from becoming overwhelming all day yesterday. I am too often overwhelmed by my emotions. But I’m certainly not interested in not feeling. There are reasons to be sad. There are reasons to be angry.

The electoral college map is an example of how ideas can be sold. People aren’t that easy to color code.

I never feel fully competent when writing about things like this. I often feel like I’m not being clear. And that may be because I don’t like to take the big stand too often. I like to keep the notion of complexity in play. Part of complexity is that there are moments when things get simple and I have and will take a big stand now and then. I often feel like I’m jumping from the macro view to the micro view and trying to stop and every point in between.

What I can say with confidence is that there are a lot of great people doing a lot of great work. I think a bit of despair is inevitable and not such a terrible thing and I like the idea of us all gathered for a plaintive wail. If you’re wailing, I’m wailing with you. And then we can make a joke and have a giggle and make some plans.


It’s not like Larissa really understood what was at stake in the election…but she’d worked so hard for Dunbar, she’d come to believe in whatever it was that he stood for and sincerely believed it was better and more well-intended than whatever it was that the other guy stood for. Larissa had been raised to believe in causes for the sake of belief itself: her father often quoted to her the lyrics of a country song that advised “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Molly, Larissa believed, hadn’t really stood for something: her desire to become a paralegal was motivated by her desire to find a man and start a family, so she’d somehow gotten sidetracked into achieving the latter without any of the former. One day after Dana had stopped working for the campaign, Larissa had sat quietly stuffing envelopes after the other campaign workers had gone home. In the quiet of an empty campaign office, illuminated by a single bare light bulb hanging over the long folding table where she worked, Larissa vowed to Do Something with her life, to somehow Make a Difference.

Hoarded Ordinaries

. . . There are fiftyninemillionseventeenthousandthreehundredeightytwo
People I’d like to condense down into one box,
Down into some three ingredient recipe some
Simple formula for this vote that separates me
From you
From bad
Make it small enough to describe, control, dismiss
Language of a sixth grader, language of an election
Language of a soundbite.
As if a page of words can explain the feelings, motives
Histories, beliefs of fiftyninemillionseventeenthousandthreehundredeightytwo
Individuals who are not me.

But what are the chances that one of the fiftyninemillionseventeenthousandthreehundredeightytwo
Is more like me than I dare to believe?

Division. There is page after page of problems in the homework packet
He spends hours putting one number into another, finding remainders
Subtracting until there is nothing left, neatly solved.
We say division is the wake of this election
But this is nothing like the methodical effort of
Dividing one hundred into fiftyone percent and fortynine percent,
Dividing the map into twohundredseventynine red and twohundredfiftytwo blue
Dividing my neighborhood into Bush signs or Kerry signs
The signs no one has taken down because
This is who “I AM” this is who “YOU ARE” this is how we disagree
This is the gulf we have to cross . . .

A line cast, a hope followed

It’s kinda heartening, though, ain’t it? On the morning after this political disaster, there are people out there searching for beefcake and boobs. It reminds me of that Larsen cartoon where there’s a city in flames and people running and cars jamming the streets and then there’s this dog with his nose to some spot on the ground, with the caption, “And then Ralph found something interesting.”

3rd House Party

Friday, November 5

I happen to believe that the liberal choice framework and some form of secularist culture are the better options. I’m cautiously optimistic that secularism is too widespread for any move toward Falwelltopia to ultimately succeed. But the cultural revivals among Native American tribes suggest that all may not be lost for cultural conservatives. What’s necessary is for them to focus on a reconstructed conservative culture that is compatible with and appealing under the liberal framework, rather than seeking to reverse that framework or forcibly eliminate their competitors under it. To do that would require offering an alternative to the weaknesses of secularism (such as the alienation created by consumerism) rather than attempting to imitate secularism’s successes (such as with self-consciously “trendy” pop evangelicalism).


I have far more in common with those evangelical Christians than I have in common with my parents, with most of the professors who taught me, or with most of my political allies. I don’t believe that life is about maximizing wordly pleasure. I don’t believe that this world can be fixed (though I believe, maybe inconsistently, that it’s our duty to try to fix it)….

But there is a way in which I think they are wrong. I don’t think the hollowness is out there, in some parcel of wicked politicians or biased journalists or rancorous academics. It’s in almost all of us, and it won’t be fixed by just voting in people who stand tall and say that they pray a lot. The problem is not — particularly — that our leaders are hollow. It’s that we are.


Ship of State

The red Valdez breaks through the shipping lanes
advancing towards Bligh Reef while Hazelwood
vacations on his ranch. His crude oil drains
the wilderness of soul and livelihood,
past Rocky majesty, from western sea
to bright blue liberal Massachusetts’ coast.
We question constitutionality
of missions not accomplished in this most
protected ecosystem, question spills
of cargo–not just business enterprise,
but hearts and minds, endangered blood, free wills,
and meant for more than suits to televise.
Remember cutthroat trout, the common loon–
you can’t impeach this fucking mess too soon!


Since about Halloween, I have been on a sugar binge. Then, today, the bread was definitely like adding insult to injury. Already lethargic from the sugar, I now also feel achy in the joints … and I won’t even go into the other symptoms … from the bread.

I also feel dulled, as if I had lost a few IQ points myself in the process. And yet, I haven’t been able to stop eating. That, and reading blogs all afternoon and evening.

All this gluten and glucose … I think this might be the secret recipe to get with the program, to join that majority in front of the TV set.

alembic [ellipses original]

I am horrified and frightened by the emotions I have raging inside myself, emotions that I have clearly been caging in my heart for years. I am profoundly disturbed that my writing flows most smoothly when I write as a screaming, bloody raven instead of a peaceful, happy frog. The frog was boring, but pleasant. The frog was safe. The frog was being boiled alive in her own complacency, but she was happy and she had friends and safe, easy friendships. She posted silly quizzes and pictures of kitties and chirruped happily about the lovely world she lived in. Her sorrows on the whole were small ones, or her own personal burdens to bear. Occasionally she would stamp her little frog feet in anger, but this entertained her friends and charmed them.

Now I am a black, bloody raven, beak dripping with gore. And I wonder if that gentle green frog will ever return. Somehow, I doubt it.

Frogs and Ravens

The game was called “five good things.” The object was to come up with five good things about George W. Bush. It was harder than I thought it would be! I recommend it to any Kerry-supporter, or anyone inclined to think of Bush as “pure evil.” He isn’t. No one is.

the vernacular body

One reason I stopped blogging at the end of the summer was in great part because of this sense of something in myself dissipating into the light of the screen and my muscles forgetting the stop-motion of walking and immersing myself in the arms of other living things. I had found myself following one contention to another through the cerebral world of blogs and the internet, arguing and sitting alone fuming and gradually darkening my mind with clouds of imagined wrongs. I wasn’t dealing with real people or learning more about living in the real world of nature. The very purpose of my feet and fingers, eyes and ears escaped my notice.

So I must stop myself here before I dive back into the water; I do not want to live my life fighting ghosts and demons. I want to learn to engage them and talk. I want to discover what it is that binds us all together and actuates language. Bush preaches hate and warmongering and revenge and absolutes. He refutes the mystery. And so many have fallen in step behind him, taking up his chants and marching to the beat. That is not how I want to live my life. That is not how I see the living things around me or how I want to greet other people. Not in the language of defeat and bloodletting.


I don’t want to think any more about the election. I’m grateful for the disaster, insofar as it disrupted me, and put my own small life into perspective. It temporarily threw me into a state of confusion and anger and fear. It made me want to rage against the decision, to do something huge, to scream and rant and fight and cry.

I’m feeling more settled now. It’s not apathy, or despair, or resignation: rather, I’m remembering what I’ve written here before. The most radical thing one can do is to stay present. There is nothing so important as remaining grounded in oneself, in being compassionate, and understanding, and wise. This does not mean doing nothing. It means doing everything. It means being human.

Nomen est Numen

Finally, one of the most eloquent reactions is completely wordless, just fifteen stark photographs gathered under one title, Into the Night, from Paula’s House of Toast. Check it out.

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.


1. Wren, light at the end of my tunnel, listen: I’m tired of this hobo life. Let’s build a nest.

2. It’s a beautiful morning, crisp as the flesh of a winesap.

3. With contrails of jets & the horns of the crescent moon, I am drawing a blueprint for a house made entirely of paper.

4. We will live neither in the shadows nor under a microscope.

5. I’ll fix silverfish for supper, baked with artichokes.

6. We’ll use glowworms to read the fine print on every surface.

7. Paper is the final frontier. You can’t do this with pixels!

8. Come, it will be fun! The wind won’t blow.


We are united in the way we light out for the territory, waving our little flaps of foolscap. We believe in the separate good to be made from the common plunder. We serve blind growth, worship the holy tumor, the severed tit. Tempests boil over in every teapot. Drain your cups & turn them over, boys! Now wait while the invisible hand works its legerdemain. Under one dome you’ll find an entire legislature in session! And under another, I swear, that tricky little pea.

We are united in our love of private parts. We all stretch our feet toward the same fire, party of the first part and party of the second part, originally separate blossoms modified by Manifest Destiny into rays of unearthly light, spokes of a wheel, teeth on a cog. It all fits. Here comes the honeybee, my friends. And here comes the world’s distraught suitor, mumbling She loves me, she loves me not…

We are united in the way we put our sweaty palms together beneath our chins: for prayer, many of us; some for friction against the sudden chill; a few to rub in ointment or saliva. We have hundreds of channels, a thousand points of refracted light & in every one there looms the shadow of the swatter, ah, my fellow flies!