The butternut chronicle: Nov. 5, 1998

Thirty-seven degrees and clear at a quarter till six. Again, I’m dazzled by the sight of the crescent moon hanging close to Venus: not something one is likely to get too many opportunities to enjoy in the course of a lifetime, much as we may like to think otherwise.

The moon’s down to its last little sliver, and the dark portion glows dimly with earthshine. I think I remember reading that it was Newton who first correctly identified this effect, which seems awfully recent for such a basic insight. But perhaps it was too counter-intuitive. The effects of the moon on the earth are many and undeniable – ask any woman. Even the land has measurable tides. The moon, in turn, is in thrall to our much greater gravitational pull. Should it surprise us, then, that its nights are brightened with the light reflected from this benighted planet?

At six the sound of a pickup truck: one of our hunter friends, parking over at Margaret’s. Fifteen minutes later a pair of great-horned owls starts dueting farther down the hollow. At 6:18 the first twitter of a songbird – probably goldfinch. At 6:20, a second hunter’s truck. By 6:30 I can hear the full compliment of songs and calls from sparrows, nuthatches, wrens. The owls fall silent. A single deer grazes just in from the wood’s edge, near the tulip tree – a yearling, by the look of her. Chances are she’ll make it through this hunting season unscathed.

Three song sparrows engage in a singing contest. The reductionist view that says birds sing to attract mates or mark territory hardly does justice to the countless uses to which a single song may be put, I think. But is it really accurate to consider this (or any) birdsong as one, basic theme capable of several variations? Sonograms reveal many differences from bird to bird and song to song indistinguishable to a human ear. And even the variations I can tell apart are enough to maintain my interest.

At any rate, ornithologists say an individual song sparrow may sing between six and twenty-four different songs. I listen as the closest of the three, perched in the French lilac bush, varies his song over the course of several minutes. Nasal at first and a little slurred, it turns more and more crystalline, as if to match the rapidly brightening sky.

Staying put

To all those U.S. citizens (myself included) who have been talking about going into self-imposed exile: it ain’t that bad yet!

Or maybe it is. But where you gonna go? The actions (and inaction) of the most powerful empire in world history are felt in every corner of the globe, from the North Pole to the bottom of the sea. Don’t you think that, as a voting, taxpaying citizen of the imperial power, you have a moral obligation to stay and try to make a difference – at least until the Bill of Rights is completely suspended and your life is physically in danger?

Much as I would love to relocate now to Canada, or maybe Ethiopia, I don’t know how well I’d do apart from this place – this deeply conservative, Republican area – where I’ve put down roots. We deny the power of attraction to the land at our own peril, I think. Displacement may be one of the most demoralizing of human conditions. And internal or external refugee status is a sad reality for hundreds of millions of people around the globe. In all too many cases, their uprootedness is the direct or indirect result of U.S. political and economic hegemony. Rather than exile ourselves, shouldn’t we do what we can – however little – to help end the exiles of others?

The great Spanish poet León Felipe wrote this about having to flee Spain in 1938 after the defeat of the Republic:


Y ahora me voy sin haber recibido mi legado,
sin haber habitado mi casa,
sin haber cultivado mi huerta,
sin haber sentido el beso de la siembra y de la luz.
Me voy sin haber dado mi cosecha,
sin haber encendido mi lámpara,
sin haber repartido mi pan…
Me voy sin que me hayáis entregado mi hacienda.
Me voy sin haber aprendido más que a gritar y a maldecir,
a pisar bays y flores…
me voy sin haber visto el Amor,
con los labios amargos llenos de baba y de blasfemias,
y con los brazos rí­gidos y erguidos, y los puños cerrados, pidiendo Justicia fuera de ataíºd.

by León Felipe

And now I am going, without having received my inheritance,
without having lived in my house,
without having tended my garden,
without having felt the kiss of the planting season and of the light.
I am going without having shared my harvest,
without having lit my lamp,
without having broken my bread . . .
I am going without having been given my estate.
I am going without having learned anything more than how to shout, how to curse,
how to trample on berries and flowers . . .
I am going without having gained a single glimpse of Love,
with my bitter lips all flecked with foam and blasphemies,
my arms stiff and straight and my fists clenched, begging for Justice beyond the confines of the coffin.

Re-reading my own writing from last spring, I think: who was this too-clever chap who was able to spin such inspired bullshit? Whatever happened to that sense of black humor I had? It’s been so long since I’ve felt frightened enough even to want to whistle in the dark. Now, it’s as if the tune got stuck in my throat. I listen to a scratchy old recordings from another, more desperate time in the nation’s history: Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Son House, singing woke up this morning with the Jinx all ’round, Jinx all ’round, round my bed, singing can’t tell my future, now, you can’t tell my past. Well it seem like tomorrow, baby, sure gon’ be my last, singing about canned heat, singing about alcohol and jake, but still singing the sun gonna shine in my back door someday. The wind gonna rise and blow my blues away.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 4, 1998

Out on the porch at 6:30, coffee and a cigarette. Thirty-two degrees and clear as a bell (interesting synaesthesic simile, that!). Venus and the crescent moon are less than a hand’s breadth apart.

The birds are very active and vocal this morning, in contrast with yesterday. Carolina wren begins the dawn chorus, as usual, followed by dueling song sparrows, a white-throated sparrow, juncos and chickadees.

Out again at 9:40. The sun’s in my eyes; I go get a ball cap. It seems a little odd even to myself that I don’t own a pair of sunglasses, but I just don’t like what they do to the light. Besides, this is the first day for a visual treat that I’ll be savoring for many months to come, as long as the sun stays low in the sky and my view up the ridgeside remains unimpeded: the sunlight glinting off the waxy leaves of mountain laurel. Picture a hillside of white light on dark green leaves, the straight dark trunks of trees and the blue sky beyond.

I ponder the paradox that, with the leaves gone, I actually have more opportunities for sunbathing in the winter than in the summer. Not that I’m going to take off very many clothes, of course. At any rate, the strong sun feels good on my face, despite the chill in the air: it’s just what the doctor ordered for my stuffed sinuses. And I’m cheered by the exuberant calls of chickadees. It amuses me to think about the likely gap between the way we perceive these “clowns and acrobats of the avian world” and the way they probably see themselves: as scouts and vigilantes, often the first and most fearless at scolding predators. Last week when I burned trash, three chickadees flew in to chirp their defiance at this dangerous intruder, darting as close as they dared to the leaping flames.

I wonder if the chickadee’s more wistful-sounding fee bee call is ever heard before the turning of the year? This is a good example of the pathetic fallacy, I guess: what strikes our ears as somewhat mournful almost certainly carries wholly different connotations for its author. Given that it seems a response to a lengthening photoperiod, it probably expresses excitement at the approach of another breeding season. In fact, given the way music can affect emotions, I’m willing to bet that singing their two-note fee bee song helps stimulate the production of hormones. (Any takers?)

12:45 p.m. It’s now forty-seven degrees in the shade. With the addition of the strong sunlight, that’s warm enough for the birds to bathe in the stream. The first pools below the butternut tree are, as always, the preferred spots, and juncos and goldfinches take turns there. The male goldfinches are now in their duller, gold-green winter plumage, but they still look spectacular as they immerse first their heads than their bodies, flinging water about with flailing wings. Half a minute of this and then it’s up into the butternut tree to dry in the sun and the light breeze, shaking the water from their tails and wings, sticking their breast feathers out like pins in a pincushion.

From watching the birds I’m led to admire the tree itself. I love the way this butternut changes color so dramatically at different times of day, even without rain to bring out the lichens. Whereas in the morning the trunk was a gunmetal gray, now it’s a river of shining white broken by thin black furrows. It’s almost like having my own, backyard Uluru.

I go out again at 2:00, and the squirrel I call the Thinker comes and sits in his usual spot. I guess he’s decided I’m not much of a threat.

2:18. The resident naturalist emerges from the woods. (Hi, Mom!)

2:25. I’m still here. There are falling leaves to watch, you know. It’s amazing how long it can take a large red oak leaf to reach the ground. Here’s one sailing down from the ridgetop, where the harder winds can scoop leaves right off the ground and send them spiraling hundreds of feet into the air. It rotates on its axis while dodging left and right, like a prizefighter crossed with a ballet dancer.

Seconds later two military jets – F16s, I think – come roaring over the treetops right on the other side of the powerline, about two hundred yards from where I sit. When the thunder dies away and my heartbeat returns to normal, I notice for the first time how really quiet things are this afternoon. The winds and barometric pressure are just right to screen out all but the sound of train whistles (which I really wouldn’t want to do without). I wonder, too, with a bit of envy, how intimately those pilots must know the topography: every wooded fold and wrinkle in this old, old land.

A quarter till three and my afternoon coffee is starting to kick in. Despite my head cold I feel so good I could cry – I don’t know what keeps me from it. Nobody’s watching except for that squirrel, and he looks like the close-mouthed sort. This happiness seems wholly without justification – an irrational exuberance, as Alan Greenspan is fond of saying about an overheated market. Well, but of course I can feel as justified in my happiness as anyone else. It’s simply that joy without cause brings a special burden on its owner, I think, one that isn’t exhausted by the mere recounting of it. The world asks me for poems. I wonder if I shouldn’t take this vocation a little more seriously?

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 3, 1998

Thirty-four degrees at dawn, with small flakes of snow falling into my coffee. Everything’s quiet except for a small flock of chickadees, irrepressible as ever.

The biggest change is that my beautiful aspens have all been stripped bare. I feel bereft.

The birches and cherry trees that still held onto their leaves yesterday have been similarly stripped, but all the others – willow, elms, lilac, oaks – seem unchanged.

Still snowing at 8:00: the same small, widely scattered flakes. And there’s still nothing stirring, aside from the chickadees. With the benefit of full daylight, I realize that the view through the trees up to the top of the ridge is much clearer this morning; more oaks have lost their leaves overnight than I had initially thought.

Thus, in the space of 24 hours, my horizon has been drastically expanded. Though given a choice, I think I’d prefer the sheltering closeness of the dense forest all year ’round, much as I love winter. Maybe I should move some place farther north, with lots of evergreens?

The clouds are thinning; blue patches appear here and there. I can hear a nuthatch yank yanking. But this stiff breeze and my general lack of toughness make it hard for me to stay out on the porch for long. The woodstove beckons.

Two hours later, snowflakes are still in the air, swirling down from fast-moving clouds. The sun shines full in my face for 30 seconds. Sun and snow alternate for the next ten minutes, until the snow finally peters out. Pacing up and down to stay warm, I watch the cloud shadows racing by. On this high porch lined with railings on two sides, I feel a bit like the captain of a slow-moving ship.

At half past noon I’m ambushed by a flurry of sneezes. For the rest of the day, I can’t go for five minutes without blowing my nose. Now I know why I felt so vulnerable to the cold this morning. The virus was already busy trying to control my thoughts: Go inside, where it’s warm, where the germ can spread!

There are analogies and then there are analogies. To say that governments and corporations are like viruses infecting the body politic is to gain a real insight into the way so-called evil replicates itself in this world.

In a world of shit

The wise and compassionate Helena Cobban writes, “I am desperately trying not to feel angry with those of our ‘fellow citizens’ who voted W in this time.”

Good for you, sister. I’m just concentrating on not doing bodily injury to myself.

What I am trying to remember here is that my fellow Americans aren’t any dumber than anyone else – we’re just way, way more ignorant. As far as general stupidity and susceptibility to mass hypnosis go, let’s not forget that the Germans pre-Hitler were supposedly among the best-educated folks on the planet.

So my take-home thought for this morning is that We Suck. All of us. Robinson Jeffers was right: humanity is needless. We’d shit on the morning star if we could reach it.

But hey, this is Via Negativa’s 600th post. Huzzah. Plus: I’ve started a new blog – basically just a links blog, designed to force me to follow politics a little more closely – called dead raccoon in the road. Don’t know if I’ll have the heart to keep it up or not.

For here, for now, in celebration of this blogging milestone, how about some…


translated by Ulli Beier (Yoruba Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1970)

We call the dead – they answer.
We call the living – they do not answer.

A round calabash in the spear grass.
[moon and stars]

A thin staff reaches from heaven to earth.

The bereaved one has stopped weeping.
The compassionate friend is still crying.
[rain and the dripping leaves after rain]

A pile of shit on a leaf, and covered with a leaf.
[humanity between heaven and earth]

Voting by signs

I got up this morning on the left side of the bed.

This was not as straightforward as it sounds. I had to push the bed away from the wall to get out on that side.

At 5:00 a.m. the moon, symbol of wisdom, cast a fairly strong light despite the thin cloud cover. The truth will out, as they say.

As I sat outside drinking my coffee, I could hear water trickling in the spring and in the stream. That’s very unusual for this time of year.

The first train whistle was from the east, just three short blasts.

It’s 6:30 and I have yet to hear a single white-throated sparrow sing. According to birders’ onomatopoeic lore, its song says, “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada!” Not that Canada would necessarily be a bad place to live . . .

Instead, the song sparrow seems eerily insistent this morning: “Hip hip hurrah, boys! Spring is here!” Spring in November? It’s possible!

In fact, the long-range forecast from the U.S. Weather Service calls for mild temperatures and sunny skies starting tomorrow.

Yesterday afternoon the great-horned owl began calling well before dark. It began in the deepest part of the hollow, but as darkness fell, it moved higher and higher up the ridge.

For my first breakfast I peeled an apple, keeping the peel all in one piece. When I was finished, I passed it around my head three times in a clockwise direction and let it fall to the floor. It landed in the rough shape of the letter “D” if you sort of squinted a little. Not “R”. And certainly not “W”!

It’s said that if you dig a hole when the moon is waxing, you’ll have more than enough dirt to fill it up. But if you dig a hole when the moon is waning, you’ll never have enough dirt to fill the hole you’ve dug. The moon’s on the wane, Mr. President. You might want to think about patching things up with some of those pesky trial lawyers.

When I went out to take a leak just now, a crow flew overhead from north to south. Hey, where’s your usual gang of obnoxious friends? It held its tongue.

Too late I realized that I had pulled my left boot on first, contrary to the superstition. Well, I don’t believe in any of that stuff, anyway. Luck is where you find it – and what you make of it.

Still, as a poet I must admit to some, slight belief in word magic. What we say influences what we think and how we act, insinuates itself into the very fabric of reality! Yep. Therefore, I’m calling this election for John Kerry BY A LANDSLIDE. Alert the media.

Now let’s all get busy and put the “ex” back in “Texas”! See you at the polls!

The butternut chronicle – Nov. 2, 1998

6:30 a.m. Fifty-four degrees and overcast, with rain imminent.

All Souls/Dí­a de los Muertos. I can make out the dim figures of deer moving through the trees, hear the rustle of their hooves in the dry leaves. The only birdsong comes from the ever-ebullient Carolina wren. Without that, the mood could fairly be described as somber.

Five minutes later: O.K., that sound is rain. But is it a sprinkle or a drizzle? I sure wish the English language had more words for that sort of thing! (One of the few vernacular Chinese expressions I still remember from college is mao mao yu, “fine hair rain”: used for when it’s just barely misting out.)

The 7:00 a.m. factory whistle coincides with the onset of harder rain. This in turn precipitates a chorus of twitters from the assorted dickey birds in and around the yard: juncos, titmice, chickadees, maybe a goldfinch or two.

Here’s a rundown of the colors I’m seeing from my front porch. Straight ahead, right at the driveway curve where the stream flows under the road, the big French lilac retains most of its leaves, which have faded to a sort of pea-green. Down along the edge of the woods to my left, several hundred yards away, the four big quaking aspens also still have their leaves – that lovely orange-gold. Lighter yellow leaves adorn the river willow down in the old corral along the stream this side of the aspens, as well as the two elm trees in view: one right to the left of the lilac, the other along the edge of the woods to my right, next to the leaning-over wild apple. Closer to the porch in the same direction, the tall tulip tree is still in yellow leaf, as are a couple small black birches to its left. The Japanese cherry right in front of my herb garden has yet to lose its leaves, which tend more toward orange than yellow.

Three quarters of the trees I’m looking at are bare, including most birches, red maples and black walnuts, plus of course the butternut tree. The oaks are a mixed bag. Many of the red and scarlet oaks still have pretty full crowns of leaves, which are only halfway toward brown.

The unmowed grass in my front yard is still green, despite the drought. I’m hoping for a couple hours of hard rain to bring out the colors on the tree trunks.

The feral black cat appears from behind the lilac bush and trots down the driveway. The pileated drums over at Margaret’s, answered a few seconds later by another pileated up on the powerline. This woodpecker drumming contest will continue sporadically for the next fifteen minutes. Pileated woodpeckers are one of my favorite things about living here, I think.

A flock of chickadees moves down from the crest of Laurel Ridge and into the yard, heading for the bird feeder. Word’s spreading.

At 8:30 a low-flying “V” of geese goes honking over the corner of the field in a southerly direction. These are, I presume, local resident geese, not part of the migrating flock from Chesapeake Bay. I enjoy the reminder that the only thing we’re cut off from, here in this mountain hollow, is the company of our fellow humans. Otherwise, the romantic notion of escape from the world is a complete (and dangerous) fantasy.

9:30 a.m.: It’s raining, it’s pouring! I’ve enjoyed sitting here watching and listening to the rain’s slow, steady acceleration for the past three hours. But what’s to say about it? Nothing much. When people ask me what I do with my time, how can I explain?

Coincident with the harder rain has been a gradual lowering of the cloud ceiling (I love that phrase – it makes the world seem so homey!) and the formation of a very thin fog: perfect weather for All Souls’ Day. The juncos are unfazed, singing and flitting through the trees on a quest for (I think) birch seeds.

By 10:00 the rain begins to slacken off. All the upper surfaces of the butternut tree’s splay of limbs are glowing in a half-dozen shades of gray and green. As I had hoped, this was just enough moisture to coax the lichens into opening the pores of their skins. And of course since the butternut tree is pretty advanced in age – well over a hundred years, I’d say – its bark hosts a nicely varied flora.

It’s now past eleven o’clock, and only a fine mist is falling: mao mao yu. A gust of wind shakes free a shower, a torrent of leaves from the treetops. I am reminded once again, as I am every year, that “fall” is far from incremental. Some years it’s more “blow” than “fall”. Given sufficient wind, all these trees could be bare by tomorrow morning.