The butternut chronicle – Nov. 1, 1998

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


I recently found a journal I had kept for a few weeks back in November of 1998, consisting mainly of nature notes, all recorded from my front porch. At that time, an old butternut tree in my yard dominated the view, so I’m calling this the Butternut Chronicle. The American butternut (Juglans cinerea) is on the way out, the victim of a mysterious canker that is expected to result in the extinction of the species. The individual in question was still half-alive and fairly sturdy-looking in 1998, though (as it turned out) hollow at its base and full of carpenter ants. It toppled over suddenly one morning in August 2003, fortunately doing little damage to the house. Of the four or five butternut trees that once stood on this end of the mountain, I know of only one that still clings to life.

Unfortunately, most of my observations were pretty humdrum, and I lost interest in journaling after only 18 days. Now, inspired by the Middlewesterner’s Morning Drive Journal, I’m curious to see if I can make any lemonade out of this lemon.

First light. There’s a thin layer of thick fog, if that makes any sense. I walk a little ways up the side of the ridge and am already above it, looking down on a white blanket with clear sky above. I return to the porch and the drinking of my morning coffee.

There’s intense activity from first light on, lots of chips and cheeps. A caroling song sparrow doesn’t seem to care about a pair of screech owls calling back and forth between the powerline right-of-way and Margaret’s woods. But when I try my screech owl imitation, I’m roundly scolded by a Carolina wren.

The fog shifts, rising and falling with the abruptness of a malfunctioning theater curtain.

The gray squirrels are chasing each other through the treetops; the click and scrabble of their claws against the bark makes quite a din. The big one I call the Thinker has taken refuge in the butternut and is squatting in his usual pensive position, motionless on the stump of an old limb, staring up toward the apple tree. But eventually four more squirrels come racing and leaping into the butternut’s great “V” of outspread limbs.

This is quite obviously about play, not sex or territory. (Gray squirrels don’t really defend territories, the experts say.) From time to time one will pause to scratch itself, and then one or more of the others will follow suit. Pretty soon I’m feeling kind of itchy myself.

The pileated woodpecker drums on his favorite, most resonant snag over at Margaret’s. A pair of golden-crowned kinglets works over the Japanese cherry, gleaning tiny insects, it appears, from the undersides of the leaves.

At 7:15 I go up to the main house for the season’s ritual first filling of the bird feeders.

By 8:00 the fog is gone, and the squirrels with it. The Carolina wren lets loose with a volley of teakettles. The guest house chipmunk emerges from its burrow beside the walk. Without reference to the clock I anticipate the blowing of the factory whistle in Tyrone, and five seconds later it goes off. I am pleased with myself that my internal clock has already made the adjustment to standard time.

By the time the sun has cleared the treetops, at 8:30, the woods are silent. Most of the excitement, as usual, is in the in-between, the liminal time between night and day – and again, in late afternoon, between day and night. So, too, with this halfway point between the equinox and the solstice: Samhain, All Hallows Day. Steam rises from the damp woods. Squinting into the sun, I stub out my cigarette, think about finding something to do with my life.

The butternut chronicle – Nov. 2, 1998

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


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.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 3, 1998

This entry is part 3 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


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.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 4, 1998

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


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. 5, 1998

This entry is part 5 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


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.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 6, 1998

This entry is part 6 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


Last dream before waking: I am visiting a little-known reservation for an obscure sect of Messianic Jews in central Pennsylvania on land granted them by William Penn. I remember a string of white ponies approaching me one by one and thrusting their wet noses into my face. A little later, I’m walking in my stockinged feet between huge trees padded with incredibly thick moss all the way up their trunks, as high as I can see.

It fifty-three degrees on my front porch at 6:00 a.m. Thin, low clouds. A warm breeze rustles through the dry leaves at the edge of the driveway; otherwise, it’s dead quiet.

A doe ran off when I opened the door, as on nearly every other morning. But something about the way she spooked suggests she might be a newcomer, not a member of the resident herd. The latter have grown so used to me, they’ll only run a little way, and quickly return as long as I stay reasonably still. Located as I am right next to the highest year-round open water in the hollow, I see so many deer on a daily basis it’s hardly worth mentioning them in these notes.

At 6:15, my coffee finished, I go off for a brisk walk. I’m back by 8:30. One member of the resident pair of Carolina wrens lands on the old bluebird box on the butternut tree, bobbing up and down with great apparent earnestness while reciting its usual teakettleteakettleteakettle litany. Not satisfied with this display, it flies right in over my head and lands briefly on the porch railing beside me, chipping loudly. I’m not quite sure what it has in mind, but I have a feeling my presence is not required.

A flock of cedar waxwings moves through around quarter till nine. I hear them whistling to each other as they move through the treetops, but I never do catch a glimpse of them. Not that I expend much effort. I’m busy reading (or trying to read) Jorge Guillén: Sí­, tu niñez, ya fábula de fuentes. “Yes, your childhood, already a legend for fountains.”

After lunch, I cart out the radio, thinking I might enjoy listening to a Penn State football game for once. They’re playing Minnesota, and it’s shaping up to be a good contest. The temperature has climbed to 60, and there are only patchy clouds. It’s a good afternoon for leaf watching: huge flocks of red and scarlet oak leaves (actually all brown now) keep swirling down from the ridgetop. It’s always fun when some of them turn out to be birds and just keep on going. I sit there open-mouthed for a second or two, like a football fan watching an interception.

It seems like excellent weather for ravens, but I’ve yet to hear one. Of course, having the radio on probably has something to do with that. It’s been so long since I’ve listened to commercial radio, I’m agog at all the ads. I’m wondering if maybe this doesn’t have something to do with the gradual ascendancy of football over baseball as the new American Pastime? There’s so much more room for ads in a football game!

I’m fascinated by the rigid division into play time, evidently measured by some sort of official clock, and irrelevant time, which is far from useless. I get the impression that this time-outside-time is integral to the game, somehow. The announcers constantly talk about which team has how much timeout remaining, for example, and it appears there are other ways to stop the clock. Considering football as ritual drama rather than mere sporting contest, it seems fairly obvious that our cultural fascination with the fight against time is at the center of things. For both teams, the clock seems to stand in for Death itself, just like the bull in a Spanish bullfight. But I don’t know enough about the rules for timeout and overtime to speculate any further.

Needless to say, the precise meaning of much of what I’m hearing escapes me. The descriptions of the plays are impossible for me to picture, but the repetitive, stylized language is undeniably poetic. Too bad my high school gym teachers always assumed everyone already knew how to play the game; I might’ve learned something. Instead, they were content to let me run back and forth as the occasion seemed to demand, and left me alone – except for that one time when M. K. made the mistake of throwing me the ball, and I proceeded to run in the wrong direction. I scored a touchdown for the opposing team! Hey, it was wide open.

Funny I still remember that. It really didn’t bother me at the time, all the ribbing and abuse I came in for. I was already the class pariah – what could they do? “It’s not my fault,” I said. “I didn’t ask to be here!” I don’t remember if anyone had an answer to that.

First down. Second down and three. Third down on their own fifteen yard line. The wingnut formation. Now they’re in motion. The quarterback drops back, he’s looking, looking . . . Now here comes Minnesota’s 41 over the line . . .

Second quarter. Pine siskins briefly enter the butternut tree, their calls blending with the (to me) indistinguishable calls of the goldfinches. Purple jerseys versus yellow. The stands go wild.

It’s more than background noise, the roar of the crowd. I’m reminded of the contemporary philosopher Alfonso Lingis’ resonant phrase, the murmur of the world. Except this ain’t no stinkin’ murmur. These people sound as if they want nothing less than triumph for their team and complete, shattering humiliation for the other side. WE ARE . . . PENN STATE! Like hell you are, I think with an alum’s smugness.

At 3:05, two Apache helicopters flying in tandem along the ridge pass low over the houses. You talk about LOUD!

At 3:10, I scribble in my palm-sized notebook my admiration of the lilac leaves, still light green when almost every other bush and tree stands bare. Beautiful the way they catch the low sun, all a-flutter in the breeze. “No more can you get a little extra – ’cause you want a lot extra!” says the radio, pimping for McDonalds.

Forty minutes later the setting sun turns the limbs of the butternut tree to gold. I’m reading Stephen Dunn with my usual astonishment at his retrograde insistence that words should have something to say. I notice a typo, its for it’s. Typos are a much better example of the sort of thing Lingis intended by “the murmur of the world,” I think. Basically, it’s all the stuff we screen out: typos, slips of the tongue, spoken ums and ahs – all of them part and parcel of the normal functioning of any organic system. Or at least, that’s how I recall his argument. It was one of those things where I was reading the book (The Community of Those who Have Nothing in Common) before I gave it to someone (my brother Mark) for Christmas.

By 4:00, my notes indicate I had turned the radio off; no mention of how the game turned out. I’m marveling instead at how much more natural sound I can hear now: the nearly constant chirps and twitters of foraging birds, the wind in the crowns of the few oak trees still in leaf sounding so much like distant applause.

4:05: The Thinker slowly descends the butternut, ambles across the stream and over to the old log beside the driveway. I wonder what makes this one squirrel so placid? He acts more like a fox squirrel than a gray.

Stephen Dunn, in a poem called “The Liar”: “Facts are what I love, their insignificance,/the clay I can make of them.” I like the way he avoids the unnecessarily logical formulation here. If it had been me, I’m sure I would’ve tried to say something like, “…the unlimited number of ways I can twist their clay.”

At two minutes before 5:00, a hunter emerges from the woods, gun balanced on his shoulder. I set my harmonica aside to say hello. “Do you know any Bob Dylan?” he asks. (Jesus, I didn’t think my playing was that bad!) His blaze-orange coat and cap glow like foxfire in the gathering dusk.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 7, 1998

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series The Butternut Chronicle


I slept in this morning, maybe because it’s Sunday. Or maybe not.

It’s thirty-five degrees and partly overcast (does that make sense?) at 7:30. As usual on a Sunday, it’s pretty peaceful outside – just a very slight bit of traffic noise, the sound of a jet, a distant propeller plane.

The drumming of the pileated woodpecker over at Margaret’s sounds especially resonant this morning. A crow calls. I listen to the wind in the trees as attentively as I can, mindful of the fact that I only have a week or two longer until all the remaining oak leaves have blown down. The winds of winter can be fierce, but – except when they rattle shutters and whistle through the cracks around doors and windows – they’re quiet, the quietest of the year.

The pileated drums steadily. I try counting the beats per call, but they’re just too rapid. Somewhere between five and ten is as close as I can get. At 7:35 he switches to a higher-pitched snag. This may be the most exciting thing to happen here all day.

The trunk and limbs of the butternut are flat gray. The sun has just cleared the ridge and is shining weakly through a thin screen of cloud, so there’s light without shadows, almost. I can hear chickadees down in the pines along the stream, while finches move through the trees across the road from me on their way to the bird feeder up at the main house. There’s already a considerable amount of twittering, tapping and yankyanking (nuthatch) coming from that direction.

The wind up on the ridgetop to the west is blowing steadily, drowning out all the noise from the trains except for their whistles. Here’s one at a more or less baritone pitch with an unusually rich and nasal tone cluster. It’s answered a moment later by a soprano, whistling either for the same or for an adjacent crossing. Two trains running, says the old blues song, and neither one goes my way.

But I’m not listening to records; I’m still reading Stephen Dunn.

I should mention the leaves
are changing, it’s lovely, this time of year,
when only the hopelessly literate
are reminded of death.

(“Letter to Minnesota from the East Coast”)

By 12:30 the sky is almost clear. A large shadow comes gliding through the woods: a turkey vulture circles low over the treetops, searching for a thermal to ride back up to the slipstream current along the crest of the ridge. I watch as it tilts in the strong wind, then veers around and heads back north, its shadow sliding up and down the bare tree trunks and across the shining waves of mountain laurel like an eyelid in search of a missing blink.

I’m out on the porch again at 2:00 when three chickadees drop in. Out of a slightly larger flock foraging in the top branches of the butternut, these three fly down onto the balustrades, the porch floor. One lands on the table at my right elbow while another inspects my boots, which are propped as usual on the topmost railing. They hop and flutter, never holding still for longer than half a second. Chickadees are rarely dull. Their lack of fear toward humans is a trait usually found only among species of the far north. It’s easy to romanticize swans or ravens, but of all birds I find the chickadee the most symbolic of the life of the spirit in its comic seriousness, its constant activity, its propensity to wager everything for a closer look.

Three-thirty. A titmouse – close cousin of the chickadee – lands on the rim of my ashtray. It peers down at the cigarette butts as if deciding whether they’re worth a taste, then pivots forty-five degrees, tilts its head and looks again. It holds this new position for five seconds, then flies off.

At 3:46 the Thinker slowly descends the butternut, ambles across the stream and over to the old log beside the driveway. Exactly the same as yesterday, but nineteen minutes earlier.

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.

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.

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.