The butternut chronicle: Nov. 11, 1998

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 11 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.

I’m a day late on this one, but that’s O.K. because I didn’t include an entry for November 12. I was starting to run out of steam at this point.

Rain, forty-four degrees. It’s Veterans Day, a holiday of no special significance for my family but a somber time nonetheless. I’m out on the porch at 5:40 a.m. with my coffee. When I sneeze, all of a sudden, there’s the sound of two or three dozen hooves running up the hillside through the woods in the drizzly darkness.

“Rain before seven, clear by eleven” actually comes true, for once. I’m out again at a quarter till twelve. I hear the happy croaks of ravens soaring high over Sapsucker Ridge.

A bluejay is making a nuisance of himself in the lilac bush, trying for some reason to chase out all the other birds – juncos and chickadees. He flaps awkwardly through the maze of branches, screaming, no match for the smaller birds who simply turn the tables and start dive-bombing him. He beats a hasty retreat.

1:40 p.m. A series of harsh, throat-clearing noises from the top of the ridge, reminiscent of that strange sound nighthawks make when they dive, only not as loud. Then a few minutes later the resident redtail drops in, landing on the branch of an oak tree some fifty feet up from the edge of the woods. This really sets off all the squirrels. Annoying as their alarm calls are, I always enjoy listening to the way they spread like signal fires from tree to tree, squirrel to squirrel. After half a minute or so the hawk takes off and heads down-hollow, skimming just under the canopy. The chatter of startled squirrels follows him like a wake.

Butternut chronicle: Nov. 13, 1998

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 12 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.

3:20 p.m. Fifty-four degrees. A male white-breasted nuthatch inches along the edge of the porch roof, probing under the lip of shingles with his workmanlike bill.

There are four things you need to know about white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis): 1) they are basically solitary; 2) their strongest allegiance as a non-migratory, highly territorial species is to place; 3) nuthatch space is defined and delimited by the presence of trees, with which they have a unique and intimate relationship; and 4) they spend must of their waking hours upside-down, finding thereby all the small gleanings overlooked by everyone else.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 14, 1998

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 13 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. There’s no entry for Nov. 15, and only a couple of observations from the day before – also a Sunday in 1998.

The warm spell continues. It’s fifty-one degrees at 8:00 a.m. A disgustingly late hour for me to be getting up, but I spent a late night with some visiting friends, who are still sleeping.

All five of the nearby resident gray squirrels are in the butternut tree, racing back and forth through its vase-shaped splay of limbs. The sun shines brightly but diffusely through a thin screen of cirrus; the trees don’t cast shadows. There’s a peculiar feel to the air this morning, like Indian Summer gone stale, I write.

Then again, maybe I just need to change my socks.

The butternut chronicle: Nov. 18, 1998

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 14 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 almost entirely of thoughts germinated and observations made while sitting on my front porch. It ran from November 1 through November 19, 1998.

I woke early, grabbed a shower & took my coffee up into the field to watch the Leonids. Between 5:20 and 6:00 I counted thirty-three streaks of light. I found myself slowly revolving in place with my head back, sometimes stomping my feet to keep warm: an Indian kind of dance, perhaps, accompanied by a vague though prayerful longing. All the while, a pair of great-horned owls were calling back and forth between the ridges and Venus shone bright as a searchlight. Even as the stain of light from the east spread across the sky, even as the earth’s atmosphere grew visible, meteors continued to flash in its inverted pan. Thirty-three: one for each year of my life. These are all the stars I wished upon, I said to myself, knowing full well they were nothing but grains of dust.

Out on the porch at 8:12. It has turned into a glorious morning. I crane around to admire the rosemary blooming on the other side of the window glass: two pale blue, almost orchid-shaped flowers at the end of the longest branch, which bends like a lazy N or half an infinity symbol.

1:15 p.m. Forty-five degrees now and still cloudless, but the stench of cow manure freshly spread on some field down in Sinking Valley makes it tough to sit outside. I count myself fortunate, though, that the pulp mill in Tyrone went out of operation back in 1970, and that none of those massive hog farms one reads about elsewhere have been built here yet.

All afternoon the butternut gets a thorough grooming from nuthatches, chickadees, even a downy woodpecker – sometimes all in the tree at once. Between 2:45 and 3:30 there’s a steady procession of squirrels back and forth between the woods and the walnut tree on the slope behind the house. For whatever reason they have abandoned their usual caution about crossing open ground today. At 3:20 I watch one squirrel pause for a drink in the stream. It crouches to sip in a very feline manner, takes its time. Then it climbs the butternut as high as the Thinker’s usual post and takes time out for a thorough scratch.

By 3:30 the sky has gone white. It’s very still. Much to my surprise, the smell of manure has already completely dissipated – guess I complained too soon. The downy is working over the smallest dead branches – there are quite a few – and I’m enjoying the range of tones he manages to extract along with whatever grubs or insects he’s after.

Around the same time, a small flock of chickadees demonstrates their species’ versatility. Some ride weed stalks and cattail heads halfway to the ground, dangling head-down like a dried plant’s dream of heaven in a huge winged seed. Others fly up to the tops of the walnuts and black cherries at the woods’ edge to raid old webworm nests, while still others hop around in the butternut, poking and peering under every loose piece of bark. They could just stay at the birdfeeders all day, but what would be the fun in that?

At 4:30 the Thinker crosses the road about fifteen feet off the ground and follows his usual arboreal highway down the splay of butternut limbs to his favorite spot. All’s not right with the world, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be.