by Glenn Reed
(Swans - April 7, 2014) Bird sounds surround me. I know which they are and can attach names to them. I wonder if that's important in a world where we're erasing those names, one after another.
I'm sitting on the back step, looking out on the small back yard. The temperature has only just crept past 40 degrees and there're a few inches of solid ice at my feet that spreads to a huge mound of snow that was plowed up from a huge storm a couple of weeks ago. It's been diminished as the snow has "compacted," becoming heavier with its concentrated moisture. The surface of the pile is black with the debris from two bird feeders that thrust through the snow beneath a shady hemlock tree.
Dozens of goldfinches are emitting their delicate, slightly plaintive tweets from maple tree branches before fluttering down to the feeders. For all I know, that sweet sound they make means "get the hell out of my way," or "that's my seed so beat it!" In my head, I guess, I'm forever anthropomorphizing critters.
Or maybe not.
In my soul I feel it's more my way of talking with them, whether in my own head or in actual whispers. It's not, of course, that I expect them to understand my words or that I have special "powers." Then I might be considered a candidate for certain meds. No, but I feel it reflects a tone, if I quietly speak to them, or an attitude in my movements that they may recognize as non-threatening. At least if they see me every day. Especially with the same hat on my head. They'll get used to my presence and accept me as part of their world.
Even while most of humanity seems hell-bent on destroying that world.
While sitting peacefully in that spot, motionless, just watching the bird activity and hearing the complex web of their communication all around, my thoughts go back to another early spring day just three years ago.
It was late March and my partner and I were hiking a favorite trail in Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Northern California. We were living in the remote city of Eureka at the time, but only about a month from moving across the country to Vermont. As much as I love the Green Mountain State, I was having very mixed feelings about this change. This doubt continued to grow as we made our way past skunk cabbage and cushions of moss in the forest understory at the beginning of the path, which almost immediately coursed amongst towering redwoods.
I always felt humbled in this space and in quiet awe of these trees -- many of which are a thousand or more years old. A sacred silence reigns in the floor of the redwood forests. We would rarely speak while there and if we did, it was in whispers. Everything smells rich, damp, and earthy and evokes a sense of timelessness, growth, the interrelatedness of all matter on this planet.
The Ossagon Trail trends slowly uphill for a little less than a mile amongst these amazing trees, crests in an area where the redwoods segue into thick forests of mostly alder and Sitka spruce, then twists steeply downward towards the ocean. It's crisscrossed by trickling streams that are drawn to a larger creek in a ravine to the south of the trail.
This one day, already feeling so connected to this amazing landscape, I heard a single note pierce the silence. It was a bird sound that was intimately familiar to me. It's one with a reflective, haunting tone that had always made me pause and listen as if it conveyed the secrets of this special place.
The bird sound came from towards the ravine and my eyes scanned the fir trees for its source. I knew it was a bird that preferred cool, coniferous woods and one that I always heard back when I lived in Washington and hiked in the Cascades. I always wondered what the name of the bird was, but never looked it up or asked anyone. To me, this bird's sound had come to represent the soul of this place. Every time I heard it I would stop, close my eyes, listen, and feel this deep connection.
For some reason on this one day, knowing we would be leaving and wouldn't hear this bird in Vermont, I felt more compelled to finally learn its name. We passed one hiking couple and chatted for a few minutes. They were from the area and I thought they might be able to identify the bird by its call. They could not. We passed another group of hikers and I ventured forth this inquiry once again. No luck. When I got home that night I searched all over the internet. Still no dice. How could it be so difficult to find out the name of a bird so common to an area?
The rest of that hike was magical. The Ossagon Trail crosses a final stream at the bottom of its downhill course, passes through a grove of alders, then becomes sand in more open territory that rapidly becomes beach. In the spring, the trail is covered in pools of water in many spots and in others, passes ground that is blooming with an aromatic herb called pennyroyal in late March and fragrant lupine later in the season.
Closer to the ocean, the trail disappears in the blowing sand and, in the spring, beneath the water of temporary ponds that dry up in the summer. Scattered, large rock formations rise from the shifting sands in brooding shapes. The beach is almost always deserted and, on past occasions, we'd seen a herd or small groups of bachelor elk grazing on the hillside sloping right down to the ocean's edge to the north. Swallows zigzagged over the pools of water, nabbing insects and reflecting bits of sun off their ever-moving, iridescent blue wings.
It was a perfect day when we took that last hike. It made leaving the area even more difficult.
I recently did find out the name of that bird after much more investigation on the Internet. It's called the varied thrush. Or rather, I found out what we, as English-speaking humans, call this bird.
Will I impress people when I identify it on a future hike if I get back on the West Coast? Does the name give the bird more meaning if I've applied "complex" human language along with the strict definitions and descriptions of science to its being? If I hear that single, drawn-out, pensive note will the words "varied thrush" pop into my head? Or will my brain shut up and just let my body and soul feel it?
My thoughts return to Vermont, where I'm still on the slate steps listening. Now, above the cacophony of finch and other bird noises, cheery sounds from a brilliant red bird that is perched at the top of a maple stand out. It's a complex call, bright and full with life and the spirit of this place.
The name we've attached to this bird is "cardinal."
I close my eyes, forget the word. The bird leaves his perch and I glide along with it, from tip of branch, over brown fields still patched with snow, and down into a cluster of sumac bushes, where we sing life into this place and the landscape speaks back to us.
Even as pickups belch fumes and traffic roars past close-by, reasonless in its screaming of human folly and deafening our ears. And still, the bird we call a cardinal continues its tune for all who will listen and feel.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)