June 16, 2008
One of my favorite sounds of Berkshire summer is the call of a particular bird. We have at least two of them in the woods behind our house, and at this time of year we hear them calling back and forth to one another for hours on end. The song is difficult to describe. I've always heard it as a kind of spiralling metallic sound. Ethan says it sounds like an Icelandic techno band.
Just now, between the two of us and some judicious Googling (and the slightly surreal experience of hearing birdsong coming both out of our computer speakers and through the windows from the outside world) we've figured it out: it's the song of the Veery, also known as the Veery thrush.
(At this link, you can click where it says "song" in the upper left-hand corner of the page and listen to its call. You can also do so here. And if you want to get truly hardcore, you can listen to Veery calls and see graphical representations of their soundwaves and see them rendered as sheet music.)
I've bookmarked the song on del.icio.us; I know it's something I'll want to hear again. Maybe I'll play it in Jerusalem when I want to remember one of the sounds of home. Maybe I'll play it in February when all of the veeries have retired to the tropics, along with the wood thrushes, leaving us with the hardy chickadees and juncos whose tunes are less showy but whose tiny presences still comfort me during the snowy season.
I always try to say a shehecheyanu when I hear the first thrush-song of the summer. My friend John Jerome, of blessed memory, wrote beautifully about it in his book Stone Work:
How do they make those sounds? It isn't a whistle, is it? (Birds can't exactly purse their lips.) It's song, all right, some kind of complex shout, or cry, air squeezed out of bird-sized lungs across bird-sized vocal cords. Little bitty muscles, doing work: bird labor, for which a certain amount of the energy budget must also be set aside. A single bird, flexing a bit of muscle and connective tissue smaller than a matchhead, filling the woods with sound. At sundown, the melting liquidity of the wood thrush's song -- responsible, when I do manage to listen, for an untrustworthy sensation in the region of my own vocal cords -- is also fueled by the conversion of glucose to adenosine triphosphate. From grasshopper meat, no doubt.
Thinking of such things gets in the way of hearing the song. To learn to listen better, I sit with Chris through summer sunsets, trying to pick out the last thrush's call of the day -- which is impossibly backward, since you can't realize it was the last one until a quarter of an hour after you heard it. The quality of my attention falls away quickly, though, and between calls, between the very notes, I slip off into some other foolish speculation and miss the song. According to our friend Becky, what the wood thrush says is, "Here I am." Long pause. "Over here." Long pause. "Loving you." It is very peaceful, never mind the feeling it gives you at the back of the throat.
On one of the email lists to which I belong, we've been talking about mindfulness lately. What "mindfulness" means, what we like and don't like about the vagueness of the term, how we do or don't practice it in our daily lives. Noticing music, and being attentive to the ways it sparks my own emotional dips and swoops: that's the kind of mindfulness to which I aspire. Whether the sounds entering my ears are the birdsong of our very own hill, or the muezzins of a far-away city I can only begin to imagine.
Technorati tags: mindfulness, veery, birdsong, JohnJerome.