Friday, August 17, 2007
I am studying birdsong.
Walking in the evenings I pass an apple tree, which often bursts into song as I approach. I’ve heard birdsong described before as “liquid” and that, I now know, is because it is often the only word possible to describe the sense of the sound in the air. It is like being in water, where all is flowing circles and curves, where all is continuous movement, where that pouring slow wave of sound has an organic, sensuous, rounded crest and the trickles and gurgles and races of it fill the air like bell-notes without the clamor and hard edges of metal. Think of a sweet cake batter, so smooth it shines, being poured from bowl to pan—think of heavy cream rippling sinuously into a basin. This birdsong is like that—the individual notes eliding one into the next so there is never quite complete silence between them, the individual notes sounding round and full and big in the heavy summer evening air, yet not heavy—they rise, not fall—they float, round, through the dusk.
Each night I look in vain for the singer. It is as if the tree itself is singing to us as we walk by, Tessa and I. I hear the droning percussive voices of insects in the grass, the occasional out-of-tune-banjo twang of frogs in the pond across the way, other birds calling in the stand of trees just across the clearing. But nearest me, and sweetest, is this amazing evening song.
Tonight—with some patience and luck—I did see the singer. I have been looking, I realize, for a large bird—thinking that such a full and voluptuous song must come from a large throat, something sturdy and heavy on the branch. But what I saw was the merest handful of feathers and beating heart and bright eyes—brown, almost dull—a wisping flitting fast moving house wren, who came down out of her tree to show herself on the white board fence before flying off into the hedgerow.
A wren. I was so pleased to have put a name to this voice, to have grown that tiny much more familiar with my world, to be able to wake, or sleep, hearing that liquid song and know who is singing. And I am pleased, too, for the reminder that it is the size of the spirit that determines the size of the song and that the body has nothing whatsoever to do with it—that spirit cannot be measured by any yardstick of earth, by material lengths and weights, but is rather tallied up in some heavenly way. Much the same way water is able to outlast and outwear the hardest of any stone, the spirit must have its own rules of shape and size. I am reminded to listen to its message before, or instead of, wrapping it up in my own preconceived and mismanaged notions of body.
Birdsong, for me, is like poetry, I cherish both but can memorize neither. Even the simplest songs I hear over and over escape me. I try to fix them in my mind, I hurry home to my birdsong tapes, and inevitably I find they are gone—and the song I heard could be all, or none. But birdsong, all the same, structures a piece of whom I am, orients me somehow on this planet. For five years I lived in Colorado. While I didn’t much like that time, I never really thought about the birds except to notice they have magpies there, as they do in England, and that always struck me as odd (I’d not had a particularly good time in England, either, for quite similar reasons when you boiled it all down). When I moved back east, where I’d grown up, it was under a cloud of frantic desperation: I literally fled the west back to familiar territory, back to family, putting as much distance as I could between myself and where I’d been. A geographic solution, if there ever was one.
I found comfort back east in a way I’d never thought to look for it. I moved in early March. It was snowing in Colorado that afternoon I drove out of town—and wet and chilly the midday I drove into Virginia. I moved into an apartment, I organized my stuff, I started walking Tessa around the neighborhood. Oddly, and almost immediately, I felt on these walks some very inner, essential core of my being relaxing, unwinding, settling. I puzzled over this feeling, not knowing it. And then the azaleas began to bloom and I heard a mockingbird sing and I knew. It was the birds—the birds, and the timing of the birds, and the blooming of the azaleas. I was immersed again in the outdoor cycle of my childhood, my first and lasting experiences of my wild backyard. So when the daffodils came out before the tulips—when the azaleas bloomed after the dogwood—I knew what came next—I knew what birds sang when, right through the entire gorgeous blossoming of the year. In Colorado, I had no history, no knowing. My history back east was different, something my cells had memorized down the years. This cycle felt right to me, felt like mine. I may not know all their songs—I may look in vain for the singers when I hear them—but their songs are as much a part of me as the sound of the blood in my veins, my own heartbeat, the rhythm of my breath. Their songs are the framework on which I hang my life, my seasons, by which I can tell whether or not I’m home.