As we settled into our country life we began to take a different attitude toward the creatures around us. Like the spiders I had first regarded as a nuisance and then came to see not merely as useful but as helpful in spite of our occasional conflict of interest, so the wild world around us became more and more filled with meaning, even if we could not always say what that meaning was. Old stories of wonders hidden in apparently meaningless events came back to mind as if to remind us of the wonders hidden in the everyday. We were beginning to “touch the earth,” not now as owners and superiors but as attentive students listening to a wise teacher.
The Language of Birds
After too many years of saying "What bird is that?" to each other as warbling filled the air, we finally purchased a set of tapes guaranteed to make us better listeners to the language of birds.
The ability to understand the language of the birds is one of the motifs that shows up in fairy tales and myth fairly regularly, and when it does show up it usually helps to get the hero out of some tight spots. I can understand why. A lot of what I hear from birds sounds distinctly like information. Why shouldn't the rest be information too, perhaps information that might tell us behind which of the three doors is the passage leading to the great treasure, or whom to avoid to escape enchantment?
The world looks plain enough to us as we look about us, but who knows what enchanted lands might be in front of our uncomprehending eyes? If only we knew which tree was that Eildon tree under whose shade Thomas the Rymer rested one summer's day some seven hundred years ago, for it was under the Eildon tree that Thomas met the queen of elfland:
"And see not ye that bonny road,
Which winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where you and I this night maun gae."
. . .
He has gotten a coat of the elven cloth,
And a pair of shoes of velvet green,
And till seven years were past and gone
True Thomas on earth was never seen.
Many years ago, not too long after we moved down here, a friend and avid bird-watcher and listener came down for a visit. I don't remember exactly when it was he was here other than that it was sometime in the early summer, when most of our local birds are busy spreading news of damsels in distress and dragons hoarding great treasure.
In the course of a short walk one afternoon Jim wrote down the names of all the birds he heard. I still have it. On a day when, if pressed, I would have been willing to swear to a few crows, the occasional robin, and maybe a song sparrow, Jim had heard 51 birds and wondered about seven more.
His list included the finer details of what I had lumped together under the heading "crows." The crows, ravens, starlings, grackles and cowbirds. It also included the red-winged blackbird, which I had forgotten to hear, and the blue jays which I never seem to hear until the leaves begin to fly in autumn.
He had also heard robins and song sparrows. But he had heard the rose-breasted grosbeaks as well, those colourful birds whose long rich song sounds very much like the robin's, but a robin that has taken singing lessons. And he called my attention to the bobolinks! How was it that I had never really focussed on bobolinks until Jim came by? One memorable first day of spring, many years ago, I heard my first English meadow lark while my wife and I were walking along a public footpath in the country not far from Oxford. Now, when the bobolinks come back to the farm and begin to sing their warbling "bobolink-bobolink, spink-spank-spink," it reminds me not only of the sweet countryside around me but of a walk to a holy well one spring day in England.
We have since come to know many of the birds on Jim's list one way or another, though usually by sight rather than sound. Evening grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, purple finches, chickadees, goldfinches and white-throated sparrows are all familiar visitors at the feeders during the winter. Flickers flicker in and out of the woods this time of year, and the dusk of evening is made magical by the calling of the wood thrush from within the darkening woods around us.
Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went--
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.
We see hawks floating across the sky, too. In no danger of being a hawk's dinner, we still stand still to watch their soaring grace. Closer to home but no less distant, this time because of his burning intensity, the hummingbird is even now feeding at the bergamot. Much less intense, those avian stunt-pilots the barn swallows, their numbers greatly reduced these past several years, do Immelmann turns and loop-the-loops in the door yard and then suddenly stop to gossip on the telephone wires before frisking off again.
There are more wonders to discover, though. I have only seen one warbler in my life (several weeks ago in Fundy Park), and have never heard one sing. Yet Jim heard eight different warblers and queried several more. What other songs reach our ear drums but never register? What birds, do you suppose, were singing in the Eildon tree that summer day so long ago? Can we train our ears to catch the song? 6 August 1991