Anna's birds

     In the last post, I wrote about Anna's bird drawings.  Here are the four birds she completed for me before she went to Wabun.  I found when I was writing about birds, I needed a picture to go with the recordings I had made, but it was too hard for me to get my own good photos.  This is her gift to the blog -- and to me.


The phoebe says its own name - incessantly. 
(First posted in "Coming home" - 4/9/13)
Black-throated green warbler

The black-throated green's "zee-zee-zee-zo-zee" is one of the earliest and most discernable warbler songs of the spring. 
(First posted in "Spring ephemerals" - 4/30/13)

Common yellow-throat (warbler)

The "wichety-wichety-wichety" of this small bird usually comes from shrubby or wet areas. I recorded this one down the road in some alders around the wet area in the field.

Ovenbird (warbler)

The ovenbird is a nearly invisible warbler of the deep woods, but its "teacher-teacher-teacher" song can't be missed.  I haven't heard one in several days now, and so I offer this track from the public domain (thanks to dmoon9931!).



     The dawn chorus these days is changing. It's mid-summer; the sun is high, the meadow grasses are wheat-colored, it's hot. Most of the birds are no longer setting up territories and singing for mates as they did in the spring. This is the season of fledging. 
     Before Anna left for the summer to paddle the mighty Coulonge River in Quebec, I asked her to draw four of our favorite birds for me. I had recorded their songs with my i-thing because their songs are so distinctive, and I want to be able to offer a picture of them without infringing on anyone's copyright.
     She sat on the tall chairs at the island in the kitchen, bird books spread before her, intent on her work. Before my eyes, this mascara-wearing attentively-dressed teenage athlete shrank down to the little blonde tomboy with bangs and braids who used to sit at the counter in her plaid shirt and cargo shorts, drawing birds with the same consummate intensity. Anna drew birds pretty much from the start. When she was in Kindergarten, she would invite her best friend over, and I'd find them sitting at the kitchen counter playing games with the bird book: sometimes it was flipping through it randomly and trying to name the birds they opened to, often it was drawing birds side-by-side.  On the walls of our rather grown-up looking dining room are two
 bird portraits done by Anna when she was age 7 or 8: a downy woodpecker, and a peacock. On my desk in my shed is a cigar box painted with a sandhill crane. Her “special box” in the basement, the place where each child keeps the mementos of their childhood, is filled with bird drawings.
     She's fledging now. At Wabun, her first two years of canoe trips were loops, always returning to the base. This year is a long river trip – they go straight out to journey the length of the Coulonge and challenge themselves with the whitewater and wilderness that come with it. Her one letter that made it here before they left post offices and cell phone towers behind was filled with exclamation points. Her wings are strong; she's off.
     And here at home, the phoebe and the black-throated green warbler, the ovenbird and the common yellowthroat are still singing, but not like they were. These are the mornings of crows and the song sparrows. The song sparrows have nested nearby, and when I am in the garden they sing as if to warn of my presence. The crows are also a family now; the young follow the adults, begging for food, cawing in their plaintive nasal voice. In the recording, you can hear them behind the very assertive call of the adult. These are the birds that wake me before dawn.
     By the time Anna returns, the young crows will no longer be dependent. Who will sing in the morning? Maybe it will be quiet – or maybe there will be another shift: soon it will be the time of the late summer crickets and cicadas invisibly buzzing, whirring and droning from the meadow. And Anna will ask, “Can I drive?”



My road overlooks swallow fields,
currents of long grass 
come to rest,
the hush of evening
by the remaining veery
in woods beyond.

Out there, patiently, one hope flares,
then another, another,
loosening from the earth to fly
in between.

Some answer is there,
afloat with the silent fireflies,
almost within reach.
Looking up, I see
the mirror.
What do I expect from stars?
I don't even know
my question.

Turning, the road cool now,
I head toward home.
by my hip:
silently dancing,
almost bumping into me.


The Veery

     I never know where a teacher will come from. 

     There are teachers that are acclaimed for their teachings; you can read their books or go to their church or attend their weekend workshops. Some of these teachers are only the skin of a balloon, and need the attention of their students to inflate them.
     Others, I believe, still see themselves as students, even as their way of being in the world attracts followers. Teachings flow into and out of them like water spilling from one pool to the next in a waterfall, constantly filling and emptying, student-as-teacher-as-student. These teachers may also be acclaimed, or one might be the person you keep running into at the grocery store.

     My most recent teacher was a bird.

     A Veery is a woodland thrush, a robin-sized brown bird that is known not for its looks but for the unusual way it sings. It is a polyphonic singer. This means that the Veery can literally sing with two voices simultaneously. It uses both sides of its syrinx (its voicebox), and it can control each separately. To me, the Veery's two-voiced song is neither harmonious nor melodic, but nonetheless to hear it echoing out of the forest is thrilling.

     I heard the Veery sing the day before Meg left for the summer. I had just returned from watching my nephew play Little League baseball, and the slowness and sunshine of the rising summer was in me. But so was the force of emptiness that was coming: after Meg left, I had only ten days before Anna and Andrew would leave. Then, the house would be still. That feeling I loved and longed for – quiet, slowness – was also the thing I dreaded. My heart pumped two different songs simultaneously, and they stuck in my throat.
     I stopped writing. I just couldn't “find time”. The words weren't there, bubbling up like they usually are. I could feel confusion in my heart, and an aching at not being able to give it voice. But the Veery's song stayed with me, and I knew there was some wisdom in it, and that when the quiet came, I could tease out the strands and finally write the song that would free my voice.
     In the abrupt quiet on the afternoon that Andrew and Anna left, I took a long walk in the drizzle. I brought my i-thing that records voice memos. As I walked, the unformed feelings of the Veery's song in me began to take shape, and I recorded them line by line. I knew I had captured the twin-voiced song by the time I returned home, and felt released. But when I sat down to transcribe the song into a poem, I found that somehow I had inadvertently deleted the recording. I had nothing.

     Here it is, the thing that is finally coming clear to me: it's not about the song, it's about the singing. My teacher, the Veery, does not hold onto her song. She sings it, the whole polyphonic inharmonious cascade of it, and it's gone. And then she sings another one. I have so many songs in my heart that trying to put order on them, words to them, meaning around them, threatens to stopper my voice. My mind gets in the way – but that's not where the song comes from. Sing first; keep singing; and then write. It may not always make sense, but the Veery has opened me to the polyphonic voices of my own heart.
The recording of the Veery is by Andrew Spencer, and is licensed under a Creative Commons license.  For more information: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/