Here to return to
THE scarcity of birds and bird music, of which I spoke a week ago, still continues. The ear begins to feel starved. A tanager's chip-cherr, or the prattle of a company of chickadees, is listened to more eagerly than the wood thrush's most brilliant measures were in June and July. Since September came in (it is now the 8th) I have heard the following birds in song: robins, half a dozen times, perhaps, in snatches only; a Maryland yellow-throat, once; warbling vireos, occasionally, in village elms; yellow-throated vireos, rarely, but more frequently than the last; a song sparrow (only one!), amusing himself with a low-voiced, inarticulate warble, rather humming than singing; an oriole, blowing a few whistles, on the 4th; a phoebe, on a single occasion; wood pewees, almost daily, oftener than all the foregoing species together.
Except a single water thrush, on the first day of the month, I have seen no land bird that could be set down with certainty as a migrant, and in the eight days I have listed but thirty-seven species. And of this number twelve are represented in my notes by a single individual only. My walks have been short, it is fair to say, but they have taken me into good places. I could spin a long chapter on the birds I have not seen; but perhaps the best thing I could do, writing merely as an ornithologist, would be to make the week's record in two words: “No quorum.”
My last hummingbird (but I hope for others before the month ends) was seen on the 2d. He was about a bed of tall cannas in a neighbor's dooryard, thrusting his tongue into the flowers, one after another, and I went near and focused my opera-glass upon him, taking my fill of his pretty feathers and prettier movements. It was really the best music of the week. The sun was on his emerald back and wings, making them shine.
One thing that pleased me, as it always does, was his address in flying backwards. Into the flower he would dart, stay a longer or shorter time, as he found occasion, and then like a flash draw out and back away, his wings all the while beating themselves to a film of light. I wonder if any other of our common hovering birds — the kingbird, for example, or the kingfisher — can match the hummer in this regard.
A second thing that interested me was his choice of blossoms. My neighbor's canna bed is made up in about equal parts of two kinds of plants, one with red blossoms, the other with yellow. The hummer went to the red flowers only. He must have probed a hundred, I should say. As for the yellow ones, he seemed not to know they were there. Now, was not this a plain case of color preference? It looked so, surely; but I remembered that hummingbirds are persistent haunters of the yellow blossoms of the jewelweed, and concluded that something besides a difference of color must account for what appeared to be this fellow's well-considered line of conduct. It is hard work, but as far as possible, let us abstain from hasty generalizations.
There is no music sweeter than wood silence. I am enjoying it now. It is not strictly silence, though it is what we call by that name. There is no song. No one speaks. The wind is not heard in the branches. But there is a nameless something in the air, an inaudible noise, or an audible stillness, of which you become conscious if you listen for it; a union of fine sounds, some of which, as you grow inwardly quiet, you can separate from the rest — beats of distant crickets, few and faint, and a hum as of tiny wings. Now an insect passes near, leaving a buzz behind him, but for a second only. Then, before you can hear it, almost, a frog out in the swamp yonder has let slip a quick, gulping, or string-snapping syllable. Once a small bird's wings are heard, just heard and no more. Far overhead a goldfinch passes, with rhythmic calls, smooth and soft, not so much sounds as a more musical kind of silence.
The morning sun strikes aslant through the wood, illuminating the trunks of the trees, especially a cluster of white birches. A lovely sisterhood? I can hardly take my eyes from them. In general all the leaves are motionless, but now and then a tree, or it may be a group of two or three at once, is jostled for an instant by a touch too soft for my coarser human apprehension. “Dee-dee,” says a titmouse; “Here,” answers a flicker. But both speak under their breath, as if they felt the spell of the hour. Listen! was that a hyla or a bird? There is no telling, so elusive and so distant-seeming was the sound. And anon it has ceased altogether.
Now, for the smallest fraction of a second, I see the flash of a moving shadow. The flicker's, perhaps. Yes, for presently he calls as in spring, but only for four or five notes. If it were April, with the vernal inspiration in his throat, there would be four or five times as many, and all the woods would be ringing. And now the breeze freshens, and the leaves make a chorus. No thrush's song could be sweeter. It is not a rustle. There is no word for it, unless we call it a murmur, a rumor. Even while we are trying to name it, it is gone. Leaves are true Friends, they speak only as the spirit moves. “Wicker, wicker,” says the woodpecker, and his voice is in perfect tune with the silence.
How still and happy the boulders look, with friendly bushes and ferns gathered about them, and parti-colored lichens giving them tones of beauty! Men call them dead. “Dead as a stone,” has even passed into a proverb. “Stone dead,” we say. But I doubt. They would smile, inwardly, I think to hear us. We have small idea, the wisest of us, what we mean by life and death. Men who hurry to and fro, scraping money together or chasing a ball, consider themselves alive. The trees, and even the stones, know better.
Yes, that is a crow, cawing; but far, far off. Distance softens sound as it softens the landscape, and as time, which is only another kind of distance, softens grief. A cricket at my elbow plays his tune, irregularly and slowly. The low temperature slackens his tempo. Now he is done. There is only the stirring of leaves. Some of the birch leaves, I see, are already turning yellow, and once in a while, as the wind whispers to one of them, it lets go its hold and drops. “Good-by,” I seem to hear it say; “my summer is done.” How tenderly the air lets it down, as loving arms lower a child to its burial. Yet the trees are still happy. And so am I. The wood has blessed me. I have sensations, but no thoughts. It is for this that I have been sitting here at this silent concert. I wish for nothing. The best that such an hour can do for us is to put us into a mood of desirelessness, of complete passivity; such a mood as mystics covet for a permanent possession; a state of surrender, selflessness, absorption in the infinite. I love the feeling. All the trees have it, I think.
So I sit in their shadow, my eyes returning again and again to those dazzling white birch boles, where loose shreds of filmy bark twinkle as the breeze and the sunlight play upon them. Once two or three chickadees come into the branches over my head and whisper things to each other. Very simple their utterances sound, but perhaps if I could understand them I should know more than all the mystics.