Here to return to
WHEN I came to this town to live, in April, ten years ago, one of my first concerns was to find a woodcock resort. The friend with whom I commonly took a stroll at sundown had never heard the “evening hymn” of that bird, and, knowing him for a lover of “the poetry of earth,” I was eager to help him to a new pleasure. If the thing was to be done at all, it must be done soon, as the bird's musical season is brief. So we walked and made inquiries.
A farmer, who knew the region well, told us that woodcock used to be common about a certain swamp, but had not been so, he thought, of recent years. We visited it, of course, but heard nothing. Then the same man bethought himself of a likelier place, farther away. Thither, also, we went, having to hasten our steps, for the bird must be caught at precisely such a minute, between daylight and dark. Still we had our labor for our pains. And so the season passed,. with nothing done.
Then, a year or two afterward, walking one afternoon in a quiet back road, I startled a woodcock from directly beside the track. “Well, well,” said I, “here is the very place;” for I noticed not far off a bit of alder swamp, with a wood behind it and an open field near by. All the conditions were right, and on the first available evening, with something like assurance, I made my way thither. Yes, the bird was there, in the full ecstasy of his wonderful performance — for wonderful it surely is.
My friend was not with me, however, and for one reason or another, now past recall, another year went by without our being able to visit the spot together at the necessary minute. Then a day came. He heard the bird (well I remember the hour), was delighted beyond measure, and that very evening, still under the spell of the “miracle,” put his impressions of it on paper. The next day they were printed, and I remember still my pleasure when the most competent of all men to speak of such a matter sent me word that it was the best description of the performance that he had ever seen. If any of my readers desire to see it, it is to be found in a little volume of most delightful outdoor essays entitled “The Listener in the Country.”
All this I lived over again last evening as I went, alone, to the same spot — not having visited it on this errand for several years — to see whether the bird would still be true to his old tryst. I believed that he would be, in spite of the skepticism of a wide-awake man who lives almost within stone's throw of the place; for though woodcock are said to be growing less and less common, I have strong faith in the conservative disposition of all such creatures. Once they have a place to their mind, they are likely to hold it.
Fox sparrows were singing in their best manner as I passed on my way, and I would gladly have stayed to listen; their season, also, is a short one; but I kept to my point.
And after all, I arrived a few minutes ahead of time. Up and down the road I paced (no one in sight, nor any danger of any one), with an ear always awake for a certain note, the “bleat,” so called, of the woodcock. Should I hear it? It was fast getting dark, the western sky covered with black clouds (a great disadvantage), with only scattered gleams of bright color, very narrow, just on the horizon. Hark! Yes — that was it — Spneak. There is no putting the sound into letters, but those who know the call of the nighthawk may understand sufficiently well what I am trying to express, for the two notes are almost identical.
With this note, single, repeated for a considerable time at intervals of perhaps half a minute, — the bird still on the ground, and turning about, so that some of his utterances sound three or four times as far away as others, — with this strange, unmusical, almost ridiculous overture the woodcock invariably introduces his evening recital. I wait, therefore, leaning against the heavy stone wall, costly and unromantic, with which the rich new owner of the land has lately fenced his possession, till all at once the silence is broken by the familiar whistling noises made by the heavy bird as he leaves the ground. This time they are unusually faint, and are lost almost immediately. Only for my acquaintance with the matter I should assume that the bird had flown away, and that my evening was lost. As it is, I continue to listen. Once and again I catch the sounds. The fellow is still rising. I can see him, but only in my mind's eye. Those black clouds hide him quite as effectually as if he were behind them. Still I can see him. I know he has gone up in a broad spiral — up, up, up, as on a winding staircase.
Now, after silence, begins a different sound, more musical, more clearly vocal; breathless, broken, eager, passionate, ecstatic. And now, far aloft in the sky, where the clouds are of a lighter color, I suddenly catch sight of the bird, a dark speck, shooting this way and that, descending in sharp zigzags, whistling with his last gasps. And now, as if exhausted, — and well he may be, — he drops to earth (I see him come down) very near me, much nearer than I had thought.
Spneak, he calls. I know exactly what is coming. At intervals, just as before, he repeats the sound, till suddenly he is on the wing again, whistling as he goes. He flies straight from me, — for this time, by good luck, I see him as he starts, — and mounts and mounts. Then, far, far up, he whistles, zip, zip, and then, when he can stay no longer, comes down in crazy zigzags.
A wonderful display. If a man could be as truly enraptured as the woodcock seems to be, he would know the joys of the blest. I wonder how many thousand Aprils this cumbrous-looking, gross-looking, unpoetical-looking bird has been disporting himself thus at heaven's gate. There must be a real soul in a creature, no matter what his appearance, who is capable of such transports and ravishments, such marvelous upliftings, such mad reaches after the infinite.
I listen and wonder, and then come away, meditating on what I have seen and heard. The last of the small birds have fallen silent. Only a few hylas are peeping as I pass a cranberry meadow. Then, halfway home, as the road traverses a piece of woods, with a brook singing on one side, and the moon peeping through fleecy clouds, suddenly I halt. That was a screech owl's voice, was it not? Yes; faint, tremulous, sweet, a mere breath, the falling, quavering strain again reaches my ear. The bird is somewhere beyond the brook. I wonder how far. Well up on the wooded hillside, I think it likely. I put my hands behind my ears and hearken. Again and again I hear it; true music! music and poetry in one; the voice of the night. But look! What is that dark object just before me on a low branch not two rods away? There is no light with which to be sure of its outlines; a tuft of dead leaves, perhaps; but it is of a screech owl's size. Another phrase. Yes, it comes from that spot, or I am tricked. And now the bird moves, and the next instant takes wing. But he goes only a few feet, and alights even nearer to me than before. How soft his voice is! Almost as soft as his flight. How different from the woodcock's panting, breathless whistle! Though I can see him, and could almost touch him, the tremulous measure might still be coming from the depths of the wood. I listen with all my ears, till an approaching carriage turns a corner in the road below.
I hope the owl will not mind; but as the wheels come near he leaves his perch, flies directly before my face (with no more noise than if a feather were falling through the air), and disappears in the forest opposite.
Two good birds I have listened to. The evening has been kind to me. Two birds? nay, two poets: a poet in a frenzy, and a poet dreaming.