column By: Greg Hoch | April, 18
The snow is gone, and the world is bare and brown. It still feels more like late winter than early spring.
Soon the first ducks will arrive to dot the rivers and wetlands. The feeder will be crowded with bickering and squawking sparrows. Flocks of shorebirds will appear on mudflats. Later the tree branches will drip with the colorful feathers and melodies of warblers.
The focus of my efforts has big bills, bigger eyes, stubby legs and no necks to speak of.
Major events such as the return of spring shouldn’t be taken lightly. Some mark it by the first bright bluebird, the first warm days or the emergence of some domesticated flowers in the flowerbed. But those are easy for even the most casual observer. My observances are something special that not many partake of.
Charles Fergus is one who does, calling it, “a harbinger of spring, more cheering to me than the most mellifluous thrush,” while Edwin Way Teale states, “It is the early voice of this returning migrant that marks the winter’s end.”
Migrating birds should be returning any day. Unlike others who make their presence known within minutes of their arrival, these birds ghost through the night and settle silently and unseen before dawn. They disappear into forest shadows, blending into the undergrowth and leaf litter. They won’t reveal themselves until dusk when they dance into the sky.
The winter solstice is a faint memory, and the evenings are getting progressively longer and lighter. While our morning walks still finish before the horizon pinks, darkness no longer bookends the workday. Regardless of the color of the sky, upon returning home there are prancing paws and a furiously thumping Labrador tail at the door.
A quick change and we’re out the door, down the road, in the woods. However, these days our walks are abbreviated, just enough to take the edge off the puppy energy. The real walk takes place as the evening sun touches the horizon. These are Gene Hill’s “Listening Walks” in the truest sense of the word.
Of course, this is largely hubris. The birds will return regardless of our actions or presence. But as Annie Dillard writes, “Grace and beauty are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
Our walks for the last week have involved more stopping and listening, straining for any familiar sound, than putting miles under boot and paw. Hard to cover much distance this way, but that’s not their purpose.
We start our vernal observations earlier than needed because we want to mark the first date, the first arrival. The letdown of not hearing them one night just makes us that much more excited and eager for the following night. As Aldo Leopold writes about quail, “The disappointment I feel on these mornings of silence perhaps shows that things hoped for have a higher value than things assured.” There was something the last couple evenings, but the sound was off in the distance. When you want something to happen so badly, the mind and ears can play tricks.
Tonight we reverted to old patterns, taking a long walk as soon as I arrived home. That followed by a good workout with bumpers in the yard left my companion tired, content and mellow.
Twilight tonight finds us both sitting on the back porch, listening more than watching. Too often we think that enjoying the natural world has to involve big trips to distant places. When added up, though, small stolen moments like this – in the nearby and familiar – can be just as special.
We arrive early and get comfortable. A chickadee dee-dee-dees in the distance before bedtime. A ruffed grouse drums, a good prelude to the main attraction. Minute by minute, the western horizon changes color behind the bare tree limbs. Stars appear, one by one, in the eastern sky as the evening cools.
To complete Leopold’s allusion, we can turn to Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Toward the end of those long, cold, brutal northern winters, this is what keeps me going. Faith that the birds will return. Hope that I will be there to welcome them back, my ears reaffirming my faith by providing the evidence in the twilight of brown-feathered things not seen.
The minutes pass. I become more anxious. As darkness settles on the landscape, I become more relaxed. It’s a most unusual state of mind. Waiting. Watching. Listening. Anticipating.