Songs Of The Woods
( Originally Published 1908 )
We are drawn ever by the voices of birds. Even such as might be called monotonous and unmelodious are none the less significant and welcome. The fine lisping notes of warblers, as they industriously hunt for their food, seem expressive of the contentment of their minds. All over the hemlock swamp I hear the voices of black-throated green warblers. Not one may appear in view, but for hours together their musical conversation continues in the treetops. From somewhere in the branches above comes the call of a nuthatch, his speech wholly dissimilar from the rest, as if he might be an inhabitant of a very different world. Almost in the ear sounds the thin wiry note of a black and white creeper, as he winds around the trunk of a pine and approaches with his accustomed sociability. High above the others, the trill of the pine-warbler rings clear and sweet--- a more resonant instrument surely. These voices all affect us agreeably, and bring us in immediate contact with their world and with wood life. They do not touch our world, however, nor set in motion the delicate mechanism of the emotions. But let a bluebird pass overhead all unseen, warbling his celestial " Pure ! Pure ! Pure !" let that significant note fall on the ear and for reasons unknown it sinks into the soul, into the abyss of feeling, and this as mysteriously rises in a delicious flood to the surface. Whence has the bluebird his power, that by the mere quality of tone he can exert this spell ?
Some bird voices are so positive, so emphatically cheerful, that one never hears them without feeling better for it. The chickadee in the winter woods is an instance of this. If you feel dreary, he does not. Nothing can dampen his spirits. He hopped out of the nest a cheery little chap, and it is never otherwise with him. In all his days he has never had a regret, never transgressed any law, never been unhappy. The voice of the chewink, too, is eminently sane, a mild, buoyant utterance indicative of an even disposition. He is never more hopeful, nor less so, but always exactly the same. Perhaps the birds have not what we call feeling, but if not, why do they express themselves? What else would prompt these songs? The clear sweet call of the bob-white is full of hope, and there is a quality of tenderness in this voice. One must believe it the outcome of the disposition and character of the bird, of some refinement of feeling; just as the raucous call of the English pheasant expresses grossness and density, and the quailing of the hawk pure savagery.
If we may speak of the temperament of birds, the thrushes must be accorded the religious temperament. They are the inspired singers; their songs are eminently sacred music. The woodthrush appears to be actuated by other than merely commonplace and personal motives. Upon him the forest has laid its spell, and he must deliver its message. He flits about with a dignity befitting his high calling. There is no abandon in his song; he does not sing about himself has no moods but repeats his solemn chant. It breaks the stillness of the woods with a sort of challenge to the gay fields beyond, like the call of the muezzin from the minarets of the mosque — a summons to all twittering sparrows and chattering squirrels to be silent and listen. That such fervor, such solemnity and beauty of utterance should be unconscious and unwitting seems incredible. Stand and listen to the hermit-thrush and see if you can think idle thoughts. You must hear his message and feel the spirit of his invocation the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
Why is the hermit moved to be thus didactic, while in the fields beyond the field-sparrow lightly trills and the merry bobolink continually bubbles over with song? Such merry jingles, such uncontrollable outbursts of melody, such a rippling, bubbling medley as comes up from the meadows, while the thrush solemnly intones within the twilight shades of the woods ! Surely in view of this we may speak of the temperament and the personality of birds. If the bobolink's medley is not evidence of a light heart, then are appearances deceptive indeed. Care rests easily if at all upon his hopeful nature, but the burden of his song is quite as well worth heeding as is that of the thrush. One is lyric, the other didactic. The bobolink communicates his joyous and irrepressible spirits, as the thrush his serene exaltation. It is certain the wood birds are of a different temperament from the field birds. Either they are influenced to their prevailing moods by their environments, or they are attracted thereto by their own peculiarities, as men are drawn to solitude or society.
The hidden, the subtle, find voice in the veery. His is perhaps the most spiritual strain of all, himself the high priest of the mystic lore of the forest. Of the thrush family he is the consecrated member, as the robin is the worldling among them. I believe there is no other bird voice so mysterious ; so impersonal is it, so spiritlike, it appears to emanate from a world of higher motive than ours. In the devotional strain of the hermit, the forest prayer is breathed on the mountains. No hymn could be less impassioned, less material, more truly spiritual than the song of this thrush ; it is nearest the speech of angels. Of all instruments the organ and the harp are alone capable of producing any such effe t. On rare occasions I have heard the veery indulge in a reverie never to be forgotten. It appeared to be wholly inspired and original as though the bird were improvising like some Abt Vogler at his organ, rearing a palace of music. The motive was complex and involved, and sung so pianissimo as to be just audible, like the love-song of the catbird, a rapt utterance which admitted one to the sacred arcana of Nature.
It is not unprecedented for a bird to depart thus from its usual song and to improvise. You may detect even the jay in this mood, though it is wholly imitative with him. The love-song of the catbird and the autumn reverie of the song-sparrow are perhaps the best instances. I am not yet wholly familiar with the songs of the robin. It appears he is still studying music, and adds a phrase or varies a theme occasionally. He is the most romantic of the thrushes ; his song is more personal and less spiritual than the others. When, in early spring, the robins sing together at sundown, there is an exquisite tenderness in their notes which accords with the sweet youthfulness of the year. It is later in the season, when his mate sits upon the nest, that the robin rises to the heights of lyric beauty and pours out his soul from the top of the tallest maple in the swamp,— a brave sweet love-song, sung with dignity and without hesitation, that all his world may hear.
At dawn he is moved a little more to the rapt and religious expression of the thrushes. Something there is in the solemnity of that hour which touches the hearts of all little birds. What it is we shall perhaps never know; shall never know enough of bird life to understand what emotions they may have which so powerfully sway them and become evident in their voices. The evidence is there; the cause is to be inferred. While the birds are everywhere more or less affected by the approaching day and give voice to their feelings, there appear to be musical centers in the bird world in which the expression is more concerted than in other localities,— favored sections where this hymn to Apollo is memorable indeed and hardly to be described. It is a great chant with all its solemnity, all its impressiveness.
Beginning with the desultory calls of wood-pewees, it is taken up by song-sparrows, robins and catbirds, dominated by the devotional song of the woodthrush who appears to ad as chorister. Birds seem to congregate from near and far and to inspire one another to unusual efforts. The volume and stateliness of this chant, so measured and rhythmical, carries with it vibrations of power and cannot fail to communicate its influence to the listener, be he bird or man. Here is a multitude of birds actuated by a unity of purpose, impelled by a single motive, and though every one sings his own song, the myriad voices blend in one concordant whole. To arouse suddenly from a sound sleep in the woods at dawn while this chant is in progress, is like awakening in another sphere, where sings the choir celestial. We slip from sleep into the heaven of song, and it requires an-other awakening to bring us to consciousness of this actual world about us.
They are the troubadours these birds, the wanderers whose souls are in their voices. What bold romantic singers are the cardinal and the rose-breasted grosbeak—the lords of song ! When the cardinal comes North he appears to feel out of his element and modestly withdraws. But in the South he dominates the swamp and adjoining cotton-fields with his rollicking, melodious voice. A gay minstrel, he compels attention. These voices of the cypress swamp are clear and bright in contrast with their dismal surroundings. The bell-like note of the tufted titmouse in the treetops, and the brave, cheery song of the Carolina wren lighten those fearsome shades. The wren carries his sunshine with him. There is no minor in his song; he is never discouraged, any more than the chickadee. Day after day that voice rings true-all's well with the world. Brave voices singing in the wilderness, they lighten vaster shades than any they know of, sound their note of courage and well-being for other ears than theirs. What blessed transformation from the songless ages from that slimy reptilian world where was no music, no song to this unpaid minstrelsy of the woods and fields! They have served us these many years the sweet singers, the true birds of paradise, with power to lift us from our dull, unmelodious thoughts into their harmonious world.
As I was following the course of a mountain stream through the leafless woods early in April, the silence was broken by a strange musical alarm. It was the Louisiana water-thrush, but might have been the pipes of Pan, so wild and 'woodland was it. The first notes were high and startlingly loud and clear, while the song descended the scale and became softer and softer till it died away. This is one of the bird voices that are untamed, that seem to belong to impersonal Nature. It is wholly savage — a piece of the wilderness, untouched by the presence of man. These voices do not strike the human and sympathetic chords, but ally one with the wilderness. Such are the cry of the loon, the melody of the ruby kinglet and the song of the winter wren. The kinglet's song has a cadence unlike any other, reminding one of water murmuring underground, and for some reason a classic suggestion, as of faun and satyr. It is more truly sylvan than any other sylvan in the old Greek sense, so elusive and shy it is, so mysterious.
Such voices give no evidence of self-consciousness; they are as impersonal as the winds or as the murmuring stream. But with the catbird, the thrasher and the mocking-bird, preeminently vocalists, there is a set and declamatory method which has the appearance of affectation. Their songs are brilliant and elaborately phrased, but they lack spontaneity, and in listening to them one wishes they had put their powers to a different use. The thrasher is particularly self-conscious and stagey, and yet he has a glorious voice. No bird has a finer quality of tone than he shows in some of his notes — clear, mellow, vibratory as in the voices of really great tenors. It is that quality which Nature alone supplies and no cultivation nor perfection of method can give. When he speaks to his mate in an undertone his voice would melt a heart of stone. There is a time, however, when the catbird rises above any suspicion of self-consciousness and is transported, and the listener with him, in a reverie of exceeding beauty. It is a wondrous love-song, an incomparable madrigal, blending with the morning sunshine and the first green leaves of the alders, soft and low as faint murmurings of a stream, a fluid melody uttered for chosen ears.
All too soon the only bird notes are those of the redeye and the pewee. For music we have the tree-toads and cicada. The sounds of this season are rhythmic and vibratory virile songs of the year's manhood the mature year, lusty and vigorous. But how soon they dwindle and wane, despite this sonorous protestation, grow silent and slip into the sear and yellow, and thence into the leafless, the glittering, the sublime aspects of winter.
The last of September brings with it just a reminder of the sweet and winsome sounds of spring. At this season the song-sparrow indulges in a wonder-fully ecstatic reverie, a bit of wild melody charged with feeling as of some larger consciousness, some tribal memories of that musical race, now finding voice in the waning year. So continuous and varied is the theme, and withal so complex and involved as compared with his usual simple and positive lay, that one must look at him twice to make sure it is he, and not some unknown minstrel from a distant shore.
Insects are the autumn singers and take the place of birds and frogs. The crickets are as musical in their way as the thrush family, though provided with but indifferent instruments. When you consider that these crickets and locusts will express themselves will fill the day with song though they are without vocal organs and must perforce do with legs and wings instead, you must respect them as musicians. It is a distinctly aboriginal music as compared with that of the birds, as tom-toms and pipes are to violins and cellos. And yet it is rhythmic withal and not wanting in sweetness. Contrast these merry crickets with the silent spider. There is no song in the annals of her race. She is unsocial and unmusical like the savage birds of prey. Yet before bees and birds had appeared on the earth there were crickets chirping. Theirs is the most ancient chant of the world the Song of Sex.
Autumn nights are melodious with a voice, which in the distance is so like that of the hyla of early spring, though softer and more throbbing, that it is often mistaken for a kind of tree-toad. Heard near at hand it is singularly clear and almost bell-like, though ventriloquial in its elusiveness and difficult to locate, for as you approach, it ceases and is taken up by another a short distance away. Even when standing directly in front of it, it appears to come from several diretions. It was only after prowling the woods with a lantern that I discovered the identity of the sweet singer, a small insect of a pale green hue, not over an inch in length, looking like a sort of locust, though classed with the crickets. The translucent wings are of a delicate ivory-white and the antennae very long.
This cricket was hanging to the edge of a grape leaf when the rays of the lantern fell upon him. He perhaps took it for moonlight, for on a sudden the wings were erected until at right angles to the body, and then, as it were automatically, and with the precision of a pendulum, they moved to and fro, partly crossing their bases and thus scraping the veins of the middle portion —and the mysterious singer of the night stood revealed.
The quality of the tone the timbre suggests the sound made by rubbing the rim of a glass bowl, the horny plate of the wing giving it great resonance. It appears to be pitched to A below middle C, though some may be A sharp or even B. The overtones make it difficult to deter-mine the pitch. The chirping keeps up a good part of the night, and in the wee small hours takes on an uncertain quaver, as if the little singer had fallen asleep and were droning drowsily in its slumbers.
An inset which may be the same one-certainly an allied species has a day-song somewhat different from this song of the night, a shrilling in place of a chirp. This is made by elevating the wings in the same manner as at night, but instead of rubbing them one across the other in regular time, they are rapidly and continuously vibrated like an electric bell. The rapidity of the vibration raises the pitch, though the quality of the tone is but little different.
There is in this day-song no suggestion of the blistering, feverish shrill of the dog-day cicada, but a far-off dreamy sound. A little before sunset it gradually gives way to that of the night. Day inevitably inspires one song and night another, as if these reacted to bring out two sets of emotions.
And yet there is but one theme: the minstrels sing always of that, but serenade the fair one after one fashion by day and more serenely by the light of the stars. She, having apparently no ears, hears none the less, and perhaps detects variations in this monotonous ditty and even distinguishes the fine quality of some particular voice some clearness of tone, some pathetic tremulo indicative of a cricket's feelings. For is not this a song-festival of all the grasshoppers? I noticed a common short-horned grasshopper stridulating in the sunshine, which he did by taking short flights and rapidly opening and shutting his wings like an accordion. This produced a series of dry, crackling sounds as the wing was scraped against the wing-cover. After thus exhibiting his powers, a female at length came from some little distance and lit beside him, as much as to say, "If you can sing like that I am yours forevermore."
One feels some sympathy with these sweet singers of the fields in knowing what a little life is theirs, how short is the span. For the most part they have but a few months to sport in the sunshine. This epithalamium is at the same time a requiem. In October it rises, a universal threnody, the death-song of the insects. Over all, the land, wasps and bees and butterflies fall like leaves. Death overtakes them on the wing. They lie down to sleep, like travelers lost in the snow.