18 June 2008

Turdus migratorius

I would like to take a class on North American birds and their calls. Or better, I would like to walk through the woods with someone who could tell me which call belongs to which bird.

Windows down, I am driving to work on the road I always take—the one that begins with sagging cream-colored colonial and a yard of lilacs and ends with an angular stone wall that bars legions of pine trees, erect and uncounted, from overtaking the road.

Straining my ears, I am dragging this car—this weighty noisy thing that attaches at my hips and keeps me from the fresh air and sunlight—and wishing that I was walking.

I have heard these birds my whole life, recognizing no calls save the cardinal and the mourning dove, both of which I learned before my fifth birthday.

The grey doves roosted beneath the eves of a tool shed at my apartment when I was small, their low cries in the hedges and along the swamp came sometimes later in the day and I asked my mother why they were called “morning doves.”

A cardinal couple nested in the evergreen by my window. We watched as they threaded yarn from my brother’s hat into the nest, bright blue mingling with clay and twigs, and the patient mother waiting for her chicks, spring time and hatching, summer and flight. After they left in the autumn, we gently pried the nest out the branches and studied it.

My grandfather fills his bird bath and watches the birds, still. He would tell me who the calls belong to and then maybe the hedges and the oaks and laurels would belong to me, actually.

Wendell Berry conjectures that you only truly possess the land through an intimate knowledge of its names. When a tree becomes more than a pine tree and is a hemlock. When a bird song becomes the call of an oriel.

We possess the land through words, Berry says, and maybe my grandfather was trying to pass that possession on, those mornings when we were small, sitting on the back porch of the Cape Cod house and learning Latin names.

Turdus migratorius, was the Robin Redbreast that we saw so diligently yanking up worms. Deciduous trees were maples and oaks and any others that lost all their leaves in the winter.

My grandfather lives on the same property where he was raised. He knows where the flying squirrel hides and what time of year the crows start crying at an ungodly hour of the morning.

I want to know the name of every plant in my backyard. This is mostly because I am reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek but also because of my grandfather, I think. I want to name, and thus possess, every uncurling fern, every bluet blossom, every soft mushroom appearing on rotten wood—not just the common names but the proper ones.

And I want to know which bird is singing, even if I can only hear it through my unrolled windows when I drive to work.