Thrush Music

Red Ribbons, one of our loveliest Clarkias, on a steep bank in song-filled Creamery Canyon

This will be a brief post, with a promise, hopefully over this long weekend, to catch up with flowerblogging that’s nearly six weeks behind.

This morning I got up at first light and headed all by myself out to my old stomping grounds on the ridges and redwood canyons above San Geronimo Valley. It was my first early-morning hike in weeks. The Valley was filled with translucent silver mist that magnified the space around me as I began to walk. Its uppermost reaches were already caressed by the sun slanting in over the hills. The world glowed.

In the course of not much more than five minutes my ears were bathed in most of the most beautiful birdsong to be heard in Marin:

The lush riparian fringing the creek was filled with the even lusher proclamations of Black-headed Grosbeaks — robins trained and conducted by Toscanini. Up the side canyon I began to climb, Swainson’s Thrushes’ echoy, ethereal songs spiraled up and up till I could almost believe they ascended ultimately to some higher sphere of existence (if one was imaginable on a morning like this). As the redwood colonnades began, the sword fern thickets trembled with the endless tinkling song of the Winter Wren. And higher still on the Valley’s flanks, I began to catch the mournful verses of Hermit Thrushes.

A Frost poem came to mind — a lovely poem of dusk, not dawn, but one certainly written about the Hermit Thrush.

Come In

As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music — hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.

The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush’s breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went —
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

But no, I was out for stars;
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked;
And I hadn’t been.

–Robert Frost

Why am I so certain this poem is about Hermit Thrushes? The Eastern forest has two “versifying” thrushes, the Wood Thrush and the Hermit. Each bird begins each verse of its song with a long, clear note, followed by a musically complex, silvery phrase that sounds as if it’s sung in the lofty spaces of a cathedral.

But the two species’ songs have a critical difference: listen to the initial notes, in sequence, of any three of a Wood Thrush’s phrases, and they make a major chord, giving the whole song a sunny, happy air.

But the Hermit Thrush carries another mood: Any three of its initial notes make a minor chord — the “lament” called up for Frost.

Of course, neither bird is singing for us. They’re both proclaiming the same thing: this piece of forest, this mate, this nest, these babies, all the food we glean — are mine!

Tina’s 1983 Adventures in Mongolia

Portrait of a 19th Century Cossak Horseman

Cristina Kessler Noble, PhD. On one of  Tina’s long solo trips through China, she spent several weeks exploring remote, traditional regions of Inner Mongolia and Mongolian Tibet. Among her many adventures was gifting her wristwatch to the Panchen Lama in front of an audience of several thousand.

But the story I most treasure is her account of pushing her way through a crowded train station in a remote Mongolian town. Suddenly, she was startled by loud, prolonged laughter from a deep male voice. (Han Chinese simply don’t do such things in public, ever.) She turned and saw a tall, mustachioed, middle-aged man with high leather boots, colorful tribal clothing, and Caucasian features. He was looking right back at her and roaring with laughter.

She shouldered herself toward him and stared up into his face. “Why are you laughing?” she asked in Mandarin. “I am Kazakh,” he boomed. “And all my life people say I am ugly. At last,” he said, eyeing her pale hair and blue eyes, “I find someone uglier than me!” They became fast friends and traveled together for several days.

When you hear “Kazakh,” think “Cossack,” the Russian name for the fierce, independent raiders who for several centuries dominated the borderlands between Russia and China. The Cossak rider’s picture, I found here:

Here’s a brief excerpt about that trip directly from Tina’s journals:

Sunday, September 25, 1983: On the Multi-day Train Ride from Beijing

At 6 AM, the lights go on in the train and loudspeakers crackle to life with deafening revolutionary songs. We stop at Kangzhuang to take on water and let off passengers. The sky is already bright. Distant mountains are outlined against a rosy dawn.

Two teenagers come out of the train station to hook up hoses to the boilers: a tiny girl who looks no more than fourteen but handles the hoses like a pro, and a fresh-faced boy who yawns, glances up at the sunrise, then throws back his head to sing as he works.

In the train, I rub sleep from my eyes and look around at the sixty faces that surround me, some sleeping, some blinking out the windows at the dawn. Low chatter and the high music of babies. The woman next to me on our bunk is deeply asleep, her face close to mine. Her six-month-old baby is asleep beside her on the narrow bunk, his chubby hands tangled in her hair.

These are the people who only ten years ago our government refused to acknowledge diplomatically, who our people feared as ravening communist hordes. These are the same people who ten years ago considered me their mortal enemy. War: how trivial in motivation, how economic in origin, how insanely illogical. Unless actually invaded, how can any nation justify the slaughter of human beings whose only difference is their skin, or their belief, or their political membership. How easily, at any time in the last turbulent century, we might have found ourselves at war with these same people who sleep and stir around me.

Sunrise now, as we pass through enclosing mountains, glimpsing crumbling fragments of the Great Wall that catch the early sun. The train is alive with kids and cries of “ma!” The air fills with cigarette smoke and the human noise reaches ‘normal’ levels, a mix of earnest conversation and blaring propaganda. At one end of our car is a single sink, a small boiler of hot water, and a tiny closet with a hole in the floor through which you can watch railroad ties whizzing by a couple of feet below your bum. People patiently wait their turn to clean up, to make tea in mugs or jars they have brought with them.

There is such quiet cooperation among these sixty strangers packed together like sardines, such gentleness and assumption of mutual consideration: men, women, and children of all ages, soldiers and policemen, herdsmen and farmers and bureaucrats. Everyone but the infants have slept tightly bundled in their clothes in this still-prudish country, but bare baby bottoms are everywhere.