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!

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