The song of the white-throated sparrow

The storm that has been threatening all day has finally arrived, on this unseasonably warm April day. The new green leaves bend and glow against the darkening sky and the fast-arriving rain. We close all the windows, and outside of our house people run quickly along the road, under the eaves of houses and shop awnings. There is a pause, a thick electric hush, as we wait for the thunder. But in the yard the white-throated sparrow, seemingly unphased, sings and sings his wild and melancholy song.

It’s a simple song consisting of four tones; apparently the second is a whole note lower than the first, and the song ends a minor third below that, in a series of plaintive, repeated tones: sostenuto. Or perhaps a minor third above, sometimes the melody rises, and sometimes it falls. When they speak to each other they experiment, they improvise, they lean on some notes and repeat others; they’re emphatic about their own song. But they always sing the same sad refrain.

It sounds to some people as though the bird is saying “Po-or Jack Peabody Peabody Peabody.” And that is our clumsy, human way of describing this wistful, sad-but-hopeful tune. We cannot capture it, we cannot do it justice. We can only misunderstand and misinterpret it. We can try to define the song according to our understanding, according to the way it makes us feel. And we can describe the intervals between pitches and the rhythms of the notes, but in reality, the song contains subtleties beyond our human musical language. We can never pin down the specifics of melody or meter, just as we can never know what the bird is saying when he repeats his song over and over. And that mystery makes it even more beautiful.

The white-throated sparrow starts singing early where I live, when the world still seems frozen and grey and dreary. It’s not a harbinger of spring, which still feels far away when you first hear the song. It’s a recollection of spring, a reminder that it will come, the seasons will change, the earth will warm, the plants will grow. And the sparrow’s poem of spring—of love and lust and time-passing—is better than TS Elliot’s often-misinterpreted poem, though on a similar theme.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Mixing memory with desire. This is what the white-throated sparrow’s song does for us, when we hear it. The song is full of memories, nostalgic. But it’s also ripe and yearning and awake like the glowing leaves, the green smell of early flowers, the hope that spring brings, every year, without fail. The hope that defies all cynicism and even all logic. This is what the song does for us, hearing it. But for the bird? We will never know. I’ve read that their song often sounds out of tune to us…to us. It wavers on the pitch we expect, creating something new we don’t have the words for. This is a tuning we are not privy to. So many tunings, we can’t even register with our ridiculous senses, our ridiculous language.

And Henry David Thoreau was beyond moved by the haunting song of the wood thrush. “This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It is a medicative draught to my soul. “

Of course the white-throated sparrow is not the only bird to sing a pensive song, to human ears. A mourning dove’s call could break your heart. And Henry David Thoreau was beyond moved by the haunting song of the wood thrush. “This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It is a medicative draught to my soul. It is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses. It changes all hours to an eternal morning…I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings, where the hours are early morning ones, and there is dew on the grass, and the day is forever unproved, where I might have a fertile unknown for a soil about me.” The birds don’t care about us listening to their songs. They’re not worried about our fancies and imaginations, our melancholy hopes. Do they have an idea of melancholy? Of nostalgia? Do they have a song to tell each other about it? We’ll never never know.

It’s hard to tell one sparrow from another. They’re not widely varied in color or size, and we see some kinds of sparrows so often it almost doesn’t seem worth our while to determine which particular type each is. We almost don’t notice them anymore. But each sparrow is unique, is unlike any other, and has experienced life as no other has, which makes them rare, which by our human logic makes them valuable. And being a human, I can’t help thinking about this from human perspective, and thinking about how each person is unique, is wonderfully rare, has a whole world of thoughts and experiences and feelings inside of them that nobody else has ever had ever. It’s impossible to be more unique, it’s a word that can’t be modified. We don’t have stages of uniqueness, you’re not more unique, or somewhat unique or quite unique. Either you’re unique or you’re not, and, as it happens, you are. Which makes everybody equally rare, equally valuable. The thing we all have in common is that we’re all uncommonly precious.

Martin Johson Heade, Newburyport Meadows
Martin Johnson Heade, Newburyport Marshes: Aproaching Storm
Martin Johnson Heade, Summer Showers
Martin Johnson Heade, Marshfield Meadows, Massachusetts

Categories: featured, Nature, why I love

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