*editor's note: in the following paragraphs there is a suggestion that the arrival of the Swainson's Thrush is concurrent with the spring equinox. As this is undoubtedly true for some parts of the world, the approximate arrival dates for this bird in Washington State are mid-late April. The first songs are heard a couple of weeks later, generally. However, the weather is so shitty here on and around March 21st that I would argue that Relative Spring comes much later...say, around the time that Swainson's show up and start belting it out. Apologies for the incongruity. Forgiveness is begged.
Winter solstice has come and gone from these northern latitudes. The spent champagne corks of New Years Eve have all washed out to sea. The Nativity scenes that once graced lawns across the city have been broken down and stored away for the season; the 3 Wise Men stacked, crotch-to-nose, beneath the teats of the Holy Cow, among the winterized mower and moldy badminton set. Baby Jesus, pinned to the garage wall by string and a roofing nail, floats above the bovine head, his angelic face mustachioed and left arm missing, blasphemous modifications from a merry band of vandals that swept through the neighborhood on the eve of His birth. Joseph, for his part, stands alone in a corner, behind the golf clubs, while his virgin wife sits fireside within the comfort of the house, her soft gaze fixed on the brandy-breathed homeowner arrayed at her feet. A halo of spent nitrous-cartridges surround them, his weeping wetting the cradled plastic foot in his hands.
Here, tucked just south of the 49th parallel, our solar rations grow a little larger each day and though we are still firmly in the icy grips of Deep Winter, we are allowed to dream a little. With caution we cultivate small embers of hope. Meager longings are given longer leash. Thoughts of what the spring will bring forth, if it should ever come again, are again permissible. In the low angled light we venture out, bundled in earth toned rags and loud stocking hats, seeking the sparse rays that occasionally, miraculously penetrate the gray gloom.
The other day, as we shuffled through the brown slush beneath the witch fingered trees that line our charming, burnt out downtown sector, an esteemed colleague of mine, Scout Kremlin, Master of Owls and of Irredeemable Real Estate, received a call. He has for his cellphone ringtone the song of the Swainson's Thrush.
It is difficult to approximate the ecstasy I felt upon hearing that unearthly ringing escaping from his pants. The rising, spiraling thermal of broken glass sent me into a reverie that left me huddled against a brick wall, eyes watering, mumbling incoherently to myself. A passersby lobbed some coins at me. I came out of my trance, purified, awestuck, 37 cents richer.
The Swainsong has always had a time-travelling effect on me, sending me back to the first time its beauty was brought to my attention. Tall Paul, renegade handy-man, flyfishing wizard and dirtbag naturalist, his Pall Mall trailing smoke, following the Swainsong skyward, taught me my first bird songs and rudimentary IDs. The dark-eyed junco wears a Darth Vadar helmet, its song a phone ringing. The fire-eyed towhee calls like a cat. Red-breasted nuthatch sounds like a truck backing up.
Everytime I hear the Swainson's, there I am, dumb-ass teenager, wounded, spiteful, pissed at the world, the same world whose beauty is just beginning to melt my cold, boreal heart. Tall Paul looms large in the memory, lighting his next smoke with the previous one's cherry, a circle unbroken, wiping out the old fire on his pant leg. The spent ciggy butt is inserted into his pants pocket, for Tall Paul doesn't litter.
Fused with this memory are all subsequent springs that the song has ushered in, a helix of sonic stasis, of time suspended. The bird's vibrating syrinx a unifying conduit of an Equinox Eternal. An ever-expanding moment, a floating world that materializes out of the mist only to rise up and disappear into the ether.
I had to know if the Swainsong had the same effect on others. Surely, even among non-birders, the song had to elicit Deep Feelings. Maybe some would hear it as an inquiry into the Great Mystery. Perhaps it would unsettle some bowels, a naturally-occurring Brown Note, the infamous tone sought after for centuries by clergymen and other weirdos.
A recording of a Swainson's Thrush song was played for individuals as encountered at St. Andrew's Assisted Living Community, Blackbird Coffehouse and Franklin Elementary School. A lackluster hacky sack circle at the community college was also sampled. The subjects were asked to describe the song in whatever language came to mind, however florid or plain. The following list catalogs these descriptions.
Raspy ascending yodel
A toilet being flushed
A warble unraveling
It's doing spirals!
As if water is flowing upstream
I think it could be the last sound, as everything we could ever know
is spun down a cosmic drain into a black hole.
The sound my head makes as it spins upward in the forest, looking for a secret
Some elf dude, really high, playing, like, a flute
A tornado that makes harmony instead of chaos
Window into eternity
The piper at the gates of dawn
Swirling cascades of mist
Waterfalls made of clouds
Kinda like when Mario eats a mushroom in that old Nintendo game
Exuberant spirals of metallic bubbles
A pretty chicken
photos by Seagull Steve
sonagram by Mike Nelson Birdtour Asia