A few years ago on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I happened to step out to the creek where I’d soon find the secretive bird. I had known the winter wren for years prior to that occasion, but seeing it then so close to the house got me started on something. Every King holiday since, I’ve headed out on a mini-quest to find the feathered sprite known scientifically as Troglodytes hiemalis.
I have no idea what connection there is, if any, between the civil rights leader and the winter wren, but whatever bonds wild nature with progressive social action, and whatever bonds my time to the place I live in, steers me on a walk into the woods. Today, following an investigation of a dark ravine made lighter by the sun and snow, I sat by the woodfire listening to a Dylan CD and trying to see the overlap of a bird and a man.
I didn’t see or hear the elfin bird that’s noted for its spirited, effusive song. I didn’t find the creature that’s renowned for the way it ducks in and out of nooks and crannies of rock walls, brush piles, streambanks, and washed-out roots and logs. If it was springtime, May, up there on Hemlock Brook, there’d be roughly 50 species of songbirds to be identified if I felt so inclined. One of the most incredible songs to be heard then would belong to the territorial winter wren. But today in the ravine I heard only one avian species– the high-pitched call notes of golden-crowned kinglets feeding at the overhanging bank. I was sheltered there from the brutal wind sweeping across the hills; I was comfortably shuffling along in search of Troglodytes, the reclusive bird that, according to Old World legend, likes to poke in and out of tiny caves while looking for food.
“I have a dream!” exclaimed the great purveyor of American freedom and equality. “I have a ravine!” said the hapless walker unable to do a thing this day to further the cause of social justice. “I have a ravine!” I said. That’s right, a gully. A place where cold nature and imagination blend. A place where a wren can symbolize a call to personal freedom. A place with nooks and crannies, a place almost magical, where winter sprites can shout aloud, “Keep it alive, brother, keep it alive!”