Preparing for a long road trip into western places where I like to believe that a fly-fishing spirit can really soar at times like this, it’s good to remind myself that one needn’t go far in order to find a tranquil center for the heart and mind. For example, I enjoy a midsummer climb into my neighboring hemlock grove.
As expected, the evening’s hermit thrushes chorused in their chamber of the darkening trees. I leaned on the walking stick, swatted at an irritating deerfly, and took another swill of water from the flask. And there– the piping, whistling and melodic phrasing of that singular species, emanating like no other at this season.
It’s a soft parade of seasonal song, intricate and uplifting, not unlike the sharp-edged wailing of coyotes I would hear as darkness settles over the hollow. These avian songs were wild and beautiful as coyote’s but more enticing and poetic. Their diversity issued from the hemlock trees and seemed to wrap the mind in streams of wonder.
The ethereal songs accompanied the shards of golden sunlight slanting through the woods. They reminded me, sadly enough, that so few of our kind know about this form of blissful solitude, or care enough to experience such a moment in the wild. Sometimes I imagined that a hermit would follow my slow steps across the hill while singing constantly, but I doubted that my presence mattered at the time.
At any given moment, I could hear several birds calling simultaneously, improvising their positions in the woods while staying hidden in the foliage, temporarily dominant in the game of evolution.
The exquisite caroling put me in a special place. The nesting territories of the hermit, as defined by song, seemed to overlap each other and made it difficult to determine how many were holding court in one location. I imagined that I could hear five or six thrushes at a time, and later was reminded of John Burroughs’ well-known piece entitled “In the Hemlocks.”
Although Burroughs wrote of many plants and birds encountered in the forest, it was the hermit thrush that possessed “the finest sound in nature.” It’s interesting to note that this nineteenth-century writer was an atheist with pantheistic leanings, yet he heard something in these avian phrasings that suggested a “religious beatitude” unlike any other.
Hermits sang “as if a spirit from some remote height were slowly chanting a divine accompaniment.” The charmed and passionate phrasing seemed “interspersed with the finest trills and the most delicate prelude.” And so it was, I acknowledged again the difficulty of putting such beauty into words, and thanked the spirit of this naturalist for finding a way here in the hemlock grove.
“Listening to this strain… with the full moon just rounded from the horizon, the pomp of your cities and the pride of your civilization seemed trivial and cheap.”
Thus, one needn’t go far to find a center for the soul. I would welcome the hermit as a spirit bird, to roost in memory for the long road to the mountains and to help sustain us as Rivertop Rambles takes a three-week break.
Be safe, be hopeful, everyone, and thank you for reading.