The Hemlock Grove

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.

hemlock w/ walking stick…

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.

Living on Earth: BirdNote: Exquisite Thrush Song

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.

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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28 Responses to The Hemlock Grove

  1. will says:

    Awesome stuff – Hemlocks are the greatest!

  2. UB says:

    Kind of reminds me of the statement in a well known publication “To walk its paths through nameless woods.” 🙂 As I’ve overstated in the past, safe travels/journeys and I look forward to your next submission. I don’t think I can tell the difference in the song of the Wood Thrush and the Hermit. Perhaps if they were ‘side-by-side’ but otherwise, not a chance. I do like their songs though and appreciate them every time I hear them. Great hemlock grove!
    UB

  3. Thanks UB! I guess I’ve always liked “To walk its paths through nameless woods”– the line as well as the actuality of forest. I appreciate your underscoring of such. As for the two thrushes, I thought of including a video of the hermit’s song but decided that if someone is interested in differentiating the thrushes they could check out You Tube or places like the Cornell Lab of bird songs. Actually I recommend doing that because the difference can be noted there. The wood thrush has a simpler three-note song with variations; the hermit’s almost defies description, but both are beautiful.

  4. Jet Eliot says:

    Thanks so much, Walt, for these sanguine words of yours and Burroughs’s; and this hike into the hemlock grove. I love the thrush songs, though I have never heard the hermit’s serenade. The hermit thrush stays with us, on our property, throughout our mild winter, every winter But they don’t sing in the winter. Still, every winter evening I look out the window toward the “hermie’s” favorite spot before I turn in, and thank my lucky stars for their place in my life. Three summers ago I was hiking in the Seattle area when I was stopped in my tracks by the singing of the Swainson’s thrush. The words you have shared here with us today do great justice to the magic of these sublime creatures. Many thanks and happy vacation. Celebrating the release of your recent and delightful publication…yay.

    • Again, thank you very much for the support & encouragement, Jet. And I’m pleased that the hermit (and so many other species) has a special meaning in your time & place. It’s interesting what you say about the thrushes. Hermits are an instrumental part of my summers but, unlike yourself, I don’t see or hear them in the winter. Swainson’s thrush is another story. It passes through here on migration & I rarely get to hear its song, much less so than yourself. All the thrushes, though (including the American robin) are sublime presences, as you say. And finally, for now, I thank you for the card & the kindness recently forwarded!

  5. tiostib says:

    Your words take me to a place of sacred stillness, I am most grateful. May you find solace and inspiration on your journey west.

  6. Dan Hayes says:

    Beautiful photos and words about hemlock (may they continue to survive the saw) and the thrush whose flute like song never fails to lift the spirit. Finished my mowing early today and, after deciding that it would be irresponsible to fish given our shrunken streams, we headed over our Canada Hollow “divide” to hike on the Allegheny side. In the trail down into the state game land there is a stream that is only a shadow of its former self. But, along the stream was a little sunlit patch of bee balm being visited by a perfect, little hummingbird. That little scene helped provide solace and peace to a guy who fished that stream with his grandad so many years ago. Thank you for your wonderful blog and enjoy the trip out west!
    Dan

  7. That’s awesome, Dan! Bee-balm & hummingbird & trout stream (diminished now but waiting for rain) in the woods of Potter Country. Glad you had the chance to do some recent upkeep & to hike those peaceable woods. Let me know if you’re down here later this season when the streams are lively with possibility. Maybe we can challenge the Oswayo with some presentations of the fly. My thanks for your good wishes!

    • Dan Hayes says:

      Here is a quote you might enjoy from Dana Lamb describing the song of your spirit bird: ‘…the lovely, liquid bell tones of the hermit thrush”.

  8. “…liquid bell tones…” rings true for me, Dan. Thanks!

    • UB says:

      “liquid bell tones” reminds me of bell notes used by Eric Clapton and Billy Gibbons (along with others no doubt). Although they sound distinctly and entirely different – the quoted phrase just sent be back a few decades. UB

      • Yes, hermits are the rock’n’rollers of the hemlock woods, J.S. Bachers, too. Reminds me of the recently deceased Peter Green, as well, who could draw the liquid bell tones from his guitar like no other.

  9. Bob Stanton says:

    Thank you, John Burroughs, and thank you, Walter. Enjoy your trip!

  10. Bob says:

    Safe travels!

  11. loydtruss says:

    Walt
    An excellent post describing in detail what the sounds, sights, and smell of a virgin forest is like. I hope forest such as you hiked and the park my wife and I walk in with its huge Loblolly Pines, White Oaks, Sweetgums, and large Popular trees, are still around in years to come for the next generation to enjoy. Thanks for sharing

  12. Don T. says:

    Great looking Hemlock grove. Have a safe and productive trip west. Will anxiously await the next report.

    Leaving Pa. For home Tuesday. Streams extremely low and warm here as they are at home. Brookies will survive if they are left alone.

    Tight lines.

    • Thanks Don. I’ll keep you posted. I hope you had a good Lyman experience despite the poor fishing opportunities. Hopefully the changing season will have our tracks crossing again.

  13. Brent says:

    Aside from looking over your shoulder at the computer screen, this is my first read of the post. Many of the pictures are quite familiar, and I’m still holding to the feeling of walking through the quiet and lightly fragrant grove. We had a great weekend with you! (Hope you were able to look through my own photo album that I shared.)

    • Enjoyed your photo album! Pictures have a resolution of image that’s beyond what I’m able to capture. I may use a few of these in some future post. We greatly enjoyed our surprise visit by you two, although there’s at least one deer who might think otherwise.

  14. plaidcamper says:

    Wonderful words all the way through!
    Safe travels, Walt!

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