A Diminished Thing

On the last full day of summer, I experienced a somewhat inspirational event. It was a simple event but one that I could not have known earlier this year, prior to surgery on my spine in August. My brother and a friend (trail names “Bob” and “Porky,”) and I were camping at World’s End State Park in northern Pennsylvania when we decided to climb the 5-mile gravel roadway (up and back) to a summit view of the canyon formed by Loyalsock Creek. It was a modest climb compared to many of our hiking “bludgeons” of the past, but Porky was suffering septuagenarian back pains and I was only six weeks out of a three-day hospital visit, so the general feeling was that we were lucky to be out at all.

Loyalsock Creek
World’s End State Park

Two mornings later, on the first full day of autumn, I was working at my desk at home when I heard a sickening thud on a nearby window. I knew immediately that a songbird had gone down. I went out and found the lifeless body of a warbler known as an ovenbird. Sometimes a small bird nesting in or near the yard will gently strike a window and be briefly dazed before recovering. But in late September many local species will be in a restless migratory mode, and collisions are more likely to be fatal.


I held the little olive-backed creature and recalled “The Oven Bird,” by poet Robert Frost, a non-traditional sonnet. The last six lines of the poem remind us that a songbird, like a poet, can resound the melancholy truth of time’s swift passage (from the fullness of a songful spring to the relative quiet of late summer and early fall) and the loss implied therein:

And comes that other fall we name the fall./ He says the highway dust is over all./ The bird would cease and be as other birds/ But that he knows in singing not to sing./ The question that he frames in all but words/ Is what to make of a diminished thing.

So, an inspirational climb, a small transition, and a thud. We take it all in stride, knowing, hopefully, when to sing and when a wordless time is preferable.

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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18 Responses to A Diminished Thing

  1. JZ says:

    A gentle reminder that hard times hit everything that lives and breathes. That includes our feathered friends too, no doubt. When out fishing, often in wild areas, I’m amazed just how brutal it is for the animals that inhabit such for survival. There built for it sure, eons of time have perfected there chances. Still, I find nature as a whole fascinating and pleasurable. I take it in, cause it makes feel more alive. Gladly swap any concrete jungle for the real one, lol. Although, i like concrete jungles as well, at times.
    Hope your feeling well Walt and may your your recovery be speedy my friend.

    • Thanks, JZ! Yes, the whole natural sphere of things, the little that we know of it, is fascinating, pleasurable, and a perfect stage for evolution. May it be ours for study & for learning, and may it always be theirs (the multitude of lives belonging to this planet), protected where possible from the overbite of our own kind.

  2. Scott says:

    Once I when was working in an office building in the “wilds”of Long Island NY I found a dead woodcock outside the window. Another time I came home and saw an immature goshawk eating its prey on my back lawn. What was spooky is the hawk had arranged the feathers of the starling it nabbed in a circle and there were no other parts left. That evening there was a dust print of both the starling and the hawk on my kitchen window. Apparently the hawk chased the bird right into it.

    Hope your back gets well. My knees are kaput. Cant fish so I just slowed down and watch things even more closely than I did before.

    • Thank you, Scott. I guess we’re fortunate that when certain parts of our body give out from age or other problems, we’re still capable of adapting ourselves to enjoying other aspects of the great outdoors. Until that hawk of life takes down our songbird spirit, we’ll carry on, enjoying the beauty of it all– the hawk & starling & woodcock in the heart.

  3. The Frost phrase seems to me to be a very ‘heady’ thing. I don’t think I’m quite ‘getting it’. I’ll attribute this to my simple or feeble-mindedness. I’d say the hike after just 6 weeks out from surgery is pretty amazing. It’s good to push yourself somewhat – just don’t overdo too much – don’t set yourself back. Looked like a great hike/time with a couple others. We’ve had many bird-strikes here also over the years. Not too many fatalities fortunately (but they happen). Take care Walt! UB

    • Not a problem, UB. Those final six lines from the Frost poem are, indeed, a bit “heady,” but become more understandable when the 14 lines of the sonnet are taken together, providing a fuller context. I was too lazy to include the whole poem here, but it’s easily read if you google “Robert Frost, The Oven Bird.” Thanks, as always, for your good wishes.

  4. tiostib says:

    Glad to hear you’re up and about, able to enjoy and ponder the wonders and subtleties of the changing seasons. I, too, am reflecting.

  5. Bob Stanton says:

    I am familiar with Frost’s “Oven Bird.” Love the poem, love the little creature whose scolding call is a harbinger of spring. Personally, I find fall either downright depressing, or bittersweet at best. Maybe it’s a product of my pessimistic nature, but oddly, I enjoy winter more than autumn. At least, people make it known to me that they think that I am odd in this regard (insert chuckle). I’m glad that you got out and were able to enjoy yourself. Per our recent correspondence, you know that we are sympatico. A very poignant post.

    • Thank you, brother Bob, sympatico pal. I’m with you in that sense of bittersweet autumn, feeling the approach of winter even in the bright October foliage, then accepting & appreciating the coldest weather (usually) when it finally arrives. My own pessimistic nature gets a boost of optimism every now & then, thankfully enough, through poetic insights of the sort portrayed in “The Oven Bird,” by Frost.

  6. Don T. says:


    Very nice. Hope all is well

  7. plaidcamper says:

    Walt, you’ve provided much food for thought here, as you often do. Late summer camping and hiking in preferred company sounds pretty good, even if advancing years/states of health and/or recent medical interventions prevented full on bludgeoning…
    Fall is a complicated time, with the natural beauty something to appreciate even as you see summer diminish and hints of mortality – some hints heavier than others – become more apparent. I try to be a glass half full kind of guy, but suspect it’s a bit of a front, as any hope for a glass half full acknowledges there’s an empty space.
    Anyway, your piece is much appreciated, along with the thoughts shared below by Bob and others. And with your surgery in the rear view mirror, I hope the road ahead is kind to you!

    • Adam, thanks so much for your appreciation of the contents here & for your thoughtfulness regarding the complexity of this changing season. I agree with your perception of the glass half full/half empty, going one way fifty percent of the time, then going the other route for the balance of my contemplations. I guess what it boils down to is the taste of the water or the brew. If the taste is decent, it goes down.

  8. Brent says:

    I’m finally chiming in after returning from wilder areas myself. It’s sad to see such a beautiful little creature lose its light, but as one of your earlier commenters noted, the world can be harsh and come at you fast.

    Glad to hear that you, personally, are up and about, though! World’s End and Ricketts Glen are both fantastic-looking parks in that area.

    • Yes, welcome back from the mountain state. I trust it was a fun experience. World’s End was a good work out for me, and we noted that Ricketts Glen was pretty close by– a must for the next visit to that area!

  9. loydtruss says:

    Glad you are out hiking again; my breakfast window is the collision point for a number of birds leaving our feeders. I’m glad all have survived. Take care and thanks for sharing

    • Bill,
      I find that if birds are flying from a feeder station & colliding with a window, it helps to put a small round sticker or two on the panes. It helps to deter a strike. Thanks for your comments!

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