Long before we discovered fire or thought up writing, we humans discovered that a single day each year marked the turning toward light we now call the Winter Solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere, we celebrated with bonfires, orgies, bacchanalia; whatever we could think of to mark the end of the slide into the cold darkness.
So, it is not amiss to take a moment a week before this year’s solstice to think again of Spring and songbirds.
We did that last night by visiting with E.B. White, one of our favorite writers. Specifically, we read his April, 1942, essay entitled, “Songbirds” from his book One Man’s Meat. By that time of his life Mr. White lived on an Atlantic seaboard farm in Maine. And, as farmers do everywhere, he carefully and joyfully noted the coming of spring. The storm windows were down, replaced by screens; the peas, radishes, carrots, and spinach were in; the ice was off the pond and the frogs were singing; the rhubarb was showing; and the songbirds were back.
But, only four months before, the United States had officially entered World War II, so that spring of sixty-eight years ago was the first spring of that war for Mr. White. Blackout curtains and sugar rationing and air raid alarms and three patrol planes that flew over each afternoon, scaring the chickens who thought the planes were hawks, all were part of his 1942 spring landscape. And here is Mr. White describing one particularly warm evening that spring:
The warmth of the afternoon held over through suppertime, and now the air has grown still. . . .The unseasonable warmth invests the night with a quality of mystery and magnitude. And in the east beyond the lilac and beyond the barn and beyond the bay and behind the deepening hills, in slow and splendid surprise, rises the bomber’s moon.
Not the planter’s moon or the spring moon; the “bomber’s” moon.
Noting that spring is a “rush season” on any farm, Mr. White complains that, at his farm, it had become an almost impossible season due to the arrival there of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds — Including All Species Found in Eastern North America. “Now,” he says, “we can’t settle down to any piece of work without being interrupted by a warbler trying to look like another warbler and succeeding admirably.”
That morning his wife had seemed tired and depressed. “My real trouble is,” his wife said, “that I learn the birds pretty well one year, but then the next year comes and I have to learn them all again.” And no wonder, all those, “. . .indistinguishable little birds crying for our attention, flaunting an olive-green spot that looks yellow, a yellow stripe that looks gray, a gray breast that looks cinnamon, a cinnamon tail that looks brown.” According to Mr. White, his wife sometimes got so frustrated that she got irritated with the songbirds. “There goes one of those damned little Yellow Palm Warblers, — I guess.”
Warblers are the worst, of course. We’ve noted in this space before that we understand why Audubon shot them; it was the only way to get them to hold still long enough for an identification. Mr. White complains, “There are dozens of warblers, many of them barely visible to the naked eye. To distinguish them one from the another is like trying to distinguish between two bits of dust dancing in a shaft of sunlight.”
What’s more, their naked eyes were all the Whites had to identify all those scurrying, hurrying little warblers. They had donated their binoculars the year before and sent them to England to help the British defend themselves from the Nazi onslaught. Imagine giving away your binoculars for a good cause and having none the next time you spot a little bird far away. Anyway, without his binoculars, all the rushing birds looked dim and indistinct to Mr. White, the way, “. . . .all birds look to me when they are in a hurry (which they almost always are) or when I am. A hurried man trying to identify a hurried bird is palpably a ridiculous situation.”
So, get out your field guides and start studying. Spring is coming, not long after next week’s bonfire.