A Wood Thrush & The Magic Flute
(Nope, not talking about the Mozart Opera.)
Heard a wood thrush yesterday, or maybe several. Haven’t heard one in at least two years.
Wasn’t expecting or looking for it; which is the best way to encounter them. In fact, such a visitation was the last thing on my mind.
It happened at a trailer park in rural Robeson County, NC. Among Carolina’s one hundred counties, Robeson is the poorest and the most crime-ridden. I don’t go there for fun, or for nature’s wonders, but to see people who are important to me.
Anyway, I pulled up, got out of the car, thinking of many other mundane things, glanced off into this unpromising scrub landscape —
–and then there it was.
I pushed all the other stuff from my mind. Stood silent, and listened. Yes, again, and again. I recognized it instantly.
To get a good idea what it sounded like, listen to this brief audio. IF you want more, here is a 5-minute video of a thrush singing his heart out. (Ignore the commercial at the beginning.) This video is amazing because wood thrushes are famously reclusive, seeking out deep forest cover for their turf and nests.
Of course, deforestation, both in upper North America and in central America where the thrushes winter, have sent their numbers into steep decline. Which makes hearing them increasingly unusual.
Even so, I’ve been listening for them ever since the turn of the 1980s, and have adopted them as my “totem animal.” Henry David Thoreau wrote about them memorably, as you’ll read below.
I also wrote a story about my discovery of wood thrushes and the impact they made. Here it is, in honor of their brief return to my life.
GOODBYE TO THE MAGIC FLUTE
A true story from the 1980s.
I heard a magic flute once, right near where I used to live in Arlington, Virginia.
It happened in the woods that were just down the street from the apartment where I lived with MaryLou. The edge of the woods ran along our street, Walter Reed Drive, for more than a long block, and the tall trees marched almost half a mile back from there, up and over a hillside behind Culpeper Street into a county park.
MaryLou had a fuzzy white dog with big sad eyes named Kasha then, and in warm weather I sometimes took Kasha down to the woods in the afternoon so she could run through the trees, sniffing excitedly and stopping to dig here and there. She was hunting for creatures in the bushes which, fortunately, she never seemed to find.
I didn’t take Kasha to the woods as often as she wanted to go. That’s because I was usually busy, writing one thing or another. Instead, I usually only let her run around for a few minutes out behind our apartment. That was why she always got very excited if we went out the door and turned, not to the left, which led around to the back of our building, but to the right, to Walter Reed Drive and down it to the woods.
Whenever we went there, though, I thought to myself, I should come more often. From the first time we passed through the wall of trees along the road, I could see that this was a special kind of woods, one we were lucky to have so close by.
The trees were high and their leaves thick, shading the ground and making a soothing slanted dimness and dampness underneath. It was quiet and a little mysterious there, but friendly; the kind of place in which ferns could safely unroll their coiled feathery leaves, and they did, hundreds of them.
There were trails through the woods, too, some going in the direction of the creek on the other side of the woods, and some not seeming to go anywhere, which was fine with me. On our second visit, Kasha found a big pile of trash. It wasn’t bad because it seemed almost like a part of the woods: some rotted lumber, old rusty bedsprings and whatnot, stuff that looked like it had been left there years ago by–who? We never knew.
And of course there were birds. You didn’t see that many, in the dim light under the canopy of leaves, but you heard them all the time. Cawing blackbirds and grating jays, chipping cardinals and mewing catbirds, the mockingbirds babbling, and woodpeckers hammering in the distance. I was just learning to identify some of the birds and their songs then. MaryLou was helping me with that, because she had a bird book and knew lots of the birds already.
On one particular day, I hadn’t wanted to take Kasha down there. I was worried about some article I was writing; it wasn’t coming along right, and I needed the money I would get paid when it was done–that is, if it got done. So I didn’t want to take much time away from working on it.
But when we went out the door and I turned left, heading around back, Kasha stopped and looked at me with her big sad eyes, her tongue hanging out as if she was dying of thirst or something. Then she looked longingly toward Walter Reed Drive and the woods.
Without being able to talk, she made me feel like I was doing something really cruel by only taking her out behind the building. So I said,“Oh, all right, come on. But only for a few minutes.” She jumped and scampered so much as we walked that I had to put her leash on to keep her out of the street.
Once in the woods, away from the road, I let her loose, and she immediately bounded away, her nose to the ground, happily tracking something. I followed along slowly behind her, lost in my own worries about the article that wasn’t finished and the money I might not get paid for it. With one ear I listened for any bird songs that I might be able to identify.
That’s when I heard it–the magic flute. It was the sound of music, soft and silken notes starting in the middle and floating upward and then down, coming from somewhere in the trees. It was like nothing I had ever heard before.
I stopped, and listened more closely. The woods were quiet, except for some trees rustling softly, and the distant cawing of a blue jay.
I must have imagined it, I thought, and walked on.
But then it came again: the sound was more like a flute than anything else. But it wasn’t like any flute I had ever heard, and I had even heard the flute of a famous flute player named Jean Pierre Rampal, and his flute was made out of pure gold.
I stopped again and looked around. Nearby there was a low tree stump, and I sat down on it. Kasha ran on heedlessly, rustling away into the bushes. Other birdcalls sounded from here and there in the woods, but I paid no attention. What I had heard was not like the call of any bird I had ever heard either. I didn’t think I wasn’t imagining it, but I still had no idea what it was.
In a moment, the invisible music came again: once, twice, a third time. There were long pauses between each phrase, as if the flutist were catching her breath, or just taking it easy. And each time it came I turned this way and that, trying to get a sense of which direction it was coming from, but I never could.
Finally, one phrase ended with a short twitter that sounded a little more birdlike than the earlier ones. But I never caught even a glimpse of what, or where, the sounds were coming from.
Pretty soon Kasha reappeared, happy and dirty from digging for some creature or other, ready to go home. And as I started back toward the street with her, I suddenly noticed something else: I was feeling better about my unfinished article. My worries had lifted, temporarily anyway. The music from that invisible magic flute had cured my blues, at least for a while.
When MaryLou got home from work, I told her about the music. “What could it have been?” I wondered.
She knew right away. “I’ll bet it was a wood thrush,” she said. “Let’s get the bird book.”
The bird book said that the wood thrush was a medium-size bird, with brown feathers on its head and back, and brown spots on its white belly. It was very ordinary looking, and even more, it was very shy. It made its nests only in forests that were deep enough so that people did not get too close. In the wintertime it flew south. Some flew away as far as Panama, which was almost to South America.
“See,” MaryLou said “It says the wood thrush has a very lovely flute-like song.”
I looked at the book. It said something else, too: A writer named Thoreau once wrote of the wood thrush that, “Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.”
To me that sounded almost like calling the wood thrush magical, and it was pretty close to how I had felt when I heard it. “Yep,” I said, “that must be the one. A wood thrush.”
After that, I took Kasha down to the woods more often, hoping to hear the wood thrush sing again. And I did hear it a few times. But the bird book was right about it being shy: as hard as I tried, I still could never figure out just where the music was coming from, so I couldn’t tell which way to walk to have a chance at seeing her. (Somehow I always thought of the bird as a her — even though I know now that it’s the males who sing, and do so mainly to announce and protect their territory. Oh well, whatever.) Not seeing her kept the singing mysterious, like the woods, and magical. And just as Thoreau said, hearing her song always made me feel better.
Well, autumn came soon enough to our woods, the way it does. The leaves turned brown and the weather turned cold, and pretty soon the woods were bare. Then they weren’t much fun to walk in–at least they weren’t for me.
Kasha, naturally, still liked to run around there, even if the trees and bushes were all bare. And of course, the wood thrush was long gone by then, off to Panama or some other warm place. And knowing her music wasn’t there made the woods seem even emptier to me.
So I didn’t go there much in the winter, and Kasha had to make do with running around behind our apartment building most of the time. She seemed patient about it; she had been around people a long time, and maybe she understood that some of us humans didn’t enjoy sniffing and hunting for creatures we never caught when the weather was cold, even if she did. As the days went by, I worked on my writing and worried about getting paid, and waited for spring to come, so the trees would be green again and my wood thrush would return.
One day during that winter I had to drive somewhere, and decided to take Kasha with me. We got into the old blue Datsun that MaryLou called Sister, and Kasha jumped into the seat next to me, so she could see out the front windshield.
I pulled out into Walter Reed Drive and turned right. That would take us to Four Mile Run, where I would turn again to get to the expressway. It also took us past the woods.
Bare and bleak as they were, I usually didn’t pay much attention to them. But that day, when we were almost past them, something caught my eye and I glanced out the side window.
Then I almost had a wreck, because I screeched Sister to a stop right there in the middle of Walter Reed Drive, where there was no place to park.
Why did I screech to a stop? Because I had seen a bulldozer.
But not any old bulldozer. And not a little bulldozer, like the kind you see sometimes, pushing dirt around when people are building a house. No, this was a huge bulldozer, with a high seat on top under a metal cover, so high up that the man driving it looked small.
As soon as I saw it, though, I understood why it was so big: It wasn’t pushing little piles of dirt around. This bulldozer was pushing over trees. Big trees. Knocking them right over, like they were hardly even there. It was knocking down the trees in the woods, my and Kasha’s woods.
I watched it for a minute, listening to the engine snort when the bulldozer would start moving, seeing the exhaust smoke puff out of the pipe sticking up behind where the driver sat, and watching as a big tall tree went over in front of it, its thick roots pulling and snapping as they came right up out of the ground to stick up in the air like a thousand muddy fingers. I watched all this with a sad, sinking feeling in my stomach.
Then a car came up behind me and honked. I was blocking the road, and I had to move. I put Sister in gear and drove on, I talked excitedly to Kasha all the way to where we were going.
“Kasha!” I shouted. “Can you believe it? Did you see what they’re doing to our woods? How can they do that? Why would they do that? All those beautiful trees, gone. Why?”
Kasha just looked at me with her tongue hanging out, and thumped her fuzzy tail on the seat sympathetically. It didn’t make me feel any better. Besides, it was easy to figure out why they were knocking down the woods. They were going to build houses.
More and more people wanted to live in Arlington, so they could get to their jobs in Washington. So all around people were building more and more new houses. That meant they had to have land to build the houses on. And if there were trees on the land where they wanted to build houses, the trees had to go. And a big bulldozer could get rid of trees fast, even big ones.
Just the same, the bulldozer in the woods was a surprise to everybody in our neighborhood. We had thought that all of the woods was part of the county park, where you couldn’t build houses. But we were wrong. Some of the woods was not part of the park, and somebody bought it and decided to put houses on it.
And that’s what they did. In just a few days, almost all the trees and bushes in the woods were knocked down, cut into pieces by loud chainsaws, and hauled away on big flatbed trucks. They only left one line of tall ones standing, right next to the road. These last trees would be like decorations for the new houses.
Within a week, it was as if the woods had never been there. Behind that one forlorn row of remaining trees there was just acres of torn up bare dirt.
But not for long. Soon lots of workmen came and started digging and sawing and hammering and painting, and in what seemed like no time at all houses sprang up where the woods used to be. Lots of houses, all jammed in together. By that summer, people were starting to move into them.
I still walked with Kasha down Walter Reed sometimes, past the new houses and then along the creek to the park. And she still had a good time, because even if most of the trees were gone, there were still many bushes to explore and creatures to hunt for and never find.
And there were still birds to listen for: Cawing blackbirds and grating jays, chipping cardinals and mewing catbirds, mockingbirds babbling and, if I went all the way to the park, woodpeckers hammering in the distance.
But I never heard the wood thrush there again. That wasn’t surprising, of course. After all, the bird book said she was shy, and needed deep woods to feel at home in. And what must she have thought that spring, tired after flying all the way back from Panama or some warm wherever, only to find her woods and her old nests all knocked down and gone forever. I’ll bet she was frightened and confused, before she flew off to find some other woods.
After that, a lot of time passed. We moved to a house not far from the apartment; Kasha got old and died, and we buried her in the back yard. In a few more years I quit trying to write articles all the time and got a job delivering mail.
The people I delivered mail to lived about twenty miles away from Arlington in a place called Fairfax Station. It was almost in the country there, and I drove around in my car delivering mail, with the car window wide open so I could reach the mailboxes leaning over the curb.
Most of the time I liked this job; I could listen to music on my radio as I drove, and when spring came there were patches of flowers everywhere. Parts of Fairfax Station there were really in the country, with crunchy gravel roads and deep woods that were shady and cool when the days were hot.
But sometimes delivering the mail was a hassle, with one problem after another. And one day, when it had been raining, I was feeling especially hassled. The roads were muddy and slippery, and my car was giving me trouble; whenever I turned off the motor, it didn’t want to start again. That probably meant it would have to go into the shop to be worked on, which would cost money. If it was to just quit out on a back road somewhere, I could be stuck for hours.
And sure enough, that’s what happened. I drove up one winding road where some houses were built back in the middle of a grove of tall trees, and had to get out at one lady’s house to deliver an important letter right to her door. Nobody was home, though, and when I walked back down the driveway to my car, it wouldn’t start. And then it started raining again.
Oh no, I thought. What do I do now? Actually, I knew what I had to do: I had to walk to someplace where there was a telephone and call a road service truck to come help me. Do that in the rain? Yes, in the rain, if it didn’t stop pretty soon.
Luckily, the rain slowed down to a sprinkle, and I started walking. I found a phone by an old store not too far away and called for help. Then I walked back to the car to wait for the truck to arrive.
My clothes were damp and sticky. There wasn’t any music I liked on the radio, and I didn’t have a book to read. So I just sat there and stared out the open window. I was still pretty worried: Would the repair truck be able to get my car started? How much would it cost to get it fixed? Would I ever get the rest of my mail delivered?
The rain had stopped by now, and the woods looked washed and dark and pretty. Kasha would have loved the chance to run around out here, I thought. And in the quiet, sitting there with all my worries, I began to hear bird calls: Cawing blackbirds and grating jays, chipping cardinals and mewing catbirds, the mockingbirds babbling and a woodpecker hammering in the distance. I didn’t pay much attention, though.
But then there was the music. As soon as I heard it I sat up straight and rolled down the other window. Did I really hear what I thought I heard?
Yes–there it was again. A wood thrush! Singing as clearly and beautifully as I remembered.
I peered out the open windows on both sides of the car, trying to figure out where the music was coming from, so I could try to find her. But of course, I couldn’t. This wood thrush was just as shy as my old one.
She was also just as magical. I sat back and listened to her gentle flute calls, and smiled in spite of myself. All the worries of a few minutes ago about the car and the mail seemed to slip off into the back seat somewhere, settling among all the old junk on the floor. They would return and bother me again, probably. But not now. Not yet. Not while I was able to listen to my magic flute again.
I was almost sorry when the road service truck drove up a few minutes later, because it meant my car would soon be started and I would be back delivering mail, and not listening to the wood thrush anymore. But when the car did start and I thanked the road service man and pulled away, I decided I would stop on that wooded road for a minute or two every day and listen, to see if she would sing to me again.
I did listen, almost every day, and I did hear her again, several times. But when fall came that year and the leaves were turning, one day I heard another sound along that road that was familiar: the loud snorting of a big bulldozer.
Sure enough, they were getting ready to build more houses, even out there in Fairfax Station, which was almost to the country. More new people wanted to live there, just as other people wanted to live in Arlington. Many new houses were being built there too.
About that time I changed jobs at the Post Office, and then I worked inside, not delivering mail to people’s boxes. So I don’t know how much of those Fairfax Station woods they knocked down, and I don’t know if they drove the wood thrush away from there too. But I do know that every week, more and more new houses are being built there, and more and more trees are being knocked down to make room for them. And so my guess is that it will be harder and harder to hear a wood thrush around there, just as it was in Arlington.
And that’s too bad, because the writer Thoreau was right when he said in the bird book that,“Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him.” And I say that when you hear her, you can forget your worries for awhile.
But what will happen to us and our worries if all the big trees are knocked down, and her magic flute is gone for good?
Copyright (c) by Chuck Fager
More about the decline of wood thrushes and other songbirds here.