Wednesday, May 16, 2012
The European nightingale was a bird for both poet and playwright. A late song heard in the darkness. Before we banished night, people walked out of an evening. They courted and watched the stars. Walked home to the village through darkening fields and celebrated the Mid Summer revels under the moon.
"Philomel, with melody,
sing in our sweet lullaby-"
So wrote Shakespeare in "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Philomel, the nightingale, sang for Romeo and Juliet, and for John Keats:
"Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:"
The nightingale, once thought to belong to the Thrush family, is now classed as a flycatcher. Ironic, since the most melodious and mysterious bird song in North America comes from the thrushes: the Hermit Thrush, the Veery, the Wood Thrush, and the Swainson's Thrush. In Middle Tennessee the Wood Thrush spends the summer, the Hermit spends the winter soundlessly, and the others just pass through. They sing very early, and very late, though I have never heard them sing at night. Robert Frost describes their dusk music best:
"Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went-
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament".
In the evening, if the traffic on Old Hickory Boulevard is not too heavy, I can hear the Wood Thrush from my porch. "E Oh Lay", he sings along with assorted whistles and trills. His song, though pensive, is not a lament to my ear. There is more sadness in the call of the White-throated Sparrow, calling the name of "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" , as he scratches for southern food before his spring trek back to the North Country and its wistful, short summers.
But here in the South, we do have some night singers. Downtown the Nighthawks cruise over tall buildings looking for insects dazzled by the city lights. In Gulf Shores, Alabama, the Chuck Will's Widow cries out across the sloughs to the alligators and the diamond back rattlesnakes hiding in the tussocks of the Saw Palmettos.
And for years at night I worked in an Intensive Care Unit of a suburban hospital here in town. There was a large hack-berry tree outside the second story window and in it, a mockingbird who cared not who was coming, going, or dying inside. His song was cheerful at all hours, and in all weathers.
* The photo is of a Wood Thrush. I borrowed it from Wikipedia.