Jul 24 2008

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Hearing the Wood Thrush

Posted at 7:35 am under Blog Post

The melodic, flute-like song of the wood thrush rang through the trees the other day, stopping me in my tracks the same way it did decades ago when I first heard it. Amazing. That little brown bird still has some strange power over me.

Like Thoreau, I feel the gates of heaven are not shut against me when I hear that song. In fact, they are wide open as I venture ever deeper into the shadowy forest. Manifest in those few simple notes is the great mystery of the wild itself and my unspeakable desire to fuse with it, to become as much a part of the forest as possible. After hearing the wood thrush, each step I take becomes a prayer – a whole new way of being in the world. All the travails of my species become some sad travesty performed in the distance. They are largely irrelevant in the face of the real. And for a second, maybe two, I know what it feels like to be fully human.

For years I have tried to articulate that feeling, to lend words to a visceral belief in the essential goodness of the world. So far I have not succeeded. When I tramp alone in deep woods and hear the thrush, I know in my heart that my own wickedness prevents me from speaking for the wild in any meaningful way. Like all other human beings, I am too arrogant, self-righteous, too caught up in my own sense of self-importance to say what needs to be said. And the moment I try, I become a charlatan.

There are times when I am wild. Standing naked on a rock next to an emerald pool in a mountain stream, dripping wet, I understand as the other animals do exactly what it means to be fully in the world. But that knowledge escapes me as I dress, and I am left wondering if perhaps there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with the way me and my kind have organized our lives down in the developed lowlands. What’s out of whack? I must confess that I have no more of an answer to this question now than I did thirty years ago. All I know is that an essential part of myself is as wild as the forest and no less endangered.

Last night I read an article in Audubon magazine about the wood thrush and how its numbers have diminished over the past half century. My wife brought the piece to my attention suspecting, no doubt, that it contained something I should know about. I can’t say I learned anything new. The article was rife with the kind of environmentalism that has become standard fare in our day and age. But somehow it left me with an even better sense of what the wood thrush stands for and why I continue writing and publishing under that name.

The wood thrush is a bird that needs large patches of unbroken forest to prosper. So do I. And there is still enough primate in all of us, I believe, for this to be universally true. We need the forest, we need the wild in ways that can’t be measured. And if the day comes when there is no longer enough wildland for the wood thrush to survive, then we will not survive either. Life will go on, the planet will turn, and some kind of brainy biped will persist. But not the human.

As goes the wild, goes the human. Of this I am now certain. The only question remaining is which way the story will play out. Will we ultimately win the Darwinian struggle for existence, or will we join the long list of species that have come and gone? The answer, I believe, lies in our collective will to wildness, or the lack thereof.

The great danger, of course, lies in how we define both nature and ourselves. As Emerson said, “Nature converts itself into a vast promise, and will not be rashly explained.” The same can be said about being human. This isn’t easy terrain to navigate. Yet the song of the wood thrush provides a clue as to where to begin. Hearing it, I know I must go deeper into the forest to understand – much deeper. The wild is waiting for me there.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Hearing the Wood Thrush”

  1. Deedee Burnsideon 24 Jul 2008 at 8:45 am 1

    Wonderful words you (always) put together, Walt!!
    I shall pass your words on if that’s OK with you!
    Glenn Crawford, Belizean, quoted in that article is a
    dear friend and fantastic bird guide. . .

  2. Walton 30 Jul 2008 at 7:43 am 2

    Deedee, feel free to pass along anything I write at this blog site, no problemo. That’s what it’s for.