Friday, May 20, 2005

Beginnings wear their endings like dark shadows

Yes, I love that flash of flame in the foliage which is the first oriole of the season. But what I really miss this time of year is the call of the meadowlark from the newly green fields along the path. That call once defined spring hereabouts, now sadly gone.

I can whistle it, but how to describe it, those sweet, sad notes with the downward slur? A dive from a springboard into icy water? No, not quite right. I go to my bird books. The Golden Field Guide provides a "sonogram" of frequency vs. time. The song, I see, is about two seconds long and ranges from three to four octaves above middle C. That doesn't help at all. Peterson's guide is a little better: "Two clear, slurred whistles, musical and pulled out." Tee-yah, tee-yair, tries Peterson, striving for objectivity, and that gets us close to the sound, but not to the strange, melancholy music.

As usual, one has to go back to the older manuals for something closer to reality. Chapman's classic Handbook of the Birds, published in 1895, catches a bit of it: "The meadowlark's song is a clear, plaintive whistle of unusual sweetness." Ah, that's better -- the sweet and the sad. But in this matter, as in all things birdsong, F. Schuyler Mathews' nearly century-old Field Guide of Wild Birds and Their Music does it best. The song, says Mathews, is "unquestionably pathetic, if not mournful." With characteristic extravagance, he transcribes the meadowlark's call as the first two bars of Alfredo's song in La Traviata, but sung the way Violetta sings it when she discovers that she must give up Alfredo.

The sweet and the sad. Every beginning -- a season, a life, a love affair, a universe -- anticipates an ending.