Monday, September 19, 2011

In the meadow

Before I set out on my walk to college each morning, I eat my corn flakes and read the Boston Globe. This morning, a front-page story about a new Audubon Society statewide census of birds that indicates a precipitous drop in the numbers of many species. Among the birds with the steepest decline in population is the eastern meadowlark.

This comes as no surprise. Meadowlarks used to be a constant part of my walk along the Path. From their hiding places in the meadows they awakened my spirit with their endearing, but melancholy call. In The Soul of the Night I tried to render that call for my readers:
The Golden Field Guide provides a very scientific "sonogram" of frequency versus time. The song, I can see from the graph, is about two seconds long and ranges from three to four octaves above middle C. That is of no use 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, sad music. As usual, one has to go back to the older guidebooks 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 pertaining to bird song, F. Schuyler Matthews' seventy-five-year-old Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music does it best. The song, says Matthews, is "unquestionably pathetic, if not mournful." And with his characteristic extravagance, Matthews transcribes the meadowlark's call as the first two bars of Alfredo's song in La Traviata, but sung (of course) the way Violetta sings it when she discovers she must give up Alfredo.
Gone now. It's been twenty-five years since I heard a meadowlark. This morning as I walked through the meadow I whistled the meadowlark's song, as if I might magically resurrect the bird, whistle it up from the grass with its dapper yellow gown and black chevron vest. I whistled into the wind and had no answer.

Does it matter? Is the loss of the meadowlark a matter of consequence? In Soul of the Night I said, "From his hiding place in the crumpled grass he lectures on existential philosophy and discourses on roses and thorns." I miss those avian disquisitions.