Here I am in Bayfield, Wisconsin, again, on what my husband likes to call our Annual Writer’s Block Retreat. That’s meant ironically, because he usually comes home with a sheaf of new songs and the start (or ending) of a new play, and I manage to come up with at least a few new poems and a column or two.
This year, though, is different. As I write this, it’s our last full day, and I’ve written exactly zero poems and maybe – we’ll see how this goes – one column. Everything else has been pretty much the same: we’ve taken a daily walk in the woods; eaten at the ritzy Rittenhouse Hotel, which always makes me think of what the Ryan House could be, if only someone would sink a boatload of money into it; browsed for treasures at the used book stores (a pop-up book of “The Little Prince”!); watched videos while the fireplace blazed in the chilly evenings (this year it’s The Tudors series, replete with both sex and violence, as well as a little English history); and read to our hearts’ content.
Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. In Bayfield. Last day. Feeling guilty about all the poems I haven’t written. Last year, I wrote a poem about white-throated sparrows, and the things that were going “thunk” on our cottage’s roof, and a bear, and my husband’s color blindness as it related to my telling him I had heard a purple finch. (“How can you tell a bird’s color by the sound it makes?” Good question.) But last year, I heard white-throated sparrows every time we went for a walk, and things were falling onto our roof all day and night (flying squirrels, giant pinecones?) and I heard birds that sounded just like the purple finches back home, and, no kidding, a BEAR ran in front of my car on the highway.
This year’s visit was quieter. The only wildlife we saw was a doe trying to make up her mind about crossing the highway. All the spring flowers were still in bloom, which was lovely but not, somehow, inspiring. I felt bad, though, because a good poet is never at a loss for material. Some of the best poetry has been written from spare, abysmal prison cells. As long as you have a mind and a writing utensil, you’re set. Even lacking the pen or pencil or stick, writers can develop a prodigious ability to memorize, to hold a poem in the mind for months, for years, until it can be written down.
So, even though we go to the same place every spring, and do mostly the same things, that shouldn’t have kept me from writing something. Every time we go, the weather varies, whether subtly or not; the flowers are at a noticeably different stage; I see something new in the trees or the shops. This year, the grape hyacinths were still in bloom. Another year, I wrote a poem about a fat, happy baby in the IGA store, which I renamed “Piggly Wiggly” for the poem’s title. That’s all it takes – one flower, one baby.
There was one thing, though, that I could not find, though I wanted to very much. I have not heard a white-throated sparrow even once, though I’ve listened hard. It could be that my hearing, so assaulted by all those concerts in my youth, is finally unable to detect the high, pure notes of this bird’s gorgeous soprano song. Maybe it’s the new drugs. I wouldn’t put it past them.
This bird silence reminds me of a movie I saw years ago. Called “Strangers in Good Company,” it’s about a small group of elderly women, maybe six in all, off on a bus trip to somewhere or other. The bus breaks down, leaving them stranded near a cabin where they spend the night. During the course of that day and night, and the next day, when they are rescued, we get to know them well – who they are, who they were in their youth. One of them, the oldest and most frail, goes out walking with her friends and talks nostalgically of the bird-watching she did as a girl, and how she loved, in particular, the song of – you guessed it – the white-throated sparrow. “It’s so sad,” she tells her companions, “that they don’t live in these woods anymore.”
Only they do. We, and the other women in the movie, can hear that sweet cry, as clear as a bell. Their gazes meet, in sorrow and understanding, but they do not tell their friend.
Is it possible these bird really have flown the coop? At least in northern Wisconsin? It’s been a weird spring, after all. My crab apple tree, which has burst into extraordinary bloom each May, refused to flower this year. I feel I should apologize to the neighbors. This bird silence, though, feels like my own failing, not nature’s.
Have I reached that point? God knows, I hope not. I can’t quite depend upon my husband, because bird calls all tend to sound the same to him. Perhaps bird-song deafness is related somehow to color blindness. Unlike me, he did not grow up with a mother who hardly let a day go by without calling out, as she hung out the wash or picked a ripe tomato for dinner, “There’s that cardinal! And I hear a blue jay, too!”
So I learned to listen, and to feel a little jolt of joy every time I recognized another song. I don’t know if she ever heard a white-throated sparrow. I don’t know if I ever will again. I hope so, though. And as Emily Dickinson said, hope is a thing with feathers. Maybe next year.