Thrush Hour

Bradford Woods Cabins w family - 1


The Castine Patriot, June 26, 2020

The Behrhorst family of Pittsburgh at Bradford Woods cabins.

Gramma, Amelia, at far right, with her parents and younger brothers, 1910.


Thrush Hour

By Todd R. Nelson

       “It is thrush hour,” I “tell” my daughter. I step outside to the back porch. We are still just east of twilight. The air is soft. The fir trees are fragrant. I wait all year for these songbird weeks of summer; for this particular song bird; and, each night, for this hour, this listening ritual.

       The crows have withdrawn; the robins are nested; woodpeckers fled. The wood thrush in the treetops behind our house, Dryad of the coast of Maine, begins its evening coloratura. I hear the rippling grace notes of pibroch; so many notes in a fluid arpeggio. They are the birds “Whose voices make the emptiness of light/ A windy palace.”[1]

       I press the voice record button on my iPhone hoping to capture this serenade; its next melodic burst. Then I type my thrush hour message; press send. The world is flat. Though Ariel is hundreds of miles away in a suburban enclave sans thrush, we can share this song. Ornithological distancing. Imperfect. Merely adequate. And yet, transporting.

       I would not appreciate the thrush song so much if my grandmother hadn’t taken me into the pine woods behind her 19th century New Hampshire farm—a weekend retreat; the true family farm was generations previous, many states distant—and taught me to listen, then hear, then name, then love this bird. “That’s a red-winged blackbird,” gramma said. The thrush was the prize. Her face lit up as it trilled. The same bird, same evocative song I heard tonight, here in Maine—gramma’s song, texted to her great granddaughter that she never met. Quantum songbird entanglement.

       I loved gramma’s way of tilting her head to one side at the sound of a bird call, even raucous blue jays. Her gesture was enough to say, “Stop. Listen. That one,” singling out the solo bird she wanted me to hear above the background forest chatter. She had the same way with a melodic line in Chopin. She was an accomplished pianist too.

       New England birds must have reminded gramma of her childhood spent at Bradford Woods outside Pittsburgh, and the beloved rustic cabins to which her family retreated for the summer. There was a spring-fed swimming pool, fields and woods, dogs and horse buggy; and walks and picnics with cousins—a village of childhoods. I have her old black and white photo albums of the family idylls, peace, play, love, and a simpler time. Her father drove an early Ford in a duster, with goggles. The family had an early box camera and took care to document their life with formal multi-generational portraits and candid snapshots of kids paddling leaky homemade wooden boats. It was the beginning of popular photography, and our family’s visual record. Gramma annotated them all. Instagram, circa 1917.

       And the thrush? I imagine she walked those hardwood forests with her grandmother Amelia Gerwig, her namesake, singling out the song birds together, handing off the knowledge and love to the younger generation.

       I have the little wooden cabin facsimile that her great uncle carved for her, a scale replica of her own full-size play cabin. It’s now a sacred object  on my bookshelf, bringing back the vestigial memories of my own childhood visit to those cabins, before suburbia encroached. In the early 60s, the swimming pool persisted; gramma’s little cabin invited us in. Gramma tilted her head as if to stop and listen to the echoing sounds of prior childhoods lingering, for her, in the forest air of what was once called the Northwest Territory by her forebear settlers. Is the thrush song so different from a happy, giggling child?

         The song remains the same, across time and the history of American migrations and settlement and heritage, as the listeners of five human generations commune with a single avian species, on a July evening in Maine. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.”[2]

Todd R. Nelson lives in Penobscot, Maine. 

[1] “Thrushes,” Siegfried Sassoon.

[2] “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” John Keats.

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