There is a little bird that lives in the woods. It nests low to the ground, at the edges of clearings. It is about the size of a sparrow. The upper body is a rich brown, the chest an off-white, with spots that look smudged. It has a reddish tail and a thin white ring that surrounds its onyx eye, just the way the bezel cup on a lady’s ring holds a precious stone. It is subtle, pretty and understated; no loud colors or striking features that would catch your eye.
Its name is the hermit thrush: Catharus guttatus. As the name implies, it is a hermit. You’re not likely to see one. But you will certainly hear it. Its sound fills the entire forest. It has a song, clear as winter air, that draws you like a siren’s call into the woods.
“Enchanting,” “haunting,” “melancholy.” These are the words I see used to describe the hermit thrush’s song.
“Ethereal” seems fitting to me. “Extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.”
Its song seems to be as much a feeling as it is a sound. Here’s the closest I’ve gotten to describing it: It is dusk, the soft edge of a summer day. You are at your childhood home, or some safe, comfortable place full of warm memories. In a forgotten corner of the garden, overgrown in a tangle of roses, you find an old wrought iron gate. You give it a push. As it swings, the dull and oil-less hinges sing that rich metal-on-metal song. Lower in tone at first, climbing in pitch and clarity as it swings. The sound seems to tighten and bunch, as if the song itself were being poured through a funnel.
I remember the very first time I heard the sound. I was sitting on the back porch of my mom’s place, out in the woods in Wellfleet. It was midsummer, late in the day, and the sky was turning purple. The song came ringing in, passing unhindered through the twisting pine branches, tumbling down from dark canopies on the plum-colored air. Immediately, my mind went to a place that felt like childhood. A time when there is great faith and belief in things not measured or proven. A time when not all the things that live in the forest have a name. I stood up and walked into the woods, as if in a trance, drawn by the sound.
The woods were dry from a month without rain. The tan, curled oak leaves rustled and crunched with each step. There was quiet, and then the song would come down from the dark pines. The thrush would call, and then a little shadow, only slightly darker than the sky, would shoot from the branches and fly deeper into the woods. Quiet. Another call. The bird drew me farther and farther into the forest. Each time the sound seemed close enough to reveal its source, the little shadow would dart away, a tiny piece of the tree’s silhouette breaking away and becoming a part of another. The song grew distant and faint, more silence than sound, slipping away just as the light had, more night now than day.
I never really saw the bird. I still have not ever seen one. I went into the woods following a mystery, looking for an answer, and found only more mystery. I stood in the forest, eyes still searching the canopies, but no longer looking for the bird. There was just the shapes of things; the dark, heavy mass of an oak, a twisting pine branch reaching out, holding a pine cone at its fingertips, a spider resting in its web, and the beginnings of a star waking in the sky.