Memory is a slippery thing, changeable and ultimately as inconsequential as hope. Sensual memory -- the slide of a fingertip along the curve of a back, the scent of burning leaves, the tang of high-bush cranberries after the first frost -- is more substantial, with its roots in the viscera instead of the mind.
Last week's snow and cold have been soothed by the warmth of Indian summer. The beech leaves are golden-bronze, a metallic sheen that lights up hillsides like ancient weapons. And the grim, silent mornings have also now been consigned to memory: the robins have returned.
To be honest, these are not the same disgruntled birds that packed up and deserted us for warmer climes when threatened by the first hint of frost. The robins who serenaded our souls through the summer, who nested in our hemlock trees, fed their young with our worms and our mosquitoes, who chuckled and whinnied and clucked on our lawn at dusk: those robins are probably in Florida as I write this. The robins who share this Indian summer are a heartier breed, down from Canada, taking advantage of the break in the weather to enjoy a few days of rest and feeding before resuming their southward journey.
Birds have varying migration patterns. Hummingbirds travel singly, sparkling jewels that flash like a subliminal message through our consciousness before being swallowed by the lush greenery of the tropics. Woodcocks travel by night, their short-bodied, bat-like flight accompanied by twitters and tweets that sound like the songs of stars. Canada geese famously flock in Vs, their stentorian honks as definitive of autumn as the bright orange foliage of sugar maple trees.
Robins also travel in groups but, unlike the loud, raucous flights of geese or blackbirds, robin flocks are mostly silent when they fly. Their migration is not a marathon -- not a high-altitude, long-distance, all-at-once journey from north to south. Instead, robins keep low to the ground: they flit from woodlot to parkland to glen. Robins seem to view migration as a leisurely trip, something to be enjoyed rather than endured.
The first time I noticed a flock of migrating robins was on a particularly nasty day in late October: the temperature hovered right at freezing, sleet whipped on a vicious north wind. As I approached the oaks at the edge of the big field, their leaves brown but tenaciously hanging onto the trees, I heard something: a sound familiar but somehow so discordant that at first I couldn't place it in any category in my memory. The confusion forced me to stop walking so that I could better hear, and better think.
I identified the sound after almost a minute of thought: the call notes of maybe a hundred robins all sounding at once. Ornithologists tell us that most bird species have two types of vocalizations: song, which is used in territorial and mating behaviors, and call notes. Usually more simple than song, call notes are utilized by birds in everyday interactions for social and flock communication. Robins have a particularly varied array of call notes -- whinnies and chirps and chuckles and sighs -- but all of these are characterized by a throaty richness, a musicality that, like the slurred, up and down rhythm of their song, probably has been implanted into the tribal subconsciousness of every human being that has been born in the continental United States.
Because robins are ubiquitous, the quintessential American bird. They can be found in New York City nesting in a flowering crab apple tree surrounded by concrete and asphalt and skyscrapers, they can be found at 10,000 feet in the mountains of Montana. They hop in our backyards collecting worms, they carry the warmth of the south with their song in the spring. Their rich singing voices, the brick color of their chest feathers: these form the definition of the term "bird" to most Americans.
But on that wintery October day, I realized that I had never heard a concentration of robin sounds. I had heard song in spring, I had heard diffuse call notes, but I had never before heard a hundred robins calling with their varied repertoire of notes from one confined area. The sound was somehow haunting, a new and jarring interpretation of something formerly familiar that brought goosebumps to my arms and twisted itself into my dreams that night.
And this year, for the few golden days of Indian summer, the robins have returned. I open the window and let their notes wash over me, the final sigh of summer, a memory only realized with its loss.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources