Hermit Song

Perhaps it’s just natural that a lifelong loner should have an affinity to hermit thrushes. We share a common habitat, after all — that of solitude. But that’s too facile an explanation; my love for these birds is more nuanced than that. Whatever the case, when I arrived in the timberline forest near the head of a subalpine basin the other day and stopped to listen again to the wistful beauty of a hermit thrush singing somewhere back in the dim, it evoked a host of memories and associations.

For those who aren’t loners, it might seem that loneliness would be a stranger to those of us who prefer our own company. Not really. In the late 1970s I landed what seemed the perfect job for one who likes himself better when hanging out with wild things in wild places than with others of his own species. That work — conducting inventories of wildlife populations — took me into the remote corners of Canada’s Jasper National Park where I worked alone, often for days on end. More often than not, when I climbed out of my tent or stepped out of a patrol cabin into the pre-dawn shadows to begin another day of field work, there would be a hermit thrush singing somewhere in the cool secret places beneath the trees. And late in the evening, as mystery spilled down from the peaks to darken the world, again there would be a hermit thrush, intoning its wistful benedictions into a stillness we shared.

The slow, ethereal flutings back in the woods seemed to speak of their own kind of loneliness, of nostalgic loss and poignant rememberings. I’m sure those birds sang for themselves but it was a language I felt I almost understood as I simultaneously savoured my solitude and ached with loneliness. Strange days.

Years earlier, when I was religiously memorizing the first bird book I ever bought — the first edition of Birds of Alberta, by Salt and Wilk — I had been taken by the authors’ description of the hermit thrush’s song: “Oh, heavenly heavenly…ah, holy holy…” I had yet to see my first thrush, but I was haunted never-the-less. Maybe it was those lyrics that first made me equate a shy, brown bird with the parable of human exile from Eden.

Years later, when I was discovering the timberline trails of the Canadian Rockies, I sometimes backpacked with a book to read while resting. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was a particularly favoured companion; when the larches turned gold or the meadows were brilliant with blooming glacier lilies it was easy to imagine that I was in Middle Earth. In fact, I was — because the tragedy of Middle Earth was the loss of magic from the world of men – but I was discovering places where it lingers on. Jackson Browne sang of an earth wounded by “men who tried to forge her beauty into power” and that, to me, was the metaphor that linked the Christian story of the Fall to Tolkien’s fantasy novel: the deep human flaw that makes us all lonely strangers in a world of relations to whom we no longer relate. Magic dies when one ceases to look at the living world with wonder and love, striving to hear its music and to understand how best to relate to the beings with whom we share our existence, and instead simply focus on their utility and how we might possess and use them.

What good is a hermit thrush? Wrong question.

In the story of the Fall, humans eat fruit from the tree of knowledge reserved only for God. But it’s not the knowledge that banishes Homo sapiens from Eden; it’s our reason for wanting that knowledge and the fact that it turns everything else into a mere object of analysis. We objectify the world to gain power over it and, in so doing, isolate ourselves from wonder, humility, and relationship. We make loners of ourselves, and wind up alone, on the wrong side of the gate that locked behind us when we stepped through it. To understand the parable of the Fall, the first thing is to know that it didn’t happen once upon a time; it happens every time we look at the world merely as a bundle of resources, rather than a living source of wonder and inspiration.

In Tolkien’s trilogy the elves are the ones who love song and mystery, and live in a world infused by magic. “A Elbereth Gilthoniel!” they sing in celebration of a time when all was magic. 

But at the end, they sail away into the West, taking their magic with them and leaving the world to men. It’s the same story, really.

But the magic never really left; we simply turned away from it. It lives on in an Eden from which we never departed, except in our spirits. It lives in newborn creeks that bubble out of flower-strewn meadows and tumble through forests of larch and fir; it lives among the peaks, especially when they are wrapped in storm clouds or caught in the last rays of the sun; it is in the woods, the fens, the wind, and the wild things. There’s a dark magic in the eyes of a grizzly bear when it stands to study a startled hiker, and a bright magic in the way warblers flicker through the willows. Mayflies dance in magic sunbeams. When life emerges out of winter’s icy stillness, that’s magic. When trees crack with the cold and ravens hunch themselves against the hard winter wind, that’s magic too. It’s everywhere; it’s just hard to see it through the eyes of exiles.

I wonder if hermit thrushes remember the elves, or know them still. I suspect that they are actually birds of Eden, and that the half-light in which they prefer to sing is that place that lies between the lonely, lost world of humankind and the magic from which we turned away. Perhaps, if Tolkien’s elves sailed away into the West and left only the memory of magic behind, they also left a humble brown bird to keep that memory alive in sweet, forlorn laments that make mountain shadows sacred.

If we believe that magic has truly left this world, than a hermit thrush’s achingly sweet, spiraling song might be heard as the music that arises from memories of memories of mystery.  But I think it is more than that; it is proof, in itself that magic never left our world at all; we simply looked away.  Back in the sweet, subalpine shadows of forests, those small brown birds lament our loss of wonder even while they invite us back into its embrace. 

I’ve come to the certain belief that there is no time better spent than that spent listening to the hermit thrushes who sing to us from the edge of Eden, reminding us to remember what most of us don’t even realize we’ve forgotten: “A Elbereth Gilthoniel: Heavenly… heavenly… holy…. humbly… home.”

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Home is the southwestern foothills and mountains of Alberta. Born and raised here into a fishing and hunting heritage which morphed into a fascination with nature, a commitment to conservation, a home place on the Oldman River, and a career in landscape ecology. Still in love after forty years of marriage, and proud of the good people our three offspring have grown up to be. No less proud of, and grateful for, the friends and neighbours whose community spirit, stewardship ethics and good humour make this such a good place, and a good life. Worried about their future, which is why I can't stop working to keep my home place good. I write books and things too.

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