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Once Upon a High Lonesome

Listening for a cry in the night

Issue 119, Winter 2022

Whippoorwill, a painting by T-Marie Nolan © The artist.

Listen to music religiously, as if it were the last strain you might hear.

Henry David Thoreau, in his journal, June 12, 1851

A t the edge of a mountainside skid path, scar of an old logging operation, a woman crunched across the leaf litter holding a long stalk of rivercane. She swept the cane over the ground around her as she went, like a dowser with a divining rod searching for water or minerals or buried treasure underground.

They would be above the ground, nesting on it, but so camouflaged you wouldn’t see them.

“You can almost step on them before they flush,” she said to me. Their feathers would be perfectly pigmented to blend with dappled sunlight on last year’s fallen oak and poplar leaves decaying in rich shades of brown on the forest floor. A flock of geese is called a gaggle, but when these flock, it is called an invisibility. If they heard a noise, they would close their large eyes, like smooth black agates, to hide the gleam. They would lie motionless, silent, listening.

They would be on their second brood of the season then, in early June. Two speckled eggs to each clutch. If brushed by the cane, the woman explained to me, the mother would flush, flutter upward, kick the eggs aside in hopes of obscuring them, then flop over or limp to feign a wing injury to distract the predator from the precious next generation. “It’s a brilliant strategy,” the woman said. Her name was Chris Kelly, and she was a diversity biologist for North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

I followed with a cane of my own, sweeping the leaf litter. I peeled my eyes; though it was broad daylight, they felt feeble against the prospect of camouflage’s trickery. My skin and clothes were no guard against the sharp thorns of wild blackberry brambles, which conjured threads from the weave and minute beads of blood to my arms’ surface, snagged and tore both shirt and tissue.

We flushed no whippoorwills.

In another tract of woods, at the other end of Transylvania County, we scoured around the granitic domes that the birds haunt, hoping. These slabs of stone provide small openings in the canopy, and are bordered by the low sheltering limbs of understory trees like mountain laurel. Edges: that’s what Antrostomus vociferus likes. Some space for the light to shine in and dapple them, blending with their mottled plumage; little clearings in which they can hunt. Places where the songs of the males will bounce off the granite and echo through the woods. “It’s like they’re on a stage,” Chris said, laughing. “They want to be the loudest thing around.”

Not in the daytime, though. They only sing at night. Between that fact and the camouflaging, ornithologists deem them “extremely cryptic,” an official scientific description. The whippoorwill is one of the least studied birds in North America. “Few people know the Whip-poor-will,” a writer for Bird-Lore magazine wrote in 1911. “He is merely a wandering voice, a cry in the night.”

We hopped along the rocks, careful not to step on the sensitive lichen and reindeer moss, and swept our canes in all directions. Gnarled blueberry bushes flanked the outcrops, and I paused to pluck the ripe fruits, bursts of sweetness on the tongue.

But we didn’t find the treasure we dowsed for in the leaf litter. No rufous or cinnamon-colored wing fanning out of a sudden from leaves the shade of shale and terra cotta. No nesting whippoorwills.

This worried me. 

A dowser, rod in hand, walks with questions. Such as: Where does water flow in the earth? Where lies a seam of quartz?

Or: where does song grow in the leaf litter?

Where’s that old flutter in my heart, rouse of my blood? I wanted to find it.

That month in the Georgia Piedmont, where I was living, the temperatures had blazed upwards of one hundred degrees. It is the southernmost portion of the whippoorwill’s breeding range, but I had heard none singing.

I had read a scientific report that placed the bird on a list of species of concern, saying that its populations had declined by seventy percent in the past forty years. A few hops and skips northward over the mountains and through valleys, in East Tennessee, I’d heard the bird calling when I was a child. It beckoned me toward the edge of where my family’s house sat, a place where I felt very alone, where the silent ache of no one to tell my story to, no one to listen, no one to understand me, gnawed. The whippoorwill was a throat rupturing open, reaching me in my lonesomeness. It was a wild flight of imagination that took wing on the night. It called not from an ominous dark but the darkness of possibility. Its song tugged at the bleak dark inside me, out of which, I would learn—was it teaching me?—a kind of music can be made.

I n my palm, a whippoorwill would weigh no more than fifteen or twenty copper pennies. Yet, in the psyches of those who lived in its breeding range historically, the bird had immense gravity, something I didn’t know as a child in my isolation. Throughout a wide swath of the East, from the Atlantic coast all the way to the tallgrass prairies of eastern Kansas, and from the North in southern Ontario and Quebec, down to the northern portions of Alabama and Georgia, the bird’s mating song, that weightless part of it, seeped into people’s minds, giving the whippoorwill cultural density.

In the gloaming, past dusk and before dawn, it pours forth “the courageous repetition of its name,” as one Simeon Pease Cheney wrote in Wood Notes Wild, in 1892. This bird that repeats its own name in the dark sung its way, especially, into the hearts of Appalachian people, suffusing their songs with contours of feeling that grow fuzzy with time.

Fuzzy like the record made in 1927 of Uncle Eck Dunford and Hattie Stoneman, two musicians from Southwest Virginia, singing “The Whip-Poor-Will’s Song,” of which I had obtained a copy. I had spent the early summer digging for tunes that mentioned the whippoorwill, and this was the oldest one I found. Down through ninety-five years of time, the song wended its way to me, sweet and wistful. A guitar and harmonica, a subtle and fluid fiddle, two voices.

“I wandered by the woody rill where ev’ning shadows play, to hear the song of the whippoorwill as he sings his ev’ning lay,” Dunford intones. The old meaning of lay was a short song or poem. The meanings of many words have fallen by the wayside or into obscurity along with many songs. The recording was an aural artifact. “O, list’,” sings Dunford, short for “listen.” I did.

Between phrases in the chorus, Stoneman pipes in with “whippoorwill!” in a girlish soprano, the only word she sings in the song, as if she’s the bird itself. “O, list’,” and Stoneman interjects with whip-poor-will!

“His song”—whip-poor-will!—“It floats”—whip-poor-will!—“along”—whip-poor-will!

I played it again and again, relishing the quirky affectations of the singers, the pleasing repetitions.

We wanted to be something like the birds, did we not? And we succeeded. Their gift was song, and we learned it.

That the songs of birds spur our own is such old news, and so obvious maybe, it verges on the quaint, or precious, or plain boring, I fear. But I mean to drum on the everyday ground we walk on, to try to sound what’s beneath it or in the past, the bones that have been buried below us.

Among the oldest artifacts of our music-making, excavated from caves in southern Germany, are the bones of birds. Homo sapiens took up the bones of fallen birds, stripped of meat. They were hollow: made to defy gravity and fly long distances, lightweight, good bones for the animals that were intermediaries to the spirit world, messengers to the gods, ascending into the canopies, high above us. They were the bones of the animals whose throats contained a special organ called a syrinx—named scientifically in 1872, taking the ancient Greek word for a human instrument, a shepherd’s pipe, and in this etymology we hear the flights of our own musical language. Syrinx: an organ that carried piercing-lilting notes to our ears, like the flutes we would learn to make. Through their bones we sent our own breath, and behold!—our songs could carry far, too. The birds inspired us to make music, and to inspire is “to breathe spirit into” (though this meaning is considered archaic, out of usage), and in this way what we share with birds is at the foundation of what makes us human—for how could we live without music?

We wanted to be something like the birds, did we not? And we succeeded. Their gift was song, and we learned it. The harmonica that Uncle Eck plays in the song is an iteration of the bird flutes, ancient instruments. Our breath through their bones lifted onto the air in carrying notes and helped lift us, our arms flapping outward from our bodies; we danced, for which purpose we found our own skeletons were well-designed.

“The Whip-Poor-Will’s Song” was laid down on shellac at a makeshift studio in Bristol, Tennessee, the second and third floors of the Taylor-Christian Hat and Glove Company.

More than thirty years earlier, two women had organized the first Audubon group in Massachusetts in response to the slaughter of millions of birds for their feathers, used by the millinery industry to decorate women’s hats, and women in Tennessee soon followed their lead to organize their own Audubon society. I wonder if the hats sold at Taylor-Christian had feathers in them; I wonder if the cryptic whippoorwill ever saw the light of a wide-brimmed hat. Americans had already witnessed the loss of iconic species, like the passenger pigeon, the last of which died in 1914, and the Carolina parakeet, North America’s only parakeet, the last of which croaked in 1918. There was a national recognition that more birds could go extinct.

At the end of July, high summer, the whippoorwill must have been singing in rural Southwest Virginia, just a little ways north of Bristol, where both Dunford and Stoneman lived. It was only one of dozens of songs recorded over the course of a few days by a producer named Ralph Peer, who worked for the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York. Those sessions are now referred to as the Bristol Sessions, which some have come to call the Big Bang of Country Music. “Hillbilly” music had already been laid down on record in New York studios a few years previous. But by lugging his recording equipment down to Bristol—the largest urban area in the Southern Appalachians at the time—Peer drew scores of rural musicians out of the woodwork during ten days of recording in which he paid artists fifty dollars cash for each record side they made. In the Bristol Sessions, Peer recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, both of which would come to define the evolving genre.

Uncle Eck and Hattie Stoneman’s song is one of the lesser-known ones of the famous sessions, but nonetheless: the whippoorwill was there at the beginning, flitting through the understory.

“The beginning,” this big bang: when my grandmother was four years old in East Tennessee, my great-grandparents alive. Having grown up in the odd remnants of the rural, and now living rurally by choice, maybe I dug toward something ancestral. Maybe I was homesick. I wanted the dark of the mountains and their quiet, far from the honky-tonk lights of Nashville. To hear the beginnings of the genre intertwined with the whippoorwill’s melody I heard as a child set unexpected whirlwinds of sentiment astir in me.

Not nostalgia, for childhood was bad for me, as I’ve said, and nostalgia is dangerous, especially for descendants of white settlers, especially in a nation in which the rural agricultural economy less than two centuries ago was based on a system of slavery. But I thought of Thoreau, who spoke bitterly about the rapid industrialization of New England and the loss of the rural while he also advocated for disobedience against a government that instituted slavery and war, an economy that operated on the same extractive principle when logging forests and expanding commerce as when treating Black bodies as property and as farm equipment. Thoreau advocated for the nation’s moral advancement and never accepted that the destruction of its lands and the wildlife that makes a home there was called “progress.”

The last time I visited my grandmother, I had read her collection of Thoreau’s writings, flipping through Walden and Civil Disobedience while she dozed in her recliner. I pulled out the extensive notes she’d tucked in between the pages throughout, handwritten and in cursive—her never-realized attempts at an essay, which were put on the back-burner as she wrote recipes on notecards, detailing dishes she would cook for her husband. Reading her notes on Thoreau, I peeked over intermittently at her to see her eyes closed, wool blanket covering her feet and shins.

I wanted the dark of the mountains and their quiet, far from the honky-tonk lights of Nashville.

“Oh, pray”—whip-poor-will!—“Now, pray”—whip-poor-will!— “We hear”—whip-poor-will!—“His lay”—whip-poor-will!

 

I n May, the birds return from their wintering grounds at the very edges of the Southern Coastal Plains, the Florida panhandle, along the East Coast of Mexico, and deep into Central America. I wanted to travel deeper into the breeding range, deeper into my home, where I had a better chance of hearing one, but over the phone Chris, the wildlife biologist who said I could accompany her on a whippoorwill survey, told me she was still wrapped up doing a survey of golden-winged warblers. And anyway, we needed to wait until the moon was waxing closer to full. “Whippoorwills don’t like to call if the moon isn’t shining,” she told me. The bulk of the bird’s food source is moths, probably large-bodied ones like the magnificent Luna moth, pale green and velvety in the night. They hunt them by sight, scanning with their black saucer eyes for moth wings backlit by the moon.

Chris sent me some old naturalist reports, which she liked to collect. A Mr. Howard Cleaves wrote in 1945 that, “Moonlight unquestionably exerts a stimulating influence on Whip-poor-wills. On dark nights, even during the height of the nuptial period, birds may call for less than an hour.” But “on clear, moonlit nights the resounding cry… can be heard all night long.”

As if a mark of this, the throat of a whippoorwill has a moon in it. In 1751’s A Natural History of Uncommon Birds, George Edwards wrote, “On the Throat it hath a Half-Moon, like Spots of White, the Corners of which turn up towards the Ears.”

The moon on its throat is a thin crescent. That was the phase the moon was in. We needed a moon fifty percent or more illuminated— anywhere between first quarter and last quarter, with a full moon being peak—to give us the best chance of hearing them.

So, I waited while the moon grew, dug for more songs, and made a whippoorwill constellation of tunes to hang in the country music firmament, traced the lines between them. As we gaze across space and glimpse old starlight, light that has traveled many years and miles, so I bent my ears to hear, across the distance of time and space, the glimmers of years long gone.

I heard the delightful “Call of the Whip-Poor-Will,” recorded in Atlanta in 1928 by the Stapleton Brothers. One of the brothers whistles a not-entirely-accurate yet lively mimic of the bird’s song. Imitation birdsong had always been an art form, but it became a part of popular culture during the vaudeville era, and a market later developed for whistling on record.

I was transported by West Virginian Roy Harvey’s 1931 rendition of “Where the Whippoorwill is Whispering Goodnight,” a song he also recorded with Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers in 1930. “In that quaint old-fashioned home tonight I’m list’ning, where the whippoorwill is whispering goodnight,” sings Harvey in a strange, pinched but lilting tenor.

Bradley Kincaid’s “The First Whippoorwill Song,” recorded in 1933, is a simple tune featuring only a guitar and his mellifluous voice. “Meet me this evening, when you hear the first whippoorwill song,” he coos. “We will meet in the woodland, far away from the hurrying throng, and whisper our love to each other, when we hear the first whippoorwill song.” A cover of Kincaid’s song was released the following year by North Carolina’s Early Skyland Scotty, featuring another imitation-birdsong whistler, who trilled joy into my insides.

An archivist at the Library of Congress sent me a 1937 recording of the Bogtrotters Band, made in Galax, Virginia. Uncle Eck Dunford was a member of the Bogtrotters, and the song is the same as that first one I had come across from 1927, this time with Mrs. Kate Hill in the part of the whippoorwill, along with a man who goes unlisted. A field recording made by folklorist John Avery Lomax, it’s raw and ramshackle in the best of ways.

The Delmore Brothers’ “When It’s Time for the Whip-poor-will To Sing,” released in 1941, had an earnestness to it that made me ache. It was a popular tune of theirs on the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast throughout the 1930s. “She is mine and the thought of her grows sweeter when it’s time for the whippoorwill to sing,” the brothers warble in harmony.

Everywhere across the country-music universe, I heard the wandering cry of the whippoorwill, a song that, it seemed, was eternal and could not fade out.

“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly,” Hank Williams crooned in 1949. “The midnight train is whinin’ low, I’m so lonesome I could cry.” The song is meted out in measures regular and calm, the rhythm guitar and bass plodding along, but the steel guitar bends toward ecstasy, and Hank’s voice veers toward complete undoneness, some kind of inner combustion of desire. It’s as unforgettable as the whippoorwill’s song.

And the train’s whine—that auditory emblem of industrialization, of rural people going off to faraway cities and leaving the country behind—is now heard alongside the whippoorwill, who sounds too blue to fly.

Some of the recordings, including the last, I had in my vinyl collection. I set a galaxy of songs spinning in my head, in my living room, got lost in the orbit of records on rotation. I lay on the floor, the crackle and static of dust under the needle.

The moon waxed slow. The universe is vast. The Big Bang was not a beginning, of course, only a particular moment, fifty years after Edison and others had invented the phonograph, that revolutionary technology that recorded sound. And Bell’s telephone came into being a year before that, and both were followed shortly by the radio. The ways that people were listening through time and space were changing.

A Duplex Phonograph Company ad read: “The voice, formerly invisible and irretrievably lost as soon as uttered, can now be caught in its passage and preserved practically for ever.” An ad for a gramophone stated it was “the only permanent means able to reproduce, in a natural quality, a living breath of air and speech—of those who will hereafter pass from this life.” These were the hopes placed on the technology of sound recording. Everywhere in the rhetoric surrounding the phonograph, writers spoke of the possibility of preserving the “voices of the dead.”

I floated in this nebula of country stars who sang of whippoorwills, trying to imagine myself back to a time when people listened for the birds’ songs, when their fanciful notes wove into our human lives and hearts, sparked a feeling, lit a fire inside. Had we quit listening to birds that way, even as their populations plummeted, as their music became more rare? In the old recordings—rare now, too—I felt I could touch a time that was not very distant—that I could pull the past closer, and the whippoorwills.

The 1927 recording, the earliest one I could find, kept tugging me back. When it was recorded—when country music was born, as some say—Americans had been leaving the countryside in droves for decades. In a burgeoning capitalist economy, people were on the move to cities to find work in textile mills, sawmills, factories, and on the railroads.

The phonograph industry at the turn of the century had been wholly focused on urban Americans, who were easier to reach with advertising and were learning to become consumers of entertainment with their wages.

In his definitive history, Country Music, USA, Bill Malone writes that the music of rural people, like the recordings I had been listening to, was already labeled in the 1920s as “old-time singin’” or “old familiar tunes” by the record companies. The genre became hillbilly, and then country. Malone writes that consumers heard it as “a static or rarefied expression of a dying peasantry, an art form that could not survive the industrializing process.”

With the phonograph, music-making among common people who played the old familiar tunes (most of the whippoorwill recordings are variations of anonymously written old songs) largely faded away as a daily sustenance, replaced by the consumption of mechanically reproduced music. Even as voices were preserved, they were buried by the high turnover of popular records. What the folklorist Arthur Palmer Hudson called “the singing habit” of Appalachian culture fell by the wayside that would become a four-lane highway. The whistling masters of bird impersonation—often associated with the Black musical traditions and labeled “primitive”—passed out of existence.

But we will always have these recordings.

 

In The Audible Past, scholar Jonathan Sterne writes that the phonograph emerged within a culture “increasingly interested in all manners of preserving the dead.” Embalming had become a widespread practice during the Civil War, when large quantities of dead bodies had to be sent back to their homes and loved ones. Embalming fixed “the tissues by chemical means,” for a while, at least, and, with the addition of cosmetics, gave the appearance of life beyond death; rouge on the cheeks and lips to bely the gruesome fact that blood no longer coursed beneath the skin.

The last passenger pigeon shot in the wild was stuffed and mounted. Hundreds of Carolina parakeets were killed and taxidermied as their populations plummeted, their vivid green and yellow feathers no longer ruffled by the wind.

Wax discs from the Bristol Sessions, “The Whip-Poor-Will Song” included, were shipped back to company headquarters in New York packed in dry ice.

“Death has lost some of its sting since we are able to forever retain the voices of the dead,” an early listener of the phonograph reported. Perhaps it was true. Nearly a century since they were sung, I’d dug the voices up, to give them life again. Or I hoped they might infuse new life into the whippoorwill’s song that was fading due to urbanization, loss of habitat, the change of climate churned by rampant global industrialization, deforestation in their wintering grounds, and the industrially produced pesticides that have been decimating insects like moths, that primary food source of the whippoorwill.

I listened to the old country songs, voices of the dead, spinning them into existence again. Or were they haunting me? The moon waxed to gibbous, and I went to the mountains.

 

Chris and I trudged along under red oaks and hickories, crunching through the leaves with our rods of river cane, looking for an odd bird hunched leaflike.

At high summer in the woods, I am usually gazing bright-eyed into the sea of green above and the light it filters, whatever colorful warblers flicker within it. To focus down at the brown leaf litter shifted my vision. All the rot of past years piling up. All the death that feeds life, decomposing back into the soil to feed the canopy above. What I’m talking about is how heartache feeds our songs, how death can give new breath, how life springs from the ruins.

All I wanted to see in the leaf litter was a female whippoorwill on her nest, her mottled plumage, the funny whisker-like bristles that protrude from the birds’ faces I had seen in pictures, eyes wide fixed on me while she incubated the next generation.

The light shifted into evening. A few nights shy of full, the moon would soon rise. Before migration was a known fact, it was believed that birds flew to the moon for the winter. I imagined for a brief moment the moon’s gray surface aflutter with gold, blue, gray, umber, black, indigo, and teal wings, all the world’s songbirds gazing down on us from the heavens. Many cultures believe our once-living ancestors are in the stars. The report I read detailing the whippoorwill’s decline estimated that the continent’s landbird populations have fallen by a billion in my lifetime. Twenty percent of our 448 landbird species are headed toward extinction.

“There’s a very loud Eastern towhee,” Chris said. Its mnemonic— the English words that birders and ornithologists transpose onto the bird’s calls, so that they can better remember them and teach them to others—is “drink your tea.” Its song shot across the canopy again: Drink your tea tea tea tea tea! it yelled to us.

Whippoorwills, of course, “say their own names,” which makes the brain do a little backflip: as if we gave them the name first, and then they began to say it. Or as if they always had their names, and we simply listened and transcribed it. This naming, this language, is how we send our calls to birds as they call out to us. Who was poor Will?, I wondered. What was the birds’ name to the Cherokee, those who lived here before settlers?

In bird songs, we also listen for language of another kind, as their migration and breeding patterns speak to us of seasonal changes that give our lives rhythms. “As soon as the Indians are informed by its notes of its return,” wrote the English settler Jonathan Carver, in 1778’s Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America, “they conclude that the frost is entirely gone…and on receiving this assurance of milder weather, begin to sow their corn.” Time-keepers, whippoorwills signaled the seasons’ changes, before time was standardized by clocks ticking on wrists and chiming from mantels. In summer they were the daily sound of nightfall. And so their songs became associated with meeting lovers on warm summer nights, the birds’ desires for mates mirroring and sparking our own longings. What would the earth be without its moon, and what would we be without the birds that encircle our lives, pull on hearts as our satellite pulls the tides?

“Oh, listen!” Chris cried, pointing up to the canopy. “Some warbler nestlings are begging for food!” I perked my ears. “Hear them?” Chris asked, smiling. “They sound like little whispers.” She imitated them, squeezing air through her teeth. Then I heard them, sounding as she had mimicked them, but a little different. Her mimic opened a new passageway into my ears. I wondered, when birdsong-whistlers were common, mimicking the songs they heard, if they served as a conduit between our language and that of the winged ones.

Chris found her path to ornithology after getting a degree in biology. She worked on a summer job with a professor who continually played birds’ songs, asking her to identify them. She discovered she was quite good at it, that she had an ear for it. If she heard something, she remembered it.

“Do you hear the wood thrush?” asked Chris. I needed no help recognizing it. It fluted, its notes riffling along the trees’ crowns. It was my favorite song of the high-summer Appalachian forests, bouncing off the canopy’s ceiling in a way that had always given the woods an interiority, a sense that I was inside the lives of the birds—in their world, not that they were in mine.

The wood thrush’s song hushed me. I wanted only to listen. But I also felt they were listening to me.

When I was teaching children some years ago, I led them daily into the school’s woods on quiet walks, challenging them to take the most silent steps they could along the path, as if their shod feet were the soft paws of a coyote or fox. Without fail, though, we always startled the birds, and they sent out their alarm calls, which are different than their melodic songs. These sharp and pointed shrieks spread word of our presence, carried bird to bird long-distance like a radio broadcast. The deer, the squirrels, the chipmunks, the bobcats—all of whom are listening, too—receive the message and skedaddle. Much stays hidden, listening for our footsteps to pass.

“Oh, there’s a black-throated green warbler singing,” Chris said.

Chris liked to say the names of the birds she heard, and of the trees she walked under. “Why do you think you like to name the birds when you hear them?” I asked.

“I feel like the ground is going to fall out from under me if I don’t know the names,” she said. “When I can’t remember them, I feel disoriented.”

“Maybe the ground is falling out from under us because we’re forgetting to learn the names,” I said.

I told her that in the town of Brevard, the county seat, I asked around, at a restaurant, at the campground where I slept, a coffee shop, a bookstore, if people heard the whippoorwill calling that summer. No one knew what I was talking about. “What’s that?” they asked me. What if, even where whippoorwills still sing, we are no longer listening?

“I want people to know what a whippoorwill is,” Chris said. “Who’s going to teach people what these birds are?”

I’d been reading the book Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, by an ethnographer named Steven Feld. In his study among the Kaluli people of the Papua New Guinea rainforests, who know birds’ songs intimately, Feld opened the way for a new “anthropology of sound.” In the book, he recounts an incident when he was asking questions to a Kaluli informant named Jubi. “With characteristic patience, Jubi was imitating calls, behavior, and nesting,” Feld writes. “Suddenly something snapped; I asked a question and Jubi blurted back, ‘Listen—to you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest.’”

Feld writes that he continued to learn that to the Kaluli, “bird sounds are simultaneously heard as indicators of the avifauna and as ‘talk’ from the dead…‘in the form of birds.’”

Voices of the dead. This shook me. Whereas our phonograph records preserved the voices of the dead, the Kaluli people’s birds did the same thing.

I thought of my grandmother, who we called Moon, born just a few years before the “The Whip-Poor-Will’s Song” was first recorded. She told me several times that her mother asked to be buried in a “mourning-dove gray” dress, and that every time she heard the bird cooing she thought of her mother. I, in turn, on hearing it, now think of my grandmother’s story, and of the great-grandmother who lived before me. I know her dying wishes as if they were put on record, though they were just passed down in this story, and in that way I know something of my lineage.

Fifteen years ago, in her first year on the job, Chris heard “older folks” saying they didn’t hear whippoorwills as much as they used to. That’s why we were out here now, collecting data so that she could get a better idea of their local populations.

 

I could not see, but I heard the lay of the land around me.

The moon was up.

It was time to quit looking. With our divining rods we had not found the place where song grew in the leaf litter. Chris stashed the river cane back in the truck. The other birds would soon fall silent. The whippoorwill’s time to sing was nearing. Would we hear them, though we had seen none? I imagined the arc of shadow rolling across the mountains as the earth turned away from the sun.

The sky darkened to a deep powdery blue and we stood at the edge of a field, the woods crowding against it, pines becoming black silhouettes. The moon was a cantaloupe. No clouds. A couple of stars shone through the gloam’s curtain, and the dark deepened.

And then it sang. The folds and creases of the mountains that rolled around us, their hollows and ridges and bedrock and granite outcrops: the whippoorwill’s voice bounced along the contours of each surface. Flutter, rouse. I could not see, but I heard the lay of the land around me, and the old meaning of lay was a song or poem, Uncle Eck had taught me. Whippoorwill, with its voice, made all the land sing.

And then we heard two whippoorwills, then three.

On the occasion of the phonograph’s invention, a writer in Scientific American wrote that, “Whoever has spoken or whoever may speak into the mouthpiece of the phonograph, and whose words are recorded by it, has the assurance that his speech may be reproduced audibly in his own tones long after he himself has turned to dust.”

But hasn’t art, from the earliest cave paintings of palms stenciled against stone, from the earliest songs, the ballads and oral histories, the myths, always held within it this effort, this hope? Hasn’t it always meant both to express the life of the present moment, the moment we’re leaving behind, and to touch those who aren’t yet living, with a hope that our kind will continue beyond our lifetimes? Don’t birds do the same with their songs, expressing the life that beats within their feathery breasts right now while passing the ancient melodies on to fledglings?

In one of the old writings Chris sent me, a naturalist described the birds’ mating dance that he’d had the good fortune to witness: “The male called from a low branch overhead, while the female strutted on the gravel path below, with wings and tail outspread and head lowered, and sidestepped back and forth, half way around to the right, then to the left, all the time uttering a curious guttural chuckle.” I imagined the birds out there dancing in the dark where we couldn’t see them. Do-se-do and round and round.

The whippoorwill kept singing, a wild surge.

I reached for my recorder, but I knew there would be no way to record it, not really. And I reached for my pen, but I knew my language would fail me. But I tell you this story that happened anyway, once upon a high lonesome. What I’m talking about is how out of the darkness a kind of music can happen. How it is happening now—though this moment has passed. 





Holly Haworth

Holly Haworth’s work appears in the New York Times Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, Orion, Sierra, and elsewhere. It has been listed as notable in The Best American Travel Writing and included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing. She’s currently at work on her first book, about listening.