THRUSH HOUR

words + photography TODD R. NELSON

“It is thrush hour,” I tell my daughter. “They’re back!”

I step outside to the back porch. We are still just east of twilight and early in the return of migratory birds. The air is soft. The fir trees are fragrant. I wait all year for these songbird weeks of spring and summer, and especially for this songbird; and, each night, for this hour, this listening ritual.

The crows have withdrawn; the robins are nested; woodpeckers have fled; the barred owls are about to make their entrance. 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,” wrote Sassoon.1 Exactly.

I press the voice record button on my iPhone to capture this serenade, its next melodic burst. Then I type my thrush hour message; press send. 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 through time and space.

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This is special to me: my grandmother, Amelia, with her parents and brothers
at the family cabin in Bradford Woods, Pennsylvania. Probably about 1910

I would not appreciate the thrush song so much if my grandmother hadn’t taken me in person to 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 finally 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 or Dvorak. She was an accomplished pianist too. Her songs join the entanglement.

New England birds must have reminded Gramma of her childhood spent at Bradford Woods outside Pittsburgh, and the beloved rustic cabins of her family’s retreat for the summer. There was a spring-fed swimming pool, fields and woods, dogs and horse buggy, and walks and picnics with cousins—a whole 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, wearing 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 the kids paddling leaky homemade wooden boats. It was the beginning of popular photography, and of our family’s visual record. Gramma annotated them all. Instagram, circa 1917.

And the Bradford Woods thrush? I imagine Gramma walked those hardwood forests with her own grandmother Amelia Gerwig, her namesake, singling out the songbirds together, handing off the knowledge and love to the younger generation.

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The little cabin model re-creates the real cabin in Bradford Woods.

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 1960s, the swimming pool persisted; Gramma’s little cabin beckoned. Gramma tilted her head as if to stop and listen to the echoes of prior childhoods lingering, for her, in the forest air of what was once called the Northwest Territory by her settler forebears. Is the thrush song so different from a happy, giggling child?

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


1"Thrushes,” Siegfried Sassoon.
2 "Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats.

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