This time of year, just after sunrise or as the sun sets, I hear Wood Thrushes in the woods around our house. They seem to be perched in every tree, creating harmonic chords that float and linger and seem almost, but never quite, to end.
It is Irish legend that when you are alone, there are certain songs that lull you into a frame of mind that makes you susceptible to abduction by fairies. They will carry you away to their own fairy-world, where years may pass in the space of a normal hour.
If you have never heard the Wood Thrush’s music in the dim light of an early morning or a late afternoon, you may be forgiven skepticism or outright unbelief. But if you have, if you have given yourself over to listening just a fraction longer than we ever seem to listen to anything today, then I dare you to deny the possibility that fairies are hiding nearby.
The Wood Thrush is a shy brown bird with a spotted, buff colored breast and a song that has inspired impassioned prose to drip from writers’ pens. Thoreau wrote, “This bird speaks to me out of an ether purer than I breathe, of immortal beauty and vigor,” about the Wood Thrushes he heard in the forest near Walden.
Such flamboyant descriptions are not diminished by an understanding of the physical structure that allows a thrush to sing. Birds have a muscle encased organ at the base of the esophagus – the syrinx. Air moves through the syrinx and across a membrane, which vibrates to create sounds.
For some birds, the structure of the syrinx is simple and their vocal ability is limited – pelicans, vultures, storks. Other birds have a more complex syrinx and are able to create more refined sounds but can’t sing – doves, owls, shorebirds. The passerine species have the most intricate syrinx and produce sounds that are pleasing to human ears. Among the passerines, the thrushes are the opera stars. Species in this group can produce layers of notes and actual chords. They sing.
I admit to feeling foolish, writing about fairies. After all, most fairies are just cute greeting card fare. But Irish fairies are different. They are envoys between the day-to-day mortal world of work and worry and the invisible fairy world; they carry humans to the great terrain of the imagination where they can drink wine from a mushroom cup and still be home in time for supper.
After you return from a time in the fairy realm, they say your memories of the enchantment are erased, but a shift in consciousness is yours to keep in occasional half-memories, a peculiar earthy intelligence, a new sensitivity to the cycles of nature.
Tomorrow is the summer solstice. Myth tells us that on this day, when the sun climbs higher and higher until it seems to stand still in the sky, we humans have our best opportunity to be taken to this special world. And what better guide could we have than a brown bird with a beautiful voice?
Tate is a Carrollton resident and bird enthusiast.