What is the best way to keep time? I don’t profess to know, but I do know the most natural way: by paying attention to the weather, to the motions of the sun and moon in the sky and to the activities of fellow creatures on this planet. Among these, weather is the most fickle guide to the seasons. This year, with its seemingly endless winter, is a good case in point. Yet it’s the one that people in our culture seem to rely upon the most. Most of us are too hurried and too distracted to notice subtle changes in the positions of celestial objects, as our ancestors did, and in any case they are directly, but distantly and rather mysteriously related to conditions on the ground. Hence the first day of spring is seldom the first spring day. That leaves the doings of plants and animals as guides to the unfolding year, and for me they are the most trustworthy of all, and the most rewarding to follow.
When the marsh flooded recently, from a mix of snowmelt and rain, leaving most of it inaccessible to walkers, I went in as far as I could, hoping for an early glimpse of spring’s approach. The red maple’s round flower buds were swollen, like tiny red berries, but their overlapping scales had not yet begun to open. But I was not disappointed, for the red-winged blackbirds had arrived and were announcing themselves with their usual brio. Oka-lee-ee! Their unmistakable calls rang out at intervals from low and partially submerged alders, willows and cattails. Only the jet-black males were present, the brown-streaked female birds not due for another few weeks. They were flashing their scarlet epaulets as they hunkered down to call, in what biologists know is a territorial display, but I like to think is also an overflow of exuberance. Somewhere in his writings Thoreau calls the redwing “Admiral Blackbird.” In the passage below, he describes a gathering of male blackbirds as a kind of disorderly orchestra, reminding me of elementary school children tuning up before a recital and their enthusiastic cacophony of toots and screeches amid snatches of melody. Both performances, the blackbirds’ and the children’s, have filled me with the same kind of wild delight, the joy of witnessing fresh hopes burst forth to herald a new season of life.
“I listen to a concert of red-wings — their rich sprayey notes, amid which a few more liquid and deep in a lower tone or undertone, as if it bubbled up from the very water beneath the button-bushes; as if those singers sat lower. Some old and skillful performer touches these deep and liquid notes, and the rest seem to get up a concert just to encourage him. Yet it is ever a prelude or essay with him, as are all good things, and the melody he is capable of and which we did not hear this time is what we remember. The future will draw him out. The different individuals sit singing and pluming themselves and not appearing to have any conversation with one another. They are only tuning all at once; they never serious perform; the hour has not arrived.
— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, April 29, 1860
Admiral Blackbird is the fifth in a series of columns by Richard Parisio, linking experiences in the natural world with works of literature. The series’ goal is to bridge the gap between the poetry and science by showing how their different ways of seeing nature are complementary. Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, poet and educator. He is NYS coordinator of River of Words, a national poetry and art contest for grades K-12 on the theme of watersheds. His poetry collection, The Owl Invites Your Silence, won the Hudson Valley Writers Center 2014 Poetry Chapbook Award and will be published by Slapering Hol Press in January, 2015. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments or suggestions.