The Song of the Wood Thrush
Today the wood thrush returned to the Crum Woods. I have been waiting for this event for months. I moved to a house in the woods three years ago, and at that time I heard a strange and wonderful bird call in the forest. The song of the wood thrush is a melody unlike anything I had ever heard. Liquid, flute-like, perfectly pitched—the thrush vocalizes a kind of duet with itself in which it simultaneously produces two independent musical notes that reverberate with one another. I have read that Tibetan monks can also sing two notes at the same time, a baseline and a melody line in contrapuntal balance, so now I think of the wood thrush as the singing monk of the forest.1
In the spring and summer I wake up, and often go to sleep, to the vocal pleasures of a bird that I cannot see but whose delicate harmonies pleasantly haunt my dreams. Like God’s Spirit, I know the thrush is there—I hear its lilting cadence from dawn to dusk—but I’ve only seen one wood thrush during the time I’ve lived in the Crum Woods. I creep around the forest floor looking skyward, hoping for a sighting, but it always escapes my gaze. [End Page 1] Instead, I keep my window open at night as a vector for the thrush’s call. Bathed in its music, it’s hard for me to distinguish between waking and sleeping, between twilight, midnight, and early morning. At dusk, the thrush is in my ear until I fall asleep; I dream of its call throughout the night; and I wake up after dawn gently moving through the deep of its sweet-sounding counterpoint.
The wood thrush lives in the interior of the Crum Woods and consistently refuses the lure of my feeder. Thrushes prefer just the right habitat blend for sustenance and breeding: running water, dense understory cover, and moist healthy soil full of fruiting plants and insects to eat. In the heart of the forest, foraging in the leaf litter among large deciduous trees, the thrush makes its nest out of dead leaves, mud, twigs, and sometimes found manufactured materials like paper and plastic. Like other neo-tropical songbirds, it is threatened by habitat loss through continued development of its home range. It is also endangered by brood parasites, such as brownheaded cowbirds, which lay their own eggs in wood thrush nests, crowding out the host’s eggs and hatchlings. The perdurance of the thrush in the face of these obstacles gives me hope in a time of despair about the world’s future. Thoreau says “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest. … Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.”2 For me, earth and heaven come alive with mystery and wonder when I hear the thrush’s ethereal song. In my own particular bioregion, the thrush opens to me the beauty of the Crum Woods as a vital habitat—indeed, as a sacred forest—whenever I am graced by its haunting polyphony.
To call the Crum Woods a sacred forest is an odd phrase if one is using traditional Christian vocabulary. Historically, Christian thinkers avoided ascribing religious value to natural places and living things, and restricted terms such as sacred, holy, and blessed to God alone. In general, classical Christian opinion desacralized nature by divesting it of any religious significance. While the Bible is suffused with images of sacred nature—God formed Adam and Eve from the dust of the ground, called to Moses through a burning bush, spoke through Balaam’s donkey, arrested Job’s attention as a whirlwind, used a great whale to send Jonah a message, and appeared alternately as a man and a dove in numerous accounts—Christianity [End Page 2] evolved into a sky-God religion in which God was seen as an invisible, heavenly being and...