Published in The Keene Sentinel, 1997
As I was listening to the radio at this time of year a few years back, it was reported that the ice on Lake Winnipesaukee had gone out on a certain Wednesday at 9:48 a.m. I know people who lay bets on what day the ice will go out, but I never knew it could be tied to the minute. I had an image in my mind of Fish and Game officials with stopwatches ringing the lake.
It gave me the impression that the natural world runs with the regularity and precision of an orchestra. The robins start to sing, and then the ice goes out. Then the peepers start, followed by the barn swallows. Then the black flies come, and then the mosquitoes, and the summer people, each with their line of music to contribute to the symphony.
I heard the ice go out on Tolman Pond one year. My garden is next to the pond, and as I was breaking through the tough, heavy sod, I heard a soft music like silvery bells. Looking around me I realized that it was a warm breeze blowing the ice out of the pond. In a minute, it was over.
Another amazing and serendipitous song of spring is the one the woodcock sings. My father introduced me to it. I had only seen a woodcock once before, and I couldn’t imagine this comical creature bursting into song.
There seems to be a right moment to go looking for the woodcock’s song, and while I wait for the moment to arrive, I pat the dog, milking his silken ears. My father gives the dog a lengthy explanation why he can’t come with us. The dog, a Weimaraner with a brain of minimal wattage, considers my father’s argument, finds it reasonable, and collapses on the spot.
We go out into the twilight and walk up the road. The apple trees are in bloom, and the peepers scream from the boggy places by the edge of the pond. The air is full of shrieks of lust.
“Here we are.” He steps off the road over a low bank. “This one’s right out in the mowing.” We stand still and listen. Amid the ecstatic din of birds and frogs, I hear a flat, buzzing beep. It has all the musicality of a Volkswagen horn.
“Is that it?” I ask dubiously.
My father puts his hand up to quiet me. “We don’t want to disturb him,” he whispers. “We’ll go closer when he’s in the air.”
I listen again. A little clucking noise deep in the throat comes before the beep. It repeats itself every 30 seconds, and then stops. A heavy bird flies by my shoulder.
“Is that him?” I ask.
“Did you see him, did you see him?” my father whispers, almost hopping up and down with excitement.
“He flew right over the pond.”
We are crouched together by the apple trees, breathing wet air edged with the delicate smell of the blossoms. After a few minutes, something plummets to the ground with a thud. The woodcock is about 20 feet from us. He stands stunned for a moment and clucks and beeps. The beep is so loud, so earnest, that it makes me laugh. He runs to a different spot on the grounds, puffs himself up, gives a cluck. BEEP.
“He’s got his lady friend hiding in the bushes,” my father explains. “She’s admiring him.”
The woodcock hurries around in a circle, slightly listing to one side, then it’s time again. He throws himself into the air and speeds off. This time I watch him go. He flies in a large circle, out over the pond, coming back over the sheep pasture, trilling as he goes, in phrases. As he nears us again, the phrases grow shorter and more intense, picking up speed, until he is directly over our heads, flying in tight circles. At the point where his trilling reaches a frenzied pitch, he breaks into a song. It sounds like five different birds are singing at once. The trill is high and sweet, and low, soft notes and grace notes lilt in between. All float down like the petals sifting off the apple trees.
The song doesn’t last long. None of them do. The woodcock comes barreling down again, and stands in the mowing to gather himself. The dripping and screaming of spring are all around us, briefly.