Blue Collar Atheist: Non Sequitur

Red-winged Blackbird (not the bird in this piece)

This is a little nothing, just a bit of me that bubbled up in my head this morning. Maybe it’s a birthday wish for myself.

There’s this bird.

Well, I should tell you about where and when I saw it, first, so you’ll know why it matters to me.

I lived, as some of you know, in the mountains in central California, the High Sierra. I was on the east slope, not far from where California and Nevada butt together, and about midway up the range, not far south of Yosemite National Park.

I had a dog-friend in those years, Ranger the Valiant Warrior, and later a second dog-friend, Tito the Mighty Hunter. In the years I had them, my habit was to take a morning hike and an evening hike with them – me woolgathering or reading (yes, I can do this while walking, even over fairly rough ground), them romping and splashing around-and-in whatever creek we happened to be near.

Mammoth Creek was a favorite, it being on the edge of the ranch where I lived for several years. The banks of the creek are lined partly with runty Jeffrey pines, but mostly with willows pretending to be head-high bushes rather than trees. In those bushes, in the summer, were small dark-colored birds.

Anyone who has ever lived near wilderness will tell you there is so much life there, and so out in the open, that you eventually come to ignore some of it, simply because there is too much else to look at. There are stars in the woods, and there are the also-appeareds. The stars are ravens, and mule deer, and black bears, and the occasional character-actor coyote. The also-appeareds are … well, just a bunch of critters and birds you probably wouldn’t recognize even if I named them for you. (Okay, here: Clark’s Nutcracker, Steller’s Jay, pika – ever heard of them? No? Just as I thought.)

But there was this one bird. I have no idea what it was; I never bothered to look them up. I can’t even remember what they looked like, beyond the hazy impression of dark plumage, and small enough to fit comfortably into a hand.

What I do know about them is that, in summer, they hid in the willows along Mammoth Creek and sang.

I’ve never decided just what I think birdsong is. I know it’s often a territorial statement, a shouted “Hey, this is MY part of the world, and I’ll thank you to keep your feathery ass out of it!” (It’s also occurred to me that birds have unnaturally loud voices for their size – compared to equivalent-sized mammals, I mean – making me wonder what kind of deafening racket their saurian ancestors must have been capable of.)

But I also wonder just what sort of feeling it gives rise to in the bird, what their own impression of it is. Could it be that territorial statement is also a pleasurable song, a breast-swelling prideful bit of actual music cast into the air, simply for the joy of doing it? I still don’t have a clue.

But as far as I was concerned, this one bird SANG. It produced a series of diamond-pure notes that rose and dipped and flew, that burbled comically on the wind. The liquid trill of its song contained little aural holidays, where the sound would stop for a very short interval before resuming again.

One sensed those holidays were not real holidays – the bird did not actually stop producing notes in those moments – but holidays only to the human ear. The notes would rise in progression within human hearing range, but then, still gloriously soaring, pass out of our range for a moment, before dropping back down into hearability.

Despite not being able to hear them, those hidden notes still played a part in the bit of music the bird produced, with the whole of it filling me with such delight that I sometimes laughed out loud. It was as beautiful as a baby’s laugh, falling as warmly on my ears and heart as the bark of a golden retriever puppy.

I remember the song, but I don’t remember the bird. And I’m sorry about that. Something that gives you such a feeling should be identified. Researched and understood, so you can, later in life, pursue and recapture that feeling.

I know where they live, though, in summers at least. And someday, when I’m old and very tired (like, you know, next week), I would like to go back to that town and those creekside willows, and hear that song.

I will hear it. I will think of Ranger and Tito, and the carefree time we shared there, a time packed with unnoticed perfect joy. I will feel again the laughing delight of those golden moments, when I hiked mountain trails with furry best friends, and was young, and heard music.

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  • docsarvis

    That is a beautifully written essay, Hank. I’m familiar with the Mammoth Creek area, having spent some time photographing the Eastern Sierra Nevada area. This essay makes me want to got back. Thank you.

  • DonDueed

    I certainly hope you’ll get to hear that particular birdsong again, but you know, habitat destruction (here or in the faraway wintering sites) has taken a real toll on some species. Many songbird ranges have shrunk, shifted, or disappeared altogether.

  • machintelligence

    You don’t give us a lot to go on here, but my best guess would be the vesper sparrow. Like most sparrows it is nondescript in color and small. The preferred habitat may not be right though. You can hear a recording of its song (along with lots of others) at

  • Rebecca Hensler

    Thank you, Hank, this was so beautiful to read. It pulls me to remember the golden moments of my youth, blazing hot afternoons in the not-yet-developed canyons of Santa Monica, running ahead of my parents, chasing our ecstatically off-leash shepherd mutt, searching through rubble for fossils. I’m glad the places you remember are still there to revisit, and hope you do, and find your birdsong.

    And I know Stellar’s Jay well; their ridiculously bright plumage decorates Yosemite like blue glitter.

  • Brian

    Stellar’s jay is a regular visitor to my backyard. I regularly see Clark’s nutcracker in the mountains – often looking to steal my lunch. Pikas live in rock piles in the mountains. I feel lucky to know these and many others from my time hiking the Canadian Rockies and the coast ranges of BC.

  • Markita Lynda—damn climate change!

    I saw them all last week, or maybe the Clark’s Nutcracker was a grey jay, plus nuthatches and golden-mantled ground squirrels. At least I think anything running around the rocks over 11,000 feet is probably a pika and not a prairie dog. And I love the song of red-winged blackbirds. In the last thirty or forty years they have moved out of bullrushes into bushes and sometimes even into town.

    • weldonribeye

      The most common rodent I’ve seen in the upper elevations of the Sierra Nevada is the yellow-bellied marmot. I haven’t seen a lot of pikas so it’s always a pleasure when I do. The biggest surprise on the trip I took a few weeks back was seeing a jack rabbit the size of a pit bull at just over 10,000 feet.

  • crocswsocks

    I’ve heard of pikas! They’re cute little lagomorphs, and their name is pronounced pie-kah.

  • stardust

    Beautiful. I needed that, thank you.

  • smhll

    Some of my friends love birds and technology, so I have the idea that there are smart phone apps that recognize different bird songs.

  • magistramarla

    I live on the Central Coast of California. The area where I live has recently been named a National Monument and a Wildlife Preserve. I love living here. We regularly see deer, wild turkeys, coyotes and lots of other wildlife right in our neighborhood. There has even been an occasional sighting of a mountain lion. My cats are never allowed out the door!

    The birds that come to visit our neighborhood bring me a lot of joy, We see an assortment of finches, jays, doves and ravens. I’ve been delighted to spot robins, hummingbirds and woodpeckers.
    A variety of hawks live in the area. Amusingly, since we are so close to the ocean, seabirds are also common in our neighborhood.
    California is truly a wonderful place to live.

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