Has it ever happened to you that one of your senses – sight, perhaps, or smell, or hearing – recognizes something familiar to you but long gone? So long gone that, even though you are seeing that person or object (perhaps for the first time in decades), or smelling that long-ago scent, or hearing that sound that you’d almost forgotten, it takes your consciousness some time to even notice, let alone recognize, what exactly is the sight or smell or sound that your senses have caught?
It happened to me last night here at the Manse, a quiet summer evening after a perfect sunny day. Raymond and I were sitting in the living room, leafing through some interesting old books that he had bought at a recent auction. The only sounds were the night sounds outside our windows: insects and birds in the still air, and the very occasional car passing up or down Queensborough Road.
And then I heard, very softly, a different nightbird sound. I gave it no thought at first; and when I suddenly did, it was because I realized with a start that, very much without thinking, I’d picked up the bird’s familiar, long-ago song in my head, and was silently singing along with it – or perhaps it would be better to say marking its very distinct rhythm along with it.
It was a whippoorwill.
“There’s a whippoorwill!” I quietly exclaimed, overjoyed to hear a sound that was so familiar in my youth, but that I hadn’t heard in probably close to 40 years. Whippoorwills, you see, have largely disappeared from this part of the world where once they were so common. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources explains (here): “Eastern Whip-poor-wills were once widespread throughout the central Great Lakes region of Ontario, [but] their distribution in this area is now fragmented … Although there is some uncertainty surrounding the decline of the Eastern Whip-poor-will, the main threat to the species is [probably] habitat loss and degradation. The habitat loss is a result of natural changes when open fields and thickets become closed forest in the north, and intensive agriculture in the south.”
Given all that, perhaps you can see why I was so thrilled to hear a whippoorwill in Queensborough last night.
Now, I have two things to report as followup:
One: Raymond wondered what on earth I was so excited about. People, it turns out he has never heard a whippoorwill! (Or if he has, he didn’t know that it was a whippoorwill.) He had lived in cities all his life until our recent move to the Manse. And so, just as he is learning about other rural things, like crokinole and bitterns, he is now learning about whippoorwills.
Two: Unfortunately Raymond never did get to hear the whippoorwill last night. In an effort to hear it better, we went to the screen door of our darkened kitchen – and listened, and listened, and listened. But no whippoorwill sound came, and perhaps our very movement through the house and toward the door had frightened it off. I strained for a long time to hear that lovely old song again, so that Raymond might hear it too, but to no avail.
But I am sure of what I heard. I know the whippoorwill’s song, because I grew up with it. And, though I am not in general much of a believer in omens, I feel rather sure of one other thing: the song of a whippoorwill, heard once again after so many years, is a good and joyful sign.
You can be sure I will be listening again tonight.