Before a storm the birds would go silent. I would sit and watch from my porch as the clouds rolled in from the north and the west. But after the storm, the first sound that pierced the air no matter what time of day or night was the birdsong.
I saw the yellow-throated warbler after a storm, in the fir tree near the house. The yellow feathers caught my attention. The song was like my grandfather’s whistling. I can’t whistle. I never could learn no matter how many times anyone tried to teach me.
The walls of the log cabin we’d purchased would leak when it rained hard and the wind was just right. It was something to do with the construction of the home, a bad seal where the logs met the roof but only on the south facing wall and only when the rains came down hard. The first time it happened I watched, helpless to stem the flow of water from the cracks between the logs. I stood a long time at the windows, holding a towel in my hand to sop up the quick collection of water at my feet. The rain ran down the wood like tears that would puddle around me. I was still not convinced about living in the country. I was regretting the move, missing the city, lamenting the leaking walls.
The yellow-throated warbler sat in the tree outside that window, fluttering its wings, flashing bright feathers, both of us waiting for the rain to end.
Late at night when it would storm I would move the bed away from the southern wall in our bedroom so that the headboard and pillows would stay dry. I would tuck beach towels near the baseboards and sleep fitfully, my dreams punctuated by thunder and panic. “The walls are leaking again,” I’d whisper to my husband. He’d groan in response, turn over and resume snoring. There was nothing we could do about it.
I’d never lived in the country before. I thought of myself as a city girl. This move was a whirlwind decision after selling our house in Chicago for a tidy profit at the height of the real estate bubble. We had a pile of cash and pulled out a map to decide how to live the next part of our lives. Our children were young- 1,3,5,8. We were overwhelmed. The city pressed in on us from all sides. We chose to move to the country, to the log home on 18 acres. We were seduced by the solitude it offered, by the self-sufficiency it required, by the open spaces and slower lifestyle.
I bought books on hobby farming and bird watching. A red tailed hawk circled the house the day we toured it. It felt like a sign. We made the move to Tennessee a few months later.
European Starlings are described as chunky and blackbird-sized, but they have short tails and long, slender beaks. Their name derives from their look in flight-their wings - short and pointed, make them look like small, four-point stars.
Shakespeare enthusiasts first brought the European Starling to the United States. In the 19the century a group called the American Acclimatization Society was working to introduce to the U.S. every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s scripts. They released some hundred starlings in New York City’s Central Park in 1890 and 1891. Today there are nearly 200 million starlings in the U.S. They’re transplants, like us, though this generation is already at home here. Do they carry a cross-generational memory? Do they know they are not from this place?
My Chicago accent gives me away. I resist using the terms, “ya’ll” and “bless your heart” for as long as possible. I do not try to blend in. I do not mind being a transplant. Here, in Franklin Tennessee, there are a number of transplants, most are from the south but some come from the north, and we flock together at gatherings to talk about the mild winters and abundant sun and space before turning to the commiseration, the losses of leaving the northern US, good ethnic food, cultural offerings, liberal politics, diversity. We weave the complaint in, like one red thread in a sea of royal blue. We know it’s there even if it only shows when the light is right.
Sometimes it is hidden. Sometimes we are lonely. We are flocking together, with our short pointed wings, like four point stars.
On a hike one day the kids and I push through a field of high standing grass, making our mark on the old horse trails, pulling up wild flowers and pointing out frogs in the spring below and wild turkeys in the meadow. When we reach an open spot, we stop to breathe the cool fresh air, soak in the sun and effects of the blue sky beginning to fill with bulging white clouds.
The sound of beating wings caught us first. My son pointed to the trees in the distance where the leaves seemed to be suddenly alive with movement and then take flight
. It was late autumn, nearly winter and the bare branches of the trees became apparent then as the flock of black and brown birds took to the air. We watched as what seemed like a thousand birds filled the sky, flying together like water being swished in a pan, this way and that. We were all fixed to that spot, watching in fascination and perhaps some fear. I’d never seen one before but I knew this was a murmuration. It went on like that for ten minutes or maybe fifteen. We were rooted to the spot, lost in that moment. We were the murmuration. We were the weary travelers, flocking together. Nobody spoke as we witnessed the birds undulating, here and there and then finally away, into the blue sky, out to the Deep South, away from the oncoming storm.
Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She has published two books, “Nearly Orthodox” and “Garden in the East.”
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The yellow-throated warbler prefers tall trees. It lives in the canopies of the highest stands of pine trees in swampy areas for the most part. It is a songbird, a warbler, called so because of the trilling melodies it produces. When it rained hard on our property in Tennessee, the spring fed creek bed would fill, the land around it becoming soupy, the slopes turning slippery.