A Voice From the Woods

BY | Posted on | FILED UNDER Categories Audile, Brooklyn

by Rodrigo Alonzo

A few weeks ago I was sitting on my porch in Kensington enjoying a quiet morning. This was in the beginning of the quarantine so there was the occasional passing car but mostly everything was still. Suddenly a call sounded; not too loud, but distinct. It was a voice I’ve known my whole life and yet I really didn’t know anything about it. It was a birdsong. The only one that has made an impact on me. I hadn’t remembered ever hearing it in Brooklyn before. And now that we were forced to seclude ourselves in our homes, there it was.

This particular birdsong is one of my earliest memories. Other formative sensations are freshly-mown grass, the carpet in my parent’s first apartment, a mobile that hung above my crib, but this sound… It’s the same every time: a low note, then up high, then down a bit and that note is repeated three times…like this: low-high-mid-mid-mid. And the mid trails down each time it’s sounded. The quality of the call is like a low recorder, as if it were being played in an early music ensemble. It sounds like it’s being blown through a medieval woodwind of some kind, a husky, low salutation.

First time I heard the song I was a toddler, living in St. Joseph, Michigan. Our house was one of about twelve in a newly-constructed subdivision surrounded by open fields, forests and a small creek. From the time I was very little, we would go for an evening walk around the neighborhood. Often it was dusk. The sun was a deep red with a fiery fading orange just above, all dipping under the black horizon. And that birdsong would always call out. The song and the sun setting behind the darkened trees were fused together in my mind. That’s why hearing that same call on my porch in Brooklyn was such a jolt. How could that voice have traveled forty-seven years and several states to find me here in Brooklyn?

In addition to the visual image of the sunset, the birdsong evokes a kind of Greek chorus for me. “I’m still here,” it tells me. “Remember your childhood?” it asks. “Who do you think you are?” Hearing this simple voice is my personal Rosebud or madeleine. It’s some kind of ghost that is simultaneously comforting and haunting.

Because I now have much more free time than usual, I decided to find out who it was that was making this sound. After a short investigation of “bird calls” on YouTube, I came across the exact one. It was the mourning dove. All this time I had no idea and here it was. When I looked at its photo, it didn’t match the shadowy image I’d been carrying in my head for so long. I learned that mourning doves are plentiful in New York (as well as Michigan). They love open fields, hunting for seeds, and they migrate to Mexico in the winter.

Another memory that came hurtling back was Robert Frost’s poem, “Come In” which I had read as a senior in high school. The vidid directness of his language made a big impression on me then. I didn’t know you could write a poem about a bird inviting you into the forest. Here I was, in the middle of Brooklyn, feeling the same dilemma. I remembered my teacher saying, “The bird’s not calling out to the narrator. Nature is indifferent.” But the voice of the mourning dove is so specific. It always forces me to face myself and take stock of what I’ve become. It always finds me. Even in Brooklyn.

8 thoughts on “A Voice From the Woods”

  1. Rodrigo, it is amazing how overwhelming our senses become in this period of stillness. We listen more deeply and look more closely, both inside and out. It becomes easier to make the connections between those two spaces – interior/ exterior – as their very meaning takes on new significance. Thank you for sharing this reflective writing. I found it very relatable to my feelings and observations during this time.

    Also, mourning doves are thought to represent peace and safety. I imagine it is a great sign that they are always in your earshot.

    1. Dear Rebecca,

      Thank you so much for your response. I agree that we are now living with a heightened sense of awareness. The regular mechanical rush of the city has been quieted and new sounds emerge. I truly appreciate your feedback and I love your information about mourning doves. I didn’t know that! Thank you, again.

    2. Rodrigo,

      Like Rebecca, I too, relate to your sharpened senses since lockdown. I feel connected to the birch tree whenever I look up from my work-from-home desk, like never before. I’m very aware that when shelter-in-place started, its branches were bare. For seven days a week since mid March I’ve seen the buds come out, and develop into small leaves, more and bigger leaves. By now the tree is showing its majesty with a full canopy, just like last year, I’m sure, and the year before, but this is the first time I’ve seen every frame of this animated manifestation of spring.

      Your post also evoked a short poem by Guatemalan poet Humberto Ak’abal whose work I love:

      Si los pájaros
      escriban sus cantos,

      hace tiempo
      que los habrían olvidado


      If birds
      wrote their songs,

      they would have been forgotten
      a long time ago.

      1. Dear Erik,

        Thank you for the lovely comment. Ah…birch trees! I love them. I can relate to your more studied observations of the trees. Because our movements have been so limited these days, I take variations on the same three walks around my part of Brooklyn and I’m now much more attuned to the same trees and porches and windows that I see along the way. I notice the subtle changes.

        Thank you for sharing that excellent poem as well. Love it!

  2. HI Rod,
    This week in The New Yorker, you can see an image of a New York City intersection with a traffic light. There perched atop the light rests a little next with a family of happy birds peering down at all of us. I have never felt so aware of the changing temperature and the shifts from sunshine to clouds as I do now, and yet I am more disconnected to the outside than ever before. Our heightened awareness to these things, to our dreams and to our memories is part of this scary but poignant communal now. I hope you will post more writing to AbecedariumNYC.org!

    1. Hello, Lynne.

      Yes…you’re right… there is a simultaneous return to embracing the out side and a newfound fear of the dangers that may be encountered out there. As you said…we’re clinging to our memories with even more fervor.

  3. Beautifully evocative! Birdsong has certainly taken on a whole new meaning in our present lives. I awake every morning with the gentle cardinal, followed by the doves… The doves for me as well are such a profound sound, recalling my childhood in Europe. Grateful to Lynn to have created this place for all of us to share our thoughts and dreams.

    1. Thank you so much, Sophie. You’re right about the new resonance of birdsong. I love the notion that you have your familiar songs too. I’m so curious to know what kinds of changes there have been in indigenous animal activity, now that our city has slowed down considerably. Are the animals up to anything new now that the routines have changed?

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