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Singing Without Knowing Why

Bill Meredith

"Ötime and chance happeneth to them all."
Ecclesiastes 9:12.

(March, 2012) Iím not sure when it started, but a year or so ago I noticed that everyone seemed to get quiet when I was around, as if there was something they didnít want me to know, or maybe they were afraid to tell me. About that time, I also noticed that my wife had changed; for instance, if she came in while I was watching "Last of the Summer Wine," instead of asking why I was watching that again, she began to ask why I had the TV turned up so loud. I also noticed that I was developing a tendency to turn to the right instead of walking in a straight line. I usually ran into something before making a complete clockwise circle, but a couple of times I went off to get something and found myself back where I had started, which was very confusing. Things finally came to a head one day last fall, and my wife grasped me firmly by the shoulders, sat me down and informed me, with her usual gentle tact, that I had gone deaf as a post and needed to get a hearing aid.

Itís hard to argue with her about things like that, especially when thereís a chance that she might actually be right. Nevertheless, getting a hearing aid seemed like a life-changing experience, and I needed to think about it. So I went off to re-stack the woodpile.

We donít heat the house with woodÖ we use the fireplace for entertaining guests, or for family occasions like the Yule Log at ChristmasÖ so keeping the woodpile in neat order is a minor job, and if it gets ignored the rest of the world takes little notice. I do it mainly when I need an excuse for avoiding some other job, like raking leaves, or when I need to think about things of cosmic importance. On that particular day, things seemed quiet; the only sound was a helicopter off in the distance somewhere, and I was beginning to think if I could hear something that far away I didnít need a hearing aid, when suddenly it appeared just above the house, flying so low I could see people sitting in it. That had a sobering effect. It seemed to support my wifeís theory about deafness, but it didnít explain the walking problem. It was just at that instant when I heard the Carolina wren.

Carolina wrens are permanent residents here. They are pretty little birds, russet brown on the back and cream-colored underneath, with a fashionable black line from the beak back through the eye. Like all wrens, their tail is cocked upward at a jaunty angle, and they bicker constantly at each other as if they had been hatched on the wrong side of the bed and stayed that way. Their song is perhaps not as musical as some thrushes or warblers, but they sing it with enthusiasm in all kinds of weather, even mid-winter. There are different regional dialectsÖ as a child in West Virginia, I learned the words as "Tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle;" while here in Emmitsburg they say "Chirpity-chirpity-chirpity"Ö but everywhere the song is clearly enunciated and easily recognized, even if your hearing isnít very good.

I heard it quite clearly; the song seemed to be coming from a tree over on my right. Thinking that the wrens might have their winter nest in the back of the woodpile, I began poking around in that direction, but found nothing. Eventually I spotted two wrens; they were on the ground straight ahead of me, but the sound still seemed to be coming from my right. I puzzled over this for a while, and eventually found the answer by poking a finger into my right ear; the wrens stayed where they were, but the sound moved to the left and seemed a lot farther away.

Tests by an audiologist confirmed that my left ear was severely impaired, so I got a hearing aid for that side. Things immediately got better; people started talking at normal volume again, the TV got turned down, and I was able to walk in a straight line again. In honor of the improvement, I wrote a bit of verse for the wrens:

Lord, grant your finest benison
Upon the Carolina Wren,
For it alone among small birds
Pronounces clearly all its words,
And then, as if to share its cheer,
Sings loud, so aged ears can hear.

I stuck a copy of the verse on the tree by the bird feeder, but the wrens didnít seem impressed by it; in fact, they ignored it completely, as if their literary tastes were on a higher level. Actually, the squirrels seemed more interested in it, especially the old one that figured out how to get past the barrier I made last year to protect feeder that held the sunflower seeds. He pulled the paper down, examined it in minute detail, and ate a piece of it. As I watched him, I thought what a shame it is that squirrels canít sing, since he seemed to appreciate the technical intricacies of libretto. But, sadly, I was wrong; rather than being interested, he was sinking into senility. A few weeks later, I noticed that when he found a sunflower seed and sat up to eat it, he repeatedly lost his balance and nearly fell over sideways. Over the following days he got worse, and then one day he did not come back.

The life expectancy of gray squirrels in the wild is about six years. This one had lived in my yard at least four; he was the alpha male, the boss squirrel, and I could recognize him by his tail, which had lost a patch of hair in some long-forgotten battle. He was old for his kind, and Time and Chance finally caught up with him, as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes said it would. The great naturalist, Aldo Leopold, once followed a chickadee he had banded for seven years, until one day it did not come back; he wrote, "Wherever he is, I hope he is still wearing my band." I know how he felt. Wherever my squirrel is, I hope itís a place where squirrels can sing.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith