Small Voices of the Town

WHEN this roaring, stony, aching city dies; when its harbor is choked, and commerce goes elsewhere ; when corruption and oppression, or a hope of exercising them, have driven the last of its cave dwellers to the tenements of rival towns, the grass will sprout in its streets, its Babel towers will soften into ruin, the birds will return, and within a twelvemonth Nature will have declared herself in the place that had forgotten her. The bird’s voice, then, is not its racial memory alone : it utters prophecy. How futile this hiding from the universal will! Law finds us in every habitation. Perch we never so high, we cannot cheat gravity ; delve we never so low, the moral also seeks us. At its worst the town is open to some beauty, and has lately, in alarm for its own state, widened its gates to more. Public parks, gardens, playgrounds, recreation piers, and boulevards are creations almost of our day, and have been forced into being by the huddling of mankind into a throng, with faces turned inward. That meant the denial and desertion of every benefit the town stands for. A city of a million without a breathing spot, — conceive it! A barbarism ! A monstrosity ! It is astonishing and pathetic that multitudes come and go along the avenues and years without knowledge of the silence, the music, the grace, hue, light, substance, and resource of the world. They are not so to pass forever. Voices have begun to call from the fields, and they listen. They are learning the need of touch with the soil. They have discovered air. They have seen water, and have timidly put their hands into it. Their children have been haled away to the farms, and have come back brown and strong; and their sons have gone away as soldiers, discovering, as they marched with their regiments, that parts of the earth had no buildings, and yielded only grateful smells and colors. When these town folk are stubborn, and keep out even of the parks, the darkness, the miasm, and the uproar do their work, and in the third generation their line runs to its end.

But not only are the masses learning to use their parks : they are beginning to watch for those estrays who come in from that region round about the city, — that region of vague report where trees grow, where creatures call and sing, where water flows strangely among rocks instead of through pipes, and where one can even walk on grass ! Not all these waifs are of our own species. No ; for they bring proof instead of rumor. There are feathered bipeds who can speak on this point, and without looking up statistics, which I cannot venerate, I should not dare to say how many species of birds have been seen in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and particularly in the wicked town of Chicago. Certainly there were scores. Most of these are astonished and unhappy migrants, who pause in their flight to the North or South ; but now and again some robin, bluebird, swallow, crow, or warbler goes deliberately to town to see what manner of place it is, and lingers for two or three days, making bold to sing of a morning in the supposed security of a shade tree. Wood thrushes have been seen and heard in crowded sections of New York, and in my yard in town I have been honored by the visit of a humming bird to my honeysuckles.

Even the house sparrow, or, as we usually name him, the English sparrow, carries in his voice and flight a hint of wildness and liberty, albeit no other bird is so seldom wild and wants less freedom. Some of us are undergoing a reluctant change of heart toward this little beggar. He is so noisy, quarrelsome, greedy, and assertive that we don’t like to concede any good in him ; yet he does scavenger service about our streets. He did eat up the cankerworms that used to dangle from our shade trees and measure their length along our coats and hats, and once in a while he tries his luck with bigger game. In a park, the other day, I saw a cock sparrow pounce on the slithy green grub of one of our largest moths, a creature nearly as long as himself, give him a dislocating flip with his beak, such as a terrier gives to a rat, and leave him dead. Whether or no he would have eaten the grub I cannot say ; for just then he caught my eye, and, discovering me to be of a stone-throwing race, flew off discreetly. Animals pain me by such reflections on the human species ; for it is not such a bad species when we catch it young and train it right. The sparrow resembles it in that he is a social imp. He wants no end of his own society, and will not endure to be far from ours. It is by sheer force of numbers, by taking to himself all available nesting and roosting places, that he has so nearly driven our shy and tuneful wild birds from the town. Nearly, I say; for in our Southern and Western cities, albeit the sparrow has arrived, we may still hear the choirs at practice.

If ever you should be cast away in one of those towns, in Missouri or Kansas, where you change cars at four in the morning, and which your own train does not leave till nine, if it gets in on time, do not take the case too sorely. If it is the opera season, — say June, — walk about the streets in the dawn, and hear the mocking birds and their rivals, the brown thrushes. The sparrows have not driven them away, at all events. These artists will stand on the ridgepoles of houses and barns, on the locked arms of windmills, on telegraph wires, on treetops, and deliver themselves to the joy of song. I will not believe that all this melody is for mates and children in the nests : it is pure exuberance and delight in music. Sometimes I fancy that it flatters them to have an audience, not too near, and I am always ready to subscribe for a box for these concerts ; still, they like to sing just as Paderewski likes to play. The brown thrush or thrasher, who is a better singer in the West than in the East, and is as tame as the mocking bird, is one of the most delightful of soloists. The brightness, range, and variety of his performance, in which he suggests rather than copies the notes of other birds, give to his song a frequent surprise and enduring interest that contrast indeed with the monotony of the sparrow’s rasping chirp. Yet, if you listen, you will find that the sparrow has variety, likewise. If, did I say ? Alack ! there is no alternative. You do not go to him to hear what he may disclose: he brings his remarks to you. Probably you have never seen an English sparrow so far away as a mile from any house ; and it is a question of only a few years when all the other birds will retire to the woods, and leave the peopled districts to him.

Beyond the Missouri the wild birds are almost as plenty in the towns as they were in the Eastern cities until just after the war. Not many days ago, in a walk through Wichita, Kansas, I stopped to discover the cause of a bobbery that was going on at a stone’s toss from the main street. It was in a big apple tree in a front yard, where a blackbird was evidently trying to rear a family. A jay had called to see how the industry was progressing, and the blackbird, being disturbed in his mind, was launching at the visitor a series of opinions that were not fit for publication. The jay would stand secreted in another tree till the father of the family had calmed himself, when he would venture on another visit, and would again be driven forth with contumely. I have a fancy that the jay took a malicious delight in rousing his neighbor’s temper, and the whole thing may have been a lark, — if a jay can be a lark.

The owner of the premises, noting my interest, came to the gate, and looking at the jay asked, “ Did you know those fellows would steal poultry ? The other day one of them pounced on to a small chicken in my yard, and pecked his head and neck till the blood ran ; then he lifted him and had him fairly in the air before I made a rush. I was only thirty feet away. It did n’t do much good to save the chicken, though, for it died next morning.” Such a feral tendency on the part of this bird is surprising; but another man, in a town a hundred miles from there, had already told me the same thing, so it seems as if the tale were true. I had heard of crows eloping with chickens, but never before of the blue jay as an abductor. Yet I should not wonder if he and his friends were learning vices from civilization; for winged people, who see us somewhat distantly, and suffer no end of wrong from our cruelty, greed, and appetite, must take us to be the embodiment of all the mischiefs. Even the sparrow might have had a better voice, if he had not so often heard us quarreling and discussing ou affairs in a needless octave above the pleasant. He is almost the only bird of whom it may be said that his voice is disagreeable ; yet that may be merely because we do not know how to read it. There are voices and voices, and some of the sparrows hint at music.

As to the variety which pertains in vocal modulations alone, — not in quality, frequency, or duration; only in the order of tones, — another town bird will give us all the illustration we can ask. It is the cock of the common domestic fowl, who, for reasons theoretically associated with fresh eggs, is permitted to haunt the abiding places of men, and trouble their morning sleep. The cat is occasional, but the cock is chronic. The cat sings with a motive : it is love or fighting. But the cock’s clarion has no discovered reason, at least when he blows it at two in the morning ; and if his noise breaks loose at that hour, every bird of his sex and species who has heard him will arise in the darkness and say so. They tell us you can keep him quiet during the night by putting his perch a few inches below a roof or shelf, so that he will not have room to stretch his neck. Also, they say, you can cut his vocal cords, if you know where to look for them, and do not cut his jugular or any other of his more important works instead ; and a friend has described to me the astonishment of a cock who had been subjected to this surgery, when he tried to crow next morning. He strained himself almost into an apoplexy, and hearing no sound except a faint hissing, like the escape of gas, he looked over the earth, with eyes that bulged in marveling, as if he had lost his voice somewhere in the grass. If we listen to this bird, instead of heaping reproof upon him, however, we shall learn something of animal personality. We of course know that in size, form, weight, color, plumage, markings, and so on, he is different from all his fellows, but we have to know him a little better than as a nuisance to discover that in conduct and character he is also apart. His voice betokens his habits and thinking, if only we could read it; and while there is a type of his crow that we all recognize, there are as many variants as there are birds. The type song is in 4-4 time, accented on the first three beats, with a hold on the third, and a diminuendo thence to the closing note, which is usually a fifth below : —

Here are a few of these calls of the cock:

Those last fellows will be musicians, if they keep on. Which suggests the question if any other musician than Saint-Saëns ever made use of the cockcrow in a serious work. He brings it in near the end of his Death Dance, when the skeletons that have been clattering about the graveyard in their mad waltz are put to flight by this herald of the dawn, whose voice is idealized by the oboe, and whose phrase is idealized, too, as observe : —

The “ rooster,” having decided upon his crow, usually keeps to it; yet the same fowl may sing false notes, or change the tempo, or introduce a Chopinesque rubato. Here are two consecutive attempts of one of these songsters : —

In a space of a couple of minutes I have heard another cock give three separate versions of his challenge. Do you suppose he made them up, on purpose, or that they were accidental and unconscious ?

The rhythm, as may be noticed, is the same in each of these three versions, and the differences are slight, yet they are differences. And we might follow these instances with others, to show that birds have a larger scope of vocal expression, in proportion to their size and presumed mental activity, than men have, — oh, far more. It is of interest to reduce matters of this kind to notes, for it proves that music, instead of being a device of man, is one of the basal functions ; that it is as inevitable in nature as is molecular or atomic change. And what, pray, are the chemical alliances of the elements but silent chords — harmonies of material — expressing themselves to the eye in the perfectness and loveliness of the crystal ?

This matter of animal voices is commended to naturalists. If they inquire patiently, they will learn something, we may be sure. Other voices, also, there are, which speak to us in whispers or faint music, too commonly without a listener. I dare guess that the turmoil of Broadway would resolve itself into a melodious or even harmonious roar, if we could take it at a distance, — say from a balloon. Niagara’s anthem has been recorded in double - double B flat, with fifths and octaves ; and while reading on an October afternoon, I found my attention straying to listen to this eerie crooning of the wind in a stovepipe : —

How did the overtones and bass get in ? The substance and stimulus for the arts abound everywhere, and new arts await development by those who look, and feel, and taste, and smell, and hear. Who knows but that one of these days our stovepipes will be fluting the pilgrims’ chorus from Tannhäuser, when the wind blows; and that in blossom time human beings, even in the cities, will as joyously harmonize with the environment which is their right as do the birds and butterflies ? Flowers are least common in the city, but for that reason they are the more esteemed. When we see carriages and coffins decorated with them, we wonder why they have not also been adapted to the adornment of living creatures ; at least to the extent of providing wreaths for our heads, in place of hats. We show stupidity in no other thing so strikingly as in our thick, hot, unsuitable clothing. When we wear a dress fitting for the summer, we shall have borrowed the robes of the angels. Think, now, of a mantle of rose petals, velvety, tender, pink, fragrant, edged with yarrow leaves, lacy, curling, fine, and spicy ; a crown of pansies, modest, cheerful; a water-lily stem for belt, its pure flower for a knot or buckle, unless you will have honeysuckle, which will more copiously enrich the air about you ; and a golden coreopsis at the throat. Not a costume for iron moulders, but I wish any of us were worthy of this attire. How timidly we would accept it, till Mrs. Grundy said we might! For we are averse to experiment, and find fewest briers and least resistance in the beaten track. We occupy our middle plane in the world, seeing and knowing what we find at that level. The microscope and the telescope, the poet and the minister, the bird and the blossom, hint at our losses and ignorances. Some of the matters missed by our thick ears and weak sight are missed luckily; but others are so beautiful that we should weep for the lack, if only we realized it. And, good faith ! we are even loath to recognize the coarse beauty of the streets, seeing nothing there till an artist has shown us what to look for, and repining at the picturesque itself as a want of slickness. For picturesqueness is merely the return to nature ; it is honesty. Poverty makes pictures, for example, until it becomes self-conscious, and smirks and whitewashes itself, when it grows tedious and commonplace.

As I sit at my desk at ten o’clock on a sultry August night, a hornet bounces in from somewhere, runs over my paper, takes a dry wash on the wall, bumps into the shade over the gas so that it rings ; then he disappears, and is still for a time, but later he is slashing about the room again ; then retires to a corner, and visibly emerges no more. Is he after moths, flies, mosquitoes, or light ? Whatever his errand, I welcome him ; for he reminds me of that country which lies about the town so still to-night. I bear the buzz of his fellows, and smell the incense which the fields are offering to the moon. The primrose candles are lighted, out there, and the moths are dancing about them. When I bury my face in a mass of roses and revel in their fragrance, I am smitten by a sense of unfitness for this blessing. It is the gay, pure-souled insect for whom the flower was made. He takes only a simple, trusting mind to it. If we could carry such natures into the world, maybe we also should find our paths hedged everywhere by flowers. And to think ! It was but yesterday we were taught that nature was made for man ! Now we know that man has been graciously allowed to adapt himself to nature. And I am grateful to the hornet that he has brought in these hints of the open, and proved anew that the town is pervious to wild presences and good influences. He sheds visions from his wings, and I see green and hear the birds. Let us be thankful for these dreams, — thankful that in our idle moments we can be more than ever busy ; that we can offset our conduct with intentions, our misfortunes with hopes, our earthiness with heaven, the loneliness and heaviness of town with love. For what our lame, tired, heavy bodies refuse our minds may do, even though they move on so light a vehicle as the gossamer wing of a hornet. Imagination is the blessed compensate for material lack : through it the invalid becomes the athlete ; the timid becomes the hero; the poor revels in a bounty that money could never supply ; and the shut-in is free to the uttermost range of space.

My hornet has a sting, but he confides in me, and I in him : hence there is no violence. I do not strike at him. I merely wonder how he survived the journey through the streets. If he were fifty times as large and entirely harmless, he would have been struck down somewhere on the way. This infamous rage for killing ! Oh, the gallons, the tuns, of good red blood that are poured over the earth every day the world turns round ! The suffering that the men with guns impose : the happy creatures mangled in their play and flight; the crippled that drag themselves to the woods and hills to die, with unheard groaning ; the little ones in fur and feathers that perish of cold and hunger, wondering in their baby way why the father and mother that were good to them come back no more !

How strange would be the sight of a man feeding a wild animal, carrying water to a wounded deer, setting the broken wing of a bird, covering a chilled, forsaken creature with leaves, or earning from the clear, soft eyes one look of astonished gratitude ! Oh, brothers of the tongue that speaks, the hand that works such other good, the brain that thinks so high and kindly for those of your own species, will you not hear and heed the plaint in these wild voices that reach you even at your windows ? Will you not have mercy on these harmless ones, that, after centuries of persecution, know and think of you only with aversion and terror ? Hang up the gun, burn the whip, put down the sling, the bow, the trap, the stone, and bid them live. Let their joyous voices greet the sun again, as in the days before they learned the fear of men. Take their drooping carcasses out of your hat, my lady, and set an example such as a gentle, well - bred woman should give to her ignorant sisters. Be ministers and friends, not persecutors and enemies. Shoot at targets all you please. Punish the evil in the human race, if you will be stern. But spare, for their sake, yet more for your own sake, our little brothers of the fields.

Charles M. Skinner.