Four and Twenty Blackbirds

THE reader will remember in Scott’s Ivanhoe that Athelstane, at the Norman banquet following the tournament, devoured the whole of a Karumpie, which was filled with nightingales and beccaficos. When the Normans discovered that he had thought it was filled with larks and pigeons, his ignorance received the derision which was merited by his gluttony. However, modern educators must admit that the Unready Saxon displayed a knowledge of things with which he was familiar, even in the Dark Ages, before the spread of culture and the I. Q.

I begin my first lesson on Burroughs’s Wake-Robin with a class of twenty-four high-school students in the eleventh year of their modem education. All are American born and bred, most of them being natives of the locality. All have respectable I. Q.’s safely bestowed in a pigeonhole (alack, what a nest!) in the office of the principal. The month is May, and the world is beginning to soften; mountain peaks are visible through the branches of an elm outside the window; birds of the North Atlantic States call from without.

I face these sturdy sons and daughters of the mountains with some misgivings. Is it worth while, after all, to spend time on a subject with which they must all be as familiar as they are with the grass beneath their feet?

‘This is a group of essays,’ I announce, trying to appear confident, ‘dealing with bird life, as you have already learned from the introduction.'

A chorus of warbling from the boys’ side of the room interrupts me. From the girls comes a responsive twitter of mirth. The pie is opened — the blackbirds are running true to type. I now know what the king did with his dainty dish, after he had recovered from his first surprise: neither will I eat such half-baked creatures. I virtually wring the necks of the more melodious, and silence is restored.

‘How many of you are fond of nature?’ I ask platitudinously. Every hand is raised. I beam deceptively.

‘What is nature?’ I inquire, and am startled at the cruelty of the effect. The light dies from every face. They begin to squirm uneasily and exchange grins, while a look of terror dawns on some of the timid. Hawk-like, I begin to single out victims.

‘Grass and trees,’ declares one. ‘Flowers and bugs,’ grumbles another defiantly. The word ‘bugs’ elicits a titter. ‘Birds,’ says a third hopefully.

A fourth student brings confusion upon the entire group by the mortifying reply of ‘God.’ Just as though this were Sunday School! The looks cast in his direction are poisonous; I follow his insult with the injury that his answer is most nearly right. Blank amazement on the faces of the majority hastens my definition of nature, for we are losing time.

The robin and the bluebird, two of our commonest birds, to whom a great deal of space is devoted in the first essay, are brought up for discussion. But I have become wary, like the maid who was in the garden hanging up the clothes. Doubtless her definition of the natural order of the universe included the nose upon her face—plain and simple — until ‘along came a blackbird,’ and the matter presented a painful complexity.

‘How many of you know the robin when you see him?’ I ask. Four hands fail to respond. ‘When you hear him?’ I add. Only twelve students know the song of the robin. The bluebird meets with a worse fate: six students know his warble, thirteen his appearance. I deem it unfit to ask if they know the difference between the bluebird and the indigo bunting. This is no time for a fit of the blues!

An obliging robin appears in the branches of the elm at this moment, and leads the discussion. He poses, chirps, sings, summons his mate, who ogles us as brazenly as a movie star, and then the pair depart. The class is thrilled. Half of them have seen and heard a robin in a state of conscious observation for the first time. They turn to the text as though it were something more than mere under-arm ballast. We read what Burroughs says of the robin with reproachful delight. Why, they seem to ask, had n’t I told them this was interesting?

I give instructions for bird notebooks. I urge personal observation, field glasses, trips to orchard and woods in twos and threes. I am called upon to explain why twenty-four people cannot enter the forest together to study the rarer songsters. The conversation turns to sandwiches, knickers, trails, and forest fires in the twinkling of an eye, and I reach out a talon to draw them back to the literary aspect of the work. Here I find wooden density, but I adopt the tactics of the woodpecker, and at length produce a few grubby ideas.

There remains to be dealt with only the relation of the essays to life — a relation I had dared to assume already well established. I feel that the foundation of the entire work has not been laid. But the period ends abruptly, and to-day, alas, is Friday! With hoarse croakings of joy, my blackbirds make their week-end escape. I am a remnant, crusty and broken.

When I again face them on Monday to renew the discussion, I ask for the results of their observations. I look for signs of interest; I see nothing but signs of guilt. It was such a lovely week-end! There was a baseball game Saturday afternoon, and another (a professional game) on Sunday. Many of them had to work at home Saturday morning. Saturday evening was taken up by a movie — wild and Eastern. Sunday morning — I discover my class are all good church members in regular attendance. All roads lead through the village, and the automobile we have always with us. The problem is before me, unsolved, to produce order out of the chaos of modern life in our small, mountainous, religious village. I arise like an avenging pagan deity hurling thunderbolts.

‘ Did no one hear the whippoorwill on Cedar Mountain Saturday night? He called to you on your way to the motion pictures.’ I produce a picture of the whippoorwill. ' Charles, how about the Baltimore oriole in the cherry tree in your back yard, who was singing Saturday morning as I passed you at your woodchopping?’ Another illustration. ‘Did anyone notice the hawk above the ball grounds on Saturday afternoon?’ Another picture. ‘Or hear the flicker in the tree at the entrance to the grounds? Two of you took tickets at the gate, I know.’ Picture. ‘The trees on Main Street were filled with myriads of various kinds of warblers Sunday morning — just returned from the South, ’ I conclude.

Hands begin to wave frantically. I am smothered with feathered anecdotes. My bolts have rent the clod and dispelled the mist — light is breaking through. Songs are recalled and properly ascribed. Strange-colored birds that had flitted from memory are now identified by the illustrations and forever snared. An ornithological peace pervades my soul.

My blackbirds are singing a true song now, which is sweet, sweet, sweet! They are creatures of the air at last, rising on wings not man-made above the terrestrial din of Sunday baseball, moving pictures, and the thousand discords of modernity, into a purer, rarer, immortal atmosphere.