This line is the one that got stuck in my head the second time I came home today. Not the time I came home for lunch and breath-catching after an hour with my thrilled young ones, so happy to be returning to a book they read when they were small, and to find that they understand it now. The time I came home after office hours and an hour-long argument with a student over whether cultural criticism and aesthetic criticism are mutually exclusive and whether aesthetic ranking or valuing is desirable, or even possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I turn out to contradict myself and to contain multitudes on these questions. Very well.
But when I packed up and started out on the walk home, I found myself stalled in the parking lot, stopped by birdsong. All day long, I've been picking out birds, hearing them in trees and needing to stand still until I can make out where their improbably large sounds are originating. There's a terrific Virginia Woolf essay (now there's a redundancy for you) that begins with Woolf's imagining histories and literatures of the past as a kind of hedge, within which, if we listen closely enough, we can begin to hear all manner of rustlings and stirrings, the unruly jostling movements of life itself. Today I reappropriated the analogy and just looked about for the actual stirring things in the trees and shrubs around here.
In the fall, I was walking to class one afternoon and passed an enormous evergreen positively seething with birds, not a single one of which was visible to me.
In the winter, a friend told me that he'd bought a birdfeeder for his front porch so that his cats could watch the birds. "It's like cable for them," he said. "I prefer the finches, myself."
Today, the bird that arrested my steps in the parking lot was not quite so racy as the pileated woodpecker I watched and listened to from my back window during lunch (like cable, indeed!). It was a cardinal, perched at the very top of one of the trees outside my officehouse, singing away. (Except that, perversely, I'm still not sure it was a cardinal. The song sounded not quite right, and the body doesn't look quite right, either; to me the neck seems too slender, too articulated, for this bird to be a cardinal. What I know: the bird was red and lovely, poised in the branches' tracery against the blue-grey evening sky, and it was in song, full throat.) I stood and listened, fixing it with my eye and ear, until my excellent poet colleague joined me, and then we watched and listened to it together until it decided to fly away. We had turned our heads briefly to speak to one another, and when we looked up, the bird was gone.
At dinner, our visiting poet said that he tells his students to practice creative listening.
Thomas Hardy worried that sound was among the things that flee when present becomes past:
1897. January 27. To-day has length, breadth, thickness, colour, smell, voice. As soon as it becomes yesterday it is a thin layer among many layers, without substance, colour, or articulate sound.The woodlands in my shoe are exactly what I won't remember about today, unless I write them: after the bird flew away from the parking lot, after my colleague drove away in her car, after another of my excellent friends met me and we strode toward home together and then he kept striding toward his house, I let myself into my house and realized that my shoes had been filling up with Gambier that whole time. A collection of small stones, a twig, another twig--this place and my rustling and jostling through it, underfoot.