Today’s photos are from last week’s jaunt to Jaffrey, NH, where Kathleen and I visited the historic Meeting House and Old Burying Ground. As you’ll see below from the picture of the historic marker on the side of the Jaffrey Meeting House (an enlarged detail of which you can view by clicking on that photo), the building was erected in 1775 on the day of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Although Kathleen and I couldn’t tour the inside of the Meeting House in Jaffrey, and although most of our window-peeking was blocked by closed blinds and remarkably high windows, I did manage to get one shot of the inside of the Meeting House by holding my camera over my head, resting it against the glass window, and trying to shade any glare with both cupped hands. (This same technique is how I captured yesterday’s image of the inside of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Washington, NH: another historic building I’ve never actually entered.)
As I sit here on my bed typing these words on my laptop (picture Carrie Bradshaw writing her “Sex in the City” column, except I look nothing like Sarah Jessica Parker), there is a catbird calling from the dead mountain ash outside our bedroom window. This or another resident catbird–its mate?– has been calling from this corner of our yard for weeks now. As I’ve been rereading my handwritten journal entries in search of salvageable bits for my latest Pedestrian Thoughts essay, I find myself reading day after day about this same catbird, or its mate: always one catbird calling, not singing, with its wheezy, emphatic, meow-like cry.
Usually birdcalls bring me back to the present moment, which I suppose is why they figure so frequently in my writing. As my thoughts wander from this present moment into the future or the past, or as my mind’s eye roams from this sunlit bedroom in Keene to the surrounding hills, across the continent, and to imagined lands beyond, birdcalls bring me back. Terser and more emphatic than songs, calls are how birds communicate amongst themselves, the avian equivalent of “Hey! I’m walking here!” Whereas bird songs generally focus on the biological imperative of breeding–male birds sing to attract a mate and fend off rivals–bird calls are the mundane chitchat that continues even after the honeymoon is over.
But catbird calls are different: catbird calls always take me elsewhere. Catbirds are mimics related to mockingbirds and brown thrashers: although their call sounds like a cat’s meow, their song is a rollicking chant of poorly executed bird imitations. You can tell a mockingbird’s song because it really does sound like a blue jay, then a killdeer, then a robin are singing all from the same perch: mockingbirds typically repeat each imitated song three times before moving on to the next random selection on the avian jukebox. Brown thrashers are slightly less proficient than mockingbirds when it comes to imitating other birds: their renditions are less convincing and are generally repeated twice, not three times. And then there are catbirds…
Catbirds do imitate other birds, but they do so poorly. They usually sing each birdsong only once, rapidly moving from one mangled tune to another, and they interrupt said medley with that indicative nasal cat-call of theirs: meow! So whereas a mockingbird sounds like an operatic diva and a brown thrasher sounds like a sincere but only moderately gifted choir soloist, a catbird sounds like a cat who has swallowed the canary, and maybe a goldfinch, and maybe a chickadee, and maybe a bunting. You can hear each devoured bird singing, individually and slightly worse for wear, in amongst the meows of a smarmily satisfied feline. It’s not the most appealing mental image, perhaps, but it’s a memorable one. Once you’ve heard a catbird sing, you’ll probably not soon forget the bird or its name.
But to return to my initial point, catbird calls are different from other birds’ calls because catbirds always take me elsewhere. Whenever I hear the sound of a catbird calling, I hear in my mind’s ear the sound of a catbird singing. And whenever I hear the song of a catbird, I inexplicably think of a guy (I’ll call him B) who used to be, like me, a PhD candidate at Northeastern University in Boston. B’s office was next door to mine way back when I had an office on the fourth floor of Nightingale Hall. B (like my officemate P and me) was an adjunct instructor at Northeastern, so we all kept incredibly busy teaching a full courseload while juggling the demands of our PhD research. And B (unlike my officemate P and me) was juggling the added demands of fatherhood: although I didn’t know B well enough to know much about his homelife, I knew he was married and had two young sons.
As people in neighboring offices will do, B and I chatted around the metaphorical water cooler there in Nightingale Hall: how was your weekend? How many papers do you have to grade? How’s that PhD research coming? Although I casually chatted with B nearly everyday for the four or five years that I taught at Northeastern, I don’t remember the topic of his scholarly research, I don’t think I ever learned his wife’s name, and I couldn’t tell you what hometown he was from. But I remember he had two young sons, boys I never met and who didn’t, as far as my limited realm of acquaintanceship was concerned, even have names, “How are those boys of yours doing” being an adequate question to fuel the talk around the metaphorical water cooler.
One semester several years into my stint of teaching at Northeastern, B took a semester off. He was having marital problems, I remember, so he petitioned the Graduate Studies Committee for an official leave of absence from his studies: he needed to spend time with his family, I remember him explaining. All of us–B, my officemate P, and I–were incredibly busy, so I don’t remember getting many details about B’s difficulties: he was, again, a casual acquaintance, a co-worker with whom I merely chatted. But when B came back from that leave of absence and announced that he and his nameless wife were divorcing, I remember the entire tone and tenor of his conversations changed, his nameless boys becoming the focus of a solid determination, “I need to spend time with my sons” a new mantra.
It was then, I remember, that B started coming to me with bird questions. “I understand you’re a birdwatcher,” B approached me one day. “There are these huge birds that nest along the highway near Boxboro…I see them everyday when I drive to campus.” Ah, yes, the heron rookery near the junction of Route 2 and 495: those would be great blue herons you’d see there. B nodded, checked a field guide, and nodded even more emphatically. “Yeah, that’s them…I want to take my boys to see them!” And every Monday morning after that, B would regale me with lists of birds he and his sons had seen that weekend: herons and bluebirds and pheasants. “I figured birdwatching is something we all could do together,” he explained. “I figured it was something good and wholesome we could do, just we three.”
I don’t remember all the birds that B saw with his sons, but I do remember the catbird. One Monday morning, it must have been during the Spring term, B raced into my office. “We saw a catbird, our first catbird!” I remember he was ebullient at the discovery: not only a new bird, but a new bird found together, him and his boys, a bird they’d both found and identified. “I’d always heard, you know, about the catbird seat…but now I know what they look like, and that sound!” I nodded, smiling: “Yeah, nothing sounds quite like a catbird. So those boys of yours, did they get excited, too?”
And here’s what I’ve remembered, all these years…the reason why whenever I hear a catbird call, I imagine the song of a catbird and then think of B and those nameless boys of his.
“Yeah, we heard it singing,” B explained, “and we compared what it sounded like with what the field guide said it was supposed to sound like.” And at this point, I remember B’s face brimming with pride. “You know, my younger boy turned to me and said, ‘Dad, that bird doesn’t sound anything like what the book says. You know what that bird sounds like? He sounds like R2D2!”
You know, B’s boy was right! Although I’d never associated a catbird’s song with the short, squat, brightly chirruping robot of Star Wars fame (a robot, by the way, that my Gram Mitchell, when she took me to see Star Wars after having already seen it with her Senior Citizens’ Center friends, called “Butterball”), a singing catbird sounds remarkably like R2D2, its “song” consisting of a punctuated chatter of chirps, squeals, and cheerfully burping slurs. And so every single time that I hear a catbird sing, and almost every single time I hear a catbird call, I think of B and those boys of his. “Wonder how B is doing,” I’ll think, having lost touch with him when he dropped out of the PhD program, like so many others I encountered along the way, to tend to life’s other duties. “I wonder how his sons are, if they’re doing well, if they still get excited about herons and bluebirds.”
And sometimes when our resident catbird takes up his usual chant for a particularly long time, I’ll allow myself a particularly detailed fantasy: to the sound of mews and squeals, I’ll let my mind’s eye wander to somewhere in Massachusetts, somewhere roughly around Boxboro, where I can almost imagine I see walking two boys, now adolescent or even teenaged, for it had to be some seven years ago when they were boys of about six and eight. And in this imagined rhapsody, I see those boys stop in their tracks, silenced by a calling catbird, as the younger looks up to the elder and says, “Remember the summer Mom and Dad split up, and how Dad used to show us birds?” If the catbird’s call is loud enough to drown out the sounds of residential Keene, and if I shut my eyes to the reality of this sunlit bedroom, I can see the elder boy nod to the younger, “Yeah, you said that bird sounded like R2D2.” And if the present moment doesn’t intrude, I can almost imagine the smirk of derision, so often shared amongst brothers, as the elder jostles the younger out of his moment of contemplation: yeah, those were the days, but here is now. And so whenever I hear a catbird calling, I stop and remember acquaintances from days gone by: does B remember the catbird’s name, and do his boys? For them does the cry of a catbird bring back memories either solemn or sweet, or can they even hear it?