In the midst of a feverish campaign to rescue a few acres of pristine land from development, the conversation turns to birds: the birds we knew as children.
We are recollecting the song of the whippoorwill, a tiny spotted nightbird that seemed to sink into itself while at rest, with a peculiar call that sounded like it was singing its name over and over again. It sang at night. We are using the past tense because the whippoorwill is not among us. None of us can quite pinpoint when we stopped hearing it.
In a small enclave of summer houses near Lake Michigan, my cousins and I remember the evenings we ran from the woods. There were sounds that made us tremble as we listened for what was ominous and what was not: the birds in the trees, the frogs and crickets, the thunder, the whippoorwill and the train whistle, the breath of someone behind you and a cracking branch. When it got dark, you were lost. The terror tinged with wonder belonged to the woods alone, not to the blocks in the towns where we lived, not then. It was thrilling.
Dark is when we ran, screeching, from the woods. You could not see your hands in front of you, your feet on the ground. The trees blocked even the stars. We dared each other to see how long we could stay. We wanted to see how dark the darkness could get.
We dared each other to go but we would not go alone.
From ‘whippoorwill’ the litany of bird names begins to spill out as if from a jar, as if we are calling them back: lark, chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, downy woodpecker, northern flicker, prairie warbler, grey owl; from the birds to the frogs we knew plainly as croaking frogs, tree frogs and brown spotted toads; from the frogs to the trees: black gum, jack pine, sassafras, beech, white oak; from the trees to the wildflowers: Indian Pipe, Columbine, the fiddleheads coiling up from the ground, and lichen ... It was a grove. We lived in groves.
The whippoorwills are gone. The toads are gone.
We don’t know why, exactly, and so we begin hunting on the internet, which wasn’t with us when we first knew the birds, the frogs, the trees, the flowers and the ferns but is relentlessly with us now, in the way that lawns and fences are with us, and can tell us like an omen why the whippoorwill’s call is not heard in these parts, why we don’t see frogs so much anymore, and so on. The information explaining why the whippoorwill and the brown toad have become scarce seems voluminous, as easy to become lost in as the woods and almost as dark. But not entirely. We read about the legends of the whippoorwill, sometimes referred to as a nighthawk, and watch where the whippoorwill, a lover of insects, is drifting as its habitat — due to increasing development, the disappearance of young hardwood forests and wetlands — becomes inhospitable. With the help of a colorful map we follow the whippoorwill on its northerly drift, approaching eventual extinction, and imagine ourselves hearing it sing again. We listen to a recording of its song, which gets us kind of choked up. There’s a picture of a whippoorwill looking sharp and it feels like seeing a relative we have not seen in ages while the song is playing and as the song plays on for a few seconds it feels more like staring at a meme or a casket and the difference between a meme and the the real thing is too much to contemplate and we sit back in our chairs, out of breath as if we’ve been running from the dark. We want, with a child’s urgency, to bring back the birds.
— Michele Gazzolo is a resident of Harbert, active in the campaign to Save Harbert Road Woods, a 14-acre intact forest and wetland ecosystem that connects an unbroken swath of critical habitat, from development. To contribute to this initiative visit www.saveharbertroadwoods.com.