OP-ED: A Wordsmith Stands in Awe of Spring

By Sheldon Richman
Shelly Reuben
Shelly Reuben

I was lying in my bed this morning, more accustomed to the distant din of traffic than anything that would set my heart aflutter (I know. People don’t say “aflutter” in the real world, but excesses have to be allowed in the spring) when I heard a series of loud, melodic sounds outside my window.

Still floating in the netherworld between wakefulness and sleep, my mind registered a word: Warble. Over and over again: Warble. Warble. Warble. Then my eyes popped open. Suddenly, it dawned on me. “That’s a bird!”

A big smile suffused (another elaborate spring word) my face, and I thought, “A bird is warbling. The sound it is making literally is a warble. A few hundred years ago, someone strolled through a forest, heard that birdsong, and strung together a perfect sequence of syllables to describe it.”

Warble. Brilliant. Which got me thinking in general about people, words, and spring.

There is a chickadee at my birdfeeder right now. If a conspiracy of circumstances forced me to ascribe a name to that fluffy little creature, with a breathtaking lack imagination, I would probably call it “small black and white bird.”

Which conveys nothing of its perky prettiness and its rapid mid-air reversals when it decides to go thither instead of yon (Spring has hypnotized me into thinking that I’m a Victorian novelist). “Chickadee,” however, like “warble,” is dead-on accurate. That sweet little avitiatrix sounds like a chickadee should sound, and looks like a chickadee should look.

Amazing! What nimble-minded naturalist thought that up?

A farmer with the soul of a poet? A housewife gazing out the window over her kitchen sink? A keen-eyed hiker with knobby knees and a lyrical heart? A hobo? A biologist? A birdwatcher? A nymph?

Words, particularly those that describe nature, are not only suggestive; they are often also precise. Think of “goose.” A goose sounds and looks like, well…a goose. It’s a plump, squashy fellow one can well imagine surrounded by glazed carrots and drowning in fat.

Let’s consider other suggestive appellations. First, the ugly ones:

Turkey. A guttural utterance that aptly describes an unimaginably unattractive (if savory) fowl.

Crow. A nasty biped accurately cast to play the villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, "The Birds".

Raven. As dark and menacing as the ceaseless tap, tap, tapping outside Edgar Allan Poe’s chamber door.

Vulture. Need I say more?

Now, we come to the beauties. Beautiful to our eyes and ears.

Barn Swallow: Graceful, sleek, and inclined to good-natured chitchat.

Tufted Titmouse. Adorable! He even has a little pointed tuft of feathers on his little pointed head.

Bobolink: Tiny fellow who sings a joyously burbling song.

Nor should we forget the nightingale, whose melancholy voice has inspired so many eloquent tributes. Hans Christian Anderson penned, “As the nightingale sang…even death listened’.” Lyricists during World War II expressed both loss and longing when they wrote, “A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.”

Bands played and soldiers sang, “There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow when the world is free.” Other sad souls wistfully watched one flutter, and scribed, “somewhere there’s a bluebird of happiness.”

Which brings us to the second stanza of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem: “To a Skylark.”

Higher still and higher

From the earth thou springest,

Like a cloud of fire;

The blue deep thou wingest,

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

It is spring. Time to poke holes in the dirt and plant seeds. Time to lean
against one’s hoe, look up in the sky, and celebrate the ecstatic return of these incredible winged creatures: The mockingbird; the scarlet tanager; the kiskadee; the sparrow; the cardinal; the goldfinch; the robin; the wren; the yellow-rumped (isn’t that great?) warbler…the meadow lark.

Beautiful birds. Wonderful words.

Hey guys. Good to have you back.

Copyright © 2012, Shelly Reuben. Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - evesun.com

Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit  www.shellyreuben.com. Link to David M. Kinchen's reviews of her novels "The Skirt Man" and "Tabula Rasa":  http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/060605-kinchen-review.html

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