Across the way, two turkeys, dark and awkward, amble across the field. The larger leads, the smaller follows. Two mockingbirds dive-bomb the holly tree at the corner of the house as though the single berries upon which they are intent are the last two berries on the face of the earth. Their wings flutter like the pages of a old book thumbed hurriedly. Somewhere in the near-distance, a flock of geese squawk squawk squawk.
From the vantage of the back door it is hard to tell, but I think the two tiny birds teetering on the edge of the bird feeder and nibbling like polite ladies at an afternoon tea at Carolina wrens. Behind them, somewhere beyond the canopy of kudzu vines, small maples, and scraggly oaks that fall away to the pond, a duck calls out a single guttural note.
I am surrounded by birds this morning. I want to stand in the yard in the perfect spring air and still myself into a St. Francis pose in hopes that one or more of them will land on my shoulder, my head, my outstretched hand.
My friend Anne is a devoted birdwatcher and I have to admit to a bit of envy when, over the years, she has recounted to our group of friends sightings of scarlet tanagers and goldfinches and indigo buntings, all colorful chaps that, as far as I can tell, have never been drawn to Sandhill.
A couple of years ago Annie became a Georgia Master Naturalist through the University of Georgia and they proclaimed her certified to share her knowledge of “the habitats, natural resources and the natural environments of our state” with the rest of us, making it even more evident to me that whatever I might think I know about woods and fields and critters, I am not, as Daddy would say, Ned in the first reader compared to her.
Which brings me back to the birds. As a consequence of her newly-obtained knowledge and official recognition thereof, I fully expected Annie to show off. In fact, I wanted her to do just that. I anticipated that the next time we were all sitting around on the wide porch of the big house on Signal Mountain where we do our best to flock once a year, we’d play something like a lightning round of Georgia Nature Bowl, during which each of us would throw out a question and Annie would immediately bark back an answer.
“How long does a brown thrasher incubate her eggs?” “Anywhere from eleven to fourteen days. Next?” “How fast does kudzu grow?” “Up to one foot a day. Next?” “How many kinds of frogs are there in Georgia?” “There are 33 species of frogs and toads in Georgia. In addition, Georgia is home to more species of salamanders than any other place in the world, including the largest salamander in America.”
It didn’t exactly go like that. We were spread out in the rocking chairs, settled into the stillness of the mountain air, and looking out across the brow where the mist had just about obscured the view of Chattanooga, when somebody heard a bird somewhere off in the bushes.
Annie immediately identified the bird and then jumped up and hurried into the house, returning with her iPad. “Let’s get him to come closer.” In a few seconds she had swiped her way to a screen offering a picture of the bird she had identified. “Watch this,” she said and touched the microphone icon.
The bird’s song came streaming out of the iPad’s speaker. In a moment the bird, the real bird, called out again, this time closer. Three or four times the sequence was repeated, the iPad, like the Greek Sirens, calling again and again and the real bird answering, nearer and nearer. I don’t remember who lost interest first, the bird or the women, but the call and response was the highlight of the afternoon.
Call and response. In music, it is two distinct phrases, one following the other and played by different musicians, in which the second is heard as a commentary on the main theme. In preaching, it is participation of the congregation, verbal encouragement, punctuation of the preacher’s words. “That’s right.” “Amen.” “Praise the Lord!”
Call and response. I understand why I want to remain with the mockingbirds and the geese and their brethren. I know why their voices draw me in. They are calling. Calling me. They are playing the theme, preaching the sermon, inviting me to participate in the morning, this singular morning that regardless of its familiarity will never be again.