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Your Own Kind Of Music

Early in the morning, after the egg yolk sun has broken the horizon, but before the oven of summer heat descends, I can sit outside and experience the waking of the day. I feel the dew on my bare feet and smell the thick air. I catch a glimpse of squirrel or rabbit hustling into the undergrowth. And, of course, I hear the birds. It is not, however, a well-rehearsed chorus that greets me from the branch, but the cacophony of an elementary school playground. My avian neighbors all chatter at the same time, tenors and sopranos practicing their scales in assorted keys and tempos, each one, it seems to me, auditioning for the same part. The number of species of birds identified by the app on my phone in the last ten months has risen to 57, most of them recorded in the morning, but I still can not identify on my own more than five or six. As I write each new identification in my tiny turquoise notebook, I remind myself that I can appreciate the diversity of bird voices – like humans – even if I don’t know each one intimately. A few mornings ago, I stepped outside and, after greeting the world with a symbolic stretch of my arms, sat down to listen. My usual greeting from crow and mockingbird did not materialize, but there was plenty of chatter, including the echoing staccato of a woodpecker somewhere high in the trees. I leaned forward as though a few inches could draw me close enough to recognize the various songs. Was that soft whistle a wren? The short tweet a cardinal? I opened the app and began recording, watching the screen light up with a photograph of each bird it recognized. I was right – wren and cardinal, along with kingbird and mourning dove. And, then, in response to the resumed tap-tap-tapping, the app produces a photo of the red-headed woodpecker – its bright vermilion cowl falling down to black shoulders and stark white chest. No surprise. Except that the sound by which the woodpecker was identified wasn’t a song, was it? It turns out that woodpeckers hammer – technically “drum” – against a loud or resonant object, for some of the same reasons that other birds sing, that is, to establish and defend territory and to find a mate and the drumming is, in fact, the woodpecker equivalent of singing. It just doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. I was almost 13 in the summer of 1969, the summer that Mama Cass Eliot released “Make Your Own Kind Of Music.” It was pop at its best – catchy tune, easily memorized lyrics – and, to an awkward almost-eighth grader who was just beginning to understand the tension between fitting in and being true to oneself, it was an anthem. An admonition. A reminder that not all songs sound alike. I sat a while longer, thought about the kind of beauty that exists only in variety, the sort of strength that is found only in differences, the knowledge that is gained only in the multiplicity of experiences. And all the while, somewhere deep in the thick summer foliage, a woodpecker was vehemently throwing his head against a tree in perfect time: “” Copyright 2023

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