I’ve wanted to write about the winter wren I see almost every morning when I first come to my study. My desk looks out to a small covered porch where a birdhouse hangs, a gift from Brendan a few Christmases ago. No bird has nested in it though every spring a few chickadees examine it and find it wanting in some way. On these cold mornings, the winter wren darts in and out, no doubt in search of insects or spiders. The wren also comes right to the window and hops along the frame. If it sees me, it doesn’t seem to mind. I know that the wrens have been reclassified, that what was formerly known as the winter wren has now been split into an eastern species (winter wren) and a western species (Pacific wren). But I will always think of this small bird as a winter wren. And their song is part of our winter soundscape in these coastal forests, a long complex song full of sequences of notes that repeat fairly regularly. A few winters ago, I was writing a novella I’d titled Winter Wren and was listening to bird song recordings, some of which were slowed down so one could hear these sequences. And I was listening to Bach too. There are several bars in the fourth movement of the Partita in A minor for solo flute which have almost exactly the same run of 16th notes that I hear in the song of the winter wren. I’m listening to Jean-Pierre Rampal play this Partita right now and it’s full of winter — the chilly clear air, the rich polyphony of water and birds. I don’t know much about music but moments like this are openings, windows into worlds just beyond our usual understanding.
Here’s a little bit of the novella in which the main character hears the winter wren for the first time:
“She was on the porch, wringing the mop over the edge when her favourite movement of the Bach partita in A minor, the last, the Bourée Anglaise, began. Leaning on the railing, she loved how the passage floated out in the wintery air, a counterpoint to waves and wind. She hummed a little of it from memory. She’d heard Jean-Pierre Rampal play this in Paris, the amazing backward rhythm of the bourée balancing the rapid run of 16th notes, and ever after thought of it as music she would choose before all else.
It wasn’t until the movement was almost complete that she realized she was hearing another sound, another melody answering the bourée, ascending as the flute descended. Startled, she looked around, fearful. Was it someone whistling on her property? No, it was a bird. It must be a bird because there wasn’t anyone or anything else in sight. And it came from within the salal on the trail down to the waterfall. Peering into the undergrowth, she came face to face with a tiny dark bird, very pert, bobbing and bending on the stem it had claimed. From its open beak came a long undulating series of notes as melodic as anything Bach had put to paper.”