“What did the thrushes know?” (for Anna)

I’m writing this while snow falls. Again. Snow is not unheard of in our part of the world but it’s late this year, and abundant. Usually by now we are seeing salmonberry blossoms in the woods near us  — single blooms as early as February 17, I see in my notes, and often many by the end of February — and am I completely wrong or do we also hear the long whistles of varied thrushes when we walk down Sakinaw Lake Road in March? That may be pushing it — memory is not always reliable when it comes to hope.

The varied thrushes are around right now but this is because it’s cold and they’re drawn to the seeds that fall from the bird feeder strung on the clothes line. The clouds of chickadees and the animated Steller’s jays always spill some seed while eating and the thrushes wait quietly on the ground for an opportunity to forage a bit. They’re shy. This is the only time of year we can reliably see them. But that whistle — a long note on one pitch, then rising to another, ringing out of the dense woods: it’s one of my favourite bird songs. It’s both sweet and mysterious, somehow. Some mornings I hear it when I first wake, the rising notes pulling me to consciousness, and I lie in my bed listening with something close to pure joy.

Friend Anna in England sent me a link to an Edward Thomas poem this morning. “March” is a poem about spring, about thrushes, primroses, and snow. About faith too. These lines spoke to me so clearly:

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,
Had kept them quiet as the primroses.

I had them in mind when I went out to fill the feeder just now, though the thrushes were not in sight. And the only primroses are in memory, the drifts of them in the hedgerows near the island where I lived for a time in Ireland and used to pass on my way to the nearest town for groceries. I wrote about those hedgerows in an essay, “Well”, in my book Phantom Limb: “…a dense hedge, with fuchia among it, on either side of the narrow road and the raised banks white with wild garlic, yellow with primroses. Birds sang unseen within its depths.” The only time in my life I’ve seen a badger was then. I watched it amble across the road and disappear into a tunnel or sett in the hedgerow. The rich growth above the ground was all the more remarkable for the thought of the tunnels below with their sleeping clans.

Edward Thomas’s poem has a special poignancy when I think of his life. He suffered from depressions and physical and psychological breakdowns. He wrote all his poems during a two-year period before his death, at the Battle of Arras, on April 9, 1917. His great solace was the natural world. His poems are filled with birds, with the sights and sounds of the countryside.

Something they knew–I also, while they sang
And after. Not till night had half its stars
And never a cloud, was I aware of silence
Stained with all that hour’s songs, a silence
Saying that Spring returns, perhaps to-morrow.

It’s still snowing — even harder now. I couldn’t resist taking a photograph of the tray of  primula from the supermarket, arranged by our front door. I always buy the creamy ones, the closest thing to the Irish beauties I still dream of and which Edward Thomas quietly memorialised more than a hundred years ago.


4 thoughts on ““What did the thrushes know?” (for Anna)”

  1. This is lovely. Now I’m curious about Edward Thomas. Oddly, the odd varied thrush overwinters in Saskatchewan, the sightings usually in Regina, though I think there was one in Saskatoon this year as well. They’re on the SK winter bird list for this year.

    1. His poems are worth searching out, Brenda. I’ve always loved “The Owls” but found myself reading and thinking about this one the other day. It’s sort of vintage Thomas — particular, quiet, and haunted.


      Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
      The name, because one afternoon
      Of heat the express-train drew up there
      Unwontedly. It was late June.

      The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
      No one left and no one came
      On the bare platform. What I saw
      Was Adlestrop—only the name

      And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
      And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
      No whit less still and lonely fair
      Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

      And for that minute a blackbird sang
      Close by, and round him, mistier,
      Farther and farther, all the birds
      Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

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