“Was that a wren?”

Most mornings, a winter wren comes to my study window. It creeps along the cedar trim around the window, searching for insects. It darts in and out of this little birdhouse.

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No bird has ever nested in this house but in winter, the wrens (and if you’re a twitcher wondering why I’m calling them winter wrens instead of Pacific wrens, I know they’ve been reclassified but old habits die hard. And the wrens don’t care what we call them. They know who they are…), anyway (to pull this sentence back into some form of grammatical coherence), the wrens take refuge from the cold inside its small confines. Once I was at my desk at twilight and saw 6 of them enter, all of them coming from different directions. When we see them or hear them on our walks, or hunting our woodpile for insects, we usually see just one. If there are two, they aren’t companions but rivals. That’s what the song is about. Or at least that’s my best guess.

The wren moves through my novella named for it (Winter Wren) the way these birds move through our woods. You see them, you don’t; you hear them, then there is silence.

The sun was beginning to set. Tom slumped in his chair, his eyes filled with the sky. He had watched the sun for more than fifty years, watched weather of every temper over seasons too many to count. Was that a wren? Yes, and another there, just by the path. Like mice, they darted and scurried in the bush. One hopped onto the vertebra and there it was, the long song, loud and true. It looked right at him, eyes bright as glass. He wanted to say something to it but nothing came, his voice wasn’t there. Passage of song, the bright eyes. He felt drool on his chin and tried to wipe it with his wrist but his hands were too cold. Grace called out was he alright and with supreme effort, he waved his arm, Yes, yes.

This morning the wren is hunting. The sky is grey, there’s snow on the ground, and winter is truly approaching. 10 days until the Solstice, the time of year the wren comes into its own. Wren ceremonies are rich and various. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the hunting of the wren takes place on the feast of St. Stephen or Boxing Day. There are also rituals associated with the wren on the day before the Solstice — December 21 — when a wren is hunted and killed to represent the death of the old King or Sun and the birth (or return) of the New. The wren appears in various west coast Indigenous belief systems as a transformer (the old sun, the new?) and an emblem of great strength.

Today I’ll make the white chocolate fruitcakes we love, rich with dried Montmorency cherries, dried mango, Calimyrna figs, and hazelnuts, and I’ll watch for wrens. We have a beautiful piece of glass, made by our friend June Malaka, hanging in our big south-facing window, and the world through it swirls and tilts. Anything could happen. Anything might.

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openings

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.”