Extinction of Silence

That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices

Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.

We have no recordings of it, though of course
In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed

Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.

But its song is lost. If it was related to
A species of Quiet, or of another feather,

No researcher can know. Not even whether
A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,

Where legend has it some once common bird
Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.

—A.E. STALLINGS

My friend Megan sent me this poem two years ago, after I posted a photo of Long-tailed Widowbirds filed in a narrow drawer. I still think of it every time Dave sets me loose in the collections with a key, as he did today.

Wanting a little preview of what I’m likely to see in Sweden, I poked around for a few minutes after I was done with the birds I prepared. I opened cabinets and pulled out narrow drawers—newly purchased European bird guide in one hand and unfamiliar finches in the other. I retrieved what was once shy.

Most of the skins I looked at this afternoon were a hundred years old. Not so moth-eaten, not so far—still, they were faded, a little, and unable to convey the full measure of a life marked by song and flight. Nothing I wanted to see could vanish or take wing at my footsteps.

I am fonder of the museum’s drawers of specimens than I can say. But I am ready to be out with the birds this summer. We shall see what kinds of silences they sing.

Euplectes progne delamerei

3 thoughts on “Extinction of Silence

  1. shoreacres

    I’ve just spent entirely too much time searching for a quotation from a book by Thomas Merton. It was the first book of his I read, and now I’m not even certain which book it was.

    It did contain a memorable paragraph about the dawn, and doves, and about how, in the early morning, they begin to come alive and sing, spreading their wings and once again “becoming” birds.

    I’ll have to make a run down to Half-Price books or B&N and do some searching. The fact that I still remember the paragraph (albeit imperfectly) after 35 years makes it seem worthwhile.

    I’ve never seen drawers-full of birds. I’m not sure how it makes me feel. But look at those tail feathers! What a wonder! (And I did think they were two rows of red-winged blackbirds at first, until I really looked and sorted out what I was seeing!)

  2. Meera Post author

    Charles, I hope you’ll drop in sometimes this summer. I’m not sure how much I’ll be posting—maybe a little, maybe a lot—but we shall also see what Sweden does to my prose. 🙂

    Linda, how funny and wonderful that this put you in mind of something you read so long ago. I look forward to your tracking down that quotation and letting me know. And yes, those tail feathers—they are incredible. Maybe next time around I will try to wrangle a summer in Africa. 🙂

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