“Konkerlee,” they sang – if singing is the term for something so unmelodic, so off-key. “Konkerlee.” But all together. With feeling.
Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? No, I suspect you don’t – unless you grew up in a family of naturalists as I did. I try not to take that for granted, remembering how mystified I feel when people my own age and younger bond over choruses of their favorite television theme songs and advertising jingles from the 1970s and 80s. So often, growing up, I found myself unable to relate to my classmates in the local public schools – we might as well have been speaking mutually unintelligble languages. Without television, I participated only vicariously in the major cultural watersheds of our time, such as the airing of Roots, or the sudden awareness of issues like homosexuality or possible human cloning.
I had more in common with some of my fundamentalist Christian classmates than anyone else. They too had parents who didn’t believe in TV, distrusted the government, raised much of their own food, and did weird things like read books out loud, have regular family meetings, and eat meals together at set times. They too wore clothes from the Dollar General Store and shoes from Super Shoes, and didn’t have a clue about sex, drugs or rock ‘n roll. But beyond that, our respective value systems had very few areas of overlap. (“What? You believe in evolution? Don’t you know you can go to hell for that?”)
These days, the Internet keeps me feeling marginally more connected to mass-marketed culture and politics, though I still haven’t seen things that pundits on the radio regularly tell us that everyone has seen, such as the appearance of the Beatles on American Bandstand (?), or footage of the jets crashing into the twin towers on 9/11. Even as a kid, I felt like an anthropologist in my own country, and that feeling has only intensified with age.
In a dream the other night I was walking along an abandoned county road – you know, cracked patches of asphalt where tough customers like chicory, teasel and spotted knapweed gather around, drinking from 40-oz. bottles & talking trash. I topped a rise and found myself in the middle of our field circa 1975. There was my older brother, age 11 or 12, pushing the lawnmower without a great deal of enthusiasm. There were those three, huge balm-of-Gilead trees that my dad had had to cut down a few years later because they were dead or near death & leaning dangerously over the house. The seckle pear tree was back in the Pear Tree Curve of the driveway, still five years away from its collision with the driver’s side of our old truck in my brother’s first driving lesson. Our red VW bus sat in the garage. The forsythia was in full bloom, along with that row of tulips that would later be wiped out by rabbits. Puppies romped on the veranda.
I walked up to my brother and explained that I’d just come from the year 2005, through some kind of time warp. (We always use to talk about time warps when we were kids.) To my surprise, he bolted, leaving the lawnmower running. Good lord, I said to myself – he thinks I want to kick his ass! Maybe the sibling rivalry had been stronger than I remembered. I stared around at all the acres of mowed lawn and lawn yet-to-be-mowed. Why in the world did we keep it up year after year, this pointless struggle to prevent nature from running wild? It’s not as if we had any neighbors to cluck their tongues.
I realized I wouldn’t be able to handle the shock of meeting my parents when they were younger than I am now, so I woke up. Outside it was one of those cold and foggy mornings just like the ones on which the red-wing blackbirds always used to come back, sometime between late February and late March. They were one of the first and therefore most eagerly anticipated entries in the old Spring Arrivals List that my mom taped to the refrigerator every year. They would show up right after daybreak and perch in the yard trees for an hour or two, making their rusty-barn-door-hinge racket. They almost never actually bred on the mountain, so this was one of the few times in the course of the year when we could count on seeing them. But for some reason they haven’t been paying us an early-spring visit nearly as often as they used to when I was a kid – maybe one year out of three.
White-throated sparrows were singing their wistful song about Poor Sam Peabody or Oh Sweet Canada, whichever you prefer (I hear both). As I sat there drinking my coffee and feeling nostalgic, damn me if a red-wing blackbird’s konkerlee call didn’t ring out. A whole flock had landed in the walnut trees above the other house – the one I grew up in – and was joined a few minutes later by another flock of about the same size. There must have been a couple hundred, all told. With that many of them calling at the same time, most of what you hear, as I said in yesterday’s post, are the overtones. It’s a little like Tuvanese throat singing, if you know what I mean. I walked over to the edge of the porch and stood there listening for the longest time, peering into the fog.
N.B.: The above image of a redwing blackbird was highly modified from a web source.