Creatures of the Air


The wonderfulness of insects in the air—swarms of flitting insects,
The beautiful, spiritual insects!
Many varieties of beautiful and plain butterflies, myriads—now and then some gorgeous fellow flashing lazily by on wings like artists’ palettes dabb’d with every color—idly flapping among the plants and wild posies, mostly skimming along the surface, dipping and oscillating.
I hardly look around without somewhere seeing two (always two) fluttering through the air in amorous dalliance—
Two little yellow butterflies shuffling between each other, ascending high in the air,
Two large dragon-flies, with wings of slate-color’d lace gauze, circling and darting and occasionally balancing themselves quite still, their wings quivering all the
time.
You can tame even such insects; I have one big and handsome moth, knows and comes to me, likes me to hold him up on my extended hand.

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
I hear bravuras of birds,
There is a real concert going on around me—a dozen different birds pitching in with a will—the noisy, vocal, natural concert,
I get there the most copious bird-concerts.

There are blue-birds flying about, and I hear two or three real songs, sustain’d quite awhile. There! that is a true carol, coming out boldly and repeatedly, as if the singer meant it;
The mockingbird joyfully sounds his delicious gurgles, and cackles and screams and weeps;
The wild flageolet-note of a quail near by, harsh cawing of many crows in the distance;
The song of the locust gushes, has meaning—a long, chromatic, tremulous crescendo, monotonous, but what a swing there is in that brassy drone, round and round, emitting wave after wave of notes, like the whirling of brass quoits, like some fine old wine, not sweet, but far better than sweet, reaching a point of great energy and significance, and then quickly and gracefully dropping down and out.

The screams of the water-fowl of solitary northwest lakes,
The low, oft-repeated shriek of the diver;
The song of the wood-thrush, delicious notes—a sweet, artless, voluntary, simple anthem, as from the flute-stops of some organ;
The fretful meow, meo-o-w of a querulous cat-bird, and the song of the phoebe-bird;
The convocation of black birds, garrulous flocks of them, twittering, rising, or overhead passing;
The wild-fowl’s notes at night as flying low migrating north or south, the notes of the bird continuous echoing;
The sad noises of the night-owl from recesses, too-oo-oo-oo-oo, soft and pensive (and I fancied a little sarcastic,) breaking the warm, indolent, half-voluptuous silence;
The song of a single snow-bird merrily sounding over the desolation,
Of that blithe throat from arctic bleak and blank;
A feather’d recluse in the woods near by singing deliciously—not many notes, but full of music of almost human sympathy.

I have a positive conviction that some of these birds sing, and others fly and flirt about here, for my special benefit,
I believe in those wing’d purposes.

The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation,
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but listening close,
I find its purpose and place up there toward the wintry sky;
The spotted hawk salutes the approaching night,
The hawk’s sharp scream—he swoops by and accuses me,
He complains hoarsely with sarcastic voice of my gab and my loitering.
From his masterful sweep, the warning cry of the eagle:
Give way there! It is useless—give up your spoils!

O to go back to the place where I was born,
To hear the birds sing once more.
More than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows,
I saw, I heard at intervals, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama, singing bird divine!
Down almost amid the lazy slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.
What he really sang for was subtle, clandestine, away beyond,
A charge transmitted and gift occult for those being born.

I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long,

Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard, there in the mist.
O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me,
O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you
, to sing the idea of All.

All sorts of birds, darting, hopping, or perch’d on trees. Never before have I seen, or been in the midst of, and got so flooded and saturated with, them and their performances. Such oceans, such successions of them.
My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck,
They rise together, they slowly circle around;
Two great buzzards wheeling gracefully and slowly far up there;
Two kingfishers pursue each other, whirling and wheeling around, winding, darting, with many a jocund downward dip, sometimes capriciously separate, then flying together, as if they knew I appreciated and absorb’d their vitality, spirituality, faithfulness—and then off they swoop, with slanting wings and graceful flight.

The flight of the mountain-hawk,
The hawk sailing where men have not yet sail’d, the farthest polar sea, ripply, crystalline, open, beyond the  floes—

A haughty, white-bodied dark-wing’d hawk rose slowly, a magnificent sight, and sail’d with steady widespread wings, no flapping at all, in circles in clear sight, as if for my delectation. Once he came quite close over my head.

Seagulls high in the air, their broad and easy flight in spirals, floating with motionless wings, or oscillating their bodies with slow unflapping wings;
Here and there, above all, those daring, careening things of grace and wonder, those white and shaded swift-darting fish-birds, with their fierce, pure, hawk-like beauty and motion;
High up in the transparent ether gracefully balanced and circled four or five great sea hawks—

Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air.

The circle-gambols of the swallows flying by dozens in concentric rings in the last rays of sunset, like flashes of some airy wheel—
The darting swallow, the destroyer of insects, the fall traveler southward but returning northward early in the spring,
Flitting among the trees of the apple-orchard, building the nest of his mate;
Two feather’d guests from Alabama, two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
Every day day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every the she-bird crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes.

Sometimes in the fiercest storm a great eagle will appear, now soaring with steady and now overbended wings—his resistless flight now a swirl, now an upward movement, now, abandoning himself to the gale, moving with it with such velocity—lord of the situation and the storm—lord, amid it, of power and savage joy. It is like reading some first-class natural tragedy or epic, or hearing martial trumpets.

Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,
The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,
Till o’er the river pois’d, the twain yet one, a moment’s lull,
A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,
Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight,
She hers, he his, pursuing.

Man-of-war bird, thou born to match the gale, (thou art all wings,)
That sport’st amid the lightning-flash and thunder-cloud,
Thou ship of air that never furl’st thy sails,
Days, even weeks, untired and onward, through spaces, realms gyrating,
A blue point, far, far in heaven floating,
The sky thy slave that cradled thee—
In thy experience, had’st thou my soul,
What joys! what joys were thine.

O if one could but fly like a bird, to emerge and be of the sky,
Of the sun and moon and flying clouds, as one with them.

Where the bat flies,
Where the hummingbird shimmers,
Where the great goldbug drops through the dark,
I fly the flight of the fluid and swallowing soul.
O soul, voyagest thou indeed on voyages like those?
Are thy wings plumed indeed for such far flights?

All islands to which birds wing their way, I wing my way myself,
I use the wings of the land-bird and use the wings of the sea-bird, and look down as from a height.
In vain the buzzard houses herself with the sky—
The buzzard up there sailing a slow whirl in majestic spirals and discs—
In vain the razor-bill’d auk sails far north to Labrador,
I follow quickly, I ascend to the nest in the fissure of the cliff.

I ascend from the moon, I ascend from the night,
I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I depart as air, screaming, with wings slow flapping,
With flights and songs and screams answering those of the fish-hawk, mocking-bird, night-heron, and eagle.
Joyous, the amplest spaces heavenward cleaving,
I circulate in all directions around;
I have abandoned myself to flights, broad circles,
Around and around to soar

NEXT: OF THE WATERS