Riverdave's Journal


I awaken slowly, my awareness floating to the surface from a deep recess of exhaustion.  Halfway to consciousness and prior to the opening of my sight, I realize my journey upward is led by a magical melodic voice.  This creature's song is haunting, other worldly, and alluring as the Sirens but yet altogether free and safe.  

As my awareness reaches the surface and my eyes open, I experience a brief jolt when I cannot recognize my surroundings.  After a long five seconds, I recall my circumstance of lying on the floor of a primitive cabin in the midst of a forest in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.  Once oriented, my attention returns to the ethereal song filtering in from beyond the walls of my cabin.

Instantly I recognize the serenade of a hermit thrush.  I hear several of them scattered among the drooping hemlock branches of this otherwise quiet lakeside forest.  I lie perfectly still for several minutes just breathing in the ecstasy of the moment.  It feels as if I have died and awakened into the next life.  And despite the hopes and fears of humanity concerning the possibility of life after death, it's as if my good fate has been to find the afterlife as a place of profound serenity and bliss.  

The previous evening I fell asleep depleted after a twelve hour drive north on interstate highways to reach this rental cabin.  But the punishing drive only seems to have prepared my body to further surrender to this morning's wakeup invitation. I turn and check my travel clock.  It is 5:30 a.m. and a cool sixty degrees on this rarefied August morning.  A misty predawn light filters through the small windows of my 1930s era cabin.  I marvel at the pristine moment.  But abruptly my thoughts shift to my father, Harry Owen, who passed away three years before.  I solemnly acknowledge, "This hermit thrush is his bird …" 

The awareness of my father's presence begins to permeate the moment.  I arise and grope for my clothing in the dim light.  As I step out into the damp, cool dawning, I find myself in a world inspirited by thrush songs reverberating among the tall dark trees.  I replay a painful conversation with my father five years before as he sat paralyzed with Parkinson's Disease in his elder care center.  

As I described to him a recent encounter I had with a wood thrush, he responded about his own experience with the even more unusual song of the hermit thrush.  "Like liquid notes from deep inside a rain barrel," he recounted it.  Puzzling at my father's remark I replied that locally I found the hermit thrush hopping about the forest floor only in the winter season, and that in the spring the bird migrates north to sing and breed.  I instructed my father that it must have been the wood thrush or Swainson's thrush that he encountered, as I never hear the hermit sing locally.

Always being a respectful and gracious man who shied away from debate, my father sat in his wheelchair with a baffled, heartbreaking, Parkinsonian expression on his face.  I felt as if I had denied him some special experience, one that he wanted his son to be sure to remember.  But I had never known a hermit thrush to sing in my home town and felt that he must have made a mistaken identity.  Most likely he heard one of the other two species of migratory thrushes calling.

One late March morning, two years after my father's passing, I heard a thrush singing in the Eno forest behind my home.  I was splitting wood, but then quickly dropped my axe and lifted my head. "It's not a woody or a Swainson's," I confirmed to myself.  Listening carefully, it did indeed sound like liquid notes from deep inside a rain barrel!  My father was correct.  His presence seemed to flood the moment.  Was this a visitation of my father, returning to make his point that I so neatly batted down years earlier?

I called a local birding expert who confirmed that some hermits do indeed call in the south in early spring before they migrate to their breeding grounds in the northeastern United States and Canada.  Through the years I had simply failed to apprehend their call in Durham.  But even more seriously, I suddenly felt the sadness of having challenged my father's experience of the natural world and his unique relationship with his favored bird.  

During the last three years of my father's life, Parkinson's Disease stiffened his body and made his speech almost unintelligible.  I used to enter his room late at night to find him wide awake, shaking and staring at the ceiling in the dark.  I would read to him from Thoreau and other nature writers.  He could not answer, only turning his head towards me with hollow disconcerting eyes.  I only hoped that behind his grim outward expression, he was able to retreat to some inner niche of peace.  I now wonder if the song of the bird at the bottom of the rain barrel might have been that special refuge during his darkest earthly hours.

I recently asked my 92 year old mother about his hermit thrush.  She believes that my father heard it call from their porch deck overlooking Duke Forest.  I explored with her other options as my parents often took me and my sister camping.  I mentioned to her that the hermit thrush also breeds in the higher elevations of the southern Appalachians.  She confirmed that it is probable that my father also heard the hermit's song on our summer family camping trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  

Further inquiring of my mother, we recalled camping trips at Lake George in the Adirondacks of upstate New York and at the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, Canada. These locations are certainly places where breeding hermits call.  Perhaps my father found his bird in all three locations - Duke Forest, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the higher latitudes of the Northeast.  

Captivated by a magical call he had tracked up the coast of eastern America, perhaps this bird became a mystic totemic animal to my otherwise scientific and Methodist leaning father.  As Parkinson's Disease so contorted his body in his latter years, maybe my father  did find solace and inner healing from the song of the hermit thrush.

I now see clearly that my recent encounter with the hermit thrush in the Poconos came to me as "part three" of a father-son, cosmic dialogue that has extended over a period of five years and two dimensions. Perhaps my father is still playfully settling scores with me on a technical point of migratory breeding biology.  We do share a personal history of bantering over matters of scientific phenomena.  But I sense there is more.  The dreamlike sensation I experienced upon awakening to the hermit thrush in the Poconos last month, I now accept as bona fide communication from the other side. 

There is life after life.  Our loved ones do continue to interact with us, even after they have moved on from this earthly plane of existence. If we carefully cultivate our awareness as Henry Thoreau directed us in Walden, we may also discover that "there were wafted to me evidence of unexplored and uncultivated continents on the other side …"

Photo by Phyllis Owen:  Harry A. Owen & son Riverdave birding together on the Island of Abaco, Bahamas - Spring 1997