After Years Of Silence, A Song Into The Darkness

Published 4:06 pm Thursday, April 18, 2013

My wife opens the front door and shouts one word to me.

A single three-syllable word that jumps me out of my favorite chair in the living room and sends me racing for the door.


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Whippoorwills used to fill the spring evening sky and summer shadowing landscape with their cry, calling out their own name into the darkness, up toward the stars, but the woods and fields had been without their voice, just as their daytime counterpart, the bobwhite, had gone missing, too.

The whippoorwill's scientific name, Caprimulgus vociferous, means “given to insistent outcry” and two or three whippoorwills could surround you with their sound.

The whippoorwill record for non-stop “whippoorwilling” is 1,088 consecutive nonstop calls by one bird. Their sudden disappearance in my neck of the woods stood out like sudden silence always does.

Until Monday night of this week the sound of the whippoorwill had not reached my ears in well over a decade.

Changing habitat, more development, and increased use of pesticides are among the culprits for their decreasing numbers. According to the National Audubon Society there has been a drastic plunge in whippoorwill numbers across the nation, the population down to 1.2 million when there were 2.8 million 40 years ago. They are an endangered species in Canada.

Making first acquaintance with the call of the whippoorwill remains one of my favorite memories of renting a trailer out on the Five Forks Road more than three decades ago, the first place I called my own. Many were the nights I'd sit outside under the blooming sky and listen to the whippoorwills.

After getting married and renting an old farmhouse near Pamplin-the house was by itself at the end of a dirt and gravel dead-end road that stopped in the middle of the rolling fields and woodland-my wife and I could hear them calling from all directions, it seemed.

Their determined, indefatigable song came to symbolize standing up for yourself, for what you believe in, defying the darkness, being true to your own calling.

The simple act of calling out their own name, clearly romanticized by me, yes, seemed like a poem, a psalm, an act of courage and faith, like a prayer when all that seemed left were tiny pinpricks of light so far away that by the time we see them they may be gone out of the universe.

One Sunday afternoon there was a knock on the farmhouse door and two strangers said, they didn't ask, they were going to come inside and measure the walls. They had bought the house we had been renting for eight years and wanted to know how much wallpaper to purchase. That's how we found out we were suddenly, in the blink of eye, living in someone else's home. We had a one-year old son, a four-year old daughter and three weeks to find a new place to live.

We found that place, still out in the country, but more houses in the neighborhood. Thankfully, however, whippoorwills called out to us from the woods and fields across the road and it soon sounded like home.

And then the whippoorwills disappeared. For a week, then a month, an entire summer, years of summers.

I'd stand out in the gathering darkness each spring and wait, listening until my ears found new and undiscovered places in the silence and silence remained, silence gathering like its own incessant noise of nothingness.

Something had been lost, taken away, flown off. How could the world's fabric just unravel like that? There had always been whippoorwills. Can something like that just disappear off the face of the earth?

Yes, you learn as the years pass, of course it can.

There were times, and I know this sounds quite eccentric but to thine own self be true, that I would cup my hands around my mouth and whistle up into the darkness, mimicking the whippoorwill's call.

Not so different, now that I think about it, than a hunter calling to attract a deer or turkey. I was hunting for a song in the darkness.

Falling silent, hoping for even a distant reply, silence fell further. No answer came. I was left standing in the darkness, feeling foolish.

Our children grew up, graduated from high school, from college, one got married, the other got engaged to be married this fall.

The world has spun around more than 4,000 times, rearranging everything in so many lives on so many continents across the entire planet, rearranging them for better, for worse, for in between, rearranging them for who knows what.

That's how long it had been since we'd heard the call of “whippoorwill” beneath the heavens.

Until Monday night when this one single, solitary whippoorwill loudly calls out its name to us, to anyone who would listen, the sound startlingly voluminous for a lone bird, amplified by the roll of the rising woodland across the road, projecting the call as if the whippoorwill is using speakers and amplifiers, making certain we have heard, making certain we understand.

We do.


I answer back.

The reply echoes, filling in all the deep, silent spaces.