Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Anti-Woody Guthrie

American Robin

I saw my first robin of the year where I least expected it—in the Sax-Zim Bog on March 23. His plumage was bright enough that I was sure he was a male, but the ground was mostly frozen and the poor guy focused on finding food under the leaf litter. He didn’t make a sound. 

A robin showed up in my own yard the next day. I heard him before I saw him, making alarm calls, seemingly griping about the weather, not potential predators. I saw one robin on my walk along the Western Waterfront Trail on March 25, where I usually see and hear dozens when they first arrive in spring. This lone robin didn’t sing, and the robin in my own neck of the woods didn’t sing once while I was listening before I left town on March 28. It wasn’t until I was in Rhode Island that I finally heard my first singing robin of spring. I got home after dark April first; the first sound I heard the next morning was a robin song seeping through my bedroom window. I wasn’t the only one happy about that. When I let my little dog Pip outside, she ran to the fence in the direction of the singing robin and sat down to listen. Robins were singing the day I brought her home when she was a puppy four years ago, and I think that song is part of what tells her winter is over and life is going back to the way it’s supposed to be again. 

Robin songs are both thrilling and soul-satisfying. Thrushes in general have an extraordinarily well-developed syrinx, giving the robin’s song its rich tonal quality, but the joy a robin’s song elicits in some of us humans and even dogs comes from something far deeper than morphology. 

We humans seem to think that if only we could discover intelligent life outside our own solar system, we’d be able to communicate with it, but we have yet to communicate with other intelligent species right here on earth. Robin songs are sung just by males, and we know that they entice females and proclaim a warning to other males to keep out of a defended territory. But that’s hardly all the song is about. Imagine thinking that Shakespeare’s plays or Beethoven’s music or Itzhak Perlman’s violin performances or Robert Frost’s poetry were simply a proclamation of a male human’s rank and territory and an enticement to females. Individual nuances and personal expression are at the heart of art. We already know that many kinds of non-human animals appreciate human-created music, and we already know that many kinds of non-human music inspire human artists. So it seems bizarrely arrogant to imagine that we humans are somehow unique on our planet in having a capacity for artistic expression. 

That means it’s arrogant of me to write my own personal interpretation of a robin’s song, but after years of noticing where the neighborhood robins set their territorial boundaries, and then listening to my backyard male this morning, I couldn’t help but think of Woody Guthrie. Only my robin seemed to be singing the anti-Woody Guthrie anthem. 

This land is my land. 
This land is my land. 
This land’s not your land.
This land is my land.
From the big box elder, 
To the serviceberries,
This land was made for me, me, me. 

As I was flying o’er Laura’s backyard, 
I saw her birdbath, so clean and tempting.
I saw that spruce tree—ideal for nesting.
This land was made for me, me, me. 

This land is my land. 
This land is my land. 
This land’s not your land.
This land is my land.
From the big box elder, 
To the serviceberries,
This land was made for me, me, me. 

(Listen to the California Ravens sing the song here.)

1 comment :

  1. What a profound interpretation of a robin's song :) Very clever.

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