Morning. Hells Canyon, Idaho, and I wake to birdsong. Like most mornings, at least in spring and summer, but this morning, it is crow and quail rather than robin and raven.
Morning. Hells Canyon, Idaho, and I wake to birdsong. Like most mornings, at least in spring and summer, but this morning, it is crow and quail rather than robin and raven. A trio of crows had taken up stations in the limbs of a leaf-bare tree behind our camper. They began their chorus quite plaintively, and then, as a sermon might, the racket rose to a frenzied height, and they were gone with a flap of black wings. They gave the coyote a funeral, I whispered to my partner, Caleb, who lay beside me and didn’t reply. We’d found the coyote the evening before, looking so alive, lying in the blackberry vines where he had been dumped. Blood song spilled from the hole in his chest when we lifted him. I rolled over on my stomach to look out of the window above our bed just in time to see quail emerge from the dead branches and thorny blackberry vines that guarded the entrance to where Caleb had lain the coyote’s body. One after another after another, they spilled from the brush, tender fists with feet, scratching, twitching, top-notch bobbing as they explored the morning. Silenced turned to yawp and yips. The ravens turned coyote into quail, I whispered. In my mind, I saw the soft, tawny body breaking apart bird by bird until nothing remained but the quail and the bullet that killed the coyote.
It is through sound that I stay connected to my past…
The ring of the landline. The drop of a needle on a record and the forwarding of the film after the click of a shutter. It’s through the sounds of sprinklers in the yard, the kind that tick tick tick and shudder their way in a circle. My father’s reassuring voice on a cassette, my mother’s laughter which is always sprinkled with words and head shakes, and oh you kids, never a roar like my sister’s BRAAHAHA. The screen door opened and released to slap in its jam on an early summer afternoon when my dad came in, hot and smelling of alfalfa and gasoline from mowing the field behind the house. And there were songs we had sung as a family. Songs learned at Vacation Bible School. Songs my sister and I would never forget from cartoons we watched after coming home from school, where, in December, we would learn carols to sing in the annual Christmas Program held before we were released for the long break. Each grade taught the same song every year, so in kindergarten, while learning Rudolph, I was looking forward to the fifth grade when we could sing about sheep safely grazing. I remember them all; I sing them, perk like dog’s ears to the sound of far-off thunder, or when I hear the song played at my husband’s funeral. As sure as I know to answer yes when my mother calls my name, these sounds tell me who I am.
However, there is another choir of sounds that bespeak a different kind of knowing. Sounds that connect me to ancestors who also lived in the Rockies’ shadow and to a larger community not defined by borders or ethnicity or familial name—songs that tell me where I am and, perhaps more importantly, where I come from. I learned the seasons by the arrival and leaving of birds such as meadowlark and the cheerily, cheerily cheer up of robins. I knew the eerie whistling bugle of the bull elk meant fall, the rising sound of a river that warned of floods, and the difference between the winds that meant rain and those that came as a shush from the setting sun. I learned thunder and hail on the roof and which way was north by the southbound honking geese. And all are embedded in a backdrop of silence provided by the rurality of my Rocky Mountain raising.
It is through sound that I stay connected to my ancestors…
I keep the window open at night. Sometimes only a crack, even in winter, at least while I sleep, not only for the air that smells as new as it does cold but for the sound that rides it into the darkened room. A decade ago, when I moved into the cabin near McCall, Idaho, the night sounds were thick and diverse, not unlike those of my rural growing in the Colorado Rockies. A dog barks at a deer, a cat screech, then coyote songs. We are conditioned to fear the dark and that which we cannot see, even as some religions tell us to worship the unseen. But I neither worshiped nor feared the dark as a child, and even now, the dark elicits wonder. Night gave way to dreaming and dreaming to imagination. I created stories for coyotes, words for their songs—and I took the songs into me, with me to new places, and in my darkest hours, the ones not made black by night, I could howl and feel belonging in the song. It’s a song known for thousands of years, sung by coyotes and heard by my ancestors and theirs. On a warm September morning, two people thousands of years apart could howl the same coyote song and speak the same language. A gift passed down through lives. An inheritance of sound.
It is through sound that I stay connected to place…
Nighttime in this more northern reach of the Rockies has offered new songs. When I first moved here eleven years ago, I recall an evening when I woke my partner with an excited whisper of what was that. Fox, he said. Fox, I thought, after the cry that sounded something like a cat, something like our dog’s favorite squeaky toy, came through the screen again. I would learn night hawk as well, then Western tree frog, and one morning the grunt of a bear cub. After acclimating to their voices, I became unavoidably aware of the scraw of the Stellar’s Jay pair that lives near us year-round. The two, who we named White Above the Eye and Half Beak, have become equally used to us. When the feeder runs low, or we forget to rehang it in the morning, the pair will stand on the rail of our deck, face the sliding glass doors, and scraw until one of us appears with the mix of nuts and seed they devour. I became so tuned to their calls that one evening, just before dusk, I heard them and said to Caleb, “Something’s wrong.” It was a different cry, one I didn’t know. Agitated. Fearful. I rose from my chair and searched the trees for them. The two, who seemed so large compared to every other bird that came to our feeder, now seemed small as they dove and flapped around a goose-sized Great Horned Owl perched in a lodgepole looking into our living room. In this way, with this careful listening, I have also developed a relationship with the land. This knowing goes beyond names, breeding seasons, and territories and into the wisdom of relationships. This Jay couple warned the other beings in our forest, alerting even us of danger. The owl, as magnificent as they are, is also often a harbinger of death. Indeed, for some that night, it was true.
It is quiet that most seek when they come to the mountains where I live. An escape from the busyness of the city, and they find it, at least to the degree for which they sought it. And perhaps because of this, and the beauty of the surrounding area, they want to stay. Or, at least they want to have a place to return on weekends or holidays. I think about the sounds that must have filled the nights on the glacial moraine I now call home. In the fall, there would have been the guttural whistle bugle of elk. Coyote songs, particularly in the spring during denning season, would have been in stereo, each calling from their places all over the forest. Then all may be silenced by the bigger dog, the wolf, whose howl sings in me deeper and brings me more wonder and excitement than any sound I know. And without the sound of cars and progress, what else might be heard? Sounds perhaps we no longer have names for. Voices we can only wonder about.
This is how we can connect to the future, through the ancient echoes of the non-human beings that share this place…
The night before last, the moon was so bright I swore it made the plants grow. I pulled the window open wide, closed my eyes, and strained to hear the night beyond that of sleeping dogs, humming refrigerator, and the soft in and out breaths of my partner. It has been a year since I’ve heard a fox. Gone, too, is the soughing of pine, a sighing sound of wind through trees that used to lull me to sleep on nights when the weather was moving. There is still the rumble of distant thunder. In winter, the thud of snow that the pines surrounding us drop to our metal roof. The gentle tap of rain and the occasional night hawk. But the song I miss most is the song of the coyote. I haven’t heard their music in at least two years. Trees are felled as the housing development grows. Coyotes are found shot and tossed aside. The sounds now surround sound TV, a neighbor yelling for their dog to be quiet, another recent neighbor to our area yelling at someone unknown to F-off. And another car whirrs down the road. A semi pulls the jake brake.
A few miles from Hells Canyon Dam, in a cave above the Snake River, there is painted, in red ochre, the image of a salmon. I can only wonder at the number of years it has been there, one thousand or ten thousand. Still, in the twilight part of the cave, just before it turns to dark, the salmon is forever captured, moving upstream. It is the only salmon left above Hells Canyon Dam, which, when completed in 1966, ended a migration, thousands of years old. In the town of Stanley, residents said that the river that once woke them with the sound of running salmon had gone quiet. In the hearts of the people who have been here for over 16,000 years, a new silence entered. Loss of that kind makes a sound that can only be felt, that takes your breath and leaves no song.
I’m not sure how to immortalize the coyote song for those who will live here after me. Words can only do so much, and humans are unequipped with the coyote’s ability to sing, nor do we understand their language. Coyotes once seemed so familiar that it was almost foolish to doubt that they never would be. So, I assume many thought of the salmon. And the wolf. And the voices of parents and the songs of children.