At midnight a police car shot down our main road at breakneck speed. The officer switched on alarms which (according to the teacher at our precinct’s Citizen Academy) indicated a highest-priority distress call; perhaps another police officer in mortal danger. I listened intently, lying on the floor in my blankie roll, voicing prayers for everybody’s safe return.
A few minutes later there was another sound close by, a highly magnified male voice shouting out one word: “FIREARM!”
It is astonishing how much adrenalin and cortisol are ready and available in unlimited quantities, catapulting one from half-sleep to roll halfway across the room and away from the windows. My immediate fear was that this was a police car megaphone, telling the neighbors that we had an active shooter prowling around. (There’s no indication of that, though; today’s precinct feed and city news outlets and 911 incident maps don’t show anything unusual.) Still, while bolting those six steps I grabbed the cell phone, checked the security peephole to scan the hallway, then went diving into the windowless bathroom to get dressed and shod and to wait in the dark for further signals.
After tuning in for a good while to the vibes of our apartment building and the streets outside, I finally shut the bathroom door and turned on the light to calm down with an inspiring book on education (The End of Molasses Classes) by Atlanta school teacher Ron Clark. Having seen videos of Mr. Clark’s teaching style (bursting on to stages, dancing on desks, bungee jumping in the school library) I had to smile at the realization that for one golden midnight moment, I’d been moving just as fast as he does all day.
Back on the floor and blankie-enrolled, attending to the darkness outside, I heard another sound: “Eep!” That’s a favorite familiar night noise, some little spring peeper or bug or whatnot. It’s a tiny pure hopeful cheep, like the triangle at the very back of the symphony orchestra. Night after night our Eeplet is a sweet sound in the city, something tender and true to make silence even more golden. Like the plaintive hesitation notes of killdeer winging through the dark, or the barred owl in the Douglas firs asking “Who cooks for you-all?” it’s a nice sound for falling asleep in our neighborhood.
The Eep-in-the-siren-aftermath calls to mind the day I quit the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. My participation days were numbered anyway, because year after year to my bewilderment the Audubonnaires were really only there to count birds, not to be friendly to other bird watchers. (To me, sloshing through mud on a pre-dawn winter day tallying sparrows is really just a prelude to friendship with kindred souls. I guess this backwards thinking just puts the “rank” in Amateur.)
Anyway. On that fateful New Year’s Day several years ago I was duly up and out the door at 5:50, running through main roads to the residential street entrance of an urban forest trail. The intrepid leader of our large party named our group reunion point up ahead, and assigned me to join three fit yoga-trim senior women in sensible shoes. Off we went.
The women flowed right along over fallen logs and boulders through moss and mud, discussing search strategies among themselves. Clambering and thrashing along with them, I suddenly caught sound of a very distant thread of voice. Deep in the woods, down gulleys and gulches by a running stream, there was a man shrieking at the absolute top of his lungs. He was venting his displeasure with life and the human race. Clearly his New Year’s Eve had done him no good; the same adrenalin and cortisol that catapults sleepy people right across a dark room were impelling him to rave the most explicit profanity at an impossibly rapid rate. For the next ninety minutes, while we steered almost a mile all around him, he did not skip a beat in this tirade of graphic invective. And then, with their comfy homespun little noises the birds themselves, little troupers all, began to stir: nuthatches, flickers, robins, starlings, crowned kinglets Ruby & Golden, Steller’s Jays, on and on. The contrast made a surrealistic acoustic layer cake:
Birds: Rrrrrrrr. Oop oop. Weech! Bah walla. Tick tock.
Man: !@#$%^&*()+! [Sending Colonel Mustard, with the candlestick, to the Conservatory.]
Ladies: “Yes, jot that down: Three more Haberdashered Wooty-Woots.”
That’s when I stepped outside the park and walked home thinking about our culture, where at Christmas every sparrow is counted by civic-minded people, where even its discarded feathers and nests are protected by law. But a human being in obvious need of intervention can slip through the cracks and sit screaming in a public park all night.
And yes, nature is no pre-fall Eden either; there is plenty of danger going on there right under our awareness. But what’s amazing is that the birds and frogs can share space with us, and still have the heart to go right on chirping and beeping. One sunset on the Olmsted Emerald Necklace, distorted decibels boomed across the water and phragmite reeds, from an overly magnified “We Will Rock You” at Fenway Stadium; but somehow, one Goldfinch kept right on trilling from his seat atop a flowering thistle. One rainbowed evening at the Granary Burial Ground (founded in 1660), two boys tuned their boom box to “Let’s Go All the Way” and started a fist fight among fragile historic headstones while a robin unveiled a first spring song right overhead.
In sounds of everyday ruckus and mayhem, it’s a great comfort and uplift to stop and notice and breathe thanks for all the small things that keep on singing.