Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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I heard a mourning dove this morning as I walked up the hill, past the woods, to my house.

Its mournful sound I so loved as a little girl is a sound that makes me feel at home and I hear it as both sound and memory. The same is true for train whistles and bagpipes. All of them, I notice, are sounds of melancholy.

I wonder if, in a good childhood, the urge toward melancholy is an instinct toward art. I wonder if melancholy is the thing that allows a child to reach beyond childhood; allows a child to enter the heart of longing, the driving force of art. This morning’s dove offers me the open fields around my parent’s house, the places that meant adventure then, the places evoking some ancient memory of wildness in my childheart. I knew the melodies of robins, the chirping of other birds, the sharp, high cry of a pheasant, but no other bird’s voice held the melancholy of the mourning dove. The melancholy evoked wildness, evoked some primal memory of solitary passage through country I had never seen.

The whistle, the clacking wheels of a passing train, always moving through, never staying, a single entity on a single track traversing the miles of country conjured in the mourning dove’s song, offered a proper melancholy to me, too. I loved (love) folk music, but songs about trains were (are) for me the non plus ultra of folk music. Of course, songs about trains transcend folk music, moving into blues and country and rock as well, which makes perfect sense when you look at trains as symbols of everybody’s journey. I never saw trains in relation to cities, but only in connection to some lonesome country through which they passed. A train whistle at night was especially evocative. When, as an adult, a friend told me her teenage son had gone to ride the rails, I imagined him jumping into boxcars standing with open doors in railyards lying at the edge of cities, the edges only hoboes know. I imagined him going wherever the train took him, aware that destinations are irrelevant, that only the journey matters. I was annoyed it had never occurred to me to do that.

Canoeing across Canadian lakes as a teenager, hearing my first loons, I gained a new bird of melancholy. The most haunting sound on earth, a loon’s cries carry you into the deep lonesomeness that is the magnificent soul of wildness. It is a northern sound. Wildness is hardly peculiar to the north . . . .and yet . . . .

Among musical instruments, maybe a saxophone (and possibly a clarinet) have the capacity for that kind of lonesome. But nothing compares with the mournfulness of bagpipes, some kind of marriage of wind and music that transports me to a wild highland Scotland I don’t yet know. In my imagination I, alone, am tramping across the rock and purple heather of rough, rolling hills in fierce wind, lost to the world that does not remember wildness.

Loneliness and lonesomeness, of course, are totally different words. Lonely is not romantic. It’s just lonely. Even melancholy doesn’t have the same cachet it once had for me. The Romantic poets begin to seem beside the point (although romantic figures never lose their power. Heathcliff, for instance. Mr. Rochester . . . .)

So the mourning dove I heard on this morning’s walk is the same mourning dove I heard when I was four, spokesbird, now, for this country where I live, it’s undulating meadows with their grasses, their cattle. Yesterday 20 buzzards perched on fence posts as we drove by, sated by the dead cow they’d recently cleaned up. Last week one rancher’s cows, having broken out of their pasture, were eating grass along the road. Ten or fifteen of them chose to run just ahead of me as I walked down the road. As if, by keeping ahead, they could make me disappear. The rest of the herd, those who hadn’t broken out of the pasture, ran full out toward the fence as I passed, their hooves thundering across the pasture like the sound of a stampede in a western movie.

Sometimes, in the very early morning, I hear the owls that live in my woods, one hooting, another answering. And, at night, there is the song of coyotes, a sound as lonesome as the mourning dove. As the train whistle. As bagpipes. And yet, it is a social sound. Like the owls, one sings, another answers.

Then, of course, there is the sound of the wolf, the long, soulful howl, the howl I heard against the full moon one winter night in Yellowstone. This, too, is a social sound, but the society of wolves is one I’d gladly join. I don’t hear wolves here, where I live. Even if one, miraculously, came this far from Yellowstone, I doubt the ranchers surrounding me would tolerate its presence. I had better hope all wolves stay away from here.

Yet, it is the wolf’s howl that makes you know the world is right.


Copyright © 2013 Ruth Rudner