Small Sightings and the Sounds of Solace Part 2

by Fred MacVaugh

Part 1 is here

Today, the birds I see are too far away to identify. They hop and flit quickly. Could they be dark-eyed juncos? Perhaps they’re American tree sparrows? Against the background of brown and gray gravel, I lose them momentarily. At dawn or dusk especially, my eyes need time to adjust. Even silent, their presence is reassuring.

Spring, Songbirds and Theodore Roosevelt

birds theodore rooseveltHis hearing acute, Theodore Roosevelt relied on their songs to identify birds. In North Dakota in the 1880s, he cherished those sounds he heard from his Elkhorn Ranch veranda. “Throughout June,” he wrote in 1888’s “The Home Ranch,” “the thickets and groves about the ranch house are loud with bird music from before dawn till long after sunrise. The thrashers have sung all the night through from among the thorn-bushes if there has been a moon, or even if there has been bright starlight,” he published in Century Magazine; “and before the first glimmer of gray the bell-like, silvery songs of the shy woodland thrushes chime in; while meadow-lark, robin, bluebird, and song sparrow, together with many rarer singers, like the grosbeak, join in swelling the chorus.”

During last September’s Theodore Roosevelt Symposium at Dickinson State University, historian Duane Jundt noted that few have appreciated Roosevelt’s sensitivity to birdsong. Another omission in the Roosevelt mythology is that few, if any, have considered him a man of emotion. But I think they’re wrong. Roosevelt struggled with fear and grief in equal measure. It’s what brought him to Medora and the Dakota Territory: the deaths of his wife and mother within hours of one another in New York.

For me, the season is different than for Roosevelt, the winter instead of either the spring or summer he described in “The Home Ranch;” nonetheless, the hope I feel on seeing these birds, on hearing twice the call of a robin from the bare limbs of the cottonwoods in the Missouri River bottoms—it’s physical, a stronger heartbeat followed by a surge of warmth I imagine no less therapeutic than the birdcalls Roosevelt heard, named, and described as he sat and rocked on his Elkhorn Ranch veranda. I can’t wait for spring.

Former Theodore Roosevelt National Park superintendent Valerie Naylor once remarked that Roosevelt never expressed what about his badlands experiences helped him heal from his heartache. I wonder, could it have been the birds? Scientists today might say, “Yes, it was.” 

Would Roosevelt have agreed?

Could we credit the birds for his resilience and presidency, for his ability to confess his pain and recover? “From the upper branches of the cottonwood trees overhead,” he wrote, “whose shimmering, tremulous leaves are hardly ever quiet, but if the wind stirs at all, rustle and quaver and sigh all day long, comes every now and then the soft, melancholy cooing of the mourning dove, whose voice always seems far away and expresses more than any other sound in nature the sadness of gentle, hopeless, never-ending grief.” If this mourning dove and other badlands birds did indeed help Roosevelt recover, how can they help us today and in the years to come?

How about you?  What birds do you look for in the spring? We’d like to know!

Here is part 1 of Fred’s essay. 

Fred MacVaugh is a historian, writer, and avid reader in northwest North Dakota. In addition to serving on the board of directors of Williston’s James Memorial Art Center, he works as the museum curator at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. Once a month he conducts a writers group at the MonDak Heritage Center in Sidney, Montana. The views he expresses here are his own and do not reflect those of his employer, the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior.