Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Little Brown Songster: A review of Nessmuk's Forest Runes

A few weeks ago I finished reading the book by George Washington Sears (also known as "Nessmuk") called Forest Runes: Poems on Living and Hunting in the Mighty Natural Wilderness of North America.

All in all it was a good read. His content comes from poetic reflections from his time spent in the woods of Tioga and Potter Counties of Pennaylvania, The tropics of Brazil, and the town of Wellsboro, PA.

My personal reflection is that his poems about wild spaces resonate strongly with my own experiences, but I wish he wouldn't have spent so much time on women, politics, and death in other sections of his book. I also disliked his descriptions of small town drama and his negative depictions of church, clergy, and religion in general. But, as human beings we are all unique, and my least favorite parts of Nessmuk's book may be someone else's favorites.

There are several poems that resonate with me more than the others, and at least one that begs a question. The poem I speak of is on page 17, and it's called Sunrise in the Forest.

Sunrise in the Forest
The zephyrs of morning are stirring the larches,
And, lazily lifting, the mist rolls away.
A paean of praise thro' the dim forest arches
Is ringing, to welcome the advent of day.
Is loftily ringing,
Exuberantly ringing,
From the height where a little brown songster is clinging,
The top of a hemlock, the uttermost spray.

The question, as I read that poem is, who is the "little brown songster"?

What little brown bird can be found in the woods of Pennsylvania in the Springtime singing atop a hemlock tree?

Winter wren Nessmuk Lake 10/19/2017
The littlest brown songster of the northern Pennsylvania forest is the winter wren. But the winter wren is a bird that resides in the understory of the forest, perhaps to be found singing atop a branch 5 feet off the ground or on top of a downed log over a creek. I've never seen this tiniest of little brown songsters anywhere near the top of a hemlock tree.

Other little songsters to consider who can regularly be found singing near the treetops are indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, American goldfinch, black-throated-green warbler and black-throated-blue warbler. The problem is, none of them fit the bill of "brown."
Indigo bunting Pine Creek Gorge 5/17/2019

Black-throated-blue warbler Pine Creek Gorge 5/17/2019

As I read through Nessmuk's other poems, the question of the identity of the little brown songster remained; that is, until I came across Nessmuk's poem titled A Summer Night, on page 64.

This particular poem contains the line, "The hermit thrush sings from the topmost spray of fir or hemlock..."

And so, there it is! The likely identity of Nessmuk's "little brown songster" in his poem Sunrise in the Forest is the hermit thrush. The notes of the hermit thrush make for what is arguably one of the most beautiful songs to fill the forest in the Spring and Summer.

Hermit thrush, Ives Run Recreation Area 11/10/2019
I had not thought of the hermit thrush. In my experience, I've known hermit thrushes to be understory dwellers, typically residing between the forest floor where it forages for insects in leaf litter and the mid-story of the forest where it can be found singing, perched on a branch perhaps up to twenty-or-so feet off the ground. That's not to say that a hermit thrush can't be found singing "at the top of a hemlock, the uttermost spray," but to this birder it seems an atypical scenario. But it seems that it is a scenario that Nessmuk enjoyed at least twice during his ventures into the forest.

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