Kathleen Dean Moore
All those years, the Swainson’s thrushes were the first to call in the mornings. Their songs spiraled like mist from the swale to the pink sky. That's when I would take a cup of tea and walk into the meadow. Swallows sat on the highest perches, whispering as they waited for light to stream onto the pond.
For years there were flocks of goldfinches. After my husband and I poisoned the bull-thistles on the far side of the pond, the goldfinches perched in the willows shaking dew from the branches into the pond. The garbage truck backed down the lane, beeping its backup call, making the frogs sing, even in the day.
I don’t know how many frogs there were in the pond then. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Clumps of eggs like eyeballs in aspic. When the eggs hatched, there were tadpoles. I have seen the shallow edge of the pond black with wiggling tadpoles. There were that many, each with a song growing inside it and tiny black legs poking out behind.
In the years when the frog choruses began to fade, scientists said it was a fungus, or maybe bullfrogs were eating the tadpoles. No one knew what to do about the fungus, but people tried to stop the bullfrogs. Standing on the dike, my neighbor shot frogs with a pellet gun, embedding silver BBs in their heads, a dozen holes, until she said how many holes can I make in a frog’s face before it dies? Give me something more powerful. So she took a shotgun and filled the bullfrogs with buckshot until, legs snapped, faces caved in, they slowly sank away. Ravens belled from the top of the oak.
When the bats stopped coming, they said that was a fungus too. When the goldfinches came in pairs, not flocks, we told each other the flocks must be feeding in a neighbor's field. No one could guess where the thrushes had gone. The field was as empty as the perfect emptiness of a bell, the perfectly shaped absence ringing the angelus, the evening song, the call for forgiveness at the end of the day.
As it happened, that was the spring when our granddaughter was born. I brought her to the pond so she could feel the comfort I had known there for so many years. Killdeer waddled in the mud by the shore, but even then, not so many as before. By then, the pond had sunk into its warm, weedy places, leaving an expanse of cracked earth. Ahead of the coming heat, butterflies fed in the mud between the cracks, unrolling their tongues to touch salty soil.
I held my granddaughter in my arms and sang to her then, an old lullaby that made her soften like wax in a flame, molding her little body to my bones. Hush a bye, don’t you cry. Go to sleep you little baby. Birds and the butterflies, fly through the land. I held her close, weighing the chances of the birds and the butterflies. She fell asleep in my arms, unafraid.
I will tell you, I was so afraid.
Poets warned us, writing of the heart-breaking beauty that will remain when there is no heart to break for it. But what if it is worse than that? What if it's the heart-broken children who remain in a world without beauty? How will they find solace in a world without wild music? How will they thrive without green hills edged with oaks? How will they forgive us for letting frog-song slip away? When my granddaughter looks back at me, I will be on my knees, begging her to say I did all I could.
I didn't do all I could have done.
It isn't enough to love a child and wish her well. It isn't enough to open my heart to a bird-graced morning. Can I claim to love a morning, if I don't protect what creates its beauty? Can I claim to love a child, if I don't use all the power of my beating heart to preserve a world that nourishes children's joy? Loving is not a kind of la-de-da. Loving is a sacred trust. To love is to affirm the absolute worth of what you love and to pledge your life to its thriving -- to protect it fiercely and faithfully, for all time.
Ring the angelus for the salmon and the swallows. Ring the bells for frogs floating in bent reeds. Ring the bells for all of us who did not save the songs. Holy Mary mother of god, ring the bells for every sacred emptiness. Let them echo in the silence at the end of the day. Forgiveness is too much to ask. I would pray for only this: that our granddaughter would hear again the little lick of music, that grace note toward the end of a meadowlark’s song.
Meadowlarks. There were meadowlarks. They sang like angels in the morning.
Copyright © 2010, Kathleen Dean Moore. Used by permission of the author. The essay was first printed in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, eds. Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2010).
Kathleen Dean Moore is best known for her award-winning books about our cultural and spiritual connection to wet, wild places - Riverwalking, Holdfast, The Pine Island Paradox, and her new book, Wild Comfort. Most recently, Moore, co-editor of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, has been speaking and writing about the moral imperative to act on climate change. She is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University and the founding director of the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word.