Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Question #13

Our next question is:

Why did you pick a wood thrush anyway?

It's funny, I hadn't thought about this detail in so long! I have been writing about the wood thrush for several different stories, and it seems like such a natural part of the narrative to me now. But you're right, when I stop to think of it, it does seem an odd choice.

But there was a reason for the wood thrush, albeit, not a literary one. My final year of college, I took an ornithology class. More than half of the class was focused on bird song identification. By the end of the semester, I could identify by sound alone any number of North American birds. I was a hoot-and-a-half on a hike, let me tell you!

Sadly, however, the knowledge stuck with me long enough to earn me top marks on final exams . . . and then fled with the wind. This tends to be how my mind works. Stored bits of knowledge get treated about the same way as the clothing in my closet: If I haven't worn it in a year, it must go.

Anything that pertains to my writing in some form or another sticks in my brain. I can quote the poetry of Tennyson, Browning, and Carroll, tell you the names of the primary earls who supported Harold of Essex when the Normans crossed the Channel, ramble on about various concepts of literary theory, and bore you to tears with babble on theological topics like predestination, penal substitution, etc. etc. Because, through some twisted method or another, I can see how they relate to my work.

Algebra . . . pffft. Geometry . . . glkkk.

Alas, birdsong identification, romantic a concept as it may be, was not something I used. Within a week, I'd forgotten almost all of them.

Except one.

The song call of the humble wood thrush is, to me, the most beautiful birdsong known to man. I know plenty would argue in favor of the nightingale (you know, the one who Sang in Berkley Square?) or the whippoorwill or the multi-talented mockingbird. Talents all three, I will grant you.

None them hold a candle to the wood thrush.

So I never forgot that song, even when the rest of the bird calls went the way of geometric theorems.

I began writing Heartless in its short fairy tale form directly after moving into my first apartment post-college. This apartment was right next to a beautiful wooded park, and when I left my bedroom window open, I would often find myself serenaded by any number of birds.

The story of Heartless was a dark one, even in that initial drafting. I didn't know at that time where it would end, what would become of my poor, foolish little heroine. I was experiencing a "dark time of the soul" myself, and pouring a lot of my frustration into the turmoil between Una and the Dragon. And I wasn't sure there could be an escape for either of us.

But then I heard through my window the song of the wood thrush. And it was like water to my soul, hearing that lovely voice I recognized. Suddenly, the themes of Heartless took solid form in my mind. Before I had yet written a word about steadfast Prince Aethelbald, I wrote about the wood thrush, singing to Una even in the midst of all that dark smoke that clouded her heart and confused her thoughts.

This is what I wrote originally after hearing that song through my window:

Long days and longer nights, the princess lay on the stone floor at the top of her tower, cut off from all she loved. Dragon smoke rose up around her, clouding her vision, and a layer of black ash covered her face and hands until she was hardly recognizable. Her wide eyes, staring out from the filth, were those of a phantom.

Yet every morning as the sun rose, its beams could pierce the dragon-gloom and shine in a small pool on the princess’s floor for a few brief moments. She would crawl to it and sit with her blackened face raised to the light, and tears would flow down her cheeks. With her tears, she could wipe away some of the grime, though never enough to see her full face again. And as she sat there, weeping, the silver song of a wood thrush flowed down the ribbon of light and touched her heart. While she listened, she would forget herself in the beauty of that song.

This scene, though altered, found its way into the final draft of Heartless as well. That moment of beauty and clarity carried through darkness by a simple bird's song was something I wanted to communicate. So the wood thrush became a symbol of the Holy Spirit, carrying peace and whispering truth, even when everything else around screams despair and lies.

I am not the only one to have been moved the bell-like song of the wood thrush either. This is what Henry David Thoreau had to say about the wood thrush:

"Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him."

I think that is what Una felt when she heard the wood thrush. It took her some time to begin to truly understand. But she heard the voice again and again, and she slowly grew, she slowly learned. When she heard that voice, she knew the Dragon could not overpower her.

And that, dear readers, why I picked a wood thrush!

"The leaves through which the glad winds blew
Shared the wild dance the waters knew;
And where the shadows deepest fell
The wood-thrush rang his silver bell."

 John Greenleaf Whittier
The Seeking of the Waterfall


Abigail Hartman said...

You're right - the wood thrush's song is beautiful. It sounds like running water, if that makes sense, and I think it fits perfectly with your stories. I used to be obsessed with the idea of becoming an ornithologist, and I loved identifying birds and their calls; unfortunately, like you, I've forgotten most of the knowledge I culled together!

Bother it, I can't wait for Heartless to arrive.

Jenny Freitag said...

I am positive that in the BBC Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when it comes to be spring in Narnia after countless years of winter, it is the wood-thrush's song that heralds it in. I know that voice, though I couldn't put a name to it before. I grew up watching that film, and now the wood-thrush has always meant spring to me(as Thoreau pointed out) and loveliness and freedom of spirit. It means that Aslan is on the move. It bottles up and spills out all that childhood magic and spins it in the air.

No wonder you chose it. It is perfect.

Elf said...

I almost forgot about that part in your book. I remember reading it and thinking about how beautiful it was.
I just finished drawing a really cool picture of a dragon. It turned out really nice. You should read Bryan Davis' 'Dragons in Our Midst', 'Oracles of Fire', and 'Dragons of Starlight' books. They are really good.

Anonymous said...

Christa here!
I always wanted to know why you picked a wood thrush to represent the Holy Spirit, so thanks for your answer!
Wood thrushes are such cute, little birds and their song does have a silver ring to it!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. You made your Holy Spirit type something you loved. And earlier today, when I read the bit about the wood thrust being your representation of the Holy Spirit, I thought "oh wait my novel is missing that!" and immediately a red fox came into my mind. Why? I asked my mind, and the answer was that because once, as a very young girl living in a tiny village deep in the forest of northern Ontario, I looked out my bedroom window to see a fox with his nose pressed to the window. It was very dark but there was full moon, and the snow was even with my windowsill, and the fox stared straight at me and then suddenly turned tail and ran. The first mystical magical experience I had.