Listening to the birds and remembering a friend

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sparrows

I am sitting on the front porch of my tiny writing shack. The wind is blowing hard today, but still holds so much sweetness. You can tell it’s autumn, but summer isn’t long past. There are birds and bees (and, less romantic, wasps) buzzing and fluttering through the gold and green leaves overhead. There are robins, wrens, all manner of finches and sparrows and a pair of brown thrashers that have been summering in the windbreak this year. They seem to be everywhere all at once.

A quick Google search earlier in the season informed me that brown thrashers are “inconspicuous” birds, but that has not been my experience. These particular ones seem to love my tiny house, and I often hear one or both clattering on the tin roof or spot one that’s landed on a nearby elm peering at me through an open window. Their irises are ringed with yellow, making them appear unusually alert and wide-eyed; I find their stare disconcerting.

They also have extraordinarily loud and varied singing voices. The male brown thrasher may have the largest song repertoire of any North American bird. Some sources state that each individual has upwards of 3,000 song phrases. Like the endlessly imitative catbird, they often sound like many different birds, and their music floods the tree belt and rivals the wind with its veracity.

This weekend marked the one-year anniversary of the sudden passing of my friend and collaborator Kevin Locke, the night before we were to perform together in the Black Hills. When he came to the ranch for a rehearsal in early summer, we sat on this same porch listening to a virtuosic performance of a brown thrasher, and Kevin commented, laughing, “I’ve stolen some of my best songs from birds.”

Kevin was an accomplished player of the North American Indigenous Flute. In fact, he was — pun intended — instrumental in getting it declared South Dakota’s state instrument.

We joked that day, as he played a love song written hundreds of years ago by folks who hunted and camped in the river breaks by our ranch, that the birds were probably happy to hear the old tune again. It was the first time it occurred to me that if humans were influenced by the music of the birds, why wouldn’t the birds be influenced by the music of the humans? I’m always listening to them, why would I assume they weren’t also listening to me?

Kevin traveled relentlessly as a performer and educator. He’d played a show in our tiny town on the prairie the day before, and then our mutual friend and fellow musician Chuck Suchy came to chat and rehearse. I wasn’t sure when we’d all be able to get together next, so I set up my recording equipment on the porch, hoping that would give us something to listen back to and practice.

As it happened, we booked the aforementioned show soon after, so I sent both men clips from the recording as we planned our setlist, of course not realizing that we would never get to play those songs again.

Sitting on the porch today, listening to the birds, I pulled out my computer and turned the volume up. The speakers are cheap and sound tinny, the recording very obviously rudimentary, but Kevin’s flute still sounded beautiful. The birds in the trees grew quiet — even the brown thrashers — as the stark melody swirled up and into the rustling leaves.

Losing him still feels crushing at times, but Kevin’s music and spirit live on in memory of the students he taught, the audience members whose lives he enriched, and I would like to think the birds, who circle above the grassy plains he loved so well, letting the wind hold them as they sing.

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Eliza Blue is a shepherd, folk musician and writer residing in western South Dakota. In addition to writing her weekly column, Little Pasture on the Prairie, she writes and produces audio postcards from her ranch and just released her first book, Accidental Rancher. She also has a weekly show, Live from the Home Farm, that broadcasts on social media every Saturday night from her ranch.

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