Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Walking Alone on Ascension Day

Sitting alone on a trailside bench, I look up at Bullard Mountain. The peak, haloed by dense white cloud, reminds me of long ago Sunday morning images of the Tower of Babel, and so many foolish workers toiling toward heaven only to have their tongues twisted into confusion by a God not yet ready for their company, and unappreciative of their labors.

Here and there, below the cloud veil, small patches of snow, vestiges of a season past, hunker in the muted sunlight against gray, lichen-patched rock. When one of the small snow pockets moves, I train my binoculars on a mountain goat slowly browsing its way up the nearly vertical face. A quick scan reveals six more snow goats.

As they approach the clouds, I imagine the thundering voice of an Old Testament goat god expressing his displeasure at their ascent, stealing their goat voices.

Such a story seems on the surface as unbelievable as the biblical origin of the world’s languages, until you listen to a mountain goat. Their soft, seldom-used voice belies the common name of these animals who, despite their appearance, are as closely related to antelopes as they are goats, and sound nothing like the baa every child knows.

The story must go something like this: An ancient mountain goat haughtily ascends the highest Yukon mountain, bound hopefully for heaven. Near the top, he is intercepted by a vengeful goat god, horns tangled into a fiery bush, thunderously bleating. The arrogant goat, unwilling to turn back, has his tongue stolen, his bleat muted, his very “goatness” lost. Surely the story must end with the the poor, misunderstood, voiceless animal forever wandering below the clouds, condemned to eat lichen in silence, never to finish his climb to the verdant pastures above.

Two thousand feet below the scrabbling goats, a dense young spruce forest bathes in the moist shadow of the mountain. From somewhere low in the dark canopy, a clear piercing voice spirals upward, dances over the treetops, and rings across the valley. A twisting, flutelike song that would be the envy of any vocally-impaired goat, stirs the air, rising in pitch until the final bright note hangs in the listening ear like the echo of a far off sleigh bell.

No Swainson’s thrush, real or mythical, need worry the fate of the vain mountain goat, for he is more the hermit than even his cousin who bears that monicker. Even as the Swainson’s melody fades into the heaven, he remains coy, hidden beneath the filling spring foliage. Were we to write a myth about this little bird, it would surely be a tale of an unassuming angel thrush granted a place in the Thrush Lord’s choir… if only he could be found.

This, perhaps: …and the angels of the Thrush Lord wandered the wilderness forty days and forty nights, awakened each morning by that singular celestial voice worthy of the right hand of the choir director. Yea, though they search through the valley of the spruce, they find no singer, returning to their mossy pillows each night no closer to cinderella than they began.

Of course we know it was not a mythical god, but a French zoologist who gave the mountain goat his strange binomial designation, and as for the Swainson’s thrush, well… I don’t know. You tell me from whence Freddie Mercury’s gift came, and I will tell you where the angel of the undergrowth found his tongue.

Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville, a rejector of evolution, was a believer in scala naturae, or “Ladder of Being”—a medieval hierarchical structure containing all living things. When he labeled the horned American mountain climber “Oreamnos,” or “mountain lamb,” he believed he was only giving language to an order decreed by the Almighty, even if he had no idea where in that order these animals belong.

But it is not only the mountain goat who is misunderstood.

When Walt Whitman penned “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, an elegy for his beloved slain president, he spake thus of a singing thrush:

In the swamp, in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Even as I listen to the hiding angel Swainson’s, a hermit thrush darts from the edge of the canopy, ending the short life of a translucent, fluttering spring white moth rising unaware from the bright, fresh leaves of grass. The hermit likes to hide in the edges, but one must only sit a spell to see him emerge and return, to and from the shadows, hunting insects on both bud and wing. If he is a hermit, he is not very good one.

I will give the great poet this much, though, the “sweet” and “purty” descending song of the hermit thrush is more perfect a dirge than any composer could have written for the fallen Lincoln. But for the rising spirit, there is no song more enchanting than that of the Swainson’s thrush—the steadfast hermit, and the very inspiration for God’s own choir.

Moses tells us in Genesis that God left it to Adam to name the animals, so I suppose any mountain goat or thrush nomenclature confusion should lie at the feet of a man… who created a god… who told the man… to name the animals…

As I sit on my bench, chilled by a glacial breeze, my head swimming with thoughts of rising beast and voice, one of the mountain goats disappears beneath the shrouding mist, serenaded into the heavens by the soaring song of an angel choir of one—three unknown wanderers, are we, walking alone on Ascension Day.

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