As I approach the spot which I now visit weekly, I see that the nor’easter that blew through Delaware earlier this week had knocked over several trees whose tangled branches, like a rusty and intricate wrought-iron fence, now block my way to the riverbank. I carefully maneuver around the branches and as I look down to mind my step, I notice the first signs of spring: short, green grass growing by the side of the trail. As I clamber onto the fallen tree by the water, sitting on which is beginning to feel comfortable after a month, I notice patches of green along the edges of the river as well, vivid against its brown backdrop.
I close my eyes in hopes of hearing (and maybe even identifying!) the quiet hum of birdsong that I now know is often masked by the sound of the swirling waves of the river. But as I sit there I realize I could hear no birdsong. Was it because I had come in the afternoon as opposed to the morning? Or because it was colder again after several days of warmer weather?
Instead of birdsong I hear the percussive, rhythmic noises of man. A pickup truck pulls into the parking lot. Two doors open and slam shut. A jogger runs down the trail behind me. Then another. And another. Perhaps the most deafening of these sounds is some sort of airplane or helicopter that keeps flying through the area. Its monotonous drone, dissonant when played alongside the varied, delicate chords of the river is deafening. It is as if the soft song of the river is being held hostage by a broken organ, loud and out of tune.
Just as I sat in White Clay listening to the music of the river, so too did I sit in the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh earlier this week listening to one of the best choirs in the Northeastern US recite Sara Teasdale’s poem, “There Will Come Soft Rains.” The singers’ voices echoed in the reverberant sanctuary and bounced off the stained glass as they spoke the words: “Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree/If mankind perished utterly;/And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,/Would scarcely know that we were gone.” At the same time I thought back to The Sixth Extinction. If there were suddenly no more people on Earth, would Spring know that we were gone? Would she realize it if she woke up to a world devoid of the grinding, mechanical sounds and the toxic chemicals we cover this planet in? Would she notice if the climate began to stabilize and wild habitat began to regrow? If we are the scourge upon this planet that Kolbert claims were are, then Spring would certainly see the change as she awakens to a much healthier, more bountiful Earth.
A brilliant streak of blue flashes before my eyes, snapping me back to reality. A blue jay sails over the water without making a sound. As quickly as it appeared, it vanishes behind a bridge further upstream. I plug back into my surroundings and watch the breeze rustle the thin branches around me, making them look like long fingers, waving me on my way. For how long must I continue coming to this spot to no longer feel like a stranger in these woods? For these spindly hands to embrace my homecoming, not point me back from whence I came? Am I a stranger, a parasite, a scourge that must be defended against? Am I the man-made drone of machinery, the single note that makes the chord dissonant? For now it is certainly possible. I hope that discovering more about the community I have been visiting for the past month will allow me to harmonize with the river, with the birdsong, and with the wind. That my song can seamlessly intertwine with the others and remain strong without overpowering them or taking from them.