Read Old Man Scanlon

The End of Thrush Season

24 July 2012

Cheryl, to the amusement of our friends, loves to start bemoaning the end of summer as soon as the days first perceptibly begin to shorten, long before Labor Day. This year I'm getting a jump on her. It's only the middle of July, and wood thrushes no longer sing. Until this year, asters abounded before it would dawn on me that I no longer heard the thrush. Somehow, as magical as was that moment in May when I first heard the thrush, I'd never before noted the evanescence of its singing season. I don't really think summer's over, but this cessation is an unwelcome and slightly depressing loss, for which even the upcoming katydid season can't compensate.

The wood thrush puts in long days, vociferous in defense of its patch of my backyard woods. If I'm going to be wakened by a bird at the crack of dawn, there are worse alternatives than the exquisite wood-thrush melody—the dementing monotonous coo of a mourning dove, for example. And when it becomes too dark to read as I sit in my driveway lawn chair, there's nothing for it but to close my book, feed the mosquitoes, and bask in the thrush winding down the dusk.

The shorthand syllables bird guidebooks use to describe thrush song—"ee oh lay"—are of course bizarre and useless unless you've heard the song. The common simile, "flutelike," is equally inadequate. It's okay as far as it goes, but I also detect distinct mellow brass: bells and trumpets. The thrush's voice is clear and straightforward, uncannily melodious; it's pure delight to hear. Use an mp3 if you must, but there's no substitute for the real thing.

Thrush, the word, also delights; we can thank the dictionary gods that our bird did not, chickadee-like, take its name from its song. The English have two lovely synonyms, throstle and mavis, which have failed to thrive on this side of the Atlantic (if indeed they even made it here). Thrush also has at least two apparently unconnected meanings, one, ironically, ugly. It's the vulgar term for candidiasis, a disgusting fungal infection—is there any other kind of fungal infection?—of the mouth and throat. Common in babies, it also appears in diabetics who are way too careless in their control, of which I say no more.

I can never refrain from thinking of the Lone Ranger when I hear the William Tell Overture, thus failing whatshisname's test of an intellectual, and whenever I hear "thrush" I unfailingly dredge up the guilty pleasure of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Certainly not from any abyss of memory—I'd hardly try to suppress my fond recollections of U.N.C.L.E. and its nemesis, the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and Subjugation of Humanity. The acronym is so felicitous in its outrageous utter incongruity. Though it probably won't make the OED, I'm pretty sure the language can bear such a delicious acronym without complaint.