Joseph Bottum, in mourning for peace
Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
I woke this morning to the gentle coo of a mourning dove on my windowsill. The gentle coo, the mellifluous murmur. You know that sound—mourning doves are everywhere in this country, over three hundred million of them across North America, calling out their woo-OO-oo-oo-oo in wistful sorrow at . . . well, actually, I don’t know at what. Their lost loves? Their absent parents? The sad condition of this fallen world? Their failure to pass high school chemistry, which cost them that good job with a pharmaceutical company? Something, in any event, has got them down, all the endless flocks of them, and sometime over the last million years they decided to let the rest of us know about it.
You’d think the melancholy would have gotten a little old, even a little repetitive, over the geological eons, but my local dove seems to have added his own innovation, his own artistic interpretation, just to mix it up a little and keep the weltschmerz fresh. Woo-OO-oo, he reports, as though that’s all he has to say on the subject. And then, just when you’ve settled back in surprise to contemplate the truncated message, he adds the heartfelt coda oo-oo that brings the whole thing home to its classic conclusion—the arrhythmic pauses in his song just long enough that, like a victim of Chinese water torture, the listener never gets used to the hesitation. Beethoven couldn’t have done as much with the material.
For that matter, my local dove—but why should we leave him nameless? This is no shy figure, hiding from his due fame, but a proud artist actively seeking an audience, and I’m hoping a blast of publicity will help get him bookings in any number of distant towns. On your windowsill, perhaps? He could use the work.
Anyway, Merle—as I call him, for no particular reason except maybe the surprising resemblance to Merle Oberon he lacks—has been performing for me at 5:30 every morning the last two weeks. Woo-OO-oo-[aggravatingly irregular pause]-oo-oo, he shouts in greeting to the new day. Woo-OO-oo-[aggravatingly irregular pause]-oo-oo, he adds several dozen times, in case I missed it.
Enjoying his dawn visit as always, I offered him a book from the nightstand with a courteous overhand gesture, thinking he might like something to read while he took a break from his exertions this morning. But, no, Merle turns out not to be much of a reader. He declined to be interrupted by the book, yesterday’s newspaper, or even the latest issue of the New Criterion, lightly tossed across the room.
The pillow with which I followed them, however, did attract his attention as it banged against the window screen. With the welcome variation of an alarmed roo-oo, he fled in an explosive flutter and left me in peace. For a while.
In National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America, a 500-page doorstop of a book I unfortunately didn’t throw at Merle, Jonathan Alderfer reports that the wing whistle of mourning doves is much louder and more noticeable at take-off and landing than in flight. I was just falling back into a pillowless sleep when Merle returned. And brought with him three of his friends, whistling in to perch on the branches of the nearby cedar tree. As I discovered, Alderfer is right about the wing noise of mourning doves being more noticeable at landing. Either that, or a flock of angry helicopters decided to set down outside my window this morning.
Woo-OO-oo-[pause]-oo-oo, Merle sang again. Ork, his chorus of friends inharmoniously replied in surprise—before beginning their own, more conventional version of the mourning dove’s dawn lament, over and over, as though to remind him that change is always dangerous, and a million-year tradition of interrupting sleep is not be set aside lightly. I wonder what the Neanderthals thought, flinging early morning rocks and saber-toothed tiger bones at Merle’s ancestors from inside their caves. If I’d had a shotgun at hand, there would have been dove stew for lunch.
But I didn’t, so with a morning prayer of sorts, I rose, made myself a cup of coffee, and went out to sit on the front porch, trying to enjoy the day’s beginning. The dawn was bright and rosy-fingered. Merle and his companions at last gave up and drifted off down the hill toward the rest of town, allowing the early quiet to settle in. A beautiful, restful calm. A foretaste of heaven, presaging God’s great peace. Until—but don’t even get me started on the woodpecker.
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