Thursday, November 18, 2010

`That Peculiarly Metallic, Clangorous Sound'

The reed section, eight pieces, heavy on tenor and baritone, tuned up behind us, out of sight, plumbing the comic vision of Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax. A first-grader pointed north and announced: “Ducks!” She meant Canada geese but her sharp-eyed “land-ho!" heartiness confirmed an observation Thoreau made in his journal on Nov. 8, 1857:

“I saw through my window some children looking up and pointing their tiny bows into the heavens, and I knew at once that the geese were in the air. It is always an exciting event. The children, instinctively aware of its importance, rushed into the house to tell their parents. These travelers are revealed to you by the upward-turned gaze of men. And though these undulating lines are melting into the southwestern sky, the sound comes clear and distinct to you as the clank of a chain in a neighboring stithy.”

“Stithy” means an anvil or blacksmith’s forge, and the sound of chain on the smithy’s stithy is surely as distinctive as geese on the wing. They are nature’s aural comedians (rivaled only by frogs and pigs), though rather uncomedically nasty in close encounters. Thoreau admired their raucousness, the geometry of their flight formations and their migratory precision. In an entry from 1859 he refers to the honking of geese as “that peculiarly metallic, clangorous sound.” In the sentences immediately following the passage cited above Thoreau writes:

“So they migrate, not flitting from hedge to hedge, but from latitude to latitude, from State to State, steering boldly out into the ocean of air. It is remarkable how these large objects [adult wingspan: up to 1.7 meters; weight: up to 19.8 pounds], so plain when your vision is rightly directed, may be lost in the sky if you look away for a moment,--as hard to hit as a star with a telescope.”

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