The music of the uplands
By Chad Love
Recently I sat on my tailgate at a lonely, seldom-traveled county road intersection, listening to the sounds of the grasslands and marveling at the sight of feathered wraiths — silhouetted in the fiery red glow of sunset — skydancing on currents of air and ancient magic.
I had just returned from a long walk on the prairie, and the aerial wonders entertaining me were scissortail flycatchers, Oklahoma’s state bird, freshly arrived from their wintering grounds in central America.
Scissortails are among the first summer migrants to return to the plains. Their breathtaking skyborne antics bring more joy to me with each passing spring as I feel the tug of warming earth, lingering daylight, and thoughts of long, restless walks on a prairie I have all to myself. Just the birds, the sky, and my own thoughts. And, of course, the music.
Because a springtime walk on the prairie is an aural wonder, a concert that requires only the purchase of time and appreciation and memory. Each song that reaches my ear takes me somewhere, as all good music does.
The raucous, indignant chattering of the scissortails as they trace loops in the sky means seasonal beginnings to me, the promise of spring. As a child they fascinated me, and each sighting, each performance, was a lesson in wonder.
The ubiquity of the “dick-dick-ciss-ciss-ciss” call of that most ubiquitous of southern prairie songsters, the dickcissel, was my soundtrack to summer walks through the sandhills of northwestern Oklahoma when I first moved here some 27 years ago. Hearing them makes me feel like a young person again. And there’s not much that can do that anymore.
The “conk-la-ree” of the red-wing blackbirds and the gurgling, warbling scale of the western meadowlark instantly take me back to the muddy banks of countless Oklahoma prairie farm ponds of my youth. Every time I hear their song I am a boy again, chunking a spinnerbait out past the weedline in hopes of one last bass as thunderheads grow in the distance and birds call out in the heavy, anticipatory stillness of a late-May afternoon.
And then there’s the First Among Equals, my totem bird, and all that its signature two-and-sometimes-three-note call means to me, has always meant to me. Everything I love about autumn, indeed everything I love about the world, is a whispered promise heard in the plaintive whistle of a male bobwhite sounding off in the sand-sage. There’s never been a purer, more heartbreakingly gorgeous note played by human instruments.
Magic. All of it. And we all could use a little more magic in our lives, perhaps now more than ever. We live in a strange time. Never have we been so able to so strongly self-brand and project ourselves to the world. Never have we been so capable of existing within a persona, permanently wrapping ourselves in the trappings of our chosen tribe and getting lost in the relentless lifestyle association of social media.
But each of us is more than what we project to the world, and these long, lonely walks listening to what the birds tell me in their music reminds me that I am so much more than the lifestyle I project, and that the landscape of the uplands is so much more than mere background for the pursuit of that lifestyle.
I think we all need a reminder of that sometimes. And a long walk in the murmuring grass of summer is a wonderful truthsayer; Harry Potter’s sorting hat stretched to the horizon before you.
And what it tells me is that as much as I love the celebration of the upland lifestyle — the dogs, the excitement of a covey flush, the road trips, the good times with old friends, the excitement of meeting and hunting with new friends — all those things are just one small movement in a much larger symphony, mere accompanying notes upon the undulating scales of the land itself.
I’ve probably learned as much about being a bird hunter on these non-hunting walks as I have walking behind a dog in the fall.
So this summer, as dreams of autumn still crowd your head, try taking a long lonely, listening walk across your favorite part of the uplands; free of dog, training pistol, or agenda. Hear what the land is saying in its music. If you let it, it’ll teach you a song.
Chad Love is the editor of Quail Forever Journal.