Silent Summer

Every year as spring rounds the corner to summer we look forward to the return of the chuck-will’s-
Photo credit: Melissa McMasters, license link. 
widow. It’s a humble beauty of a bird in the nightjar family, cousin to the whippoorwill. I’ve only ever seen one once, its eye caught in my headlights on the driveway, the low silhouette unmistakable. But we hear their beautiful song, well-described by the Audubon guide as a “rich, throaty chant”, at dusk and dawn throughout the summer. My husband Jeremy has heard them his whole life on this land where he grew up and where we now make our home, and I fell in love with them when I moved here twelve years ago. Chuck-will’s-widows, in our forest in the summer, are as much a part of the evening as the sun setting, as the fireflies, as the bats darting against the darkening sky. 

But this year, they have not come. It’s been a cool, wet spring, so at first we assumed they were just delayed. With fall nearly here, though, and they still haven’t come, filling the evening air with their call, we know it’s not a delay--for the first time in at least 35 years, the length of our knowledge of these acres, they’re not here. 

We live on a few acres in the Boston Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. It’s mostly wooded. The only open spaces on our land are a few pieces of garden we’ve carved out of the overly dense oak-hickory-cedar forest. Our land is down in a holler, bordered on one side by a beautiful creek. The creek flows through a channel carved into layered limestone bedrock that gently waves on either side. I grew up in Vermont, where creeks are lined with glacial cobble, so this flat bedrock was a revelation, just begging for people to picnic, do yoga, or sleep creekside. 

The bedrock wasn’t the only thing that was different. The birdsong that filled the forest was, like the forest itself, similar but different. Bluejays and cardinals chatter in both places, but the wrens and chickadees are different species, and the chuck-will’s-widow are entirely of these woods--I’ve never heard anything like it in the North. When I first moved here, before the exhaustion of parenthood took over our evening hours, we used to sit out on the porch late into the night listening to all the summer sounds. The “rich, throaty chant” worked a spell on me, wove me into the fabric of this place.

There is no way to know for sure why the chuck-will’s-widow haven’t come back this year, or even if this is a permanent absence. I have guessed at causes. The unprecedented flooding we’ve had in Arkansas this spring? Or maybe the insect apocalypse has make their food supply too scarce, and their populations fell. We cut a few trees down around our place, maybe that disturbed them? I doubt that had an impact, though. We log deliberately, are still surrounded by plenty of forest. Maybe as ground-nesting birds, their populations have been decimated by feral or pet cats. Or maybe something else entirely. Glyphosate? Dicamba? Climate change affecting their life cycle and migration patterns? Urbanization? Deforestation? Disease? There’s no real way to know, I suppose. If I were forced to guess, I would say it’s probably all of the above. 

Their absence feels ominous. A painful symptom of an even greater imbalance. The best analogy I can think of to explain just how this loss feels to me is this: imagine your mother suddenly lost the ability to sing that one song that always comforted you. Maybe she can even still sing other songs (the chickadees and jays are still chattering away here, after all), but the one song that always put you to sleep or comforted your spirits when you were sad has gone silent. She opens her mouth and, startlingly, nothing comes out. And it’s not just the particular, beautiful melody that is gone, it’s what is held in that melody--security, love, protection, constancy--that’s what hurts the most to lose. 

Our world is full of these losses right now--other songs in other landscapes going silent. Whether you are in Northwest Arkansas, the Northwest Territories, or any other place on earth, things are changing. It feels like we’re losing our bearings. We’re grieving, but we don’t quite know yet how much to grieve. Are the chuck-will’s-widow gone for good? Will they be back next year? Did they go somewhere else, or are they becoming critically endangered? With so many unanswered questions like this it is nearly impossible to grieve, and we’re left in the doldrums of an emotional no-man’s-land. 

The term “ambiguous loss” feels relevant here. This term, created by Pauline Boss, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, refers to a loss that is somehow a partial one--for example, a soldier missing in action, or a family member suffering from dementia, physically present but mentally gone. In an interview with Krista Tippett of On Being, Pauline Boss describes our culture’s discomfort with ambiguous loss: “We come from culture in this country of, I think, mastery orientation. We like to solve problems. We’re not comfortable with unanswered questions, and [ambiguous loss] is full of unanswered questions. These are losses that are minus facts. Somebody’s gone. You don’t know where they are…. That kind of mystery, I think, gives us a feeling of helplessness that we’re very uncomfortable with as a society.”

All the blows that a changing climate is striking against our communities are creating a sense of loss, but losses surrounded by unknowns. No one knows if these are permanent changes or just temporary ones. Maybe the hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, heat waves, and melting glaciers won’t really be so extreme going forward, maybe this is just a fluke. Maybe it will go back to the way it was before. We want it to be a fluke. But maybe it isn't. Maybe the chuck-will’s-widow song won’t ever be a part of my children’s summer lullaby. It’s an ongoing, unclear grief.

It is hard not to despair over these problems that break our hearts daily. They seem so big and beyond our control, while also amorphous and lacking any grounding in graspable facts. But we need to find a way to keep moving forward, to keep striving. Boss has observed that a solution to ambiguous loss can be found outside the traditional Western way of thinking. In the same interview with Krista Tippett, Boss says, “I think it might be a more Eastern way of thinking… The only way to live with ambiguous loss is to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. These are some examples: With the physically missing, people might say, “He’s gone, he’s probably dead, and maybe not,” or “He may be coming back, but maybe not.” Those kinds of thinking are common, and it is the only way that people can lower the stress of living with the ambiguity. Children learn it rapidly, and even adults learn it. It doesn’t take too long. It is not part of our culture, however. We like finite answers. You’re either dead or you’re alive. You’re either here or you’re gone…. To say either/or, to think in a more binary way — he’s dead or he’s alive, you’re either here or you’re gone — that would involve some denial and lack of truth. So the only truth is that middle way of “he may be coming back and maybe not.””

In order to overcome despair over the incomprehensible, formidable changes that present themselves again and again, we have to learn to think in this binary way. If I think, “the chuck-will’s-widow may be gone for good, or they may come back,” I feel like I’m being truly honest--not optimistic or pessimistic, just acknowledging both outcomes as possible. Instead of leaving me despondent, this practice makes me feel driven. I can take heart and keep working to build healthy, thriving landscapes, making way for a future where the dusky chant of the chuck-will’s-widow has a better chance of filling our summer woods once more.


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