I opened the screen door at 5:15 AM this morning to let Calli outdoors. I followed her out onto the front porch and watched her trot down the stairs and disappear into the darkness. The sun is rising earlier these days, but some early morning clouds kept the pre-dawn glow at bay. The air was still and mild (our morning low was 53 degrees) and the subtle sounds of the night were still drifting softly across the featureless shadowed landscape. Suddenly, I became aware of the gentle, whistling call of a whip-poor-will echoing somewhere in the distance. Its light and haunting call felt as reassuring as it did lonely—a solitary plaintive mating call drifting through the vast, empty void.
No other bird call reminds me so strongly of my rural farm childhood in the Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire. I remember hearing them frequently during my many night-time moonlight wanderings in the woods that surrounded our farm. Their calls were especially strong in the small hilltop cemetery across the road from our farm. As the designated daily keepers of the entrance gate, it was our duty to stroll up to the cemetery after sunset to make sure everyone had left before locking it for the night. It was there that I would often hear them welcome the descending nightfall. My adoptive Grandmother would often say that whip-poor-wills could guide the spirits of the recently deceased into heaven—a thought that crossed my mind on many of those trips.
Being a resident of the deep woods, I never heard a whip-poor-will in the few cities in which I eventually lived during my college years. By the time I returned to the rural areas of the Appalachian Mountains, their song had become rare. Often classified as a “nightjar,” the whip-poor-will is a seasonal resident of the eastern mountains where it returns each spring to reproduce. Although well camouflaged for the woods, they tend to build their nests on the ground, making them vulnerable to many intentional and unintentional threats—which is why they choose to nest in deep, uninhabited forests. Their night-time calls are an unmistakable hallmark of true rural areas, and their losses in my northern New England homeland are clear evidence of its transition away from its (and my own) rural heritage. I find it very reaffirming to routinely hear them again in our chosen retirement home here in West Virginia.
There are many sights and sounds that can send our minds on pleasant voyages into the distant past, but few of them to me are stronger than the call of whip-poor-wills floating in the night air. Their persistent calls probing the darkness for a response are one of the treasures I appreciate most about our life here at Peeper Pond Farm. I can think of no better guide for my own spirit, whether living or deceased. Once again, I am home.