Vocabulary Lessons

Some housekeeping first:

This is a new newsletter by Haley E.D. Houseman, full of nature writing. If you signed up for a previous incarnation of my work, please feel free to unsubscribe, no hard feelings! Thanks for your support, always, whenever.


This morning when we left the house the air was the dead kind of silent that I dread. The sun was ribbed over with clouds as it rose, lighting up the dark skeletons of trees. For a span of 10 yards or so down the front walk, the silence was deafening. Then I heard the smallest voices with the very back of my ears, and then it all flooded in: whistles, trills, screamsongs. When the woodpecker drilled, I let out a lungful of air.

Some too-quiet winter mornings never break into a chorus, and the sense of unease follows me around all day. And there are days I admit that I am too preoccupied to listen particularly well. But for most, I say good morning to the jays and chickadees as the dog and I barrel out the door. I spend a lot of time breaking my own heart imagining a future without them as we walk in circles around the neighborhood.

When a whole flock does appear, it’s unusual enough that we stop and stare, the pup’s nose in the air. He’s not much interested in them as snack, but seems to like to watch the birds fly all the same. A real murmuration lifting off above the trees feels like a benediction. It’s a strain to remember regular and unremarkable flocks of birds, though I know they were common when I was small, like the thick buzz of insects on a summer night, or winters that snowed from November to March. There are days even in the winter where the sparrows explode from from the lilac shrubbery with an angry chorus. Those are my favorites, even if it’s blustery and gloomy, as it is today. 

Every interaction I have with the natural world is marked now with a remembering, a nostalgic tinge of what is already gone. If you aren’t familiar with the word “solastalgia,” you will be soon. My phone’s dictionary doesn’t recognize it, but it’s already permeated my perception of nature, and colored how I approach writing about the environment. The word is loosely defined as “the distress caused by environmental change,” and encompasses both the cataclysm of a wildfire and the slow disappearance of the reliable pattern of the seasons.

If you live in the northeast, as I do, the past two weeks have included snow, rain, ice, below zero temperatures and at least one mild, 60 degree day. The unease you feel in a t-shirt in February has a name. Now I just need a name for mourning the bugs and the birds and the deer, a name for the unshareable and enormous loneliness of living in a world with fewer non-human compatriots. 

The potential of a sweeping silence is the most unnerving thing to me, though there are plenty of other dire consequences to fret about. I can fill my apartment with plants, but I can’t invite the trees and their inhabitants inside as a helpful measure. My bird feeder only goes so far. And sometimes I wonder if other people can feel the beating heart of the alive things outside our windows, or if that feeling is just in my head, that alive and connected sense of community. 

This feels like a dire start to the Morning Report, but it’s important to me to speak plainly about why I tweet those observations as I walk. This is the conversation lives between the lines when I am celebrating the squabbling jays and fancy cardinals. It’s all very tender and earnest, I can’t help it. And it makes no sense to not own it, especially not now, when even the dirt feels so important and fragile. There will be other future dispatches full of seed planting and fresh green things. I hope you’ll hang out and enjoy them with me and the birds.

xH