“The Night Side of the Woods”: Thoreau’s Whip-poor-will

For Henry David Thoreau, a Whip-poor-will’s call conjured a world we were already losing.

Prior to the 1950s, Americans interpreted the spring arrival of Whip-poor-wills as a sign and not always a welcome one. The birds foretold life and love, yes, but also illness and death. Those more dependent on the earth found something else: a message about impending frosts, storms, and ripened fruits.

After World War II, the Whip-poor-wills had all but disappeared from American consciousness. Sure, we saw a dramatic increase in roads, farms, clubs, and camps named after the bird. But the real thing? It called from ever decreasing patches of woods, often out of earshot of an increasingly indoor and alienated human species.

That is one story of how Whip-poor-wills came to inhabit only the wild edges of America. Another begins earlier by a century or more.

Tuesday, June 10, 1851, was “a beautiful summer night, not too warm, moon not quite full, after two or three rainy days.” The writer of these words, Henry David Thoreau, used the evening to walk to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, by railroad.

As he walked, he found himself farther from towns and his worry that “there would be too much white light, like the pale remains of daylight” on his walk. But he walked deeper into the night and, he writes simply, “it was better.” He encountered Whip-poor-wills and fireflies in meadows, and Nighthawks booming late in the evening.

Deeper into the night, Thoreau encountered fireflies and Whip-poor-wills in a meadow.
Photo by Tony Phan on Unsplash

Thoreau recognized the latter is a rare occurrence, indeed, writing,

I hear the nighthawks uttering their squeaking notes high in the air now at nine o’clock p. m., and occasionally—what I do not remember to have heard so late—their booming note.

Nighthawks are active at twilight; crepuscular birds, these are. It is a truism of their species accounts that they are very rarely active at night and, when they are, it’s usually to hunt insects drawn to artificial light. Perhaps Thoreau misjudged the time? Or perhaps the Nighthawks had been forced down the previous “two or three days” of rain and were making up for lost time.

As for the Whip-poor-wills, Thoreau recognized a broader story in their song. Here was not just natural history, but human history and culture.

The whip-poor-will suggests how wide asunder [are] the woods and the town. Its note is very rarely heard by those who live on the street, and then it is thought to be of ill omen. Only the dwellers on the outskirts of the village hear it occasionally. It sometimes comes into their yards. But go into the woods in a warm night at this season, and it is the prevailing sound. I hear now five or six at once. It is no more of ill omen therefore here than the night and the moonlight are. It is a bird not only of the woods, but of the night side of the woods.

Off hand, Thoreau suggests a tantalizing hypothesis: that the folklore and superstition surrounding the birds matured as everyday encounters with the real birds decreased. Americans once had an intimacy and knowledge of Nightjars born from familiarity. Thoreau is suggesting that, absent this, an unease and anxiety with the night side of things crept in.

In the next passage of his journal, Thoreau further recognized that the aural life of America was rapidly changing: “New beings have usurped the air we breathe, rounding Nature, filling her crevices with sound.”

I’m struck by an irony, as I type this, that I have written this entry with headphones on, a decade-old album filling Nature’s crevices with sound. Outside, this winter, are finches and sparrows, the rustle of towhees in the chokecherry thicket that edges my yard, and somewhere the trill of waxwings.

So to Thoreau’s words, return: “To sleep where you may hear the whip-poor-will in your dreams!”

The Birds of Thomas Jefferson’s Garden

Did Whip-poor-wills arrive with strawberries and peas? Thomas Jefferson thought so.

There was — and still is — an extensive garden on the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The gardens and their innovations are often celebrated as living legacies of the man himself. Of course, the truth is far more complex. African and African-American slaves constructed the gardens, worked them, and maintained their own at Monticello. For his part, Jefferson maintained detailed records of the plants grown in the garden. As can be seen in a letter he wrote to his daughter Maria in June 1790, he also kept records of the signs surrounding his plants. Some of these signs involved birds, including Whip-poor-wills.

We had not peas nor strawberries here till the 8th. day of this month. On the same day I heard the first Whip-poor-will whistle. Swallows and martins appeared here on the 21st. of April. When did they appear with you? And when had you peas, strawberries, and whip-poor-wills in Virginia? Take notice hereafter whether the whip-poor-wills always come with the strawberries and peas. 

As the letter was written in June (likely from Pennsylvania, where he lived in 1790), it would seem Jefferson heard his first Whip-poor-will rather late that year. (A half century later, Thoreau recorded calling Whip-poor-wills in Massachusetts in the first week of May.) One wonders if Jefferson wasn’t much of a birder — or if perhaps the ripening of strawberries and peas brought him outdoors, sharpened his senses, and caused him to start taking notice of the other signs of the season around him.

Maria, for her part, was too busy to note the Whip-poor-wills. In her reply to her father, she wrote,

As for the martins swallows and whippoorwills I was so taken up with my chickens that I never attended to them and therefore cannot tell you when they came…

Martin photographed by Miki Jourdan

It seems that Maria was too busy for many things. Several of Thomas’s letters of the time admonished Maria for her lack of responses. For every two or three or four letters Thomas write, Maria might offer a single one in return. The future president never missed an opportunity to remind Maria of this. He opened his June letter with these cringe-inducing words.

I have recieved your letter of May 23. which was in answer to mine of May 2. but I wrote you also on the 23d. of May, so that you still owe me an answer to that, which I hope is now on the road. In matters of correspondence as well as of money you must never be in debt.

Featured Photo by Oliver Hale on Unsplash

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