On a blindingly bright late winter day, I am standing on a little used country road with my grandmother. I am nine. She has deliberately driven us out here for reasons I do not know, and now we are standing together, my hand in hers, and she is listening. It is windy and I am cold, and I start to speak. She shushes me. She is leaning into the frosty air; she is listening as hard as she can. I think she would throw her very ears into the fields if she could. There is something written clearly upon her face, but I am too young to decipher it as yearning. She is straining to hear the sounds of an old friend, a promise kept, another winter broken.

Again I start to speak and again she silences me. I want to go inside. I don’t know what we are doing out here. I don’t want to be out here. I don’t know what she is listening for. Then, from far away, across the drifts of ice and snow, there comes a song. It is like the chiming of little bells, clear and sweet and musical. Grandma’s face becomes radiant and full of joy; her face is a Christmas tree. She becomes a beacon. She is suddenly lit from within. Her happiness is pure and it consumes her. I understand that something significant is happening; something important and perhaps even a tiny bit magical.

Again and closer this time the song drifts across the snow. It is lovely but I can’t tell where it is coming from. I see only white, only the great expanse of prairie winter. The field still looks the same but it is now full of this delightful music. Grandma has become something other than herself. She is like Jesus when he is transfigured on the mountain, when he became a vessel of brilliant light. “Horned larks” says Grandma with a great deal of satisfaction. “The horned larks are back!” She is suddenly breathless and exhilarated. I don’t know what a horned lark is, but I know it must be some kind of bird. When we get back, she shows me a black and white photo of them in the encyclopedia. She tells me “they are the first birds to return in the new year. They are more often heard than seen. Their appearance means winter is nearly over.” I am intrigued to learn that a bird foretells the coming of spring; up until this point I believed it was spring that foretold the returning of birds. It did not occur to me that this could work in reverse.

As an adult, I learn that the collective noun for a group of larks is an exaltation. I can think of nothing so perfect as this. This is the reason I find myself on a country road nearly 30 years later, on a cold winter day, straining into the wind trying desperately to hear that first tinkling of those little bells across the snow.

There are many birds in the woods and not all of them can sing. Some, like the ruffed grouse, are drummers. Some, like the owl, prefer to speak serious words dark and solemn. Not everyone is a warbler or a thrush. Not every tree is beautiful, and not every tree has planted itself in a place which is convenient.

Today I spoke to my friend, the downy woodpecker, dressed in black and white as though for a formal affair, and I spoke to her of the new year, of my deep and abiding love for her, and my sorrow for what we have done to the world.

She was much occupied with patrolling a tree trunk that she found not the least inconvenient, and though she paused, she said also “I’m busy, you see. I haven’t time to chat with you.” So she went up, and she went down, and she paused, and she tap, tap, tapped upon the trunk, and finding some deliciousness I could not see she stopped briefly. I could not see her tongue, her long and extravagant tongue, hidden behind her beak so sharp and precise, and I said “shouldn’t it all mean something?” “it does”, she said, and flew away.