What We Came to Hear and What We Heard / by Ryan Koch


My son is ten years old. He has a growing understanding of what he doesn't like, and a growing confidence in his willingness to tell me what he doesn't like. Dinners are a challenge. Most meals are, really. And many leisure activities for that matter. This was all pointed out to me on a Friday afternoon as we drove to Raven's Run. We passed Man O War and Asher asked, "Wait, what are we doing?"

"It's called the Woodcock Walk. We learn about this bird and hopefully see it flying around at dusk," I gladly explained, barely veiling my excitement. 

"Uggh. I should have asked more questions before I said I'd go to this."

"C'mon: it'll be fun," I cajoled. "Plus, you like Chipotle.." I reminded him of the real incentive. 

"I do like Chipotle," he agreed as he looked out the passenger window.

We arrived. The park was closed, so this felt like a speakeasy situation. Asher and I and maybe twenty other people filed into the interpretive center. A guide showed us some slides about the Woodcock, where it lives, where it migrates, how it swoops and dives to impress females. We learned that it is a cousin of shore birds (Sandpiper, I think?), and that it has a flexible bill to assist with foraging.

We borrowed binoculars and headed out into the fields, into the late afternoon sky. We walked around the Prather House. Asher noted from behind his binoculars that he didn't know they had screen doors like that in the 1830s. We walked around an old barn that would not get much older. We were both glad to be outside on a clear night.

Then we stopped at the bottom of a hill. We looked up at the hillside to the south-west. Here was the day's last light. Perhaps the Woodcocks would be backlit here, so we could enjoy their flying. Our guide made a motion to stop and to listen. So we did. 

The next few moments were absolutely stunning. Have you ever stood silently in a field with twenty strangers, straining to hear some longed-for bird? The silence settled on us like a spell. A car passed. My heart rate slowed while my eyes and ears reach out to gather in anything, any signal. We heard peepers, frogs that I almost never hear in town. I scanned the sky with my neighbors. I saw and heard no sign of the Woodcock. I smiled at that. I breathed. I saw a couple slightly up the hill from me and Asher. They held hands, and then embraced as they looked together at the fading light. I can't tell you how long this all took. I took no photos of this moment. (How could I?)

Asher grabbed my arm and silently mouthed, What are we doing?

I mouthed back, I don't know.

Then let's go.

Biting back laughter, I nodded agreement. 

And we tiptoed out of that silence, that evening exhale, out of that field, into the parking lot, and into our car. My time is not my own. And my preferences are hardly the point. And the thing that draws us out in the first place is seldom the thing we savor when all is said and done. I will soon forget what I ordered on my burrito bowl, but I won't soon forget the frog song, the silent strangers, the hill and the field in the day's last light.