It is a very old, very lame joke you will remember (sadly) from elementary school: “If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?” (Answer: Pilgrims!) I know. Stupid, but cute.
But “May flowers” hold a very specific and wonderful memory for me.
A little over a decade ago, I went out for a walk. In England. It took three and a half months and I covered between 1200 to 1400 miles, solo. It was magical and it changed me forever. But that’s not the point of this story.
One day, about a week into my walk, I was loping along a footpath beaten into the top of the Berkshire Downs high above the valley of the River Thames. It is called “The Ridgeway” because that is exactly what it is: a footpath that runs for hundreds of miles along the ridge of a limestone escarpment that runs almost to England’s east coast. It has been in continuous use by walkers for more than 5,000 years. Why? Because, being high, it was safer and easier to navigate than the thickly-choked wooded valleys below.
It was mid-May as I traversed the Ridgeway. And May in England is a special month (I shall refrain from relating the pagan origins of “dancing around the May pole…”): it is the month the “May tree” blooms. “May tree?” I’d never heard of it. What is it? It is the lowly hawthorn. The trees and, of course, those wonderfully green hedgerows dividing English fields (hawthorn is the principal component shrub) burst every May into frothy and incredibly fragrant white blossoms so abundant you feel like you are walking down a flower-strewn church aisle and about to be married.
So I was striding through this lovely scene when, suddenly and right above me, a bird began to sing. And the song was so melodic and so complex that I was transfixed. I stood stock still, turned on my little pocket recorder, and taped it for minutes on end. I’m not a “birder,” but I had never before heard this song. I never saw the bird; it was deep in the blossoms. But I never forgot it.
Then, just a week ago, while driving and listening to the radio, I heard the bird again…at the end of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.” And that’s what it was. The English blackbird, unlike the American version, is a prolific singer. And it loves hawthorn hedges. Oh, by the way, McCartney has often said that the song and the word—“blackbird”—refers to black women fighting for justice in America in the 1960s…
Here’s the real song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=997RTKzc39c
May spring bring you birdsong…