If I were to describe to you the absolute saddest thing I have ever heard it would break your heart and ruin your week. You’d mope around the house in your slippers and robe, the furnace and your pathetic sighs the only sounds in the house other than silence. Not even I know what describing it would do to me, especially at this point in winter with February still to go, but I can imagine and no one needs to see that.
Some things might seem sad but aren’t, really. The sound of geese beating it downwind in the dark on the first fall night I notice Orion is good for a tear. Some things are just that way. Maybe a heart string is plucked as I remember some perfect June day while anticipating the deep freeze to come but I don’t think the geese are sad. To me it sounds more like they are looking forward to spending the winter at some nice golf course or maybe an airport somewhere down south.
The call of a loon can sound downright mournful and forlorn. Not the wild, laughing yodel they use to signal danger and declare territory — that’s just creepy — but their long wail that slowly rises in tone then falls. As sad as this call sounds it is used mostly to keep tabs on the rest of the family. To hear their call & response ringing out across the water on a still, late-summer eve is a sign that all is well.
Loons are fine parents, stuffing their young full of food and keeping them safe all through the summer. Once the chick has fledged, though, and can choke down a few trout on its own, they take off and don’t come back, putting on a demonstration of flight that Junior will never forget. I admit that a young loon, still calling four days after its parents have gone, sounds more than just a little bit sad. But if there is any sorrow that sorrow is soothed by food and after a few weeks of eating and sobbing that bird is ready to flap its own way on out of here, trailing a yodel that sounds suspiciously like joy.
It is easy for us humans to be mistaken as we give in to our anthropomorphic tendencies, assigning feelings and emotions to animals via their calls, especially when we do it based on our own reaction to those calls rather than to the behavior being exhibited. The geese aren’t sad — we are — and there is nothing particularly sad about the way a family of loons gathers itself together in the gloaming.
I accept and use words like “mournful”, “forlorn” and “plaintive” because they are descriptive and evocative of the way loons sound when they aren’t doing that creepy-sounding territorial yodel for which the best possible description is “maniacal”. People who are present when that loony din sets up feel a shiver run down their spine as fine hairs stand on end, and when the ruckus is over someone will almost always comment on the strangeness of the sound. I’ve even heard, more than once, that it sounded unreal and not of this world.
That wild yodel signals danger from predators, interlopers and a host of other threats and it has meant the same thing since long before the first humans heard it somewhere in the dim and distant past. A threat to a loon could very well have been a threat to us, too, and we still get haired-up, even now that we’re all grown and the biggest threat we face is ourselves. That haunting sound was a part of this world prior to us and very few things we come across are more of this earth than that.
Some people who come to visit Fish in a Barrel Pond leave floodlights on all night, holding back both critters and stars, keeping them at bay. Doors remain closed, in case something decides to dash in from the dark I suppose, and odd night-noises cause consternation but these folks live in modern times. Portable devices provide pictures and sound so they don’t have to see or hear where they are and, when they finally do stop and listen, the call of a bird seems to be not real, un-natural and not of this world.
That’s just sad.