May 3, 2020 — Thought I Heard a Red-Winged Blackbird — and Some Slivers of Good News

In the long-ago pre-parent phase of my relationship which itself is now a part of the past, Saturday mornings often began with me cranking up the radio to blast the slide guitar sounds of David Essig’s 1978 instrumental “Sunrise II.” Increasing the volume served as a wake up call for my ex, a signal for her to think of getting out of bed so that we could continue our weekend together. As the weekly opening theme for Canadian Spaces, the long-running CKCU folk music program, “Sunrise II” morphed into the voice of host Chopper McKinnon, who began with his trademark suggestion that listeners “put the kettle on, make a pot of your favourite hot brown drink, and stick around for 40 minutes of uninterrupted folk.” The opening song of the extended set, more often than not, would set the tone with a familiar and upbeat blast of joyful noise (perhaps as a reminder that folk music can, in fact, actually be upbeat on occasion).

It’s been several years since Chopper passed away, but the venerable folk show and its tradition of kicking off on a high note continues. This week, guest host and local musician Lynne Hanson selected “Keep Your Distance,” the Richard Thompson song performed in 2001 by Buddy and Julie Miller, as the appropriate opener. (Such a great choice — its mix of fragility and aggression seems perfectly suited to the emotional swings that we are all now grappling with.)

But it was last week, when the community radio playlist opened with David Francey’s “Red-Winged Blackbird,” that I got thinking of how small slices of normalcy — like the Canadian Spaces program, the midday arrival of the mail van, or, for that matter, actual red-winged blackbirds — can help to salvage something resembling redeeming qualities from my seemingly endless series of otherwise emotionally distanced days and the string of virus-related cancellation announcements. (Blue Skies, the annual folk festival and campfire jam at which we have volunteered and camped for the past 15 years had, several days before, become the latest event to join this depressingly long list of non-happenings.)

Francey has played at Blue Skies, and “Red-Winged Blackbird,” released in 1999, was the first song of his that I really took notice of. It’s no secret that I’m fond of birds. These days, Zoom sessions aside, we are all only seeing those who are nearby, and the loudest neighbours on my central Ottawa street in April and early May are the red ones that fly. (Occasional visits of the pileated woodpecker — the most impressive and identifiable resident of nearby Hampton Park — aside: when it alights on my backyard utility pole, its drumming and call are clearly audible from inside the house.)

It’s springtime, and the cardinals are singing their hearts out from what seems like every tree and cedar hedge in sight, while robins hop purposefully about on the lawns below. On weekend bike rides, my son Henry and I have spotted flocks of mergansers on Dow’s Lake, a pair of wood ducks on the Rideau Canal, a merlin harassing (or perhaps being harassed by) crows nesting atop the tall pine one street over, a northern flicker drilling into a rotting birch tree on Piccadilly Avenue, the brilliant yellow splash of a goldfinch warbling a bubbly call from the park edge… and, sure enough, red-winged blackbirds, blaring their jarring, 3-note songs in the rushes beside the Ottawa River, just as Francey promised they’d be, “when winter finally breaks its bones.”

It is as ever, as it is each year in the spring. The non-human world outside our front doors continues, oblivious to the pandemic and to the physical and mental health problems and preoccupations of humans (though perhaps not entirely unaware of the sudden absence of humans from the places usually filled by them, as evidenced by the much-reported examples of wildlife colonizing suddenly-empty city streets and parks).

Also, there’s slivers of good news for a change. As of May 1, the city and province were being described, by Dr. Vera Etches, Medical Officer of Health for Ottawa, as having entered the “post-peak period” in terms of COVID-19 community transmission, meaning that a declining number of people are being hospitalized for the virus. Across the province and country, a tentative and gradual re-opening is slowly beginning to be sanctioned. The National Capital Commission even got caught up in the newly optimistic spirit, tweeting out that Canadian Tulip Festival attendees should “feel free to snap a photo as you walk by [the tulip beds], while social distancing.” — a reversal of the NCC’s “no stopping or photography” signs which had been posted earlier in the week.

I try to take a small measure of solace from all of this, from the fact that life does go on and even move forward. To maybe be open to feeling just a little less tired and alone during those moments when the cardinal is just overhead, whistling its shrill and repetitive call. (“What cheer! What cheer! Birdie-birdie-birdie.”)

It may not yet be quite a start, but at least it’s something.

Maybe I should go outside and check the mail.

Sunday morning now, and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is being played, by request, on CBC radio, conjuring up memories of early high school cassettes and those ubiquitous long-white-sleeved t-shirts adorned with the spacey cover of the band’s 1981 album, Escape.

“This is a great song,” commented Henry.

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