The Mast-Head: Listening to Morning

The stillness the morning after thunder puzzles me

Up before dawn, I heard a spade-foot toad calling from the small swamp just west of my house. Spring mornings can be loud down here alongside Gardiner’s Bay, but on Wednesday, after a thunderstorm that came through during the night, the toad and a few birds whose songs I did not recognize were the only voices I heard.

Standing outside for a minute or two with the dogs, I tried to listen closely. The sound of a slow rush of waves pushed by the northwest wind came over the dune. Something in the brush to my right made a repeated sharp chirp. A gull called. There was the distant rumble of the surf on the ocean. A car drove by, its tires hissing over the wet asphalt. The sky was lighter now; the toad had become quiet.

Birds and other creatures can predict the weather to some degree, my father told me when I was small. You can tell when a hurricane is approaching by their silence, he said. Indeed, I remember that before a hurricane in 1976, as we prepared to evacuate to a friend’s house in the village, the world seemed unnaturally still. My father, never the mystic, attributed this to animals’ ability to sense rapid drops in air pressure, and that explanation has been good enough for me.

But the stillness the morning after thunder puzzles me. Could it be that the birds and spring peepers are left exhausted by the rain, confused by the bright flashes that interrupted their nighttime reveries? Certainly the human realm seems slower on mornings like these. Conversations are shorter. The phone doesn’t ring. Drivers seem to have a little less urgency. We reach for a second cup of coffee before getting on with the day.

Before getting up from the table where I am writing to wake the kids and get them ready for school, I open a kitchen window just a bit so I can hear what the birds are doing. Over the sound of the furnace I listen to just one whose name I do not know.