The Wonder of Birds

Discovering the kind of band with which you really, deeply connect, the kind you want to tell everyone about, used to be very, very different.

When I was a freshman at Syracuse University in 1989, Rolling Stone Magazine was my Bible. The bi-weekly, smudged-newsprint magazine was still chortling along on Woodstock fumes, still prior to the Internet’s systematic dismantling of its once hegemonic stranglehold.

And other than Greg Lage or WMMR, Rolling Stone’s reviews were the only signal I had whether or not I should drop eighteen dollars of Berwyn Video earnings on a new record.

It wasn’t a fungible relationship in those days; it was binary: in or out, on or off. Pay the money, take the ride. There was no clicking to forward to the next track. No Alexa. You bought it, you owned it, like it or not.

One autumn afternoon early that year, I sauntered over to Desert Shore, the record store in the basement of the student center, to buy a debut album by The Innocence Mission, an indie folk band composed of Karen Peris (née McCullough), husband (and fellow guitarist) Don Peris, plus Mike Bitts (on bass guitar).

Whether swayed by the bands’ nearby Lancaster, Pennsylvania, roots, or association with current faves, 10,000 Maniacs, I dropped the cash, and spun the disc over and over and over again.

Like Tom Cruise before me, rare is the day in the intervening thirty-two years that I haven’t left the house with a) sunglasses, b) a hat and, c) headphones. It’s a trade off: the environment for my anonymity.

Headphones obscure, though. And so, I have missed things: gasps as the Twin Towers fell; cheers on the marathon route. But I gained a soundtrack. A fungible one.

Last week, a high school pal of mine, Jon Larkin, and I arranged to meet at a nearby state park for a masked and distanced hike. I arrived early, and took to pacing the grounds. It was only when I heard the unmistakable sound of a woodpecker’s tree-bark drumbeat did I realize was headphone-less.

I scanned the sky, and spotted a downy woodpecker having at a leafless spruce. Later, while peppering Dr. Larkin (an epidemiologist) with pandemic questions (as I have so many times before), I spotted a pileated woodpecker — that zany, angular, crimson-beaked pterodactyl — head butting a pine tree.

We have a bird feeder now. I’ve grown to recognize the sound of a Song Sparrow. And I can differentiate a Red Tail and Cooper’s Hawk.

Maggie is positively encyclopedic in her recall: Northern Cardinal, Mourning Dove, American Robin. “That’s a female Carolina Chickadee, Daddy. You can tell by the black cap and neck.”

And The Innocence Mission’s eponymous 1989 debut does, as it ends up, hold up across the decades. None of the instruments date. Karen Peris’ wispy, breathy, child-like melodies are affected, but unfettered. Her lyrics are timeless.

Thirty years later, the album feels as trapped-in-amber as it did back then: staid, studied, restrained.

Except this.

“Wonder of Birds” is the albums’ thirteenth and penultimate track, the final reel and credit bed in equal turn: throbbing, propellent, all floor toms and arpeggiated guitars. An unplugged, Amish U2.

The band falls away as the song rounds the middle eight. Peris tears into the word “fly.” Her voice is rough and raw, back on its heels. Then the band rejoins, reborn. Shimmering, full throated now, the song gallops forward its refrain, Peris repeating herself, awed, and possessed.

“The wonder of birds, oh the wonder of birds. The wonder of birds, ah! The wonder of birds…”

An instant, transcendent, replayed across some part of a lifetime, chirping and bleating just overhead all along.

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