An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of May 11, 2006
Issued from Polly's Bend, Garrard County, in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region, USA

NOSTALGIA, WISTFULNESS, OR WHAT?

These days as the spring bird-migrants arrive, familiar birdsongs are settling onto the landscape. As I type this an Indigo Bunting sings his heart out in the Broom-Sedge field across the hedgerow, and this strikes a chord deep within me. The song brings to mind long summers when I was a kid on the Kentucky farm. Hearing it now I almost see, almost smell and feel, the big, flat, heat-smothered fields of soybean, corn and tobacco around our house, where Indigo Buntings always sang from nearby power lines.

I've been regarding the feelings these callings elicit as nostalgia. However all the dictionary's various meanings of "nostalgia" appear to embrace a yearning to return home. In fact, the word nostalgia is based on the ancient Greek "nostos" meaning "a return home."

However, hearing the Indigo Bunting right now, though stirring up powerful feelings and associations, doesn't really make me want to return home. Therefore, it's not nostalgia this birdsong calls forth.

The thesaurus reminds me of the word "wistfulness," which at first glance seems to be my bunting feeling. However, the dictionary says that wistfulness is "Feeling or evincing yearning with little expectation of gratification" and the word is derived from "wishful."

The problem with "wistfulness," then, is that it also implies that I'm wanting something -- "wishing" for it. But, again, the fact is that this birdsong-feeling I'm having isn't making me want anything. I'm just happy to hear it, and to associate a lot of good memories with it.

After fiddling with the thesaurus for some time I'm thinking that maybe in English we just don't have an appropriate term. "Sentimental," "romantic," "dreamy," "emotional," "longing" ... none hit the mark.

Maybe the lack of exactly the right word reflects a feature of our English language. That is, English is the tongue of a target-obsessed people. We tend to think that everything exists for a purpose. Most of us can't get our heads around the notion that maybe it's enough for some things to simply exist as themselves in their own places, no strings attached.

"We-a see-a, etc.," Newsletter reader Leona in Missouri writes me that her Indigo Bunting is calling. She describes her birds as "filling the misty mornings with song, and they don't quit, they survived and they are again with us. I am getting so old and creaky I just sit and listen, and sitting, one eventually sees the singers."

Leona and her Indigo Bunting and me with my Indigo Bunting all singing and sitting, beautifully. And maybe the neat thing is that we don't really have a name for this thing we're doing.

The Tao says that that which calls itself the Tao is not the Tao. Maybe not having a name for this bunting thing, Leona and I are onto something real. Facebook Icon