The Saddest Noise, the Sweetest Noise

hero image
31 Jul 2008

The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,

The maddest noise that grows,

The birds, they make it in the spring

At night’s delicious close.

Between the March and April line,

That magical frontier

Beyond which summer hesitates,

Almost too heavenly near…

The 19th century poet Emily Dickinson penned these lines in the early-American, churchgoing town of Amherst, Massachusetts –surely a time and place as far away as one can get from the Middle East, and from the 21st century’s Jewish State. But every year as summer approaches, those words have come to life again in the mind of this Jerusalemite. That’s when hundreds of blackbirds have resumed their incredible twice-daily sessions in the tall old tree outside our 4th floor apartment.

We’ve been anticipating the sight and sound of them for a few weeks now, ever since the first tiny buds emerged on the elderly tree’s outstretched gray limbs. Once all those dry-boned branches bloomed into one great green whispering head, a profusion of shimmering newborn leaves, we knew the blackbirds’ arrival couldn’t be far behind, and that soon they’d be singing each other their old sweet song.

But yesterday morning at 9 a.m., it was the buzzing grate of a chainsaw that assaulted our ears, and now, a few hours later, just plain blue sky in our windows. The tree’s gone.

* * *
…It makes us think of what we had,

And what we now deplore.

We almost wish those siren throats

Would go, and sing no more…

This is how it was: if I was out on the porch watering the plants or reading the paper on my rocking chair, either very early in the morning or late in the afternoon, first there’d be a single caw, then out of the corner of my eye a few fast black shadows and then — in the half-light of dawn or the half-light of dusk – a rustle of wings and a fluttering, and another shadow, and another, and before I knew it, appearing out of the blue from every direction, as the sun rose or the stars came out, cawing blackbirds cycling around grandly overhead before coming in for a landing somewhere inside the tree. They vanished in its leaves and branches like pebbles sinking in a pond, yet the caw-caw-cawing would swell progressively louder and louder until the world was full of their raucous banter. What a racket they made — the inscrutable, happy, ridiculously manic quacking of a thousand loquacious winged creatures. The noise would get louder and louder and then all of a sudden you’d realize that somehow, when you weren’t paying attention, it had ceased entirely, and the mysterious half-light had been replaced by day or by night.

What were they telling each other, with all that calling and answering and answering and calling, and how did they know when it was time each day to congregate? A friend suggested with a laugh that maybe they were dovening their morning and evening prayers — as charming an explanation as any in the face of unanswerable questions.

What really prompted the municipality to come cut down the tree will probably also remain a mystery. When I dashed downstairs to protest, I frantically asked two Arab workers what was going on. “Pruning,” they replied. “We do it every year.”

“But it’s the shmittah!” That’s the sabbatical year, currently being observed throughout the country, during which it’s forbidden by the Torah to cultivate the land of Israel.

They shrugged.

“Who’s in charge?” They gestured to a thin, mustachioed middle-aged fellow in jeans standing over to the side, sipping a cup of something. I ran. “You can’t do this!” I cried. He regarded me coolly, with the look that says, you crazy American. Overhead, high up on an extension ladder, the buzz-saw was unrelenting. Long branches full of buds and small leaves were dropping heavily to the grass.

“It’s shmittah year!” My voice had gotten louder. “Ze assur!” [That’s forbidden!]

He was drinking his tea.

“You’re not allowed! That tree’s so beautiful! It gives us shade in the summertime! Please! Stop it!”

“We’re sent by the municipality, madam.”

The branches continued dropping like weights.

At this moment there was a loud yell and I turned. Hurrying towards us across the yard was Mr. O., one of our Israeli neighbors, tefillin bag under his arm, on his way home from synagogue.

“What are you doing?” he shouted from afar. “Ze assur!”

Suffice it to say that his great cry of pain – ignored by the overseer — was the saddest noise, the sweetest noise, the maddest noise that grows, and the finest sound I could have heard at that moment.

An ear can break a human heart

As quickly as a spear.

We wish the ear had not a heart

So dangerously near.

He stood in protest under the extension ladder, even after one of the large branches struck him. He stood his ground, though it was to no avail. By the time the rabbi of the neighborhood arrived and persuaded the man in charge to stop, the tree was in a huge pile on the grass.

Later, Mr. O’s wife told me that she’d called the municipality and was told that last fall, a couple renting in the building for a year had called to complain about the overhanging branches but at the time, the municipality hadn’t had access to a high enough ladder. Then a biologist had examined the tree and determined that it was sick. That’s why the municipality took action now.

“Sick?” I protested suspiciously. “It looked perfectly healthy to me.”

‘I know!” said Mrs. O. “I told them! I told them what a nice tree it was, and that it was one of the only bits of nature we have. They said they didn’t know we cared and that they’d be more careful in the future. But she said the biologist says branches can still look healthy even when there’s a virus down in the trunk.”

So now I’m left unsure. Who’s to blame – perhaps only the same agent responsible for the melting of the ice caps on both poles, and the global phenomenon called “colony collapse,” whereby bees are simply leaving their hives and disappearing, and the strange, undiagnosed malady affecting bats in America. The New York Times recently reported that bats are flying blindly out of their hibernation caves and dying in the light – an unprecedented abnormality.

In the face of all this, all I can say is thank you, Emily. Unlike so many other things, words are forever young. They can bring even birdsong, even a tree, to life again in our minds.

Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “Wish I Were Here” [Artscroll], and “The Mother in Our Lives”[Targum/Feldheim]. Sarah Shapiro teaches writing in Israel and the United States.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.