Birding

Gone Silent

A writer and birder reflects on the quiet moments spent outside with his autistic daughter.

I wasn’t used to the quiet. Whether walking through pines or dense coastal scrub, Rhode Island’s intricate littoral or open beaches, our daughter Shannon had always vocalized, pitching her voice across water and sand, off rocks, earth, and trees. Never words—autism had precluded them through her five years of life—but what her therapists called verbal stimulation, or stimming. Iterations lasted weeks. Early on it was “dock-a-dock-a-dock-a.” Then, for many months, “oh-kyoo-la-oh-kyoo-la-oh-kyoo-la.”

Recently, though, she’d gone silent. 

“Listen,” my wife Karen said, as we watered still-buried potatoes.

“To what?”

“Shannon. She’s quiet.”

Two weeks later the silence remains. The specialists were informative, but ended our queries with the words “of course, we just don’t know,” validating my and Karen’s assertion that autism remains a half peg above theology in certainty. Regardless, as Shannon and I walk this forest alone, just the “witchery-witchery-witchery” of a Common Yellow-throat disrupts the quiet.

She sits atop my shoulders as we revisit this central Rhode Island tract. I stay at home with our two girls, but often have Shannon to myself. We drift through the southern New England wilds as her school/therapy schedule allows. While she dutifully plies her mechanical, indoor therapies, she is pensively vivid outside, whether in hushed pastureland or onrushing surf. Whatever autism is, it impedes, pilfers, and blunts a great many things—language, learning, and social skills most of all—but contemplation seems to be inviolable, something I’d noticed early on within our wordless companionship.

These woods are among our favorites, with hundred-year white pines interspersed with maple, oak, and beech that encircle an old mill pond settled by beavers. Two weeks before, Pine Warblers made melody in the evergreen crowns, but now, mated up, they’re quiet. A few storm-shot holes allow sun through the vaulting pines and new-sprung leaves, and nodding to one such gap, I squeeze Shannon’s knee.

“Light, Shannon, light. See the light?”

She simply looks to the canopy, then off through the shattered conifers.

“Forest, Shannon. Forest. Shannon loves the forest.”

“Bird” is likely one of the few words she understands. She hears it frequently. As a trio of chickadees rotates through a blighted chestnut shoot, she hears it again.

“Bird, Shan,” I say, stopping. “Bird.”

She turns, tracking motion.

Descending toward the pond, we pass the black walnut where the previous October Shannon and her sister, Flannery, played with the hard, green seeds. For Shannon I piled them to throw, whereas Flan, at 3, craved what nearly everyone wants—a story.

“What are they, Da-Da?”

“Fairy eggs, Flan. If we bury them right, in spring, babies will hatch.”

Now, with Flan elsewhere, I just point.

“Remember, Shan? ‘Throw. Throw.’”

Up top, something moves. I stop. A Black-billed Cuckoo hops from the walnut to a neighboring ash. Its name pulls me to my own childhood, afield with my father, sponging up the coupling of syllable and identity. At the time it seemed like a magical pairing. Brown Creeper. White-breasted Nuthatch. Blue-winged Teal. Kestrel. Scarlet Tanager. Pie-billed Grebe. Red-bellied Sapsucker. When you speak, it’s difficult not to put that premium on language, deeming it memory’s chief protein and love’s essential force. While Shannon had disabused or at least diluted many of life’s assumptions, I thought at least the potency of language would remain immune.

The week before, my dad and I had taken the girls to a wildlife preserve in Massachusetts, a blend of beaver flows and thick woods: big draws to spring migrants. Flan bustled off-trail, plucking half-furled sapling leaves, tasting them, rooting through soil, weaving narrative. Shan, meanwhile, traded my shoulders for my dad’s hand, walking alongside. Birds flooded us. Yellow and Magnolia warblers were rife. A few northbound Hermit Thrushes, too, stirred the detritus for invertebrates.

“Rose-breasted Grosbeak,” my dad said, sight unseen.

Overhead, there it was. The first time he pointed one out I was seven, riveted by that vermilion splotch in a sea of green. We never stop being our parents’ children, and I stood there, seven again, suspended by my pop’s voice and the power of language. Looking over, I saw Shan’s pink hand tucked within my dad’s knotted, liver-spotted one. These moments were always shaded in sadness, as I’d assumed the absence of words lessened my daughter’s memories. But such sadness would soon evaporate.

The author Mike Freeman with his daughter Shannon. This past year Shannon stopped using her voice, as a result of autism. Photo: Joseph Laurin Photography

Shan and I reach the pond. She adores it here. We catch frogs, pitch sticks, and wade outlet pools. Hemlocks dominate the banks and Shannon sits beneath one, sliding bare heels across damp ground. Picking up a mash of needles and leaves, she falls to custom: separating matter, lifting up pieces, then watching them drop. This will take time. I sit.

My father once told me he saw a Cooper’s Hawk ambush a Northern Flicker in a swamp where he had been crouched for an hour, hunting ducks. The bird landed in a drowned tree and went through its tear-swallow, tear-swallow paces until only feet and feathers remained.

“If you want to see the woods,” he said, “really feel them, just sit. Things unfold.”

As I help Shan scrounge more leaves, a Wood Duck hen barrels through the overstory, while closer, streamside, a Northern Waterthrush—maybe a Louisiana, I can never tell—skitters from view. Upon Shan’s birth I imagined telling her such things, naming creatures and revealing what little I knew of them, but five years on I finally realize how insufficient words are in fortifying what we’re really after.

I’d always assumed that language freights most meaning. We all have foundations, and the woods are mine, especially time shared there with my dad. Spending night and day with a speechless child, however, I’d been blind to what I really remembered. Nothing compresses like memory, and in that distillation, words—nearly all of them—dissipate, leaving an attar of light and shadow, color and contrast, silence and sound, all of it binding us to those we love. More than anything we say, it’s presence, and experience, that give us purpose where we need it most.

I hand Shan another leaf, then lift my head. Landed atop a fallen hemlock, an Ovenbird jiggles the dying needles before going still. Though I’ve seen few, the rusted cap and mottled breast are unmistakable. Shan looks too, then turns, pulling my head close before releasing: her expression for deep contentment. I look back. The creature is gone, but the moment sears, and as Shannon resumes her leaf play, the sadness previously attending such moments melts away. Looking at her, I understand for the first time that her own recall is likely a purer, more elemental place, unencumbered by the clutter of language.

From this, I  realize that scarcely a word—if any at all—survives my fondest memories.

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