The afterglow of a late-evening sunset filters through the upstairs windows of my home on Anchorage's Hillside. To the northwest, a crimson band of sky hangs over a mountain known locally as The Sleeping Lady, as if ready to enfold her in soft red robes for the night. I had spent much of this spring day in the yard, raking up debris from winter storms and a half year's worth of bird feeding. Now, freshly showered and relaxed, I sit in dwindling light and listen to one of the world's great singers.
Perched in a nearby spruce, a male robin serenades me with a sweetly familiar melody. His warbled song touches some deeply buried memory, from a time and place far away. I didn't pay much heed to birds while growing up in Connecticut during the 1950s and '60s, but a few species caught my attention - none more so than the robin.
I can still vividly picture robins running across Dad's well-manicured lawn, then suddenly stopping, dropping their heads to the ground, and lifting up a worm or caterpillar. I remember their rusty-red breasts, dark-gray backs, and sharp yellow bills much more than their songs. But the voices of robins must have been among the most recognizable sounds to echo throughout my Trumbull neighborhood in spring and summer - along with the chirps of crickets, the croaking of bull frogs, and the shouts of friends playing softball in the open lot next to our yard.
I don't remember robins inhabiting the places I've lived en route to my adopted home in Alaska: Maine, Arizona, California. Yet the map in my field guide to North American birds clearly shows we shared those landscapes. It must be that my attention was focused on other things when I was in my 20s and 30s. First there was college and grad school, followed by a short-lived career in geology; then a shift to journalism; plus sports, romances, and tentative steps along the long, winding path of personal and spiritual growth.
Though I've always loved nature, it was only after I settled in Anchorage in 1982 that I began to seriously pay attention to "the natural world" again. Though I wouldn't fully welcome birds into my life for another decade, I quickly noticed a remarkable thing about my new home: robins.
Like most people, I had built mental images of Alaska that included polar bears, wolves, Eskimos, mountains, and glaciers. But robins? They didn't seem to fit somehow. They seemed too ... I don't know, too Eastern maybe. Or maybe too commonplace. I had imagined them to be creatures of milder, tamer environments.
Then again, I'd never imagined that I would become a resident of America's "last frontier" until I came here.
In a curious way, robins deepened the link between my original and adopted homelands. While providing a natural connection between Connecticut and Alaska, they also stirred sharp memories of my boyhood, as other familiar critters have done (chickadees, rainbow trout, frogs, and dragonflies). Robins increased my desire to better understand my boyhood bond with nature and, at the same time, learn more about the wild community of my new home.
If seeing a robin in Anchorage seemed strange, imagine how I felt upon spotting a robin deep in the Arctic wilderness, miles from any well-kept lawns or gardens or trees. Traveling alone, without anyone to verify the sighting, I thought I might be hallucinating. Until I saw another. And another.
Since then I have learned that robins seasonally occupy nearly all of Alaska, from the Panhandle's old-growth forests to the North Slope's tundra plains.
Here in Anchorage, robins are among the first migratory songbirds to arrive each spring. Come April, I anticipate their fluid, high-pitched song, along with the trill of the varied thrush and loud-whistled notes of the tiny ruby-crowned kinglet.
Once they have arrived and settled into their springtime routines, robins seem to sing all day long and deep into the night. Often their songs are what I hear first in the morning and last before I sleep. At the end of a long, dark winter - or a long, busy spring day - few, if any, sounds are more delightful.
Perhaps I'm appreciating robins more these days because of another connection. After living for 80 years on the East Coast, my mother came to live with me and my wife, Dulcy, in Alaska. She had welcomed songbirds to her yard for many years. The robin's song is among the most familiar to her here in the north country.
Earlier today, a robin started singing right outside the sitting-room window. Before I could say anything, Mom turned in her chair.
"That's the robin, isn't it?" she said.
"Yep, you've got it," I said. We both smiled at that.
Mom's in bed now, and her door is closed. But the robin continues to sing, a little softer now, while the sky darkens.
He'll still be singing when I head to bed myself, sending forth a calm, assuring sort of lullaby with its own touch of wild magic that stretches across the continent, across the years.