Sounds of the barred owl, among the weirdest and most haunting voices you’ll hear in nature, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“I was also serenaded by a hooting owl. Near at hand you could fancy it the most melancholy sound in Nature, as if she meant by this to stereotype and make permanent in her choir the dying moans of a human being — some poor weak relic of mortality who has left hope behind, and howls like an animal, yet with human sobs, on entering the dark valley, made more awful by a certain gurgling melodiousness — I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it — expressive of a mind which has reached the gelatinous, mildewy stage in the mortification of all healthy and courageous thought. It reminded me of ghouls and idiots and insane howlings. But now one answers from far woods in a strain made really melodious by distance — Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer hoo; and indeed for the most part it suggested only pleasing associations, whether heard by day or night, summer or winter.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Sounds,” Walden
You can hear Henry’s wonder and enthusiasm. “I rejoice that there are owls,” he writes. Why doesn’t the sound depress him? Or why, as Elton John once asked in an upbeat song, do we take such pleasure in sad songs?
“It is a sound,” Henry writes of the owl, “admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have.”
Even if we’re anthropomorphizing to interpret the owl’s voice as sorrowful (for all we know, the owl may be perfectly content while making this sound) it affirms our own experience, because we know that every other human who hears that sound knows the feelings Henry is talking about. Thus, regardless of what the owl is feeling, our shared response to hearing that sound affirms our collective experience as humans.
(About “A Year in Walden”)