Why is it pleasant to listen to a mournful-sounding owl? (Walden 85)

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”)


4 thoughts on “Why is it pleasant to listen to a mournful-sounding owl? (Walden 85)

  1. buddy71

    several times a year, i am lucky to hear the call of the owls. one year i had a couple that would call back and forth to each other. now, i only hear one. it seems like a mournful sound after hearing the two. sometimes, i am lucky to hear a screech owl. i do know i catch myself smiling when i hear the owl. 🙂

      1. buddy71

        on my days off, i awake to the sound of the doves and the chatter of the small birds that come to feed at the bird feeders i have in my trees.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s