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Photo by J. Carlstad

Sitka and the Songbird

By Janina M. Carlstad


Speechless, Sitka sat nestled on the soft mossy log in the hemlock and sitka forest of her ancestors.  She listened as much as watched the river rapids ripple over the river rocks, rushing along and carrying the song of the dipper within its waters.

        Nearby, another songbird burst into a series of trills and Sitka clapped her hands in quiet joy as she listened.  The tiny winter wren reminded Sitka of how she used to love to sing long ago before a childhood accident had damaged her vocal chords and had borne her voice away.

        The ancestors’ forest grew quiet and, in the solemnity, Sitka was reminded of the reason she was walking by the river and towards the bay. The salmon seemed scarce and their annual arrival at the spawning ground seemed delayed.  The elders were worried.  Many changes in the world influenced the ways of the wild ones…the circle of life… Watchful eyes waited and wondered, looking for a sign of things to come.


Alaskan Brown Bear - photo by J. Carlstad

Sitka wondered too.  Sitka was a part of the new world, but she often sought solitude in the old ways, as her grandparents had taught her.  She loved sitting upon serene seaside sands gazing out over quiet bays of surf and sparkling sun.  There she would sit, quietly watching old bear amble along seeking berries, or she would muse over the raucous cries of ravens feasting over tidal flats.  Sometimes she would spy a tall stilt-like heron slimly silhouetted against the surf as it stalked its own seafood buffet or she would laugh at little shiny heads of seals bobbing through the waters!


Great Blue Heron hunting - photo by J. Carlstad

Today, Sitka had the day off from work and a trip to the bay was welcome.  Like many in her community, Sitka worked on the road crew during the summers, while in the winter, she worked upon her art.  She enjoyed painting and drawing the sights and nature of the northwest coastal forests and the stories of her people.  As she looked out over the waving waters, she wished she could sing about her forests, talk about their beauty, and share the stories of her ancestors in other ways as well!  Yet she could not.  Not with her voice, anyway!  A tear slipped down her cheek and joined the salty surf.

Bay at low tide - photo by J. Carlstad
Pink Salmon - photo by J. Carlstad
Photo by J. Carlstad

As she gazed sadly out over the bay, Sitka heard the cry of the bald eagle and looked up just in time to spy a solitary feather of eagle down float in a smooth descent to the water’s surface where it rested gently upon the playfully lapping waters.  Sitka’s mood quickly lifted as she smiled up at Eagle, who alighted on a dead tree not far away.  So long as we are aware of the ways of the wild ones, she mused, perhaps we will remember our place in the circle of life and the circle of seasons.  Like the elders, she would watch, wonder, and wait.  While she walked with the wild ones, maybe some sort of sign would come to her and help her figure out how she could share the stories of the ancient ones or the secret beauties of the forests!

          Sitka wished she could share her thoughts with her grandmother, as she had done so many times before…  Although Sitka’s grandmother and grandfather had departed for the spirit world long ago, Sitka still missed them very much.  Sometimes, though, when the breezes blew gently through the verdant branches, or the sun fell softly upon her shoulders as they did now, she felt they walked with her here among the forest giants of spruce and cedar.  She felt comfort in her memories.

Photo by J. Carlstad

Sitka sensed a shift upon the breezes and noted a movement through the trees across the river.  Quietly, Sitka moved away from the bay and picked a pathway across the logs and rocks, fording the rushing river, seeking the silvery sheen or mist that seemed to beckon to her and rippled through the sunlit glades.

          Sitka felt she could almost see Grandmother float through the trees on silent feet.  Sitka followed, never quite seeing anyone, but sensing that someone or something was there.  Fleet of foot herself, Sitka raced along the trail, hearing the rhythm of Mother Earth beating in her heart, while branches tugged playfully at her shining hair.  Suddenly, the trail came to an end by a rocky wall, and Sitka sat down by the river, uncertain where to turn.

Photo by J. Carlstad

At her side, the joyous trill of the winter wren cascaded again in wave upon wave of joyous notes, spilling from the alder trees beside her.  With glowing eyes, Sitka gently reached out her hand as if to touch the wee songster, but the wren suddenly flitted off through the tall trees.  Sitka moved as if to follow and the wren darted a little farther ahead.  There again in the distance was that silvery mist that had first attracted Sitka’s attention...and the wren sang out, inviting her to follow, follow….

Alder - photo by J. Carlstad

If Sitka could have called out, she would have done so, but as it was, she could only watch for the little songbird and its silvery path.  The trail followed along the river, winding above the ancestors’ forest and on.  She moved out on to a small clearing that overlooked the river. 

Bear watches over Sitka - photo by J. Carlstad

There sat a young man she knew from the road construction crew.  He did not notice her at first, but he appeared to be holding a stick or branch close to his heart as he gazed out over the river!  The wren sang again, and the youth looked up and nodded.

          As the wren flew through the sylvan glade, the young man held out the branch of cedar, and amongst the deceptive dappling sunlight and scintillating shadows of the trees, Sitka could have sworn she saw the wren land upon it.    Several birds…chickadees and small warblers, flitted and whispered amongst the hemlocks and spruce…  but Raven, the Trickster, laughed raucously overhead.... she felt that he was laughing at her.  Still, she crept closer...

Trickster - photo by J. Carlstad

Smiling, the youth carefully lifted the cedar flute (for this is what it was) to his lips and Sitka heard the songs of the forest, the ripples of the rivers, and the soul of the sea pour from the flute.  It was as if the songbird and the cedar branch had become one, in a joyous instrument of expression and beauty.  The youth looked up to where Sitka stood spellbound with amazement, and with a smile that reached deep into his unusual brown eyes, he offered the flute to Sitka.

          Reverently, Sitka accepted this offering of the forest and lifting it to her lips, breathed gentle whispers at first, but then as her confidence grew, she heard her flute peep, and finally trill out in the cascading notes of the songbird.  She had a voice again.  She could sing the songs from within her heart!  Sitka’s face glowed and her eyes flashed with excitement!

Through the flute, Sitka gained a voice... - photo by J. Carlstad

Ecstatic, Sitka played again and again, not noticing the passing of time.  Standing otherwise motionless in the glade, her eyes occasionally met  the gleaming eyes of her friend, as Sitka and the flute sang to the rivers, the eagles, and the bears…  Sitka realized that a way to share her stories and the wonders of the wild world had been given to her!    She need only listen to the world around her and as her knowledge and skills expanded, she could share her song through the voice of the flute and its little songbird!  Oh if only she could find an instrument such as this!  The young man nodded, gesturing to Sitka that she could keep this flute, and he withdrew another smaller one from his knapsack…

Sitka raised her flute with thankful eyes, skyward... Photo by J. Carlstad

Sitka raised her flute, with thankful eyes skyward to her Grandmother’s Spirit, to the Creator, and to Mother Earth, offering them her gratitude for this wondrous gift.  Then, a flash of silver and a sudden splash from the river below signified that the salmon were back!  The music ceased for the moment and the two friends jumped for joy, clasping hands and running down the path to share the good news with the elders.  The salmon were returning to the spawning grounds and Sitka had found her new voice!

Photo by J. Carlstad

Watchful eyes waited and wondered, but young hearts full of hope raced along the now moonlit paths, joyous in the knowledge that health and happiness in the world of Mother Earth would always live on so long as the song of the flute, and the songbird, and the heartbeat of the drum could be heard in the ancestors’ forests and beyond!

Cedar Songbird - photo by J. Carlstad

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