The morning was cold and gray, and the air felt heavy, like electricity pulsed through it—like waiting, wondering, restless movement. It smelled like water and leaves or maybe early snow. As the sun painted blazes through the fog, I began to make out motionless black forms on the filmy expanse of water, between the oranges and browns of the cattails, as silent as stones in the deep, early atmosphere.
And then one of the loons called, strong and clear across the water. The sound ran through my spine and bubbled up in my throat. I felt myself smile. That was for me. There’s no way to describe that feeling. It’s absolute belonging, absolute submission. It’s knowing and potential, and when you find it, it makes you swell.
I first heard a loon when I was 5 or 6, on the banks of Lake Lenore, in my then-home state of Washington. It was like someone had shouted out to me to follow, and I vividly remember my lungs filling with the happiest oxygen I’d ever breathed. That was mine. That was my bird. It wanted me to know what it knew. My parents have videos of me calling back at it, cooing and staring into the distance, fishing lures forgotten as my sisters and I talk to the wildlife. As they say, there is no greater form of flattery than mimicry.
Back at home, I flipped open one of our heavy animal books, searching for the creature my mom said had made that noise. When I found it, a part of me was confused. It looked so silly, so long and awkward, its eyes cold and cartoonish. How could that thing’s form of communication seem so familiar and majestic?
As my reading skills improved, my perspective evolved. Despite a comical appearance, loons are quite beautiful. Their call is both an alarm and a territorial marker; they enjoy fast-paced underwater chases in pursuit of a meal; and they have complicated displays of courtship that read like dancing.
As I sat on my bunk bed, strain-ing to digest the pages of my dad’s books, I was amazed. I could feel myself in the water with the loons, diving in and leaving behind nothing but a gentle ripple. Their awkwardness melted away in a peaceful, quiet merge. I wondered if I was like a loon, if there was a place where I would blend perfectly into the scenery.
I remember hearing a loon again at camp in New Hampshire when I was a bit older, far from Washington but never far from the woods. It was nighttime, and the cabin sizzled with young female energy. How excited they all were to be away from home, to taste the most freedom a 12-year-old could achieve.
Prolonged interaction with humans has never been my idea of freedom, so I hid away in my bunk, imagining my cozy bed back home that I was sure missed me very much. I was hot and uncomfortable and surrounded by mosquitoes, and I could already hear myself calling home the next morning, begging to be released from my gilded cage.
And then, from the lake, I heard that impressive coo as it traveled up the hill and into the cabin, dragging with it all the wonder and awe of the wilderness. It was long and heavenly, and I imagined my heart pulling that noise into my chest so it could pump through my blood. It sounded like the cry caught in my throat.
“Was that a coyote?” squeaked a girl below me.
“It was a loon,” I answered, the first they’d heard from me since dinner.
I grinned from ear to ear, my heart beating fast. Somewhere on the dark lake was a bird with inky black wings and tiny little eyes, and I could feel my soul reach out to it in a kind of shared humor. It called to me as genuinely as it called to its own kind, although perhaps it didn’t mean to, and in that moment, my whole being lit up with the infinity you only feel in the woods.
That was for me.
Jan Christensen, a high school sophomore who lives in western Massachusetts, enjoys painting and drawing.