Birdsong and Early Morn

Book cover
Dawn Lightby Diane AckermanW. W. Norton. 256p $24.95

One cannot help but smile at Diane Ackerman’s contagious exuberance for the natural world. Her childlike enthusiasm leaps off the pages of this poetic tribute to hummingbirds, whooping cranes, squirrels, flowers, seasons and, yes, the coming of dawn.

Perhaps best known for her 1990 book, A Natural History of the Senses, Ackerman has long been a prolific observer of the myriad wonders of nature. In this latest gem she invites us to turn off our cellphones and open our ears, eyes and hearts to the beauty that surrounds us. She finds it “eye-poppingly wonderful…to live on a planet in space, and to be alive with intelligence…to remember how lucky and fleeting it is just being alive.”


Dawn Light draws on the Bible, ancient myths, science and poetry in a joyful celebration of the animal and plant kingdoms. One can read Ackerman for the pure pleasure of encountering her felicitous writing. In spring, “A howling-bright moon floats below a coal scuttle full of stars.” And in summer, “Voice-dueling birds keep winding their springs, buzzing their kazoos, whistling, warbling, and chattering in a divine ruckus of warring songs.”

The book’s exquisite prose and keen observations about the natural world likely will remind readers of Mary Oliver and Henry David Thoreau.

In describing the habits and lifestyles of doves, whooping cranes, mockingbirds, woodpeckers and squirrels, Ackerman exudes curiosity, appreciation and respect for all living things.

Cranes can solve problems, experience feelings, hold grudges, recognize human faces and perform “many other tricks we regard as solely human.” The brown thrasher has a repertoire of more than 2,000 songs. The mockingbird “trills and warbles, yodels and sighs, buzzes and caws in a single ribbon of magically changing song.” And when it rains, squirrels fold their tails over their heads as umbrellas.

Throughout the book, Ackerman returns to the magic of dawn, which has enjoyed a special significance in culture and religion throughout history. Religious rites, prayers and festivals often take place at dawn. Ackerman cites the morning prayers known as Lauds, a practice that can be traced back to the Apostles.

She mourns the loss of dark, star-filled nights and cites the work of the Dark Sky Society, which seeks to restore “the grandeur of star-loaded night skies” by dimming lights and placing curfews on illuminated advertising signs.

The book celebrates the art of Claude Monet and the poetry of the late John O’Donohue. Ackerman marvels at Monet’s painting titled “Mornings on the Seine.” “Rising early,” she writes, “he would climb into the boat he’d transformed into a floating studio, and set out on the river, painting the sensations of dawn in thick, voluptuous swirls of color riddled with light.”

And in a lovely tribute to her friend O’Donohue, Ackerman notes that the famed Irish writer found in poetry “a form of endless rebirth, a mystical path to the divine.”

Lamentably, clocks, deadlines and noise have replaced the rhythms of nature. “Few,” Ackerman tells us, “wake to birdsong or watch the sunrise anymore.” But the author sits quietly in her yard in Ithaca, N.Y., in “data-free time, time away from clocks, e-mail, cell phones, computers, newspapers, televisions, radios and all the other purveyors of information that plug us in and plug us up.”

She mourns the social cost, believing that children today suffer from a “nature deficit disorder” that may affect their nervous systems and ability to handle stress.

While reading this enchanting book, I found myself paying closer attention to nature. On the back deck of my house one day, I stopped to watch a tiny bug climb a pole, wondering where it was headed and what it was doing. On another day, walking near a field in the early morning semi-darkness, I observed a fox 10 feet in front of me, perhaps looking for breakfast.

“Born into a world of light,” Ackerman writes, “my senses will mature and will decay. But until they do they are the gateways to the mysterious kingdom in which I find myself, one I could not have imagined, a land not entirely of hope and glory, yet no less beautiful for that.”

And, finally, she offers this sage advice: “Just show up, that’s all we have to do, that’s all I do when I am fully present, for good or bad, right here, right now, without thinking about work or recess.”

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