For most of us, song is something that permeates our lives on a daily basis. We find it on the radio, in concerts, in ads, and from music services. But song has much deeper roots than the modern commercial age. We humans have been singing for as long as we’ve been living on this planet—and so have the birds, the wolves, and the wind. They still are, if we listen. Earth Song, a podcast I helped produce for the Idaho Mythweaver’s Voices of the Wild Earth series, is an invitation into this vast world of song in nature. For those of you who prefer reading to listening, you can read the transcript below—but this story is so much richer if you can listen to it (click the audio player above or find it under Wild With Nature through Spotify or any other podcast distributor).
Find out more about the Idaho Mythweaver and support their productions at mythweaver.org. You can also find them on Spotify and Apple Podcasts as Voices of the Wild Earth. Enjoy this story!
INTRO: Welcome to Voices of the Wild Earth—a podcast series from the Idaho Mythweaver. I’m Jane Fritz.
SHANE SATER: I arrive long before sunrise in this dry part of western Montana. The mountains are black silhouettes around me. It’s late May, and these traditional lands of the Blackfeet and Salish peoples, visited for hundreds of generations during the bison hunts, including by many other tribal nations, are now settled: the valley farmed, the river dammed, the hills mined. Even so, the singing continues.
JANE: I’ve known Shane Sater since he was a teenager, living and learning about the birds, plants and insects in the northwest. Now, a decade later, he is a naturalist, writer, photographer and podcaster. His works blend science and art to share and celebrate the natural world around us. Here is his story about the power of song.
SHANE: The sun is just starting to brighten the eastern horizon over the black outlines of the mountains. The island of cottonwood forest around me is mostly silent.
But in the distance, near the alfalfa field, I can hear a tree swallow singing.
A robin calls sleepily in the waiting darkness—a darkness that carries the scent of new cottonwood leaves.
What does it mean to sing? It’s an act of expressing aliveness: life and breath together giving voice and cadence and melody through the syrinx of a bird or through our own throats. Even the wind is a breath, the spirit of God, as believed in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
To sing can be many things: a celebration, a ritual, an expression of joy or heartbreak. Like the birds, we may sing in courtship, or in defense of home or space. Through song, we can express healing, gratitude, and unity.
This story, like song itself, is many things.
It’s an exploration of how singing—this giving of life in breath—can connect us, not only with other human beings, but also with the other creatures with whom we share this earth.
It starts simply enough: with my personal experience of the dawn chorus of the birds—something anyone can hear while in nature if they wake up before sunrise in May or June.
From there, the story deepens, honoring the voices of Nez Perce elders who share their own stories of the songs of our non-human neighbors. Experiences grounded in thousands of years of lived culture and oral histories, from the buffalo plains of present-day Montana, the cedar forests and camas prairies of the Rocky Mountains, to the salmon runs of the Snake River.
Five minutes to five, and the reservoir below me is shining with the reflection of the pre-dawn sky. The robins are in full song, and a least flycatcher joins the chorus with an occasional “che-bek.” I hear a single series of hoots from one of the resident great horned owls, and a distant cow starts mooing.
By 5:10, the entire sky has become a faint lavender pastel. The ripples on the reservoir are reflecting golden. The robins are still forming the bulk of the morning symphony of song, but yellow warblers and house wrens are chiming in. Two mourning doves are singing, and a snipe is winnowing in the distance.
At sunrise in spring, it seems like the whole world is singing.
MARI WATTERS: Now, I think a morning song, a song that men and women sing to welcome the day, and to set the day that we prepare our lives should be prepared to meet that light that comes to meet us every day.
JANE: The Nez Perce people have specific songs to greet the morning, according to the late Mari Watters, who descended from Ollikat, Chief Joseph’s brother, of the Wal Wama band of Nez Perce.
Mari was also a traditional storyteller and cultural educator. Back in 1990, she shared a Nez Perce morning song with me.
[MARI CONTINUES HER SINGING]
SHANE: Songs like this one from Mari Watters speak not only to culture, but also to a rich conversation with the sunrise, and with the cycles and beings of the natural world around us.
MARI: The words that I say in that… from above there will come a light and from that light, we’ll learn how to live. And the other verse I sang was: from above will come a love and that love will be given to all of us.
SHANE: Back in 1995, when Nez Perce tribal member Leroy Seth spoke with Jane Fritz about wolves, he also spoke of the important role that song can play in our relationships with the non-human beings around us.
LEROY SETH: When I heard those wolves howling, it reminded me of the wind. Many times when you’re in the mountains and the wind is at its strongest, you can really hear them. And you can just picture animals and especially wolves, even coyotes—they just all kind of, I guess, harmonize together. So when you’re either in the trees and it’s really windy, you’re by a waterfall, you can hear all these different sounds. And many times Indian singers get their songs from these different elements. And that’s really great. So to me, the wind is really an ally or a good friend.
JANE: The late Levi Holt had served on the Nez Perce tribal executive committee and later became the director of the ambassador wolf program when the decision was made to bring wolves back to Nez Perce tribal lands. Levi and I visited this home to the Nez Perce wolves more than once. He would speak about many things, especially about the significance and deep impact of songs in nature.
LEVI HOLT: The native people of this land revered and respected and worshipped the mountains, the trees, the animals. Each has its own spirit and each has a teaching of its own. So as we walk the forest, and we walk what I consider the dance of life, then we begin to understand that each was created and each has its own song.
And that song, if it is the wind blowing through the trees, leads and sings of life. And as the wolf howls and as his mate and friends howl through the night, their voices and their speaking of times and their songs that they sing—which to me in many ways have a strong teaching—
One learns to understand their feeling and their intent to provide for each other.
Man has forgotten about Wolf, Bear, and Eagle. The teachings that the animal world has been forgotten in today’s societies and this is something I dream that I’ve had that keeps coming back. A message that must be told that must be brought to the people.
A reminder of compassion and respect and commitment to creation that we are not all here alone as men, as women, as mankind. We are here with the animal world, with the plants, and with the great salmon. And our challenge is to live amongst each other, but yet perpetuate a life of which we’ve been blessed and given by Creator. My message and my task, if you will, is to bring my song, my dream, through my flute to the people.
LEVI: I work with the wolves day in and out, and those few times that I am blessed to hear the great howls, the great songs of the wolves as they call upon the wind and the wind carries their voice through the mountains and through the treetops. It reminds me of a time, perhaps when man was not here and the wolves’ voice was the only voice that could be heard. Our challenge is to understand today what those songs are about.
[LEVI SINGS FOR THE WOLVES]
Creator has sent the animal world to receive the man-child, to teach the man-child compassion, to teach him respect, to teach him to care and to lead his people to a future that was planned as Creator has set.
SHANE: The howl of a wolf, the breath of the wind, the songs of the birds in the cottonwoods, the slow turning of our planet towards the dawn: the songs of the wild can touch and inspire us in many ways.
In their conversation, Jane Fritz and Leroy Seth considered another take on the meaning of song, in particular the howling of the wolves.
JANE: Listening to the howls, it was interesting to watch the boys—they all started howling. What is it about that? Is it kind of like a common language?
LEROY: Well, the howling, you know, many times, whether you’re an Indian person sitting at a drum or just trying to make a call to a friend, or whether you’re of a different race and you’re either wrestling or cutting wood or throwing a discus or hollering at, you know, a friend across the street or across a hillside or whatever, it’s all related. And we have these different sounds that we have to expel or say, because it’s not only good for us to, you know, psychologists would say, you know, we better really holler loud and and kick at things and hit pillows and everything else to keep your sanity. And so, you know, it all fits together.
SHANE: Do least flycatchers sing only to court a mate and defend a space? Or do they express heartbreak, grief, and beauty as well? Or does a yellow warbler holler at his friend across the street, singing with frustration?
At 5:19, I am eating my morning toast outside. How could I stay inside on a morning like this? There are pinks and purples in the clouds now. An American goldfinch is making her whiny call and the least flycatcher is “che-beking” once every second or so.
A common grackle is calling harshly, and one of the Bullock’s orioles that nest here has begun singing.
Ten minutes later, it’s hard to hear anything new above the cacophony of birdsong, but by cupping my hands over my ears I pick up a Wilson’s warbler, his song ending a bit harsher than the yellow warblers that accompany him.
On the other side of the house, a gray catbird is singing his disjointed phrases. The starling, nesting in one of the cottonwoods, has started singing, too. Then down in the wetland, I hear the sandhill cranes bugling. Last week I saw them leading their two young colts through the alfalfa field.
As the sun slips down over the western mountains, lingering a bit longer over the far-off Snake River and the camas meadows of Nez Perce country, I can hear a tree swallow again, singing from the nest box by the alfalfa field.
The song changes from place to place and season to season, but it always continues, this pouring-out of life breath that connects us all.
Voices of the Wild Earth podcasts are produced by Jane Fritz, and associate producer Justin Lantrip for the Idaho Mythweaver. Many thanks to Nez Perce scholar Jeanette Weaskus, who helped guide us on this song journey. Find more of the Idaho Mythweaver at mythweaver.org, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts under Voices of the Wild Earth Podcast.
“Earth Song” was supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council, a state-based program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding was from Idaho Forest Group and an anonymous donor.