Malheur Before Dawn

Malheur before Dawn

William Stafford


An owl sound wandered along the road with me.

I didn’t hear it–I breathed it into my ears.

Little ones at first, the stars retired, leaving

polished little circles on the sky for awhile.

Then the sun began to shout from below the horizon.

Throngs of birds campaigned, their music a tent of sound.

From across a pond, out of the mist,

one drake made a V and said its name.

Some vast animal of air began to rouse

from the reeds and lean outward.

Frogs discovered their national anthem again.

I didn’t know a ditch could hold so much joy.

So magic a time it was that I was both brave and afraid.

Some day like this might save the world.


At a time like this in this troubled world, my senses are attuned to what might make me remember that life is good, that there is beauty to be found everywhere in counterpoint to the horrors.

This is such a poem, one that recalls the small details of sound, in particular, that we might otherwise miss as we listen to the news, speak of it among ourselves, our ears blunted by the awfulness of it all.

I invite you, reading this, to speak it aloud to yourself or to someone else should they be so fortunate. Hear the cadence of the words, the owl’s soft hoot, the birds’ tent of music, the frogs belting out their anthem. See the morning stars fading, the sun making its daily entrance, the V of geese.

It is the last lines that catch in my throat and give me a sense of peace: I didn’t know a ditch could hold so much joy./ So magic a time it was that I was both brave and afraid./ Some day like this might save the world.

I can forget how much joy, how much magic is all around me, until I open my senses. And yes, these are the things that might well save the world if we but let them.


10 thoughts on “Malheur Before Dawn

  1. Oh, Jan, again you touch my heart with a poem. Just when I needed it: the being touched, the poem. This poem in particular, one I’ve never seen, one like a freshet of wind in the wallows of summer, this summer. Reminded that the world around me, frogs and all, has its own “national anthem” and magic to touch me with.

    thank you,



  2. Oh Jan. Thank you so much1 This is so beautiful and so timely. In reading it just to myself I almost felt as if I were experiencing it All. And yes, the line “ I didn’t know a ditch could hold so much joy” is what lingered with me. I realize that I often feel amazed when I’m hiking at the very ordinary, but now I have some words to put to the experience. Thank you!



    “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”

    Thich Nat Hanh



  3. Reblogged this on Quillfyre and commented:
    This is a thoughtful post and something that is so easy to forget as Jan notes, when confronted by mass killings and the terror of them. How seldom we take the time to be in our natural world, so filled our time with the assault of information and tragic news of how the human race is the one most likely to kill its own. This moment, though, I am hearing a chorus of frogs and the solo notes of loons down by the river’s edge. — Carol


  4. Thanks for this Jan and your words – love how they short cut to the heart in such a profound way – the intelligence of nature is infinite – it IS all around us – it is us :O)


  5. How beautiful, could hardly read it to my wife without choking up, tears welling in the corners of my eyes, yes, lets keep spreading the joy…and as marie oliver would say keep announcing “our place in the family” of life

    Thank you!


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