I’m hiking with my husband and two daughters, high up in the cloud forest of Bosque de Paz Biological Reserve in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica. It’s early, the air is heavy and cool and our diminutive guide, Kenneth, is pointing out edible mushrooms, fantastical orchids seemingly molded of wax, and thumbtack-sized tree frogs. Suddenly he stops us with a raised hand and a finger to his lips. “Listen.” And then we hear it too.

Getting here has been an adventure in itself. The ride up into the mountains was perilously foggy and windy, but as the clouds temporarily parted the views out over the spreading valley floor were spectacular. I was grateful we had one sleeping child for most of the ascent and only had one carsick kid to worry about. Our eldest held on like a champ, then promptly threw up the moment we arrived on property.

Bosque de Paz is a birder’s paradise. Violet sabrewing hummingbird. Scarlet Tanager. Montezuma Oropendola. Even the beleaguered pigeon classes up the joint when he’s called the White-tipped Dove. The birds here know they’re in the big time. They strut and pose and flash their goods with the panache of any Vegas showgirl. Admittedly, it can be difficult to get past all those fancy clothes to see the real chick inside, if you know what I mean. I’m talking about the plain Jane, the brown-bag-it-to-work kind of bird. She’s the one who hangs in the wings (pun intended) and says, “Oh, don’t mind me. I’ll just be over here doing my thing.” And this is when inspiration can unexpectedly strike.

Kenneth whispers, “Ruddy-capped nightingale thrush” as we listen intently to the purest, earliest form of song known to man. Our plain Jane is singing her heart out, reminding us that beauty isn’t always wrapped up in designer duds. It’s an achingly beautiful melody, an eight note theme comprised of three distinct phrases. Her song is in G minor and it rises and dips in a series of minor thirds that finally leaves us hanging on a descending diminished fifth. That’s a tritone, boys and girls, the most elusive and unsettling of intervals. It leaves you feeling unstable and not a little unsatisfied. “Where’s the rest?” I want to ask, but our friend isn’t telling. I pull out my notebook and begin scribbling down this tune that has already worked its magic on my ears. Jane and I trade refrains for a while, then it’s time to move on and let her rehearse alone in the privacy of her aviary studio. 

As it turns out, I needn’t have written down that melody at all. It has remained firmly planted in my head where it eventually took root and became something new. Those eight notes became a phrase, then a verse, then a chorus, and with the lyrics of my outrageously gifted collaborator and husband, a song. For all of you seeking to create, I ask, what inspires YOU?