Begging for Spring 4/11/2013
April snow has swallowed up my yard once again. It waits for wind sheer and boot prints of the mailman. It is as white as an unwritten page. Many invectives could follow here, but I’ll attempt to refrain.
In the spring I make an attempt at a nature diary. It is often all scribbles and bits, dribs and drabs of observation and more often a great deal of long odes and field hollers of desire. This is that time of year when I feel like Blanche DuBois, standing on the fire escape waiting for Stanley to go ahead and rip his t-shirt.
One of my favorite Finnish poets, Arvo Turtiainen said, “Spring crept onto the tin roofs and danced there with the wind, spring ripped the windows open and whipped the housewives out onto the balconies to belabor their mats, spring licked the park trees reddish and blued the evenings….”
Spring can be a kind of a slow motion affair, (this year its slowness is more like the swift movement of the Mendenhall Glacier). But sometimes when spring does arrive, it’s easy to miss all its details until it has completely taken us over with its flood of green. In lieu of Stanley, my true spring desires run more along the lines of the appearance of snow fleas, first drops of sap, tree buds, the goldfinch smudging back to yellow. Humble desires yes, but ones I look for with curiosity as arrival dates change. So given spring’s changing appearance every year I still take a crack at my own version of phenology, writing down observations when I can. I start my notes with birds. Before the new onslaught of snow, I watched killdeer fly over farm fields and eagles perched in trees all along highway 61. Today cardinals threw out forlorn songs sitting on broken, icy branches.
In the spring, birds are kind of the teenagers at Daytona Beach. There is no mistaking when they arrive. Even in snow melt, birds show up all pumped for loud music and fast dating, but then they take up home construction and raise families. So they are an enduring lesson of life cycles for my daughter and me, and to our never-ending dismay, an interesting source of snack food for our cat.
Birds awaken us from our cold somnolence. For some of us it is utter satisfaction to sit in a ditch and watch yellow-rumped warblers gather and swirl around tree tops and dirty street curbs. Winter has made us hungry for something highborn, something that speaks of the sun, something that tells us maybe life isn’t all vulgar and sad. If the planet, in spite of its age and all its abuses can still deliver thumb-sized hummingbirds to a feeder to drink nectar, maybe I too can stop whining and learn something from these gem birds and their furious art of flight. My notes on hummers tend toward the poetic.
And then there is the turkey. One year a wild turkey took up residence on our city block. Here are some nature notes about the turkey:
Makes the neighborhood boys run screaming. Likes to sleep in the Japanese lilac. Scares the cat by stretching its pre-historic neck, fluffing up its feathers and stages stare downs with its beady eye. Never ceases to startle me by flapping its great spread wings within inches of my face while I get the Sunday paper. Likes to eat coneflowers. Likes to look at itself in every front door window on the block.
The turkey showed up one spring laying eggs in a neighbor’s backyard. The eggs did not survive, but the turkey remained. We grew accustomed to her roaming, her hunt for seeds, her implacable quest for whatever constitutes a turkey’s life on an inner city block by an interstate freeway.
The other day I saw crows circling a great horned owl soaring over our roof. It appeared the owl had something the crows wanted in on. The owl darted through the urgent tangle of dark birds, swift and light. There was strength in all that rising struggle and suspension. The crows eventually gave up and the owl flew off.
I often stand and feel illiterate in the face of nature. It has a different language. A different silence.
Like Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson taking their notes and the Japanese, a thousand years ago charting the arrival of the cherry blossoms, kids begin their own phenology in biology class, noting the arrival dates of migrant spring birds. So our desires to observe and record the changes of earth run long and deep. Aldo Leopold said, “The months of year, from January to June are a geometric progression in the abundance of distractions.”
For me birds are some of the greatest distractions the earth has to offer. And so is the arrival of spring. Should it ever come. I continue on with my own sketches and nature notes as the earth eventually gets warmer and the environment responds, telling us of both the disappearance and discoveries happening around us.
Viljo Kajava said in his poem from Song of Sparrows, (Spring 1918), “What was that bird that I heard in May? It was the sound I heard when I pressed my head against my mother’s wrist.”
Birds are symbols of how to cheat gravity and ride with angels. They are symbols of our simplest desires to be giddy and find love, to possess power, but also adaptability, delicacy and rebirth. Look for their wingbeats in the coming season. They have much to tell us.
(An earlier version of this piece was previously published in the New World Finn)
Dreaming In Winter
On the 45th parallel where I have lived my entire life, I find I am still not a winter person. But while SADS sits down in my living room like an unwelcome nine-hundred pound elephant, there is a large part of me that sighs gratefully for the wave of darkness and quiet that kaamos brings. For many people this is the season of skiing, skating, snow boarding, hockey, winter camping, hunting, snowmobiling, and yes, carving holes in lake ice and jumping in– and it all seems so healthy and invigorating as I ponder it from a distance while I sit with a pile of afghans, drinking a cup of Mexican hot chocolate. That is their winter season. For me, winter is museum season.
I am fortunate to live in a metropolitan area with many choices regarding museums. Some of my favorites are the Mill City Museum housed in an old flour mill where the likes of Beatrice Ojakangas will teach you how to bake a cake, the Science Museum of Minnesota where I can hang out with a diploducus and learn that it takes 400 years for a drop of water to travel from the headwaters of Lake Superior to the shores of Lake Ontario and the Minnesota Children’s Museum where I visit the bubble room. I have learned you can never have too many bubbles in the month of February. Never. The choices go on and I choose to go, for now almost all of the museums in the Twin Cities are for the people. I can go to any library and get a free pass to many museums in town. Ah, the library, my other winter temple. But that is another story.
A regular haunt of mine in the winter is the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It is a five minute drive from my house and I go there every week. In addition to all of the Greek and African rooms, Impressionist and Renaissance paintings, this winter I can visit China’s Terra Cotta Warriors. It is an exhibit so astonishing if simply to witness the rippling of the horse’s flanks or the individual features of each warrior’s face sculpted with precision,– let alone to grasp how vast this army was, why it was constructed and what became of the army of artists that produced it. And how like a dream it feels when walking among them– those birds, those distinct human faces.
One year there was an exhibit at the MIA jointly presented with the Walker Art Center called Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. It was the first major museum retrospective of the Finnish architect’s career. On a cold winter day I could look at his Grasshopper, Tulip and Womb chairs, study his plans and models for a Yale hockey rink, TWA terminal, the Dulles International airport and of course his Gateway Arch. Saarinen was prolific, unorthodox and controversial. He was certainly gifted at designing for corporate America. They say he was a structural expressionist and it shows in his vast sweeps and swirls, spin-outs and bird-like allegories. And he was often criticized for varying his style for each of his projects. I remember sitting in his North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana on my way to Nashville one rainy day. As I sat there in silence, I was impressed at how spiritual a space could feel that had been described as a “steel hat over a concrete bowl”. Saarinen died shortly before it was completed and he had said he wanted to tell St. Peter “This was one of the best buildings I had ever done.”
I watched a film by Charles Guggenheim on the construction of Saarinen’s Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. It was called Monument to the Dream. You could see amid all the strange blocks of concrete, elevators, wires, ladders and dozens of men in hard hats –how a thin arc of concrete can speak of vastness, how a dream can be formed.
Museums are places to explore, learn, and try out. My daughter and I learned how to draw our own Saarinen arches with rulers and graph paper. We assembled models of houses and sculpture gardens with foam core, colored papers, glue, scissors and shreds of upholstery. And I am a convert. I have learned from my many winter trips to museums I am a huge advocate of occupational therapy. No matter how miserable you may feel, regardless of the sinking state of the economy, the rampages of world hunger, senseless violence– or the mere fact it’s so cold, leaving your house could potentially kill you,– it’s nothing a little glue, markers and pretty colored, shiny paper can’t soothe for the moment. At least that is how it is for me. It helps to have a kid in tow, but not necessary. It is Zen to sit, calm the mind and in this case, use your hands to make a dream. I have made several little dreams like rangolis, mandalas, Tibetan prayer flags, Calder-esque mobiles, origami boxes, dragon kites…
Obviously we go to museums because we can travel to the universe of the artist and see fresh statements about the world in new, astounding ways –and to witness dreams. Art– love it, hate it, — got to have it. The same goes for me with winter. It is ridiculously hostile at times and it is a gift to those of us who need to slow down. The poet Billy Collins said, ‘bare branches in winter are a form of writing’. I am glad I can pause and have a look at a winter tree, a sculpture, a corner of my life that has piled up and desperately needs attention. Winter allows us to just sit –or maybe sleep like some of our fellow mammals, but also muse, create, re-invent, attend.
The Sami poet/singer Nils-Aslak Valkeapää said “I know that you are waiting for a dawn, a wondrously beautiful future. I don’t want to deny you that, because dreaming is the gift of life.”
I suppose artists can be accused of escape and denial for their time spent seeking dreams. But we all wait for the dawn in our own way. And when life is harsh, a dream can feed our hungers and lead us in surprising ways that connect us with others.
The new year is coming. The Finnish poet Kirsi Kunnas says, “breathe earth’s vastness so that each of you, alone, but neighboring together, will fill with stars.”
Let us all fill ourselves up and make some dreams.
(An earlier version of this piece was previously published in the New World Finn.)
Blues is What the Spirit is to the Minister
In 1980, a few days after Thanksgiving, I stood in a line at a table in a Greenwich Village club to see if a singer would autograph my napkin. It was an incredibly long wait. Many people were wanting to talk to her, share their accolades. As I finally got closer, a family of fans right in front of me seemed to want to ask the singer endless questions. They kept chatting at length about things that fans often do, snippets of their lives, their favorite songs. I was the last in line and I eventually lost my nerve. I knew she had another set and needed to begin soon. I decided to return to my seat. As I started walking I heard someone say, “Hey baby, come here!” She was waving me over with her long beautiful fingers. I shyly gave her my napkin. She took it and signed it. I don’t remember what she said to me. She seemed regal somehow and it was as though I was standing at the foot of God—as I believe she probably truly is—God as a wise and kind blues singer. I uttered the only words that came to me. “Thank you and bless you.” And I walked back to my table and held the napkin like it was a talisman, a kind of paper oracle. The singer was Alberta Hunter. I was 21 years old. She was 85.
And again, I watched her from only a few feet away as she sang in The Cookery like she was sweeping notes from bedrock up into the stars. She was preaching, she was teaching, she was telling stories. There was an important weight in her words, sly humor and truth, and a remarkable beauty in a woman who called herself ugly. When she sang tunes like Without A Song you believed the world was created so she could sing it. And when she sang My Castle’s Rockin ‘, Darktown Strutters’ Ball and her own song Downhearted Blues you were witness to an artist and a musical timeline.
Today I am missing Alberta. I am thinking of her quite astonishing life story, the early days in Chicago, how she walked away in her fifties to become a nurse. How she came back to sing again in her seventies. And I am missing all the Albertas out there that maybe could be singing for us now. As I was growing up in this country I was able to see a whole range of artists out there—singing and playing in concert. In my twenties I saw Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie, Betty Carter, Sonny Rollins, Sheila Jordan, Carmen McCrae, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Shirley Horn,… to name a few. These were not necessarily all older adult artists, but certainly a bit more mature than New Kids On the Block.
I grew up watching Ethel Merman sing as only Ethel could on just about every variety show that was on television when I was a kid. Variety shows showcased just as advertised—a plethora of weird and wonderful in terms of entertainment. But variety shows also delivered the goods when it came to a range of ages and styles. I could see Julie Andrews and Little Stevie Wonder, but I could also see Louis Armstrong. I could see Johnny Cash and I could see Bob Dylan singing with Johnny. You might see Joan Sutherland, Mahalia Jackson, Peggy Lee and as I remember years later on a revamped Smothers Brothers Show, I saw k.d.lang.
Who does my daughter see these days? There is a host of singing contests. One could argue there is a populist approach in how anyone from any town can win the end prize. What my daughter is learning is more to do with trends and power voting, not so much about talent. And youth rules. Our musical connections across the generations has come unbraided. There is Tony Bennett—god love him—who continues to sing—and also does it with the crossover likes of Lady Gaga and Queen Latifah. But otherwise where are the older artists, the singers and musicians for us to listen to and learn from? They occasionally appear on late night shows. They show up at times in casinos. They are booked into late night club venues. They are not delivered up to very young listeners. My ten-year old daughter has sat at concerts listening to Mavis Staples, John Prine, Marcia Ball, Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm, because well, yes, I dragged her. But she does sing their songs. Maybe I’m wrong, but I do think she needs to see and hear those who came before her– who play music. They are artisans that teach and let spill secrets. She knows only too well due to her mother’s occupational circumstance the sounds of folk, world, and bluegrass musicians. These are all arenas where age only makes you better and tradition-bearing rings long and true.
The phenomenon of Cesaria Evora and Henri Salvador as well as other mature artists and their successes, tell me other parts of the world are interested and always learning from incredible older performers in a popular market. And in the classical music world you are usually not voted off the island if you are rich in years and experience. Though let us pause and reflect on the state of orchestras in this country and the how and why of current strikes. Not so much an issue of age than maybe a perception of need and value. Don’t we need world-class orchestras? Are public-event holding lobbies what drives ticket sales, and the musical performances a more secondary concern? But that is a whole nother topic.
I am not a young musician. But I am always learning. So I am looking at the musical landscape, at those older and younger. And I am thrilled to hear Esperanza Spalding. I feel there is hope in artists like this—young women who have killer instrumental chops, beautiful smart singers and composers. Bring them on. And bring on the Albertas too. Let all of us hear and see them, on beyond our small glimpses upon their past through independent radio or public television documentaries.
I learned that night from Alberta. I learned older voices can sing way more color and passion into the bones of a song that they leave teeth marks on your soul. They know about loneliness, love maps, lost treasure, the simple things, the hard facts and the blessed.
Like Alberta sings–A man is born but he’s no good no how– without a song.
So let it be all of us, young and old, singing. Let it be jazz, let it be folk or Bach,–but let it always be the blues.
“Blues is what the spirit is to the minister” –Alberta Hunter
Give Me Back My Old Boat—Doc Watson
When we lose someone in the music community it is a clarion call to acknowledge, celebrate, mourn, honor and hone in on all those memories of how that person entered our lives and why it mattered. Music is such a visceral thing, as a writer I shy away from writing about it at all because it is so ephemeral. It is the art form that is all about the ears and the body below the ears. Sure we can watch it, but it is how it makes us feel, how we feel the beat and how we really hear that Albéniz tango, that drummer from Ghana, that liquid Miles riff, that poem sung by the Fado singer, that long instrumental Wilco break or the unequaled guitar picking of Doc Watson.
Doc Watson died last week at the age of 89. I am just one more person who was a Doc Watson fan. There are many of us all over the world. Why did he matter to me? When I was twelve years old my mother bought me a guitar for Christmas. Why she did it I can’t really say. I didn’t ask for one. But still there it was all rounded and honey-colored and it took up residency in my suburban bedroom where I poured over my Folksinger’s Guitar Guide, Guitar Finger-Picking Styles and other instructional books. Each day I painfully approximated chords, built grieving calluses and timidly attached myself to an American folk music lineage that not only allowed a ghostly pale tweener with glasses to puzzle over Elizabeth Cotton’s tablature, but also gave me the words to I’m Sitting on Top of the World and Deep River Blues and then showed me how to play them. And I played them. And I sang them as best I could. And I read about how Doc had been blind since he was one year old. I was a sickly kid, always and forever visiting the doctor, missing weeks of school at a time. It sounds odd, but I would page through my songbooks and look at those photos of Doc taking his guitar and assembling those Doc Watson sounds and it made me feel like I too could slip in and join the group of American guitar players. Not that I ever wanted to play in public, never ever, but to me there was an unspoken invitation in those books, a ‘come join us’ to those stories behind the songs and the people who made them come alive.
Deep Gap, North Carolina was a far cry from Columbia Heights, Minnesota, but somehow I was a lonely kid who found her tribe, the tribe of song-makers. I was not a flatpicker, nor am I today, but I spent years listening to Doc Watson and his lightening-speed playing because he was a virtuoso. I went to concerts where I watched Doc and Merle play together as only they could, finishing each others musical sentences, enhancing each others riffs and giving the world that unique Watson take on Red Rocking Chair, Salty Creek or Way Downtown. Playing their “traditional plus” collaboration of tunes you left their concerts feeling your own fingers were simply a set of broken pencils.
Doc Watson was an immensely creative player of traditional songs that appealed to an amazing array of fans. You could always sense humility in everything he sang or played. And when he sang it was like drinking a cool glass of clear well water, pure and true. He was an important mentor to the world of American traditional playing, but to many others who played blues, country and rock. Last year they dedicated a life-size statue of Doc in Boone N.C. It is inscribed upon his request with these words, “Just one of the people.”
In this world of YouTube I am forever grateful that I can sit for hours and watch all that footage of Doc dazzling and generously putting his stamp on Nine Pound Hammer and Windy and Warm. In this world of entertainers who are just one with the media and lipsync inside a corolla of barely clad, greased-up dancers and employ their own staff of pyro-technicians, we will greatly miss the genuine, humble artistry of Doc Watson.