The Song of Life

Two white-tailed kites quartered the sky to the south of the house. I watched from the kitchen window while they carved up the firmament - a twinned quest that had as its goal the humble diurnal rodents of the chaparral. One stopped in a characteristic hover, high above our wolf oak (Wolf Oak) whilst its mate flew to the east and alighted on a mountain mahogany bough, just long enough for me grab my father's old Carl Zeiss Jena binoculars and focus on the bird, before they both flew off over the ridge in search of their afternoon snack.

A couple of weeks ago, on a rock art trip near Lake Isabella in Kern County (Owlish Avatar) we stopped just off Hwy. 178 and clambered along the banks of the Kern River to get close to a cliff-side rock art site that is actually visible from highway. I was the first to arrive midway up the cliff as it rose above the river; gashes of white guano were splashed down the rock face amidst the red, yellow and white pictographs. My eyes travelled up these vertical white lines to a rock shelter just beneath the cliff top, perhaps thirty feet above where I was standing. A pair of ravens were nesting there, the untidy structure of their nest spilling beyond the ledge and stained white like the rock below. I was more intent on them than the pictographs and was extremely wary of disturbing the birds. Here, it seemed to me, was a rock shelter almost certainly used by shamans to journey on their datura fueled vision quests before recording them on the rocks below: now occupied by a family of ravens - a favorite spirit guide of the Yokuts - it was not a great leap to imagine that these animal familiars were acting as guardians of the rock's ancient secrets. At this point I would have been content to retire quietly and leave the art and the birds alone on the cliff.

I do not use a camera to record rock art. I rely on my senses to process the experience and trust that the salient information will be "recollected in tranquility"; better that, I believe, than to confine a digital impression to the depths of my hard drive and rely on it as surrogate memory. I am, of course, almost entirely alone in this pecadillo. When my colleagues caught up with me, many clambered further up the cliff to get closer shots of the pictographs. In the process they spooked the birds and first one raven and then its mate launched itself off the cliff face into the warm thermals and, with a few flaps of their wings, crossed the narrow river then the wide highway towards Bodfish Canyon. Moments later a third bird, a juvenile, followed in pursuit of its parents.

Birds animate the landscape. Like rabbits on their darting runs that sew a crude blanket stitch across my chaparral running path - my eyes following them from side to side - raptors piece together the landscape in their graceful arcs. Hawks, with their panoptic vision embracing vast swathes of country - hungrily surveying their larder - provide us earthbound creatures with a vicarious glimpse into the sublime: following their flight momentarily removes us from the thrall of gravity and allows us to enter into their almost weightless caress of the air. Closer to the ground, tiny wren tits of the large chaparral army of LBBs (little brown birds) flutter through the bushes, weaving from twig to twig. Birds are instrumental in our romantic embrace of landscape: didn't Emerson say something of that sort?

Dear reader, you must have known I wouldn't leave Emerson and his Over-soul alone. How could I ? Over-soul, large-as-life, raised its beatific head at the 65th. Ojai Music Festival last weekend. On Saturday morning, the Australian Chamber Orchestra played Peter Sculthorpe's piece, Irkanda, ('aboriginal' we are told, disingenuously, in the program notes, for 'faraway'; it was presumably phoneticized from one of the almost 150 surviving native languages). No matter, the music was transformative - taking me back to the Australian bush. Sculthorpe offers the explanation,

"I love Australia passionately and I love our landscape so it's influenced most of my work. Almost everything I've written is about the landscape - trying to find the sacred and spiritual in it."

Emerson saw Nature as the source of Spirit, of the Over-soul, the divine energy that pervades the universe. He had that mid-nineteenth century spiritual certainty that today we find so intensely annoying. In 1849 he wrote,

"(Nature) always speaks of Spirit. It suggests the absolute. It is a perpetual effect. It is a great shadow pointing always to the sun behind us......the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to the individual, and strives to lead back the individual to it."

Peter, you are, it seems, on the right tokara (an aboriginal word for track).

On Sunday afternoon, Maria Schneider, an American composer, brought her chosen instrument to the Libbey Bowl, a twenty piece big-band. Her compositions are heavily influenced by her interactions with nature. She is a birder, and many of her pieces make specific reference to bird calls, migration patterns and flight. Her music is suffused with intimations of the universal spirit.

That evening, Dawn Upshaw, the Australian soprano, sang songs Maria Schneider had composed from a collection of Ted Kooser's poems. Here Maria's lush jazz was joined to the slightly more astringent view of the poet. Both visions are steeped in a romanticism ultimately based in a belief that the natural world is imbued with an energy that speaks to the human condition. Sometimes I hear screech owls at night - they make more of a burbling trill than a screech - but it is a sound capable of immediately connecting me with the deeply resonant natural world.

If I could sing about it, perhaps I would: but these prosaic blog pieces are my songs of praise - lumpy eulogies scratched from my hard-scrabble word patch - that pale in comparison to the seemingly effortless music that is so similarly inspired.

1 comment:

  1. I'm inspired by how you capture the essence of the Maria Schneider big band concert on Sunday. And I'm delighted to read about the rough river valley where I spent the Summer of 99 on a newspaper internship at the Kern Valley Sun. I appreciate your continued efforts at peering beyond the veil and sharing what you've seen.