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This book is not the proper medium in which to set forth evolutionary theories of birdsong, but I must emphatically say that the bird sings first for love of music, and second for love of a lady. I put the lady second, for, if he did not love music first he would not have sung to her, and birds, like the rest of us, are a trifle selfish. What we like most we think others will like as well, hence, in a moment of unselfishness we share the object of our selfishness!”

I’m still trying to decide what I think of this quote.

Lately I’ve been enjoying reading about animals. Which is funny, because I’m no animal lover. But still, this book, The Music of Wild Birds, and another, Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin, fascinate me.

Although I’m not particularly a bird watcher, I do appreciate the background music of birds out my window as I write this. This book on birds’ music caught my eye first because of the beautiful artwork on the cover. The lovely drawings throughout are a delight, whether or not one reads or understands any of the text. And then the book kept my attention because of the musical transcriptions and dialogue about each bird and its music. I was fascinated by the thought of someone taking the time to transcribe what they heard, and then make connections between bird songs and music of human composers.

Originally written in 1904 by F. Schuyler Mathews, this edition is illustrated and adapted by Judy Pelikan. Here are some of Mr. Mathews interesting observations and connections [The text is highly interspersed with musical transcriptions, which I cannot copy here, but will indicate with an [*]:

The charm, too, of the Chickadee’s singing lies in the fact that he knows the value of a well-sustained half note, another point which should be scored in the little musician’s favor. Truly, in this regard he is far ahead of the Canary, for the latter wastes his energy splitting into hemidemisemiquavers every tone within the compass of an octave….

[*] I may be overestimating the value of a melody so meager as that of the Chickadee, but if so it becomes difficult to account for the charm that underlies the music of all great composers, for constructively considered their melodies are mere elaborations of absolutely simple themes. (pgs. 56, 57)

Concerning a bird who, day after day, sang the same melody, but at times switched it from a major key to a minor one:

[*]The Song Sparrow has the ability to render a motive in both the major and minor keys, just exactly as Verdi has done in the ninth and eleventh bars of the “Di Provenza”. ( p. 138 )

It is not a stretch to imagine that the author is reading too much “psychology” into a particular bird’s musical expression, but I, for one, found his speculation quite fun:

In the summer of 1903 I heard in Nantucket a bird which sang with charming accuracy the following first two bars from Alfredo’s song in La Traviata [*]…But this was sung in the same pathetic way in which Violetta sings it a little later in the same act, when she finds she must give up Alfredo. There is an unmistakable pathos in the bird’s song.

It is not always the case, however, that the music is pathetic. One afternoon, while crossing the downs of Nantucket, I heard a bit which was decidedly reminiscent of the song and dance with castanets in which Carmen attempts, in the opera of her name, to lure Jose away from his duty: [*]

This, it must be admitted, was not sung in quite the lively way the libretto would demand, but the melody was correct: [*]

A moment later, however, another bird spoiled the whole effect by finishing the song the wrong way, thus: [*]…Meadowlarks, and birds in general, for that matter, are prone to take unwarranted liberties with operatic scores. ( pgs. 168-170 )

I think I find the birds being discussed, and the author himself, equally fascinating. I read something like this, and am fascinated with a person who not only notices bird’s songs, but writes them down, makes intuitive connections with human music, and feels powerfully, in connection with both. As someone who thinks with feeling, it is not completely foreign to me to understand how a bird’s song could connect with such specific feelings.

[The Yellow-throated Vireo] is never in a hurry, and after singing three or four clusters of slurred notes, thus, [*] he gives you plenty of time to think the matter over before he makes another remark. At the time of the Boer War I imagined this bird was telling me all about it [* with this text:  ‘Mafeking. Modder river. Buluway. Molappo. Boer war!’] Certainly one finds the word Buluwayo fits a particular group of notes remarkably well. ( pg. 119 )

Though I’m not so good at analyzing or even always noticing birds’ music, I’d have enjoyed knowing and watching Mr. Mathews be himself. What a fascinating, interesting man he must have been to notice, in such detail and with such passion and enjoyment, the music of birds. Many thanks to Ms. Pelikan for making this book available today, and enhancing it so gorgeously with her drawings.

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Escape from reality

Today brings a situation I’d rather run from than deal with. Deal with it, I will, one way or another. But if I could run from reality, I’d love to have this in my living room to run to:

bookshelf chair

The bookshelf chair, which I discovered via Cascades, comes with 16 feet of shelving and variable slot sizes, so that just about any book should fit one place or another.

Of course, I’d have to face reality again anyway when the £3,550 bill arrived.  So, I guess I’ll pass on this escape. But a girl can dream of being a literary-couch-potato-in-style, can’t she?

The Story of the Day that arrived from StoryPeople this morning was very fitting, I thought:

If I ran the world, he told me, I’d pretty much leave it alone & spend my time reading & I’d advise other people to do the same. Which is why I’ll probably never run the world, he said.

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Light Pollution

Too much of a good thing? I’d never thought of it before, with regards to light.

Light is good, of course. I live in Florida. I’m happy living in a place where the sun shines pretty much year round. I don’t want to live in a part of the country or even a house with too little light.

But, what about having too much light? I love the sunshine all day, most every day. I don’t, however, love the sunshine enough to want it all night.

I’d never really stopped to ponder that thought until today when I read a mini review of a book called: Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark.

I love the light, but I have no interest in giving up the beauty of the night, either. The moon has been exceptionally brilliant in my night sky this week. I’ve enjoyed hanging out laundry or sitting on my porch looking at it.  But night here can never compare to places in Africa where I’ve lived, where the moon and stars did not have to compete with artificial light.

One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen was an eclipse in a town without electricity. To start out with a moon that was so bright you could see shadows, and then transition through smaller and smaller shadows until there was complete darkness, and then back again to the moon’s brightness. I remember it being a great way to spend a few hours.

Well, now I’m starting to wax nostalgic and wander from the point of this post.

The book I mention above is a collection of essays celebrating the gifts of night and darkness, mourning some of the losses that happen when night is artificially interrupted and drawing analogies to the rest of our lives from the importance of darkness.

I’ve not read the book. This quote, however, has given me something to ponder while I’m out running errands today:

Our desire for meaning keeps us reaching for greater clarity and luminosity. But we confound lucidity with kilowatts. We confuse artificial light with enlightenment. Therein lies a greater fear: that we humans might be so afraid of darkness that we, for a time, would destroy it, thus banishing the illumination that darkness brings.

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This morning, I received an email from Afrigadget, a blog dedicated to showcasing how Africans solve everyday problems with incredible ingenuity.

This afternoon, I read a selection from “Why I Am Not a Pacificist” by C.S. Lewis. To me, the morning’s email and the afternoon’s reading felt very connected.

The email spotlighted an initiative which transformed a dump in a Nairobi, Kenya slum, into a community farm. Beyond such obvious obstacles as clearing the trash,

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there were other less obvious difficulties such as what to do about the high levels of lead, copper, zinc and boron.

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Part of the solution was to plant sunflowers, which leach the toxins out of the soil, in between the ordinary vegetables.  Check out this handy, made from recycled materials, planting tool:

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It is made from a hollow pipe with a stick tied onto the bottom of it for digging the hole and a yogurt container attached to the top for dropping the seeds down into. No stooping, no bending, no hard work digging.

And here’s an earthworm farm/composting pile for fertilizer:

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And the final product, three months after clearing the dump:

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And then, this from C.S. Lewis:

It may be asked whether, faint as the hope is of abolishing war by Pacifism, there is any other hope. But the question belongs to a mode of thought which I find quite alien to me. It consists in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure; and it then proceeds by elimination and concludes that whatever is left, however unlikely to prove a cure, must nevertheless do so. Hence the fanaticism of Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists, Douglasites, Federal Unionists, Vegetarians, and all the rest. But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering.

I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.

I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made; just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.

I have come to no great conclusions, based on either the photo essay or the writings of C.S. Lewis. Both, however, have left me with much to ponder. Both challenge me to consider and ask questions about my own life.

What do you think? Do you know people who are making a difference in these kinds of ways (feel free to add your stories here)? Where are you in your thinking and acting? How do you interact with suffering and misery in the world around you? Do you get to work? Grieve? Turn away because it seems too overwhelming? Feel guilty? Or something else?

What direction does the Lewis quote send your mind in? Do you agree? Or disagree? Or some of both?

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For more information about  Kibera slum in which this field was planted, BBC has a four part article about it. The link is to the last selection, because it contains links to the other three parts as well.

Photos come from “Farming Innovations in a Slum” at Afrigadget and from the website Green Dreams Organic Farming in East Africa. This website follows the development of the farm in great detail.

The C. S. Lewis quote is from A Year with C.S. Lewis, October 19]

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Learning to Follow

Ann Patchett has some interesting thoughts in a little book called “What Now?” which was originally a graduation speech she gave at Sarah Lawrence College.

Receiving an education is a little like a garden snake swallowing a chicken egg: it’s in you but it takes a while to digest.”

I always appreciate a fun metaphor, and that one made me smile. I don’t know that that actually reflects my experience with education. I found that, regardless of what I specifically remembered from college, it changed me just hearing it and considering it.  So, there is a sense in which the impact was immediate, rather than something which came to full fruition later. But, in any case, the metaphor the author gives lays a nice groundwork for what she talks about next.

She is referring to her 12 years at an all girls’ Catholic school.

At the time, I thought that mine was the most ridiculous, antiquated secondary education in the history….I learned modesty, humility and how to make a decent white sauce. The white sauce I probably could have done without, but it turns out that modesty and humility mean a lot when you’re down on your luck.

Ann Patchett ended up waitressing for a long time between her graduation and actually beginning her successful career as a writer. At college and at writer’s school, her “specialness” had been emphasized.

I’m not knocking being special, it was nice to hear, but when it was clear that I was just like everybody else, I was glad to have had some experience with anonymity to fall back on. The nuns were not much on extolling the virtues of leadership. In fact, we were taught to follow.

Taught to follow. Is that taught very often? Does it seem hideous to even think about such a thing?

In a world that is flooded with children’s leadership camps and grown-up leadership seminars and bestselling books on leadership, I count myself as fortunate to have been taught a thing or two about following. Like leading, it is a skill, and unlike leading, it’s one that you’ll actually get to use on a daily basis.

My personality bent probably leads me more towards following or at the very least cooperativeness, rather than leading. Sometimes it has looked like something is wrong with me (or I’ve felt that way) because I just didn’t care about moving ahead when moving ahead meant getting to the top or taking charge. I appreciate what the author is saying here because it presents following as something other than a character flaw to be fixed or trained away or overcome.  And really, she does have a very good point:

It is senseless to think that at every moment of our lives we should all be the team captain, the class president, the general, the CEO, and yet so often this is what we’re being prepared for. No matter how many great ideas you might have about salad preparation or the reorganization of time cards, waitressing is not a leadership position…. You learn to be helpful and you learn to ask for help.

Ah, these words feel like a drink of refreshing water to me.

It turns out that most positions in life, even the big ones, aren’t really so much about leadership. Being successful, and certainly being happy, comes from honing your skills in working with other people. For the most part we travel in groups–you’re ahead of somebody for a while, then somebody’s ahead of you, a lot of people are beside you all the way. It’s what the nuns had always taught us: sing together, eat together, pray together.

It wasn’t until I found myself relying on my fellow waitress Regina to heat up my fudge sauce for me that I knew enough to be grateful not only for the help she was giving me but for the education that had prepared me to accept it. (quotes from pages 60 to 67)

These words made my brain go in at least two different directions: thinking about the surprising and unexpected ways that education affects us, and the whole concept of learning the skill of following. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these quotes. Are you naturally a leader or a follower? Have you found yourself in positions that require the opposite of your natural bent? And, if so, what kind of things have you found helpful for training you, either in leading or following?

It was just very nice to me to think about developing the skill of following. That feels like a whole lot less pressure to me than to try to figure out how to be the leader that I’ll never naturally be. Part of it, I think, is that we equate being a leader with influence. But, I think followers can be people of great and positive influence, too.

(This is one of many books I checked out this past weekend while visiting the library with a friend. I’m going to update my “To Read” page to reflect my current reading options.)

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Two Types of Readers

I divide all readers into two classes: Those who read to remember and those who read to forget. –William Phelps

Do you agree? Disagree? I think I sometimes read to remember and sometimes read to forget. Sometimes I read for both reasons at the same time.

What are some of the reasons you read? What kinds of things do you read for each of those (or for other) reasons?

What are you reading this summer?

(more…)

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(to me, at least)

I am reading a book called The Body Remembers, which is helping me understand a bit more about how my memory works–both why I apparently (so they tell me) remember things so well, and why I have such a propensity to post-traumatic stress. Fascinating stuff, and I am enjoying the book and the things that are clicking and making sense to me as I read, though I am only on page 37, where I discovered this fun poem by a Danish poet, Piet Hein:

Rhyme and Reason

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
But try as she would she could never detect
which was the cause and which the effect.

Piet Hein. What a fascinating guy. Not, perhaps, your ordinary poet. Fascinating enough that he wrote his poetry in several different languages. I also discovered that he:

…was a genius with many different sides. In addition to discovering the Soma cube, he created a new geometrical form, the “super-ellipse”, which is something in between the rectangle and the ellipse. The form also came in a 3D version and was then called “the super egg” or “the super-ellipsoide”. As an artist and constructor, Piet Hein in the 50’s and 60’s gave form to beautiful pieces of furniture, and he contributed to make “Scandinavian design” become an international conception. Internationally he always tried building a bridge between the “hard” technical and natural sciences and the “soft” humanistic subjects.

Here a few more of his poems, known, for some reason I haven’t looked up yet, as “Grooks”:

PROBLEMS
Problems worthy
of attack
prove their worth
by hitting back.

(I’ve got a few problems like that, which obsessively and obnoxiously seem to keep trying to prove their worth!)

This is a brilliant idea, I think:

A PSYCHOLOGICAL TIP
Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,
and you’re hampered by not having any,
the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,
is simply by spinning a penny.
No – not so that chance shall decide the affair
while you’re passively standing there moping;
but the moment the penny is up in the air,
you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

And finally, this one, which gave me a smile for how relevant an encouragement it was to me tonight:

T.T.T
Put up in a place
where it’s easy to see
the cryptic admonishment
T.T.T.
When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb,
it’s well to remember that
Things Take Time.


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