When expedeherculem of Coming Soon: A Vast Desert offered to write a guest post for my little blog I was pretty excited. When I saw it was a great mix of bird songs I was even happier. Some songs I knew, many were new. I bet you will enjoy these as much as I did.
He couldn’t possibly have known but I happen to be convalescing from my latest injury. Just when I was going a bit mad from being housebound I received his email. Perfect timing.
Song list and travel commentary about a train trip to Kansas City follow the break. I added the links …
The Swift Flight of a Single Sparrow*
- Jordon Moser – Grackle Blues 3:24
- Lorez Alexandria – Baltimore Oriole 3:12
- Loudon Wainwright III – Where the Whippoorwill is Whispering Goodnight (Charlie Poole) 3:21
- Townes Van Zandt – Black Crow Blues** 3:02
- Joe Cocker – Bird on a Wire (Leonard Cohen) 4:27
- David Francey – Red-Winged Blackbird 2:42
- Bill Callahan – Too Many Birds∝ 5:27
- Jolie Holland – The Littlest Birds∝∝ 3:59
- The Civilians – We Were Wrens 4:22
- Toots & The Maytals – Canary in a Coalmine (The Police) 3:43
- Charlie Parr – Barn Swallows at Midnight# 4:24
- The Tallest Man on Earth – The Sparrow and the Medicine 3:06
- Of Montreal – City Bird## 2:20
- Marc Bolan – Ride a White Swan (BBC session) 2:02
- Frankie Lane – The Cry of the Wild Goose 2:40
- Catherine MacLellan – The Raven’s Sun 3:18
- The Honeycombs – I Want to be Free^ 3:41
- Leo Kottke – Owls^^ 5:02
- Regina Spektor – Two Birds 3:15
- Kate Mann – Bird in My House 3:25
- The Weakerthans – Sounds Familiar× 2:29
* The title of this bird-themed mix is a line stolen from the Venerable Bede, paraphrasing the counsel of one of King Edwin of Northumberland’s close advisors on whether or not the king should convert: “Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.” I of course love the metaphor but draw a different conclusion from it.
** I tell people that I prefer trains because it allows one to see the scenery change—to absorb the full effect of distance. And while it may have more to do with an intensifying claustrophobia (let alone routine nightmares about planes) than with nostalgia for a time when the scenery really did change, I can genuinely say that I am enjoying the meditation of a view that both whizzes past and stands still—ever still. For that I have this window to thank, although I’m not quite sentimental enough to forget for any long stretch that it was the intercontinental railroad that destroyed the bison. Case in point: as we rode through the middle of nowhere, Missouri, I was told to pay special attention out the window for the off chance of seeing a bald eagle; “We tend to kick some up as we barrel through here,” it was explained. Everyone in the lounge car gave an impressed “Ohhh,” but all I could think is how annoying that must be for the eagles (which we didn’t end up seeing anyway). And yet, I’m somewhat encouraged by the confirmation that unlike the landscape—if we can call it that—the birds still manifest regional differences. My route if stops were named after birds: Great-Tailed Grackle – Red-Winged Blackbird – Turkey Vulture – Harris’ Hawk – Great Blue Heron – Black Crow – Canadian Goose – Bale Eagle – Brown Sparrow. And of course, that’s just counting the birds who don’t mind the commotion of engines and whistles on this, what I now realize is aptly named, Texas Eagle. At a glance, here in Black Crow Country, I just counted seven nests in the nearby wintery skeletons, but I don’t know what kinds of birds live in them.
∝ Why don’t they make arm-rests out of softer material, I wonder. The patterned fabric of the seats provides adequate cradling, sure, but even a heavy pea-coat bundled into a ball can’t ameliorate the stiff, un-giving metal. The result is a sore half-dozing, punctuated frequently with aches in new, previously unknown muscles. Not even the train’s sway and murmur can overcome the need to pretzel for oases of cushion; “you fly all night to sleep on stone, to return to the tree with too many birds,” as the lyrics go. But as I look out the window now, relieved for daylight and the waking hawks in distant, blurred branches it has begun to illuminate (I can’t see the birds but I know they’re there), I imagine that’s how it must have been all the time for our wild ancestors—who must have, for only sleeping in spurts, and for having the licking flame instead of endless whistling devices, occupied a much more vivid fluidity between waking and dreaming. So, too, must most other animals now.
∝∝ Once, while stopped for a freight train to pass, I observed, as if stopping at a diorama in a marbled museum, a patch of earth peppered with short pine trees, and sectioned off with taller pines, so that it appeared self-contained. There was a large puddle in the middle, rippled by light rain, lined with wiry brambles marking the immediate foreground. I watched this forested square for quite some time, imagining it to be a miniature working replica (like the one I had seen of a steam engine, modeled to 1:8 scale, at the station earlier in the trip) of a larger, more marvelous woodland. Just then the train startled to life, and so too did three or so birds, who for the entire time had been camouflaged in the damp bushes. They darted, but landed again within the confines of the tree-box, as if abiding by my imaginary boundaries. The train lurched forward and then away, leaving the microcosm to play out its stories of mud and matted grass, once again free from external eye. Of what went before or what then followed, I know nothing.
# Instrumentals are tricky on mix CDs. On the one hand, they serve as clear dividing lines between sections of the set-list that convey their own mood and are bound together by common themes. But on the other hand, some may see them as a waste of space on the disc. With eighty minutes to play with, and knowing that choosing what songs to leave off the mix is excruciatingly more difficult than deciding what goes on, does one really dare waiving the opportunity to express thought in words? I, for one, love too many instrumentals to leave them out of the repertoire. And besides, birds don’t use words we can discern, do they? No, their melodies alone tell a million stories; I’d hate to see their tunes, too, caged by our culture.
## On the subject of city lights and the fact that they obscure as much as they illuminate, I’ll quote Aleksander Pluskowski’s book Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages, describing with muffled accuracy a time “lit only by fire”: “Indeed, with hindsight, the medieval world may seem like a waking nightmare.” I’ll also quote Terence McKenna: “The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed.”
^ A flash of red catches my eye. A cardinal? No. Just a gas can, hung up-side-down on a branch. Then the tree-wall gives way to a vast desert of barrels—some stacked neatly and some spilled about like bowling pins. The tree-wall reappears, although thinner this time, allowing a view only slightly obscured to the flooded field beyond—and beyond that, a dirt road, now mud. I remember the cardinal can and then a conversation overheard in the station: a woman telling someone on the phone that the journey was going well and, surely in response to a question about the scenery, that to pass the time she’s been noting all the trash that people in different parts of the country have been leaving behind in the woods. “It’s interesting,” she assures, but adds, “If I ever take the train again I want to do it in the Fall, so at least there’s color to look at.” I remember other cardinals—not real ones, but magnets, stuffed toys, baseball jerseys—that cluttered shop windows as if to bursting. Where are all the real ones? I couldn’t find any songs about cardinals either. Just the Christmas ornaments and key-chains and embroidered socks for now.
^^ Supposed terms of venery:
- A parliament of owls
- A murder of crows
- An annoyance of grackles
- An ostentation of peacocks
- An exaltation of larks
- A conspiracy of ravens
× I guess it’s strange to end the mix with a song about a bird smacking into a plate of glass, but its end is both the marker of the conclusion of an idea (as a joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling, as Nietzsche wrote) and the clearing of the way for the generation of a new one. With one adventure dead and buried, there’s room for living ones in the future. So in other words, don’t just make another office playlist; go make your own bird mix to travel by. Or perhaps you prefer songs about wolves (I’m sure there are plenty), or even humming your own melodies—and perhaps your adventures are walks down the street, or walks to the mailbox at the end of the drive. There’s a plump mockingbird who I pass every morning on the way to my garden (she lets me pass, I mean), and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t leave a two- or three-block radius. But imagine her stories!