Thursday, April 10, 2008

Doodling in the Gloam

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

From pearls before breakfast to peents before dinner.

It felt like the scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the local yokels are waiting along a mountaintop roadside for the flying saucers to arrive. I had stationed myself below a clump of young white ash trees in the old field near the Billings barn. I had arrived by bicycle after taking the long, hilly way around on an after-work ride. I was relaxing with some cheese and crackers and a vacuum bottle of Earl Grey tea, waiting for the show to begin.

I had just heard the story of how Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post had arranged for Joshua Bell – perhaps America’s finest concert violinist – to play incognito in a busy Washington, D.C. subway station during morning rush hour to see how many people would stop to listen. Wearing a baseball cap and casual clothes with the case for his multi-million dollar Stradivarius open at his feet for tips, Bell played a series of difficult and dramatic classical pieces for nearly 45 minutes. In that time, hundreds of people passed by, most not even glancing in his direction. Here was a musician who regularly plays at packed concert halls for adoring fans who pay hundreds for tickets and no more than a handful of harried commuters paused for even a minute to listen. Only one person recognized him and he collected a mere $32.17 in tips.

Now, I’m no classical music fan - about the closest I get is when I enjoy Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring - but when I read the Post article online and watched the hidden-camera videos, I felt my eyes welling up. What has America become? What are we doing to ourselves? Do we appreciate greatness only when we have to pay for it or when some anointed expert points it out for us? Has our popular culture dumbed us down so much that we are unfamiliar with true genius? Is our work so important that we can’t take a minute from our hectic schedule to bask in beauty? Are we so burdened by debt and taxes that we can’t afford to pause for a moment? Do our profit-hungry employers push us so hard that we dare not take a breath?

On this cool, early-April Moose Hill evening, I was pausing. There was no wind, but I could feel the cool air draining off the hill so I pulled on my fleece hat and draped my blanket over my shoulders. The peepers were singing loudly in the maple swamp and I strained to hear the calls of other frog species amid the din. I thought I heard a few different calls, but didn’t know any of them well enough to give them names. A robin chuckled in the swamp and a dove cooed gently down at the other end of the field. A cardinal stopped by to give a few chips before heading off to his roost. I was waiting for my vernal virtuoso.

Sunset was at about 7:20 and by 7:30 I could see my own tea-warmed breath in the air. It was getting late and I was starting to worry about biking home in the dark. I wondered if it might be too cold, but the peepers reassured me. At 7:35 I heard the first call from the shelter of a big mass of forsythia up the hill behind me. My maestro was warming up. The calling was followed in a few minutes by a twittering sound as the bird flew behind me and circled the perimeter of the field, spiraling upward. I watched his dark silhouette against the lighter sky until he rose out of sight as if in slow motion. A period of silence was followed by what I can only describe as a random chirping similar to the sound that comes from one of those little wooden Audubon bird calls that is held between the thumb and forefinger while twisting the metal thumbscrew with the other hand. A couple of minutes later, the ground calls – known as peents – began again and the entire performance was repeated.

The woodcock is a funny little bird. With his long beak that is used to probe the mud for earthworms, he looks like a shore bird that took an evolutionary wrong turn to wind up in the uplands. The timberdoodle has a long history as a game bird and as a target for pot hunters. This heritage may contribute to the fascination many have for this rich brown bird with big eyes and bigger feet that make me think of E.T. His ground call is a funny little squeak that Julie Zickefoose might say sounds like an accident, but his song as he falls from the sky is almost other-worldly.

The show was just starting but I had to go and I heard more peents behind me as I pushed my bike down the old gravel road. The upturned crescent of the moon did little to light the way. When I got to the pavement I turned on my blinking red taillight and plunged down the hill into the deepening darkness. A lone car passed and I chased it down the steepest part of the hill at about 30 miles an hour letting his headlights light the way. As the road flattened out, I could no longer keep up, so I pedaled happily from one pool of streetlamp light to the next.

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11 Comments:

At 11:02 AM, Blogger robin andrea said...

I wish we had woodcocks here. Everywhere I read about them on blogs, they sound like the most enchanting creatures with an amazing song. I've listened to online mp3s of their peenting, but I suspect it just isn't the same as hearing it, at sunset, in your favorite place.

I remember reading about the violinist. I wondered if I would have stopped to listen or just walked by thinking he was just another street musician.

 
At 7:04 AM, Blogger Julie Zickefoose said...

Favorite post ever. Beautifully written and felt, perfect.

Liam and I traveled to Washington DC two springs ago and stopped to listen to a street musician. He was drumming on joint compound buckets, cans, and an old shopping cart, just making his own music, and he was a virtuoso. We stood and tears started streaming down my face, thinking of the immense potential of every human being, so often left unrealized thanks to race and social standing.

There were others stopping to listen, too, which gave me, and him, heart. Liam was transfixed. We stopped because we were on vacation and because we could. I suspect than many people rushing around don't stop to question whether it's really necessary for them to be in a hurry. It's not that they don't care, it's just that they're "in the chute" and don't question why or whether they should be there.

I read the article about Joshua Bell's experiment, too, and it seems to me the perfect metaphor for not noticing natural history phenomena that are going on all around us, all the time. Lately I've been listening to the brown thrasher in the backyard, cataloging the songs he's imitating. Wow, wow, wow. Talk about unappreciated virtuosos!

There are parallels in blogging...happy anniversary again!

 
At 8:30 AM, Blogger nina said...

I've never seen or heard woodcocks--only reading others' experiences finding them.
What a treat that must've been--and I'm sure you rolled toward home filled with springtime's confirmation.

 
At 11:53 AM, Blogger Carolyn H said...

I read the article about the Josh Bell experiment, too, and my first thought was that people don't understand what great is when they hear it someplace where they don't have to pay for it. I wondered if some of the people who passed by were some of the same ones who paid $100 a ticket and cheered when they heard him on stage?

Re: "Do we appreciate greatness only when we have to pay for it or when some anointed expert points it out for us?"

Carolyn H.

 
At 11:19 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

Just wanted to let you know that I was glad for the link to this article - quite the eye-opener.

I was touched most by the observation that it was kids, always, who wanted to stop and listen and observe - and that their parents had to pull them away. What a shame that we all don't see the world with that same curiosity and appreciation for the wonderful around us.

 
At 2:00 PM, Blogger Deb said...

Beautiful post, MojoMan. I am reminded how unbelievably fortunate I am to be able to witness such a performance right from my back step.

I remember hearing about the Joshua Bell experiment. It made me think that with recorded music and soundtracks and commercials everywhere we have become accustomed to professionally played background music. Perhaps this story shows how much we have forgotten that people (or birds, or frogs), not machines, make music.

 
At 10:16 PM, Blogger Crayons said...

You have written a wonderful post here. I very much agree with you about the loss we suffer with the advent of digital music. I hardly spend a penny on CDs (I have 8), but I always give money to street musicians.

I like the way you tied this into the performance that you attended.

 
At 6:33 PM, Blogger Crayons said...

Hi MoJo Man
Thank you for the kind note on my post about Passover! That was so thoughtful.

Visiting your blog just now gave me a chance to re-read this wonderful post. You are able to evoke sounds and feelings and sights with apparent ease, and such an economy of words.

 
At 10:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i hope you continue your moose hill journal, i know it's not always easy to go to the effort of writing. i don't live in the area anymore, but i used to love going to moose hill and dwelling there for an hour or three-i'd been going there for 30 years or more. i used to take my nephew out in the summer dusk and we would wait for the deer and the turkeys that would appear at magical dusk at the moose hill farm field. your post about joshua bell is a reminder that we have to make an effort to live mindful lives, to make an effort to smell the flowers, be aware of the moment, be aware of the specialness of everyday moments. nowhere is that more rewarding, and easy to attain, than in the woods, or the beach, or a meadow. lastly, the woodcock is an amazing bird. i saw my first woodcock three years ago right in my backyard in walpole, about 20 feet from the house. it had settled in on the edge of a dried vernal pool, lots of litterfall and low cover. its coloration/camouflage was incredible, superb! adn yes, so bizarre-looking, with its huge bill, very much like a wading shorebird.

 
At 7:49 PM, Blogger Crayons said...

Hi Mojo Man,
Thanks for your nice comment on my blog. That quote really wraps up the whole situation.

Whenever you feel ready to write again, I'll be so happy to read it.

 
At 5:39 PM, Blogger Larry said...

I like your comparison.I actually have a Josh Bell CD that has romantic classics on it.I'm not really a fan of that type of music but I listen to this CD occasionally. His playing really is wonderful. he conveys great emotion with his violin.That's so sad that we don't even have time to stop and appreciate greatness.-Nice post!

 

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