Category Archives: Books, Etc.


Virtuoso Performers


Forest (photo © 2011: Steve Tracey)

I was up early this morning, listening to the dawn chorus. Is anything more emblematic of spring than the singing of birds?

Several people have written to say that they enjoyed the links to bird songs in Friday’s “Liquid Bars of Melody” post. Steve Tracey reports from the Upper Peninsula that he staved off cabin fever all winter by listening to bird songs on his computer and watching the antics of his year-old English setter Forest as he was driven nuts trying to figure out where the birds were hiding. Happy Birthday, Forest.

My friend Mary Ann Linsell wrote to say she particularly enjoyed the white-throated sparrow, with its two-toned song so famously interpreted as “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” It brings to mind the early 20th century ornithologist and musician F. Schuyler Mathews, who considered phonetic transcriptions of bird song an insult to the birds. He pointed out that the song of the “Peabody-bird” could just as easily be articulated as “Sow wheat Pe-ver-ly, Pe-ver-ly, Pe-ver-ley,” or “All day whit-tl-in’, whit-tl-in’, whit-tl-in’.” The same was true, he said, for every phonetic interpretation of every bird’s song. To correct that imprecision he labored for twenty years to transpose the songs of 127 species into dots on staves, and published them in one of the earliest identification guides to birdsong, Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, A Description of the Character and Music of Birds, Intended to Assist in the Identification of Species Common in the United States East of the Rocky Mountains (1904; expanded and reprinted in 1921).

sparrow song

The song of the white-throated sparrow as transcribed by Mathews

[The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's recording of a white-throated sparrow is here]

Although Mathews’s scores can be played on a piano, he insisted that to perform them accurately they must be whistled. It would take a whistling prodigy, however, to do justice to some of those songs. They include dazzlingly complex chords made by birds equipped with twin vocal mechanisms that make it possible for them to sing two notes simultaneously. Also represented are songs composed of cascades of notes—virtual waterfalls of notes—as dense as 64 to the bar. And there are songs to be whistled that we will probably never hear, such as the “strident and insectlike” song of the grasshopper sparrow, which Mathews admits is pitched “so high that 9 out of 10 people can’t hear it singing 30 feet away.”

More recently, ornithologists have counted the music output of certain songbirds and come up with astonishing figures. A red-eyed vireo was once observed singing a two- to four-note song a total of 22,197 times in a 14-hour period. The marsh warbler of Europe, Africa, and Asia spends two months of the year in its breeding grounds from the British Isles to the Ural Mountains of Siberia, then migrates to tropical Africa—a round trip of as much as 4,800 miles. During those long migrations it hears a great variety of songs from other birds, which it faithfully incorporates into a repertoire it puts to work during three to four days of virtually non-stop singing in the spring. A Belgian scientist who spent ten years studying the warbler’s song found that it mimicked as many as 210 other species during each 30-minute burst of song.

A musical prodigy closer to home, and a particular favorite of Gail’s and mine, is the brown thrasher, which should show up any day here in northern Michigan. This large, thrushlike bird has the greatest repertoire of any North American songbird and has been credited with as many as 3,000 melodies. For its performances it likes to take up a position at the top of an aspen, birch, or crab apple in partially open terrain where it can be seen and heard to full advantage. Once you hear its performance you’re not likely to forget it. It strings together jazzlike riffs mimicked from other birds and some of its own invention, and delivers them with ceaseless energy. Mathews noted that the song offers these words of advice to farmers: “Shuck it, shuck it; sow it, sow it; Plough it, plough it; hoe it, hoe it.” Thoreau reported in Walden that the brown thrasher’s “rigmarole, his amateur Paganini performances,” kept farmers company as they planted corn with the constant reminder:  “Drop it, drop it, —cover it up, cover it up,—pull it up, pull it up, pull it up.”

brown thrasher

The song of the brown thrasher, as transcribed by Mathews

[The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's recording of a brown thrasher is here]

…And Birds on Wires

Finally, while on the subject of birds and musical notation, here’s something strange and wonderful that a friend found on YouTube and sent along:


Liquid Runs of Melody

I was awakened early this morning by a cardinal and a titmouse singing in the walnut tree outside my window. And I could hear also, in a kind of counterpoint to those bright and piercing notes, the tap-tap-tap of dripping eaves. Is it possible? Are rumors of spring true?

Birdsong has probably inspired more poetry and music than any other event in nature. How we interpret those songs makes up a tiny but vigorous sub-genre of literature that can sometimes be as entertaining as the songs themselves. [Songs of the northern cardinal can be heard here] [Listen to a tufted titmouse here]

Thoreau’s journals are filled with examples. He writes that the wood thrush’s “cool bars of melody” make him think of  “…the liquid coolness of things that are just drawn from the bottom of springs.”

For John James Audubon, the same bird’s song recalls  “… the emotions of the lover, who at one moment exults in the hope of possessing the object of his affections, and the next pauses in suspense…” [To hear the song of  a wood thrush, go here]

The hermit thrush, says John Burroughs, “…suggests a serene religious beatitude as no other sound in nature… ‘O spheral, spheral!’… ‘O holy, holy! O clear away, clear away! O clear up, clear up!’ interspersed with the finest trills and the most delicate preludes. It … seems to be the voice of that calm, sweet solemnity one attains in his best moments.”
Another thrush (what kind he doesn’t say) inspired Lewis Thomas to write: “The thrush in my backyard sings down his nose in meditative liquid runs of melody, over and over again, and I have the strongest impression that he does this for his own pleasure. Some of the time he seems to be practicing, like a virtuoso in his apartment. He starts a run, reaches a midpoint in the second bar where there should be a set of complex harmonics, stops, and goes back to begin over, dissatisfied… It is a meditative, questioning kind of music, and I cannot believe that he is simply saying, ‘thrush here.’” [Listen to a  hermit thrush here]

Here is John Muir on the song of the American dipper (he called it the Water Ouzel): “…his mellow, fluty voice is ever tuned to downright gladness…his music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the trills of rapids, the gurgling of margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the ends of mosses and falling into tranquil pools.”

And Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher on the same bird:“…a burst of rippling notes… a clear, sweet song… In vivid moonlight we could see them… dipping and bobbing on rocks in the cold shining water – and singing. Their song echoed back and forth so that all the lake was ringing with it.  When we went inside again the birds flew above our roof and poured their music down on us… those crystal tinkles, which matched so perfectly the icy purity of the winter night.” [For the song of the American dipper, go here]

Roger Tory Peterson on the song of another Western species, the canyon wren: “A gushing cadence of clear, curved notes tripping down a scale…”

[Songs of the canyon wren can be heard here]

Donald Culross Peattie on the song of the white-throated sparrow:  “…the white-throat’s touching chromatic pierces the heart; it blends sadness and happiness… a song like a cry, a song that speaks of the antiquity of time, the briefness of life.”

[To hear the "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody" call of the white-throated sparrow, go here]

Izaac Walton, on the nightingale: “…which breathes such sweet loud music out of her little instrumental throat that it might make mankind to think miracles are not ceased. He that at midnight…should hear, as I have very often, the clear airs, the sweet descants, the natural rising and falling, the doubling and redoubling of her voice, might well be lifted above earth and say, ‘Lord, what music hast Thou provided for the saints in heaven, when Thou affordest bad men such music on earth.’”

D.H. Lawrence, also on the nightingale: “A kind of brilliant calling and interweaving of glittering exclamation such as must have been heard on the first day of creation, when the angels suddenly found themselves created, and shouting aloud before they knew it. Then there must have been a to-do of angels in the thickets of heaven: ‘Hello! Hello! Behold! Behold! Behold! It is I! It is I! What a mar-mar-marvelous occurrence! What!”

And, finally, Thoreau again, on the winter wren: “It was surprising for its steady and uninterrupted flow… It reminded me of a fine corkscrew stream issuing with incessant lisping tinkle from a cork, flowing rapidly.” [The winter wren's song is here]


Literary Feasts

feastLiterature and music come closest of all the arts to matching the creative opulence and diversity of nature. Just as the 117 elements in the Periodic Table are the raw material for all physical matter, the 26 letters in our alphabet create a spoken/written universe of virtually endless variety. Putting letters and words into new order is an organic profusion, wild, fluid, and unstoppable, not learned so much as tapped into, as if we have discovered language by driving a pipe into an artesian well. Writers who tap into that aquifer take for granted that readers will accept their profuse output — not just accept it, but relish it, snapping up words like plump berries we pop into our mouths, bump against our teeth, roll across our tongues, and bite to release bursts of nectar. Certain sentences and paragraphs are so sensuous that just reading them is never enough. No wonder we say of a favorite book that we “devoured” it, or “ate it up,” or found it “delicious.”

So it should not be surprising that literary descriptions of food and feasts have so often inspired feasts of language. As a reader, I want to enjoy every bite – feel the words on my tongue, taste combinations so unusual and surprising that they are like new classes of flavors. Here are a few offerings to dine upon:

From Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, (some of the foods the character Harry Penn holds dear to his heart, and which the cook, Boonya, loves to prepare):

“Oh, durbo cheese stuffed with trefoil, camminog, meat of the vibola, roast bandribrolog seeds, satcha oil hotcakes, young Dollit chicken in Sauce Donald, giant broom berries, crème de la berkish tollick, serbine of vellit, pickled teetingle, chocolate wall hermans, trail lemons, Rhinebeck hot pots with fresh armando, parrifoo of aminule, vanilla lens arrows, fertile beaties, archbestial bloodwurst, Turkish calendar cake, fried berlac chippings, cocktail of ballroom pig, vellum cream cake, undercurrents, crisp of tough boxer lamb, sugared action terries, merry rubint nuts, and rasta blood-chicken with sauce Arnold.

“For each of these products of Boonya’s crazed imagination, she had a recipe. Christiana looked on in wonder as  Boonya pantomimed the preparation of a fresh teetingle, or the proper way to cut vanilla lens arrows. “Always flour the marble before you put down an uncooked lens arrow. Sprinkle the vanilla. Cut it fast!” she screamed, her fat sausagelike arms flailing about the medicine ball. ‘Otherwise, it sticks. Sticky little bastards, lens arrows. Did your mother ever teach you how to properly bone a good serbine of vellit?’”

From James Joyce’s Ulysses (the “Cyclops” chapter):

“Thither the extremely large wains bring foison of the fields, flaskets of cauliflowers, floats of spinach, pineapple chunks, Rangoon beans, strikes of tomatoes, drums of figs, drills of Swedes, spherical potatoes and tallies of iridescent kale, York and Savoy, and trays of onions, pearls of the earth, and punnets of mushrooms and custard marrows and fat vetches and bere and rape and red green yellow brown russet sweet big bitter ripe pomellated apples and chips of strawberries and sieves of gooseberries, pulpy and pelurious, and strawberries fit for the princes and raspberries from their canes.”

From Donald Barthelme’s story “The Zombies,” in Great Days (in which a zombie, visiting the only village for miles around that is willing to sell wives to zombies, tries to win a bride for himself by describing the copious breakfasts served in zombie homes):

“Monday!” he says, “Sliced oranges boiled grits fried croakers potato croquettes radishes watercress broiled spring chicken batter cakes butter syrup and café au lait! Tuesday! Grapes hominy broiled tenderloin of trout steak French-fried potatoes celery fresh rolls butter and café au lait! Wednesday! Iced figs Wheatena porgies with sauce tartare potato chips broiled ham scrambled eggs French toast and café au lait! Thursday! Bananas with cream oatmeal broiled patassas fried liver with bacon poached eggs on toast waffles with syrup and café au lait! Friday! Strawberries with cream broiled oysters on toast celery friend perch lyonnaise potatoes cornbread with syrup and café au lait! Saturday! Muskmelon on ice grits stewed tripe herb omelette olives snipe on toast flannel cakes with syrup and café au lait!” The zombie draws a long breath. “Sunday!” he says. “Peaches with cream cracked wheat with milk broiled Spanish mackerel with sauce maitre d’hotel creamed chicken beaten biscuits broiled woodcock on English muffin rice cakes potatoes a la duchess eggs Benedict oysters on the half shell broiled lamb chops pound cake with syrup and café au lait! And imported champagne!”

From Mark Twain’s Autobiography of Mark Twain, The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 (remembering meals when he was a boy in the 1840s):

“It was a heavenly place for a boy, that farm of my uncle John’s. The house was a double log one, with a spacious floor (roofed in) connecting it with the kitchen. In the summer the table was set in the middle of that shady and breezy floor, and the sumptuous meals – well, it makes me cry to think of them. Fried chicken; roast pig; wild and tame turkeys, ducks and geese; venison just killed; squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, prairie chickens; homemade bacon and ham; hot biscuits, hot batter-cakes, hot buckwheat cakes, hot “wheatbread,” hot rolls, hot corn pone; fresh corn boiled on the ear, succotash, butter-beans, string beans, tomatoes, peas, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes; buttermilk, sweet milk, “clabber;” watermelons, musk melons, cantaloupes — all fresh from the garden — apple pie, peach pie, pumpkin pie, apple dumplings, peach cobbler — I can’t remember the rest. The way that certain things were cooked was perhaps the main splendor — particularly a certain few of the dishes. For instance, the corn bread, the hot biscuits and wheatbread and the  fried chicken. These things have never been properly cooked in the North — in fact, no one there is able to learn the art, so far as my experience goes. The North thinks it knows how to make corn bread, but this is gross superstition. Perhaps no bread in the world is quite as good as Southern corn bread, and perhaps no bread in the world is quite so bad as the Northern imitation of it.

Do you know of other copious  breakfasts, lunches, dinners, or snacks in literature? Please let me know. I’m hungry!


Armloads of the World

That there is something rather than nothing has nailed many good philosophers to their chairs, but equally befuddling is matter’s refusal to remain an undifferentiated mist adrift in space. Lucky for us that individual atoms dance with other atoms, adhering, combining and recombining, arranging and rearranging, shuffling among themselves, piling likes upon likes and the similar upon the dissimilar and again upon the ever more dissimilar until a few particles of spinning energy join up to become a grain of sand, then a dandelion seed beneath a parachute of fluff, then a sixteen-penny nail holding together two boards in a house in Malawi, then a Labrador retriever leaping for a Frisbee on a beach in San Diego, then a fusty mathematician laying out the axioms of Euclid. Pure matter, that tireless flow of particles and energy, is amazing enough. Throw life into the broth and the universe becomes so astounding that we should be stupefied with wonder.

Photograph: Walker Evans

Instead we get down to work, and one way is by trying to gather up as much of the world as we can and cram it between covers. That impulse is behind books as varied as Joyce’s Ulysses, Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and William Least Heat Moon’s PrairyErth, three ambitious works linked by their intention to portray a specific place and time in extraordinary detail. Critics have declared all three to be brilliant failures. How could they not fail? They are such impossibly ambitious books that we can easily forgive their shortcomings and appreciate even more their successes. Maybe that explains in part why they are among the dozen or so books that I reread every few years.

Photograph: Walker Evans

Agee knew that there was no hope he could succeed in portraying the lives of three Southern tenant families in 1936 in all their “immeasurable weight in actual existence.” What began as a magazine assignment for Agee and photographer Walker Evans soon grew into a much more ambitious project. Walker’s photos – 61 of which are included in most editions of the book – are among the most famous to have emerged from Depression-era America. Agee thought that Walker’s images captured the lives of the tenant families more truly than words could, and admitted that a more successful project would be for him to “do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art… A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”

Least Heat-Moon wondered if his search for the true identity of Chase County, Kansas might be more effective if he were to “just gather up items like creek pebbles into a bag and then let them tumble into their own pattern?” The problem – how to make words stand in for concrete, physical things and actual, living beings – has always bedeviled writers. Agee and Least Heat-Moon (and Joyce, of course) rely on the mud-against-the-wall tactic of inventorying humans, animals, plants, rocks, soil, houses, barns, waterways, the scent of meadows and the stink of barnyards, the words uttered by men, women, and children (and the manner in which they utter them), distillations and catalogs of seemingly every word previously written about them, notices on town halls and in tavern toilets, the authors’ direct perceptions, wishes, intentions, and prejudices, all in efforts to get at the unique nature of a place and its inhabitants. Least Heat-Moon, who describes his perception of place as “part of a deep landscape in slow rotation at the center of a sphere and radiating infinite lines in an indefinite number of directions,”  subtitles his book “a deep map,” and sets out to embrace time as well as place and present a multi-dimensional and non-lineal portrait of  his Kansas county. He speaks for everyone who has wrestled with this challenge when he writes, “If a traveler can’t penetrate a place, maybe it can penetrate him.”


How I got this far, so far…and Hooke’s Micrographia

A toast to plenty! To variety and diversity! To the astonishing multiplicity of things in the universe! To Cornucopia, our ancient symbol of abundance and all our dreams of wealth! To relief at last from the tyrannies of want and hunger and… what? Our eventual annihilation? The indifference of nature? The apparent absence of God? Our uncertainty about what the hell we’re doing here? But never mind! Give us abundance, the-milk-and-honey-dripping breast of plenty, the ceaseless flowing fountain of what-springs-forth from the earth, and we’re pretty darned sure we can get on with our purpose in life.

And what might that purpose be?

A full life! we shout, for isn’t that purpose enough? Although a full life is revealed, more often than not, to be just a full schedule.

A full wallet! For isn’t money the surest measure of abundance? Though of course in the end we possess nothing.

Full days, overflowing with love and laughter and conversation! With friends and family! With music, art, nature, travel, meaningful work! Fresh ideas and fresh flowers, shelves stacked with books and rooms bright with art, a window with a view, something delicious simmering on the stove — the abundance feeling promised by Cornucopia: a full life, but not necessarily a busy one; a rich one, but not necessarily moneyed. A meaningful life! The fulsomeness of creativity! The joy of increase that occurs when gifts freely received are freely given! The cup that runneth over!

Now we’re getting somewhere –

– And I guess I was getting somewhere, too, for with those words, written on a winter day not long ago, I realized that I had been working on a book without even knowing it. For decades I have collected lists, catalogs, inventories, fragments of overheard conversations, and esoteric lexicons that strike me as particularly unusual or pleasing to the ear and tongue. In the same spirit I’ve gathered a haphazard collection of maps, charts, diagrams, old photos, vintage illustrations, fossils, beach stones, feathers, bones, shells. And I’ve filled notebooks with writings by  philosophers, scientists, novelists, poets, and crackpots who were collectors of such things themselves. I thought it was a harmless compulsion, driven by curiosity and a taste for the arcane. Now I realize that I have been collecting material for a book. An Abundance Book. And that it is time to get to work on it.

That I’ve waited until now to build a platform on the internet is one of many examples of me being slow to jump on a bandwagon (and also a little slow in general). I wanted to be sure this Web phenomenon was here to stay. When I told artist Glenn Wolff that I was finally taking the leap, he congratulated me and said, “Dude. Welcome to the ’90s.”

Well, I’m glad to be here. And I have a hunch I’ll like it just fine.

So stay tuned. In the days and months to come I’ll share many samples from my collected Abundances. Here’s the first one:


The closer we look, the more we see; the more we see, the more there is to see.

Dutch spectacle-maker Zacharias Janssen discovered in 1590 that placing a convex glass lens at each end of a tube  magnified his view of objects. Half a century later Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam used the same technology to study more than 3,000 species of insects, making him the father of entomology.

But it was English physicist and artist Robert Hooke (1635-1701) who popularized the microscope and demonstrated its scientific capabilities. In 1663 word flew across England that the 28-year-old Hooke had devised a magnifying system and was using it to sketch astonishingly detailed images of everyday things. Soon he was invited by the Royal Society of London  to present his observations at a few of their weekly meetings. On April 8th he showed the assembly what common moss looked like under magnification. On April 13th he presented the Pores of Cork, which were arranged in orderly rows of tiny hollow chambers that he called “cells,” from the Latin for “small chambers.” (Eventually he would discover that all living things were composed of similar structures. In living tissue the cells are filled with fluid, and are not chambers at all, but the name stuck.)

The members of the Royal Society clamored for more. Week after week Hooke arrived with new drawings: Leeks in Vinegar. Bluish Mould on Leather. A Mine of Diamonds in Flint. Spider with Six Eyes. Female and Male Gnats. Head of Ant. Point of a Needle. Sage-leaves appearing not to have Cavities. Pores in Petrified Wood.

There was no stopping him now. Edge of a Razor. Fine Taffeta Ribbon. Millipede. Gilt-edge of Venice Paper. Honey-comb Sea-weed. Plant growing on Rose-leaves. Insects in Rain-water. Gnat Larva. Parts of Fly. Silk from Virginia. Scales of a Sole’s Skin. Tabby. Beard of Wild Oat. Flea.

King Charles II ordered Hooke to present his findings in a book. Two years later, Hooke published Micrographia, or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies, made by Magnifying Glasses, with Observations and Inquiries thereupon. The year of its publication, 1665, was the year of the Great Plague of London, when bubonic plague killed thousands every week and caused those with the means — including many members of the Royal Society — to escape the city in panic. What we know now about the role of the flea as a vector in transmitting the plague bacterium from rats and other rodents to humans gives special relevance to Hooke’s drawing of a flea.

Common Fly. Moss with the Seed. Wing of Fly. Pismire. Mite. Sparks of a Flint. Hair of Man, Cat, Horse and some Bristles. Egg of Silkworm. Hair of Deer.

Now Hooke was no longer invited to present his findings weekly, he was ordered to present them. Poison fangs of Viper. Poison fangs of Viper (again). Gravel in Urine. Sting of a Bee. Teeth of a Snail.

The world had suddenly become ten times, a hundred times more complex.


The machine that revealed the dazzling complexity of nature was dazzlingly complex itself. Or so it would seem if you had to rely on Hooke to describe it:  “The instrument is this. I prepare a pretty capaceous Bolt-head AB, with a small stem about two foot and a half long DC; upon the end of this D I put a small bended Glass, or brazen siphon DEF (open at D, E and F, but to be closed with cement at F and E, as occasion serves) whose stem F should be about six or eight inches long, but the bore of it not above half an inch diameter, and very even; these I fix very strongly together by the help of a very hard Cement, and then fit the whole Glass ABCDEF into a long Board, or Frame, in such manner, that almost half the head AB by lye buried in a concave Hemisphere cut into the Board RS; then I place it so on the Board RS, as is exprest in that posture, so as that the weight of the Mercury that is afterwards to be put into it, may not in the least shake or stir it; then drawing a line XY on the Frame RT, so that it may divide the ball into two equal parts, or that it may pass, as ‘twere, through the center of the ball…” and so on, breathlessly, for page after page.


Cork with cells


To browse in the book  go here. Be sure to use the mobile magnifier for close-up views of the drawings. Click the “unfold” icon to see the full extension of some pages.