A River Runs through Music Straight to the Heart and Soul

by Mark Miles

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably realized I love both rivers and music. This goes back to my childhood, as do most things that are deeply felt and persistently cherished through life. My dad was the one who introduced me to my love for rivers, which was the logical result of our fishing trips on the weekend and during summer vacation. My mom was the one who introduced me to my love for music, which she cultivated by encouraging me to sing in my church choir and listen to classical music whenever possible. Because my parents divorced when I was seven years old, the two passions to which they exposed me were stunted and never fully developed. So it was left to me to remedy the situation, which I only began to do a few years ago, in my early thirties, when I rediscovered my love of classical music through composing and my love of rivers through hiking.

Since that time, I’ve been enamored with the idea of composing music that embodies the spirit of the river. I’m not the first person to have this idea though. Many classical composers have had the same idea, though they’ve adopted different approaches to fulfill it. I won’t be tackling the entire history of classical music regarding rivers in this article, but I will nonetheless be covering four of my favorite works which embody rivers with beauty and majesty, composed by four men of different nationalities and disparate backgrounds who found common ground in their love for the rivers they knew best.

Richard Wagner is one of the most famous operatic composers of all time, renowned especially for his Ring Cycle, a tetralogy of music-dramas about power, corruption, virtue, destruction, and redemption. It follows the story of the Ring of the Nibelungs, a powerful artifact, crafted from gold stolen from the Rhine River, that confers world domination on anyone who possesses it. In the process it gives the synopsis of a heavily mythologized German history and paints an unforgettable tone-picture of the land surrounding the Rhine River. The Ring Cycle is easily the most ambitious and successful work of Wagner’s career, taking fifteen hours over four days to be performed in total and being the product of extravagant funding by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who nearly bankrupted his country in the process. In short the Ring Cycle is a mammoth in every sense.

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My first serious introduction to the Ring Cycle was through a “Best of Wagner” disc which I bought when I was ten years old. I had a passing familiarity with “The Ride of the Valkyries” from numerous movies and televisions series, but otherwise the Ring Cycle was a foreign country to me. Nevertheless this snippet, “Dawn and Siegfred’s Rhine Journey,” absolutely enraptured me. In it, the hero Siegfried bids farewell to his beloved Brünnhilde and sets sail down the Rhine River to make a name for himself in the wider world, thereby forgetting his beloved and assuring his own destruction. It’s intoxicating stuff, and though I didn’t know the story behind it when I heard it for the first time, I nonetheless knew in that moment that I loved classical music.

“The Moldau” is easily one of the most iconic works of classical music dealing with the tone-painting of a river. It comes from a larger body of work, My Fatherland, by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, and it paints a sonic picture of the Moldau River over its course from the Black Mountain in the Bohemian Forest to its confluence with the Elbe River in Melnik, Czech Republic. The music is thoroughly evocative, conjuring the play of water, land, wildlife, and humanity through its length. From this work I learned that pride in one’s country can enrich the sense of devotion to the land when effectively applied.

Franz Schubert was renowned in his own time for his composition of chamber works that frequently found their way into pubs and drinking halls. This was no different with his song “The Trout,” which he later incorporated into a string quintet by the same name. The work sparkles with the freshness of a clear mountain stream — which may have inspired the setting for the piece — even two centuries after its inception, and it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see in your mind’s eye both the trout and the river of which the trout is a part. The mellifluous vivacity at the heart of this piece confirms that — while many tone-paintings regarding rivers can be melancholy — there’s also plenty of room for sunshine.

“The Swan of Tuonela,” on the other hand, is the song of melancholy incarnate. Telling the story of a mythical swan who patrols the Tuonela River surrounding the Finnish Isle of the Dead, it evokes the longing, sadness, and tenderness of a being who’s seen it all, being witness to every soul that passes from the Land of the Living to the Isle of the Dead. Though the piece is ostensibly about a swan, the river is palpable in the supple string textures that provide the background to the voice of the swan. The composer Jean Sibelius is more widely known for his work, “Finlandia,” which was used as a rallying cry for Finnish independence from the Russian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but “The Swan of Tuonela” is the gem in the crown that cements the surpassing excellence of Sibelius’s musical legacy.

At the end of the day, however, all of this music is just music unless we, as listeners and creators, take the next step by allowing the music to move us to get to know the rivers where we live. In my case, the river that I’ve been drawn to get to know is the Eno River, which flows through the town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, very near where I live. The Eno has a spirit and a voice too, just like the Moldau, the Rhine, and the Tuonela, and in my composition I aspire to one day be able to capture it and share it with you.

If you love the land where you live, I urge you as well to find some way to honor the river (or lake or watershed) that flows through your town and gives life to you and many others, whether through photography, painting, sculpture, composition, writing, or some other creative outlet. While it may not seem to be much, it will deepen your own appreciation for the true essentials in life and will give others a model of how to establish a relationship with the river that flows through their own backyard. After all, every river gives us so much; it’s time for us to give back.

Image Credits:

1. The River of Life (William Blake, circa 1805)

2. The Eno Shines in May (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Der Ring Des Nibelungen,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Farrington, Iain, “Richard Wagner: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Ferrebee, Wayne, “The Swan of Tuonela,” Ferrebeekeeper, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

Götterdämmerung,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Vltava,” Wikipedia, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

Protecting Pollinators in Your Own Backyard and Beyond

by Mark Miles

By now most people are aware of the fact that honeybees are facing the very real threat of extinction due to the devastating effects of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which entire hives of honeybees are progressively annihilated by a combination of chemical, biological and environmental contaminants that result from industrial agriculture. This is awful for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that honeybees are primarily responsible for pollinating food crops in the US and many other countries. Their role is so crucial in fact that many foods — including but not limited to almonds, tomatoes, onions, peaches, coffee, raspberries, and cocoa — could disappear altogether with the extinction of honeybees. Imagine going into your local grocery store and not finding your favorite coffee, fresh fruit, trail mix, or chocolate and then realizing that it’s not merely a momentary hiccup; it’s gone forever. Regardless of whether genetic engineering will ever be able to bring a species back from extinction — and it hasn’t done so yet despite the extinction of millions of species in the past century — it will never be viable to bring back every last species of food crop that we will lose if every honeybee dies.

In the face of this I’ve given active consideration to what I can do to help honeybees, and pollinators in general, to survive in the face of looming extinction. There are many things that we can and should be doing as a society, but I’m only one person and have to deal with the limitations of my constrained economic circumstances. In light of that, I’ve adopted a few tactics to help tip the odds in favor of our essential and underappreciated pollinators: 1) I cultivate native flowering plants in my garden and allow wild flowering plants to bloom whenever possible; 2) I use compost made from my food waste to enrich the soil and make the plants in my yard healthy; and 3) I avoid the use of any kind of pesticide, insecticide, or synthetic chemical on my yard. Almost without a doubt the most important of these three tactics is the very last, since the most likely cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is the use of pesticides on commercial crops, which progressively poisons honeybees over time and annihilates entire colonies with impunity.

Original prints from this blog are now available for purchase on a limited basis for collectors and enthusiasts.

Also important however is the cultivation of flowering plants, especially native and heirloom plants, that are specifically suited to particular regions and growing conditions. Even if you can’t get your hands on native or heirloom plants though, any kind of flowering plant (that’s not invasive) would probably be helpful to your local honeybees and would provide an additional food source that could make the difference between life and death for pollinators in your area. To that end I’ve taken a few photos of flowering plants which I’m cultivating in my yard with the intent of assisting our essential pollinators.

One of the most recent additions to my arsenal of pollinator plants is bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), a plant that’s native to North America and produces some of the most brilliant magenta blossoms I’ve ever seen. The plant has been used historically by Native Americans to treat medical conditions ranging from gingivitis to skin infections to fever. Though I haven’t tried it for myself, the leaves of the plant are said to taste like a mixture of spearmint and oregano. I’m not sure how I feel about that combination of flavors, but some Native American tribes thought it was an excellent seasoning for wild game. And there’s no doubt that pollinators love this plant, as I’ve been able to attest in my short time cultivating it.

One of the longest lasting of any of the perennial flowering plants in my yard is white peony (Paeonia spp.). There are two specimens of it, both of which were planted by previous owners of my house at some point in the indeterminate past. They bloom like clockwork every year in early summer, though this year they bloomed a full six weeks earlier than usual. Regardless of their timing, these peonies are beautiful to look at and to smell; they’re also hugely attractive to sugar ants, another kind of pollinator that assists in the opening of peony petals, receiving much-needed nectar in return for much-needed effort.

I must be perfectly honest here; I don’t always allow white clover (Trifolium repens) to grow as much as I’d like. It grows wild here in central North Carolina, and it’s consequently taken up residence in my yard, providing a deep emerald green to the carpet of grass which no other species has been able to compete with. White clover is also a nitrogen-fixer and enriches the soil wherever it’s grown, giving added reason for my affection toward it. Most important however is the fact that it’s hugely popular with honeybees and bumblebees, both of whom frequent the tiny white blossoms with the enthusiasm of children at a candy store.

Another pollinator plant in my yard — that has blossoms with the color of hot pink and leaves with the taste of lip-puckering lemon — is pink woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis). This plant loves the shady spots around my compost pile and in past years has produced leaves almost of the size of dinner plates — which is coincidentally one among many reason to compost. Even in areas of my yard which don’t have the abundant nutrients of my compost pile however, pink woodsorrel shows her tiny yet vivid blossoms and provides another opportunity for pollinators to get a bite to eat without risking their lives on a toxic chemical soup of pesticides and synthetic chemicals.

For all of my efforts at creating a sanctuary for pollinators in my own backyard, I’m not kidding myself about the future of honeybees, who will face extinction much sooner than any of us would like to think if we don’t act decisively as a society to put a stop to the destructive practices which are threatening their survival. To that end we need to do a few things. 1) We need to hold biopharmaceutical corporations — which are primarily responsible for manufacturing pesticides — accountable for their devastatingly criminal activities. 2) We need to stop the production and use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals for any purpose but especially for dispersal on food crops. 3) We need to support local organic farmers who are doing their best to preserve the health of pollinators and people. 4) We need to get our hands in the dirt and grow as many native flowering plants as we can. 5) We need to show enough love and appreciation for those essential pollinators in our own backyards to help them in whatever way we can. For without them, life on this planet will be a waking nightmare for all of us.

Image Credits:

1. Honeybee at Work (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. Bee Balm in Bloom (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. I Can Almost Smell the Peony Perfume (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. White Clover Dances in the Wind (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Pink Woodsorrel Steals the Show (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Batsakis, Anthea, “What Is Colony Collapse Disorder — and Is There Hope for Bees?Cosmos Magazine, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Ellis, J., “Why Are Honey Bees Disappearing?” University of Florida, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Sarich, Christina, “List of Foods We Will Lose if We Don’t Save the Bees,” Natural Society, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Shell, Robbie, “What We Know — and Don’t Know — about Colony Collapse Disorder,” excerpted from Bees on the Roof, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Late Frost with Early Flowers

by Mark Miles

With daytime temperatures in central North Carolina fluctuating between 80° F and 40° F depending on the day of the week, it’s difficult to decide what season we’re in. This is further complicated by the fact that we had frost in March (and may have it again in April), but we had 70° temperatures in January and February. On the whole, one may be inclined to assume that somebody with lots of money and no conscience is presently reverse-engineering the climate.

Still the plants are generally in agreement that spring, however fickle and indecisive this year, has arrived. Truthfully there were distinct signs of it by January, so this should come as no surprise to anyone with half a brain. And while many plants and trees have been damaged or stunted due to the late frost, plenty of others are in full bloom, which recently led me to take photos of the resulting botanical beauty.

Original prints from this blog are now available for purchase on a limited basis for collectors and enthusiasts.

Woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) has always been a favorite of mine. From my earliest childhood, I’ve made a habit of picking the small crimson fruits in late May to taste the color of the season. (At the rate they’re growing this year, I may be able to pick them by late April.) They tend not to be terribly flavorful in this region, but I wonder if depleted soils are partially to blame for this. Additionally the leaves of the plant have been used to treat cough and diarrhea in historical times.

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Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is considered by many to be a pest, and there may be some validity to that assessment in some circumstances. However the plant is also a great source of nutrition for many foraging animals, including chickens, pigs, and rabbits. Historically chickweed has also been used by humans to treat coughs, hemorrhoids, and sore eyes. Personally I find its most redeeming quality to be the delicate white flowers which are so small they can almost be mistaken for specks of stardust.

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I must admit I’d never seen this particular plant before my March hike at Eno River State Park. Once I’d spotted it, however, I saw it everywhere. In fact it was hard to take a step in some parts of the park without risking the life of one or more of these dainty flowers. Only after a bit of research at a later date did I find the plant’s identity. Eastern spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a native to this region and also goes by the name fairy spud. The name alone would be enough for me to love the plant, but there’s more. All of the aerial parts of the plant are safe for human consumption and have been eaten by the Algonquin people, among others, for centuries.

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In my yard, I have two examples of peony (Paeonia spp). Due to the late frost and early spring, the leaves and blossoms are frail and skinny, but the plants are doing their best to compensate for their diminished size with an extra dose of magenta along the stems, leaves, and buds. I have a feeling the blossoms will also be diminished in size this year, but that won’t change the fact that peony petals can be steeped in hot water to produce an herbal infusion that’s reputed to be a delicacy in China. To top it all off, certain species of peony have even been used historically to treat convulsions, which makes it the most beautiful anticonvulsant I’ve ever seen.

Image Credits:

1. Strawberry Delight (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Chickweed Has Me Seeing Stars (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. Fairy Spud Strikes Again (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. Peony with Eager Ants (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Dwyer, James and David Rattray, eds.; Magic and Medicine of Plants (Pleasantville, NY, USA: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1986); pp. 138, 339.

So There’s a Dog in My Floorboards

by Mark Miles

Before you start to think Bella has somehow gotten lost and found her way under my house, don’t worry. She’s fine, apart from some minor digestive complaints she’s had lately. The dog to which the title of this article refers is another one entirely, one I only discovered recently due to unusual circumstances and close observation. But before I get to that, I have to do some explaining about a particular piece of art.

The piece in question is The Ambassadors, painted in 1533 by Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s a double portrait of two Frenchman, Jean de Tinteville and Georges de Selve, who visited the court of Henry VIII at the same time Holbein was making his second visit to London. The piece is widely considered to be the most ambitious of this phase in Holbein’s career, and it’s not hard to see why. The level of detail invested into every seam, fiber, and surface is astonishing. The garments of Jean de Tinteville, on the left, are enough to make a status-conscious individual in any era start salivating. Similarly the artifacts — which include a globe, a lute, and an astrolabe among other things — are testaments to the wealth of the two men portrayed and the skill of the artist who portrayed them.

But not long after looking at this painting, you’ll probably start to realize that something isn’t quite right. In fact it seems as if Holbein has made a gigantic goof — which looks like some sort of inartistic smear — and has had the ill luck to place it at the bottom center of the painting. “How could anyone with his level of skill and experience make such a catastrophic blunder?” — one might reasonably ask. The question, however, is immediately resolved when the viewer adopts a very awkward angle at the extreme top right or bottom left of the painting. When the viewer does this, something emerges out of the apparent blunder.

The meaning of the skull on the floor sitting in plain sight between two powerful men regaled by symbols of wealth and status is easy to infer. At the end of the day, no matter how much money is in your vault, no matter how many fur coats you have, no matter how many signifiers of wealth and power you possess, you too will ultimately die and leave it all behind. It’s a sobering message, and its presence in the painting assumes added significance when one considers the swathe of bloodshed left in the wake of Henry VIII, at whose court Holbein worked during his stay in London.

“Now how in the world does this relate to a dog in your floorboards?” — you might be asking at this moment. The answer will make more sense if I explain how I came to it. As it turns out, I was sitting on the couch in my living room one day in January, eating a snack before recorder practice, when I happened to glance toward my practice room, which is about fifteen feet from the couch’s position in the living room. Because I was at such a low angle and because there’s no wall between the two rooms at that point, the apparent texture of the wood floor in my practice room was dramatically skewed. It was so skewed in fact that I noticed something I’d never noticed in the ten years I’ve lived in this house. There, in the floorboards, staring back at me with lopsided ears and a silly grin, was the likeness of a dog.

It may be hard to believe, so I’ve included three photos of the wood floor in my practice room, starting with a perpendicular angle and moving to a more sharply acute angle with each frame. (Basically I went from shooting a photo while standing up to shooting a photo while lying on the floor.) The effect is startling.

How exactly this came about is beyond me. I would have to guess it was done by accident, though I suppose there’s a very small chance that the placement of the two boards which comprise the dog’s face was chosen specifically by the foreman who oversaw the installation of the floorboards as a kind of practical joke or Easter egg for anyone living in the house. Perhaps he was imitating Holbein, perhaps not. It’s impossible to say for sure. At the end of the day, nature must take the greatest share of credit for this portrait, which demonstrates more clearly than ever that the best way for us to gain a new appreciation of our surroundings is to adopt an unconventional angle from which to view them.

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Image Credits:

1. Cutest Face in the Room (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533)

3. Tilted Close-up of The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein, 1533)

4. The Face Emerges I, II, & III (Mark Miles, 2017)