Healing after Loss through a Relationship with Nature and the Land

by Mark Miles

The month of September was very difficult for me. It was the year-and-a-half anniversary of Bobby’s disappearance, and it seemed there were memories around every corner. (Full story here.) This was distressing because I honestly expected that my feelings for him would have dried up and vanished by now. I thought for sure when we broke up in February of 2016 that it would take no more than six months for me to recover from the loss of our relationship, a year for me to forget he ever existed, and a year and a half to be in another relationship with someone who would treat me as an actual person deserving of love and respect rather than a piece of trash to be discarded at the nearest dumpster.

Yet somehow I find the loss of our relationship still haunts me from time to time. This happens whenever I encounter something that reminds me of Bobby, especially anything to do with skiing, fencing or freerunning, all of which he enjoyed. This also happens when I watch certain movies that remind of him for one reason or another, especially The Princess Bride, Sense and Sensibility, Music and Lyrics, or Howl’s Moving Castle. And most of all it happens when I listen to music that evokes the feelings which I harbored for him for so long, with two pieces in particular possessing the uncanny ability to reduce me to shambles in less than a minute flat.

It was the first of these, “Farewell to Stromness” by Peter Maxwell Davies, that triggered my latest relapse into sadness. I heard it for the first time about six months after Bobby and I parted ways. It’s an immediately hummable tune that many people recognize even if they don’t know the composer. The background is particularly resonant with me because of the way Peter Maxwell Davies used this song to oppose the mining of uranium on the Scottish isle of Orkney, where he lived for many years. “Farewell to Stromness” is intended to evoke the image of townsfolk who are forced to leave their ancestral home forever due to the contamination of uranium mining. It also evokes the sense of leaving behind a loved one who will be forever cherished and remembered, despite the pain of parting ways.

The other piece of music that’s become indelibly linked with Bobby in my mind is a work by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. “Spiegel im Spiegel” means “Mirror in the Mirror” in German, and the significance of this title is immediately appreciable when you hear the endlessly repeating melody that slowly but inexorably builds from the simplest groundwork into one of the most heartwrenching edifices of minimalist music. “Spiegel im Spiegel” is the sonic equivalent of placing one mirror in front of another, standing between them and seeing the repeating likeness of yourself stretching before and behind you indefinitely. There’s also the sense that the two mirrors could be two people, who look into each other and see the love they share reflected back in an endless cascade.

So with these two works floating in the background of my mind, I found myself thinking about Bobby throughout the month of September. It seemed I couldn’t go a day without a piece of conversation, an image of his face, or a snippet of his voice passing through my mind like a ship on the horizon. I was frustrated, sad, and lonely, and I didn’t know what to do.

But then one night in the middle of September, something changed. I was talking to a friend about how I thought I would never be in a relationship again. I am after all thirty-four years old in a small, religious and extremely homophobic town where the dating pool for gay men in their thirties looks like something out of a horror movie. Think Psycho meets Catfish with a side of Mean Girls.

Then I looked at my cat Heidi and my dog Bella. They were in the same room with me, gravitating toward me as if they knew I needed something, perhaps a gentle nudge in the right direction. I didn’t think much of it at first, but then it clicked. I’m already in a relationship, though obviously not of the same kind, with them and with others in my life who mean a great deal to me. It may not be the kind of relationship where I’m seeing stars every moment of the day and thinking about how much I hope we have children, but there is a healing relationship between us nonetheless.

Then I got to thinking about my garden, which isn’t much and hasn’t produced nearly the bounty of herbs and vegetables that I hoped when I installed it. But it has nonetheless provided a sanctuary for rosemary, fennel, zinnia, blackberry, strawberry, gourd, and sage plants who’ve given me a reason to be active in my own backyard. They’ve also given me something to look forward to from one season to the next as they wax and wane in growth, reminding me that it’s ok if I too experience a diminution in my energy and productivity from time to time. Usually it just means I need to rest, allow time for healing, and take better care of myself.

Finally I thought about the places where I hike and the relationship I’ve developed with the land as a result. When I started hiking on a regular basis in 2015, I never imagined it would come to mean as much to me as it has. Without hiking around Occoneechee Mountain, Eno River State Park, or the Hillsborough Riverwalk, I would never have discovered so many amazing places that are practically in my own backyard. I never would’ve come to love the rock formations, the curves in the river, the enveloping canopy of the forest, the musty smell of earth and sweat and all good things. This healing relationship with nature and the land–which has come to me through my animals, my garden, and my hiking trails–may not be the same as a relationship with another human being, but it’s absolutely necessary for a rich and meaningful life.

References:

Farewell to Stromness, piano interlude from ‘The Yellow Cake Revue,’ J. 166,” All Music, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

Infinite Reflections: Pärt’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel,’” The Cross-Eyed Pianist, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

Spiegel im Spiegel,” Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

The staggering simplicity that makes ‘Farewell to Stromness’ a work of complete genius,” Classic FM, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

The Yellow Cake Revue,” Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

The Music of a River that Flows through the 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.

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.

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.