Walks and Music
“When it comes to creating deep and lasting social and ecological behaviour change, the most effective approach is precisely to connect with people’s values and identity, not with their pockets and budget.” —Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth
On a walk the other day I saw an osprey circling the pond pictured above. It was magnificent, circling over and over looking for food. I’m not sure what it was hoping for—this is a biomimicry pond that soon will have floating islands used to filter water while also hosting nesting ducks and the turtles who hang out on the islands next to tiny fences meant to keep them from getting to the duck eggs. Last fall I saw three muskrats swimming around, but have never seen them since.
I’ve never seen an osprey that close. Actually, I thought it was a juvenile eagle until a friend walked by and corrected me and then we talked about math education. A few minutes later a woman walking a couple of dogs emerged from the riverbank and asked us if the osprey had caught anything yet (no, it was just circling around looking magnificent). Heading down the path, I ran into one of our city councilors walking a dog and we ended up talking about Russia and Ukraine and the future of our own democracy, and they said they’d love to organize some kind of talk or forum to help people locally make sense of what all of this means for us.
Dammit, I thought, walking on with the terrible mood I’d had left behind somewhere on the path, walking really does build community!
Bonus photo: a friend sent me this screenshot. Pretty much where my head is these days.
Last night I did something I haven’t done in several years. In fact, I haven’t done it in so long that my kids have no memory of me ever doing it: I played my harp.
Before you run away with inflated ideas of my musical abilities, let me specify that I do not play music well. I learned piano and flute as a kid, but we moved around a lot so my access to good teaching was haphazard and I never developed a reliable practice routine probably until I had a baby and toddler and realized I really wanted to bring music back into my life. I’d taken harp lessons in college and ended up buying a used folk harp from a colleague of my teacher’s; I’ve have kept it despite my lack of playing it. So I “play” three instruments but probably only really can play three songs on each and don’t read music very well.
But I’m a stickler for my kids practicing music. Not in a Tiger Mom kind of way, more of a “5-15 minutes a day to build the habit and so you can see improvement” kind of way. And I wouldn’t make them do it if they didn’t obviously enjoy being able to play. There’s a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when you get past that point where you’re just practicing notes to being able to play songs, and even more the point where your mind-hand connection becomes unconscious. It’s something I want my kids to have because I know that being able to play an instrument or sing is one of the things that can bring us lifelong joy.
Sitting down at my harp with its too-old strings and slightly rusted pegs (from when we lived in Australia by the beach and everything we owned got salt water damage) is something that I’ve wanted to start doing again for years and there’s no excuse for why it hasn’t happened. Yesterday after practicing piano my daughter reminded me that I keep saying I should, just ten minutes a day, and so I shut down my editing work and did it.
It sounded awful. One of the excuses I use for not playing is that folk harps like mine go out of tune really fast, especially with these old strings I’ve got, and I have to tune it before and during playing. So instead of tuning it I just played a random Celtic song twice through and then tuned it and it was still off but I played some scales and another song and twenty minutes later felt realigned with a far better perspective on life that is something like what I get from focusing on geological rather than human time but also from walking in nature and it reminded me that life needs to include music and nature and time to wander and it’s part of what always feels so wrong and stressful is that we get less and less time for those things.
And I remembered that’s why I never built a good meditation practice or went to therapy. Because I had writing and music and walking and they have always been enough.
I love walking. I need to remind myself of that more often. I don’t often turn to my own book unless I need to look up a quote, but there’s a short essay I wrote for High Country News a couple years ago that I sometimes read to remember that the things I believe about walking’s capacities are real (also, the artwork they commissioned for it is incredible):
“Walking a thousand miles a year hasn’t given me a tidy list for how to live a good and effective life that I could stick up on the refrigerator. But it’s kept the promise contained in the Latin phrase solvitur ambulando, or ‘it is solved by walking.’”
Somehow, both walking and music tap into something that’s longer and deeper than the span of our immediate human lives, and especially our immediate human concerns. Walking never gives answers, I say to people often; but it is always an answer.
But so, I had to remind myself this week, is music. The coming years look to be challenging on every level of life and we’re going to need both. I suppose it’s time to finally get some new strings.
Bonus bonus photo: I took a brief copy editing break to organize these property/ownership/commons-related TBR stacks into loose categories. I think I need more on tech/data resources, though I have a lot of articles about data and ownership. Unfortunately, I now need to add materials from the wretched Matthew Hale, the 17th-century jurist cited several times by Samuel Alito in his draft Roe opinion—Hale had two women executed for witchcraft and explicitly stated that marital rape was impossible because a woman, once married, gave consent for intercourse for the rest of her married life. Hale’s opinion has been used for centuries to justify women’s lack of right to—ownership of—their own bodies.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
It took me ages to get to, but the 6-part series on cereal grains from Farmerama was well worth the wait. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite podcasts. Episode 1 starts with what bread is and then explores the long history of grains; subsequent episodes focus on farming, baking, milling, and what is lost in the industrial food system. (This series is two years old, so you have to scroll down the Farmerama podcast page to find the Cereal 1-6 episodes.)
Shannon Mattern’s essay in Places Journal on “Fugitive Libraries” was fascinating: “Racist obstructionists wanted to be sure nothing worked: the Klan showed up to protest integrated libraries, police harassed whites who visited formerly Black branches, and administrators closed white libraries rather than provide service to all. In a few cities, library officials ordered ‘stand-up integration,’ removing all tables and chairs to prevent interracial bodily encounters. That history resonates a half century later when branch libraries face closure or service cuts.”
A piece from Indian Country Today with an overview of the recently released report on U.S. Boarding Schools from the Department of the Interior. Not much meat to the article, though there are a number of understated statistics, but it’s an important step and I hope much more will come from it—a reckoning with some of America’s history to begin with: “Approximately 53 different schools had been identified with marked or unmarked burial sites. The department expects the number to increase as the investigation continues.”
Marcello Rossi writing in Undark on the efforts to create “green steel.” “There remain a number of serious challenges to confront. Chief among them is the massive expansion in renewable energy infrastructure that an industry-wide shift to these new methods would entail . . . the world would need up to three times the currently installed solar and wind energy sources to electrify the existing primary steel production.”
Beatrice Adler-Bolton (host of the Death Panel podcast) on Last Born in the Wilderness with some of the most articulate eloquence I’ve yet heard on how much damage chosen societal structures (specifically responses to a pandemic, or lack thereof) do to people with disabilities. For those who’d prefer to read, she also did an interview with Democracy: “If we want to live with COVID without it controlling our lives, then we need to make some really strategic and specific decisions about what protections we think we need in order to live with COVID. And to do that, we need to listen to the most vulnerable, not the David Leonhardts, not the Leana Wens, not the Monica Gandhis, not the Emily Osters, but the people who are working in the food services industry, people who work in nursing homes, people who are medically vulnerable in all kinds of workplaces.”
Botanist Erin Zimmerman posted a chapter excerpt from her forthcoming natural history book Unrooted, which is about “the methods we use to find, describe, name, and classify new species of plants” intertwined with her own journey as a woman and mother in science. From the excerpt: “Institutions with herbaria arrange exchanges of material for study by researchers, creating a global lending library whose ability to answer questions is increasingly valuable as we try to understand the causes and knock-on effects of the changes we see in the world around us. Dusty old cabinets of brittle brown plants have never been so cutting edge.”
I published a short piece on embodiment for Medium, where I’ll be publishing four health-related essays a month through the end of July. I’m hoping to get through more on embodiment, and a series on locomotion research and walking robots.