Thursday, July 02, 2009

Birdsong Maps, Cow Pond, and Bartok's Echo

( Pond and Trees-- painting by Kevin Macneil Brown,
watercolor on paper, 2008)

Mapped in these morning woods,
elevation-contours in birdsong:

Liquid and elegant, wood thrush and veery at
300 to 500 feet on
sun-dappled eastern slopes.

At 700 to 1,000 feet
the longer song of
hermit thrush
in the cooler, darker sugarbush
of the shadowed
western ridge and just below.

And here’s an old stone wall
--once tight-stacked, now hollow
and in motion--
tracing the edges
of ancient, overgrown pasture.

--But whose
cathedral spine

these rising stands of

strong white spruce,

white pine?

-Kevin Macneil Brown


The poem above began in my head last week while I was running on the old roads and trails of Irish Hill. I was searching for a place called Cow Pond, where, according to Agatha Fasetts's book THE NAKED FACE OF GENIUS, the composer Bela Bartok had once picnicked. Bartok spent a summer nearby this hill, at Fasset's house near Riverton. I've done some research and so far I've found no evidence pointing to where Cow Pond is --or was--located. But local history shows that this hill and ridge-- now fully forested-- were used as summer pasture even into the early 20th century. Taking that as a possible clue, my mission last week was to visit two small ponds shown on the topo map. Alas, dense summer undergrowth and my own lack of time hampered the effort. It was a great run nonetheless. I'll go back and continue the quest, probably in the fall.

Here's a short story I wrote a few years ago, inspired by Bartok's Vermont visit:
By Kevin Macneil Brown
(Originally published in BOOKPRESS, in 2001)

I am a maker of sounds, but lately those sounds have gone silent for me, and I am haunted only by images. The clearest of those images is before my eyes now, outside the open window: in the late summer green of this place called Vermont, in America, one tree has begun to turn red beneath blue sky, under shining sun. Here, the air is hot and dry by day, clear and chill at night. In the mornings, a damp, cold fog rises up from the little river lined with railroad tracks in the valley below. By noon, the fog lifts, and I can see far beyond this strange tree, to lines of distant mountains. Blue-grey and stony, they rise above the green slopes where the sun sets.
The other images are fading quickly, which is a fine thing for that of the view from the ship that brought me here. I do not wish to always remember that grey Atlantic, Godless, cold and endless, that stretched before me as I stood on the deck. Unfortunately, I suspect that I will always be remembered that way, as I was photographed, gazing out across the rails of the ship——a man leaving his home in fear, pride, anger, sorrow, driven away by the realities of a barbarian invasion. As we turned toward the fortieth year of our century, a mechanical horror descended upon my country and the rest of Europe; inhuman men destroyed humanity with hatred and terror.
Ah, but the image of home——not cold, not grey, not hard and stony, but my sweet, sweet Hungary! Flowers, wet earth, small cobbled streets rich with people, songs, the smells of heart breaks to think of it on this hot day of silent trees. At home, there were birds singing in every tree. Here in Vermont, in August, there is only the harshness of crows across the sky. No wonder I feel this terrible silence from inside.
Perhaps I mentioned that I am a man of music. In my youth, I studied the great composers of our European music, and mastered the masters, if I dare say so myself. After this, my ears opened to the folk songs and dances of my homeland. I have such sweet memories of my youthful wanderings, alone or with my dear friend Kodaly, sleeping in the country, collecting songs like a bird watcher collects glimpses. Such hard work, with such flashes of joy! Later, I did the same in northern Africa. My ears opened to a universe of sound——all music became like the physicist’s atoms of energy and meaning. Every atom vibrated in my whole being. I cannot bear to think that all this can be reduced to the ashes of human beings destroyed in war, or, for that matter, to the view of a bare granite mountain top visited only by the cackling shadows of crows.
Perhaps it is my constant tiredness that brings these thoughts——my exhausted, fevered energy as I walk the country roads here, or pace the dark wood rooms of gracious Agathe’s cool, comfortable summer home. My dear Ditta does all she can to lift my spirits: the walks, picnics, reading out loud in the evenings. Thanks to her I can still laugh, still smile. But, secretly, I am crushed by this silence. It is a silence not of the world, but of myself. Though I wander the hills each day, I fear I am drying up like those red leaves on the tree, as if the blood of my heart is showing on the outside.
But today, something strange and wonderful happened, and I write this in the hope that I can shed light on this dark thing inside me, this shadow that I fear grows larger each day.
This morning, after the usual fog had lifted and we had breakfasted, I played piano (working through some Bach) then set out to catalog some pieces from my huge trunk of manuscripts——local songs, brought from home. There are so many regional styles, and my intent is to organize and sort them. It is, of course, a large task, one that makes me tired just to think about. As I sat at the rough-hewn, crowded table that serves as my desk here, I heard Ditta and Agathe’s voices outside, laughing like schoolgirls.
"Bartók Béla!" Ditta called, "Come out here. There is something we must show you!" I was only too glad to be interrupted, and went outside to join them. Still giggling, in a chaos of English and Hungarian, they led me out into a sun so bright it hurt my eyes. It took me a brief while to figure out that it was a sound they wanted me to hear that was causing all the excitement. We walked a short way up the steep dirt road above Agathe’s house to a small, overgrown clearing by the side of the road. In the clearing stood an old wooden barn, broken down, letting blue sky show through where the boards were missing. As we approached it, Ditta clapped and shouted; I heard a quite striking echo——first, distinctly from the barn’s side, then two more repeats, softer and more distant, from the hills around us.
"Béla," said Ditta, breaking into my concentration of listening, "Isn’t it a lovely echo? Like the one at home in Tihany..." In a flash, I remembered a place in Hungary: hillside, stream and cataract. With the memory came an echo of laughter from years ago. "I must listen again. It does not seem to be as strong an echo as the one in Tihany," I said, and began to clap and shout myself. I listened for the sound’s return, shouted again, stopped to listen. Then, the strange thing happened. I stopped listening and the words flew out of me, all in Hungarian: "Tree, rock, stone, sound, music, echo, song, bird, Ditta, Bartók Béla, echo, Tihany, Tihany!" I shouted loudly and for a long time, stopped as the circling echo spun around my head and Ditta and Agathe stood silently watching me. It was like an exertion, this shouting. My shirt was damp with perspiration, and I was a little out of breath.
The three of us walked down the hill together, and I was grateful for the help of gravity to bring me back to the house. To Ditta and Agathe I said, "It is not as good... not as good an echo as the one in Tihany at all." But this afternoon, as I sit at my table and work, that echo crowds out the rote of black notes on the musical staves and begins to replace the grey ocean, even the brittle red leaves of the tree outside my window. The scientists say an atom never stops moving. In autumn, when all the leaves have fallen from the trees and have made a thin mulch on this hard land, I should like to imagine that restless echo under it all, waiting to be heard.

And a composition for guitar and looping devices, made around the same time as the story: