Essay written for the “Great American Road Trip” seminar I took this semester. Link to the song: https://soundcloud.com/andrew-pearson-42/splendid-gifts-all
In October I attended one of my Environmental Science lecture on forest growth. The professor was going over secondary succession, or the process of how forests develop post-disturbance; she described how small plants and shrubs are the first things to grow after a fire, and how they are replaced by short-lived trees which eventually, after a number of years, give way themselves to old-growth ones like oak and sequoia. One of the biggest misconceptions, she declared, that people used to hold was that the “climax community,” in which old-growth trees are dominant in the forest, was the only preferable and ordained way that a forest could be organized. Thus, the task of foresters was to prevent any harm to the massive, “regal” trees and the ecosystems around them. What they did not realize was that such forests were the product of decades- and centuries-long cycles of disturbance and regrowth – that fires are essential to the well-being of a forest because they clear old trees out, make growing space for new ones and even serve to open the cones of certain pine trees. Without fire there is no reproduction or regrowth in such a forest.
As Thanksgiving break drew near and the final Colloquium project became more urgent, I struggled to find inspiration. The books we had read during the year were interesting and a lot of fun, but their novelty had faded and I was left with no good ideas. I had always intended to write a song or compose a soundscape based on one of the books or movies. The question was: which one, and about what?
Housekeeping I found appealing for its nihilism, which was freeing and redemptive rather than cynical, but I still thought it was too dreamy for something as concrete as a song. The Bean Trees was too distant in my memory. The Grapes of Wrath? Forget it. As I mulled the options over I stewed around my room before starting to work on other, more pressing homework. And so it went for the last couple weeks of class.
I had been so caught up in other schoolwork that I had forgotten, until last Monday night, that I had to complete Blue Highways for class by noon on Tuesday, so I picked up the printout I was given and began to read. The author was a little self-absorbed in the first few pages, and it seemed that he, William Least Heat Moon, had been in a rough patch (pending divorce, lost his job) and intended to cure his blues by travelling around the U.S.A. I was curious but wary of the self-indulgence that might follow.
Over the subsequent chapters Least Heat Moon drew me in and kept me in the book. He talked about sustaining relationships with the past, the value of home cooking over chain-restaurant food, the weird roots of words in the common parlance, the kindness and surprising personal diversity to be found among the people of Middle America – all things that I valued but had never really had the chance to bring up with anybody. I was hooked. And when he reached his conversation with the Hopi university student I knew I had found a soulmate. Two, if the student counts. He and Least Heat Moon had the most inspiring discussion in the book, touching upon philosophy and existence and duty to one’s “people”; it was from them that I got the idea for a song that would be based on Blue Highways.
Near the book’s end, on the third or fourth page from the last, I found the phrase “splendid gifts all” at the end of a paragraph and I knew I had the title for a song. I pulled out my guitar, which had been tuned down a step and a half to play another song earlier in the day, and I began to play a chord progression I had worked out weeks earlier in the key of F (which in this tuning would be in B) and sang “splendid gifts all” under my breath to a third-second-root tune, a common note progression. I continued to sing the third throughout the first three bars, switched to a fourth for…well, the fourth bar, and a fifth – oh. Yeah, there are five bars in the chorus and I managed to start the fifth one by singing a fifth interval. I could claim that I intended it to turn out that way but that would be a lie – I only applied my primitive melodic sensibility to a chord progression I had composed.
The chorus lyrics were written with the ideas in mind from Least Heat Moon’s conversation with the student, the ideas about how people are composed of the same organic chemicals that are abundant throughout the universe and how we are not unique or separate from the natural world; we came from nutrients and will eventually give them back to “decomposer” organisms. (“Pushing up daisies” is the best colloquialism for this idea.) The main import of their discussion, and of the chorus, is that there is no reason to fear these prospects or feel diminished by them – instead you, the living creature, owe an intrinsic debt to all life that came before you and will contribute to all the life that comes after through your existence. As I listened to my Environmental Science professor lecture on the cyclical nature of life that day, I had been overcome with this same realization and a deep peace filled me – everything was going to be OK, I thought. Death for one thing begets the life of another by freeing up the raw materials, and life goes on as long as old generations of a species can let go of themselves and give the young a chance to thrive, and once they have run their course they also pass the baton. (As I made the connections I was surprised to realize that I felt more at peace with the idea of being one of the old creatures and giving myself and my help to the young.) Everything is cyclical, Least Heat Moon contends, and this wisdom shows up everywhere in the book, from the Hopi symbology which he examines with the student to Black Elk’s assertion that “all things are circles.” Thus my chorus: “Splendid gifts all/Splendid gifts all/Ashes to ashes and stardust to dust/All things returneth/Death is communion with all.”
I am less proud of my verses, which simply describe Least Heat Moon’s other travel lessons and don’t have a very interesting structure (and most of which don’t rhyme). They are alright. But I was really and truly inspired by the book and the philosophy of intrinsic connection to the world and its organisms, and I hope that my song was able to communicate Least Heat Moon’s ideas as more than platitudes – they are truly inspiring, and I wish everyone could read his words on life and death at least once. So far the song I wrote doesn’t have any hits on SoundCloud, but I am not fazed – I will continue to spread the sublime lessons I have learned.