What does the Shagbark sing?

Shagbarks with pale winter sun

Last night I played with a group of top-notch musicians. Fast bluegrass, fiddle across two strings, liquid notes of a dobro. Heavy circular Irish jigs. Rachel and I pulling out our best 1920s blues songs and hearing them with accompaniment for the first time.

Later, the fiddler asked me a question. She's said to be one of the best young fiddlers in the country and I don't doubt it. "Do you play shows?"


I hemmed and hawed a poor answer, veering everywhere from "gettin' old" to "don't really know that many other musicians in the area...", the upshot being: no.

A few years ago I would have had that answer, whatever it was, honed to a fine point. But music has slowly slipped from a passion of the first rank to an old friend, occasionally corresponded with, sometimes taken for granted.

Playing with those professionals last night, I understood what being an amateur is all about. That's not saying anything too damning: mainly, it's about less experience and less practice.

A good answer to the "do you play shows" question would have been different:

Moving out to the woods grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and opened my eyes to a level of depth, intensity and beauty I've never experienced anywhere before. My heart is with this world.

A lot of art and music that I appreciated before I came to live in the forest seems pallid now. The discordant treble shriek and carny torrent of The Birthday Party is damn intense after you exit the dead air of a New York subway and walk home beneath the steel girders of Northern Boulevard. Right after the first sky-hued hepatica flower opens on a fuzzy stalk in April -- less so.

The "other" bookshelf (the one without the field guides) has a lot of relics from our past. Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann: The Designer's Archives. Wendingen: 1918-1932. The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia. These art books epitomized richness, grace, intricacy, the sharpest edge of the designed environment and the lusty artifice of the human throng.

Most I haven't glanced at for years. On the other shelf (the field guide one), the mildly inscrutable, highly unwieldy botanical manual Plants of Pennsylvania by Rhoads and Block is a regular companion on the couch, in the field sack, even kneeling in the inches-deep water of a Sourlands hardwood swamp in spring.

Kill site

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So, why don't I "play shows" these days?

I think I'm having a hard time finding music that really inspires me. What do you put on the stereo after stalking in close on an hour-long sparring match between a hungry young sharp-shinned hawk and a tag team of three pileated woodpeckers?

If I stumble upon the lone hearts-a-burstin' on the Sourland mountain, young stems cropped nearly to death by deer, lone slender trunk supporting four splitting magenta fruits with pendant berries like crimson drops of blood, what music keeps me in communion with its brave improbable spirit when I get back to the house?

Communion with spirits. If the boulder-strewn creek has a spirit, as does the hemlock along its banks and the junco picking through the duff, as did the dead raccoon floating ominously in the slow water, what can bring me into deep contact with them?

The traditional answer is awareness/imitation. Mimesis. The shaman stalks the jaguar stalks the shaman. Deep contact operates at the edges of being human.

What music observes the sea-foam etchings of rain-enlivened lichen, or the ochre of wren-stomachs? What music imitates the natural world, and in so doing frays the edges of my human individuality, transforming me into a boulder, a river, a forested ravine?

No, I haven't been playing shows lately. I'm looking for this music.

Solitary Hearts-A-Burstin'