Sunday, July 29, 2012

Trees of the Ages

One of my more incongruous musical interests is late period Laura Nyro. My 'like' here is odd not only because of her style of music and when she recorded, but also because I'm most interested in her recordings after her ambitious early work. This music (which in my mind is represented by her Smile album and everything after it) lacks the critical acclaim, urban hipster chic, and hit making power she enjoyed in the 60s and early 70s. Instead, this stuff was critically panned, nature-themed, and anti-Top 40.

Nowhere was this more true than on her 1984 album Mother's Spiritual. This is a folkie, pastoral album of piano-based musings on motherhood, feminism, environmental concerns, and keeping your 'special light' on against the cold, cruel world. Not a drum machine or dance song in sight and no flashy videos or fashion statements, yet it came out the same year as Prince's Purple Rain and Madonna's Like a Virgin. You can imagine the indifference it received from the public and, of course, the rock critics of the time weren't up for it at all.

But I love Mother's Spiritual - and Nyro - and I even love her when I do not know (or want to know) where she's coming from, as on a 1993 song she penned ("The Descent of Luna Rose"), which is dedicated to her period. No matter what the rest of the world was doing, Nyro was always doing her thing and - as a result - she's always fresh and original.

But my point to this post is not pour accolades on Nyro. On Mother's Spiritual, she has a song called "Trees of the Ages" which is a meditation on the peace-inducing power of trees (how crunchy is that!). I thought of the song yesterday as Jim and I spent a day in bike riding and then most of the afternoon sitting on the back porch reading, cooking out, and just enjoying the greenery. Specifically, there's a lyric in "Trees of the Ages" that has never fallen out of my head. Nyro sings: "Believe in a tree/Trees know what every/zen master needs to know".

Photo taken while hiking during my 2005 'Pete Retreat'
While I think Nyro was Wiccan and that is likely the slant she was going for in her song, as a Zen Buddhist her words resonate tremendously for me. When I think of what symbolizes a right-minded state, it is very much the sorts of things we usually ascribe to trees. Many large trees grow slowly (patiently, if you want to anthropomorphize them), yet they become tall and strong as a result of this. They are not active, but they are very powerful (ever see the results of a battle between tree roots and a concrete foundation?).

There is also a clarity, simplicity, and serenity about the way trees exist, and I think this is something most people feel about them to varying degrees. While trees are active in only a few ways, they are masters at adapting to and sometimes even in determining the environment around them. They bend in the wind, seek out sunshine, and lose leaves in cold weather, but they last and endure despite not being more active. Although trees are silent, they are never not seen. They also seem to exude life and other creatures rely on them, sometimes instinctively.  Animals use trees as a place to build homes and as a source for food.  We people, have affinity for them because we appreciate their beauty. I think it's safe to say most people, when confronted with the sight of a big tree that has fallen to disease or a storm or the saw, regret it on some level.

Laura was definitely onto something.

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