Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Things get so muddled. Remembering is like pulling cold taffy from my reluctant brain. In my recollection, the day comes out stiff and sticky, only the light feels true. It was late morning on the marble stairs in front of my grandmother’s front door, the sun not quite at its apex, but high enough to fill the tunneled entrance to the house in Noe Valley with bright clarity.
I stood on the threshold, my father standing about six steps down, looking up at me. I remember the warmth of the house behind me, the interior mix of muted yellows and greens withholding from the cool, crystal morning. He had a suitcase in his hand and tears on his cheeks. I remember thinking that he looked good out of bed, stronger than I imagined his long, thin form , covered with white chenille like a caul. I hadn’t seen him standing in the light for a long time.
“Where are you going?” I asked and felt the churn of corn flakes and toast.
“Where?” I’d learned, before I recognized the lesson, and worried about the drinking, the dank, sour places he used to go, before it made him weak and sick and he couldn’t get out of bed anymore.
“Your grandmother says I have to get a job before I can come back.”
“You can do that.” I heard the doubt in my voice, pulled the skirt of my homemade play dress across my thighs, tried to reassure him. “You can work with horses, like when I was little.” He looked up the stairs at me, locked his flat brown eyes on mine, shook his head.
“Well, you can drive a truck or fish. Remember when . . .”
“Colleen, this is the city. No horses or fish in San Francisco.” He rested the suitcase on his knee like a lap desk, leaned forward, balanced on his elbows. “I will stay with friends, get a job. I’ll come back for you and we can get a horse . . . and rabbits. You can feed them. I’ll come and get you and then we’ll go back to the country, back to Marin.”
“But, you live here. With me and Mom and Gram.” I cried, but it was a tight, wadded expression of what I didn’t know.
“Not anymore. Think about what you want to name the horse.”
He lifted the suitcase from his knee, set it on the step, came to me and kissed my forehead, hugged me until my shoulder blades touched. He turned and clutched the handle of the suitcase, his curly black hair disappearing at the bend in the tunnel. I ran to the window to look for him, to watch him go, but the sidewalk down the hill was bright gray and blank in late morning, a breeze bobbed the wiry red blooms of the bottlebrush tree that grew by the curb.
I waited then, for years. I went down the stairs, always expecting the pile of black curls to emerge from the tunnel’s bend, to color the blank stucco, to move up the cold marble to meet me. One day, when I was twelve, they told me. He broke his neck in Tallahassee. At the window, looking down, the light withered in the afternoon like dry cheese, the vivid red bottlebrush wept in the wind, its filiments flying away.
Inside the dying pine trees of the West there’s a song being sung. As bark beetles gnaw through the sweet cambium of the trees, laying eggs, cutting off nutrients and injecting fungi, they make rhythmic clicks, scrapes, rasps and rattles. Environmental sound artist David Dunn, who noticed the conifers near his northern New Mexico home were dying, set out to record this symphony of death.
A similar requiem is being played across million of acres of forest in the Western United States and Canada. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just announced a $40 million investment to help stop the beetle destruction and bring the forests back to health.
Dunn said all the sounds heard in his recording occur within the interior of one species of conifer tree, the common twoneedle pinion, native of the southwestern United States, Pinus edulis. By the “interior” of the tree, Dunn means the layers of phloem and cambium between the outer bark and inner xylem. Within this narrow band of cellulose, air, and fluid, he has captured an almost unknown acoustical world orchestrated by an extraordinary array of busy sound makers.
“My intention in composing of this collage was to convince the listener of the surprising complexity of sound occurring within one species of tree as emblematic of the interior sound worlds of trees in general,” Dunn said. “It's also intended to demonstrate the rich acoustical behavior of a single species of small insect and to suggest how sound is a much more important aspect of how (the insect) organizes its world, and interacts with its surrounding ecosystem, than previously suspected.”
He organized his compositions around the idea that it would be possible to hear all of these sounds within one large tree if enough sensors were simultaneously placed throughout its maze of branching structures. Perhaps recording these sounds seems like an oddball notion, but consider that as bark beetles continue to kill millions of acres of pine forests in the West, only a few researchers have looked at the organizing effects of sound in colony survival. Scientists have mostly focused on chemical pest control strategies. Beetles hear the songs, but it's possible we miss the music.
“One of my underlying intentions has been to create a true synthesis of art and science where my field studies of these insects and tree interiors through sound monitoring could not only yield fascinating sound art sources but some novel scientific insights along the way,” Dunn said. “I readily admit just how fanciful my flights of hypothetical imagination might be, not to mention my lack of scientific credentials, but I also happen to think that this is one of the most important roles for artists in forging a new collaborative relationship with science: science fiction that might lead to science fact.”
All of this was reinforced, Dunn said, when a friend told him about speaking to a Pueblo Indian elder about the bark beetle problem. The old man told his friend, “the beetles come when the trees begin to cry.”
The CD “Sound of Light in Trees” can be ordered online through Amazon.com