Botany in Popular Culture: Laura Veirs

I love music for its ability to conjure up emotions, create a mood, and inspire action. The music of Laura Veirs has always inspired me to get out into nature and be more observant of the wild things around me. Her music is rich with emotions, and I feel those, too. However, when I think of her music, I can’t escape images of the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it.

Found within her nature-centric lyrics are, of course, numerous botanical references. After all, plants and their actions make excellent subject matter for all types of art. And with that in mind, Veirs asks rhetorically in the song Rapture, “Doesn’t the tree write great poetry?”

When it comes to botanical references, the song that jumps first to mind is Lonely Angel Dust, starting off right away with these lyrics: “The rose is not afraid to blossom / though it knows its petals must fall / and with its petals fall seeds into soil / Why toil to contain it all? / Why toil at all?” Plants produce seeds in abundance, as mentioned in Shadow Blues: “Thousand seeds from a flower blowing through the night.” And, as in Where Are You Driving?, they’re seeking a suitable spot to plant themselves: “Through clouds of dandelions / seeds sailing out on the wind / hoping you’ll be the one to plant yourself on in.”

 

Flowers come up often in the songs of Laura Veirs. In White Cherry, “cherry trees take to bloom.” In Nightingale, “her heart a field in bloom.” In Make Something Good, “an organ pipe in a cathedral / that stays in tune through a thousand blooms.” In Sun is King, “innocent as a summer flower.” In Cast a Hook, “with watery cheeks down flowered lanes.” In Life Is Good Blues, “Messages you sent to Mars came from a crown of flowers.” Grass and weeds get a few mentions, too. In Summer Is the Champion, “let’s get dizzy in the grass.” In Life Is Good Blues, “tender green like the shoots of spring / unfurling on the lawn.”

Trees are the real stars, though. Veirs makes frequent references to trees and their various parts. This makes sense, as trees are real forces of nature. So much happens in, on, and around them, and images of the natural world can feel barren without them. First there is their enormousness, as in Black Butterfly, “evergreen boughs above me tower / were singing quiet stories about forgiveness, ” and Don’t Lose Yourself, “we slept in the shadow of a cedar tree.” Then there is their old age, as in Where Are You Driving?, “tangled up in the gnarled tree,” and When You Give Your Heart, “falling through the old oak tree.” There is also their utility, mentioned in Make Something Good, “I wanted to make something sweet / the blood inside a maple tree / the sunlight trapped inside the wood / make something good.” And then, of course, there is the fruit they bear, as in July Flame, “sweet summer peach / high up in the branch / just out of my reach,” and then in Wandering Kind, “a strange July / a storm came down / from the North and pulled out the salt / and it tore out the leaves from the pear tree / my canopy.”

Many of Veirs songs create scenes and tell stories of being in the wilderness among rivers, lakes, mountains, and caves. Chimney Sweeping Man, for example, is a “forest resident” who “walks[s] quiet through the forest like a tiny, quiet forest mouse.” In Snow Camping, Veirs tells a story about sleeping in a snow cave in the forest, where “a thousand snowflakes hovered,” “a distant songbird [was] singing,” and “the weighted trees” were her “only home.” But sometimes those forests burn, which is captured in Drink Deep: “Now the raging of the forest fires end / and all the mammals fled / I smell in the charred darkness / a little green / a little red.” Later in the song: “the fire closed his eyes / tipped his flame hat and slipped through the dire rye / we wandered romantic / we scattered dark branches / with singing green stars as our guide.”

Nature can also be empowering, and Veirs often refers to things in the natural world as metaphors or similes for the human experience. In Cast a Hook, Veirs adamantly asserts, “I’m not dead, not numb, not withering / like a fallen leaf who keeps her green.” This line comes up again in Saltbreakers: “You cannot burn me up / I’m a fallen leaf who keeps her green.” In Lake Swimming, Veirs addresses change and how some of life’s changes may wound us but we can still shine – “shucking free our deadened selves / like snakes and corn do / … / Old butterfly / I’ll dance with you / though our wings may crumble / we can float like ash / broken but the edges still shine.”

 

The botanical references Veirs makes in her songs are not the only things that excite me. Birds, insects, mammals, fish, and worms all find a place in Veirs’ lyrics. This is why, after more than a decade of listening to her songs, I find myself coming back to them again and again. There is a sort of kinship we feel for each other when we share in common a love of the natural world. I find that in the music of Laura Veirs.

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Botany in Popular Culture: The Sunset Tree by the Mountain Goats

My obsession with plants means that I see botany everywhere – in the music I listen to, the shows I watch, the books I read, whatever. Just a fleeting mention of something plant related in any type of media will catch my attention, no matter how ancillary it is to the major themes. And that is the impetus behind this series of posts about botany in popular culture. Well that and, believe it or not, I do enjoy many non-plant related things, and this gives me an excuse to write about those things on a plant-centric blog.

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The Mountain Goats are a folk rock band formed by John Darnielle in 1991. It could be said that John Darnielle is synonymous with the Mountain Goats, as Darnielle is the chief songwriter and at times has been the only member of the band. The Sunset Tree is the Mountain Goats ninth studio album and only the second album featuring songs that are primarily autobiographical. The album that preceded The Sunset Tree, entitled We Shall All Be Healed, was about Darnielle’s teenage years as a methamphetamine user. The Sunset Tree describes growing up with an abusive stepfather. Heavy topics are kind of the Mountain Goats’ thing.

Darnielle’s lyrics are highly poetic and often nebulous – the listener is left to fill in the gaps. Thus, the storytelling in The Sunset Tree isn’t always direct. However, the scene begins to unfold in the second track, “Broom People,” as Darnielle seems to be describing his childhood living conditions: “all sorts of junk in the unattached spare room,” “dishes in the kitchen sink,” “floor two foot high with newspapers,” “white carpet thick with pet hair.” He also sings of “friends who don’t have a clue; well meaning teachers,” and how he would “write down good reasons to freeze to death in [his] spiral ring notebook.”

“Dance Music” reveals more as Darnielle at 5 or 6 years old is getting “indications that there’s something wrong.” As he sits watching TV, his stepfather is yelling at his mom, then “launches a glass across the room, straight at her head, and [Darnielle] dashes upstairs to take cover.” He turns on his “little record player on the floor” and makes a discovery: “so this is what the volume knob is for.”

A similar scene unfolds in “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” only this time Darnielle is the victim. He arrives home to find his stepfather asleep, so he sneaks up to his room knowing that if he awakes his stepfather, “there will be hell to pay.” But he does wake up, and he bursts into Darnielle’s room to find him sitting with his headphones on oblivious. The beating begins, and Darnielle sings, “then I’m awake and I’m guarding my face / hoping you don’t break my stereo / because it’s the one thing that I couldn’t live without / and so I think about that and then I sorta black out.” Darnielle describes being “held under these smothering waves” by his stepfather’s “strong and thick-veined hand.” But he remains hopeful that eventually – “one of these days” – he will “wriggle up on dry land.”

That sense of hopefulness can be found throughout the album. In “This Year,” Darnielle is a 17 year old longing to break free. The chorus repeats resolutely: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” In “Up the Wolves,” he assures us, “there’s gonna come a day when you feel better / you’ll rise up free and easy on that day.”

But there is obviously some anger and frustration expressed as well. Later in “Up the Wolves,” Darnielle sings that he’s going to get himself in “fighting trim” and then makes a series of threats: “I’m gonna bribe the officials, I’m gonna kill all the judges, It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage.” The song “Lion’s teeth” is a revenge fantasy. Darnielle envisions “the king of the jungle asleep in his car,” and since “nobody in this house wants to own up to the truth,” he takes it upon himself to wrestle the beast. He reaches into the lion’s mouth, grabs onto “one long sharp tooth,” and holds on. The chaos that ensues makes him realize he is “gonna regret the day [he] was born,” but since there is no good way to end it, he is determined to “hold on for dear life.”

The mood lightens during the last two tracks of the album. They seem to be about forgiveness, understanding, and letting go. In “Pale Green Things,” Darnielle tells of hearing from his sister that their stepfather had died “at last, at last.” Upon hearing the news, one of the first memories Darnielle has is of he and his stepfather going to a racetrack to watch horses run. In one scene he recalls looking down at the cracked asphalt and “coming up through the cracks, pale green things.”

It’s a poignant ending to an album full of dark memories. It’s also fitting, as it adds to the bits of hope scattered throughout. Seeing plants push up through concrete or sprout up in detritus collected in gutters and corners of rooftops or even just up out of the dirt in the middle of summer when the ground is hot and bone dry, all of these moments are testaments to the tenacity of living things. Life can, rightfully so, be described as fleeting, short, and fragile – easily snuffed out and erased. But the struggle for life is also fierce, enduring, and relentless. Darnielle’s story is one example of that.

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The “pale green things” that Darnielle saw also symbolize the struggles of the little guy, the underdog, the downtrodden – a tiny, fragile plant pushing its way past solid, suffocating asphalt. It’s a common theme in Darnielle’s music – his latest album is called Beat the Champ, for example. His song “Wild Sage” is also a sign of that ongoing theme.

I work with plants all day, and I am continually awed by them. Daily I am stopped in my tracks, practically forced by some plant to admire one or more of the fascinating features it displays. It doesn’t surprise me that Darnielle would use “pale green things” to express hope and resiliency. Every day I find some kind of hope in plants, that whatever tough thing we are going through, we can one day “wriggle up on dry land” – pale green things pushing up through asphalt, wild sage growing in the weeds.