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.

Documentary: The Sagebrush Sea

Last month I posted a few photos of some of the weeds and wildflowers of the Boise Foothills. In that post I touched briefly on the ecology of the foothills, and a few readers expressed interest in more posts about this topic. It is definitely a topic I would like to explore further, but it is not one that I know a ton about. In fact, despite spending the majority of my life residing in this high desert, sagebrush-dominated ecosystem, it has only been in the past few years that I have really gained an appreciation for it. Perhaps that’s understandable. This landscape, which initially appears drab, lifeless, and boring, is not easy to love at first…until you do a little exploring, at which point you find it teeming with life, loaded with diversity, and worthy of admiration.

That is one of the themes of a new PBS Nature documentary, The Sagebrush Sea, which debuted on PBS in May 2015. The film is an intimate view of what’s really going on in this vast, seemingly empty landscape that many of us simply ignore, passing through on our way to somewhere else. It is an introduction to a fascinating ecosystem, shaped and formed by extreme events and inhabited by plants and animals that have unique adaptations that allow them to survive the harsh conditions of the high desert. Some of these plants and animals can be found nowhere else on earth. For anyone looking to learn more about the ecology of the Boise foothills and/or the larger ecosystem of which they are a part, this is an excellent place to start.

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The sagebrush steppe is a plant community dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata and its various subspecies) and bunchgrasses. At one point it covered as many as 500,000 square miles of western North America – hence “the sagebrush sea” – but human activities have reduced it to half that size. The plants and animals in this ecosystem have been coevolving together for at least 2 million years. Sagebrush is, as the narrator of the film says, “the anchor of the high desert,” living up to 140 years old and helping to ensure that the desert doesn’t become a dust bowl. Sagebrush also provides food and shelter for a great number of species.

The Sagebrush Sea was produced by the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so while lots of other plant and animal life get adequate screen time, the birds of the sagebrush steppe dominate the film. One species in particular, the greater sage-grouse, is the star character, driving the film’s narrative and speaking for the protection of this threatened and underappreciated ecosystem.

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Sage-grouse are endemic to the sagebrush steppes of the intermountain west. They are sensitive to disturbances and are “tied to unbroken expanses of sage.” Their breeding grounds (leks) are large patches of open ground, but when they aren’t breeding (which is the majority of the year) they are taking refuge in the sagebrush and grasses. The females make nests below sagebrush, where they blend right in, camouflaged from predators. Sage-grouse consume various plants and insects throughout the year, but their diet consists mainly of the evergreen leaves of sagebrush. Just 200 years ago there were up to 16 million sage-grouse in the sagebrush sea, today that number has been reduced to around 200,000. Due to such a steep decline, they may soon be added to the endangered species list.

Because sage-grouse are so reliant on healthy, intact, widespread sections of sagebrush-steppe, they are considered an umbrella species. Taking measures to protect them will simultaneously spare and even improve the lives of numerous other species with similar requirements. To begin with, there are a handful of other bird species that nest nowhere else except in sagebrush, specificallly the sagebrush sparrow, the sage thrasher, and the brewer’s sparrow. Other animals feed on sagebrush and rely on it to make it through the winter, such as pronghorn and mule deer. Sagebrush is also considered a nurse plant, providing shade and moisture for grass and forb seedlings growing below it.

The sagebrush steppe is threatened by the usual cast of characters: habitat fragmentation, urban and agricultural development, invasive species, climate change, etc.  Some specific activities like cattle ranching and oil and gas drilling also come into play. While The Sagebrush Sea briefly introduces some of the major threats to this ecosystem, it does not dwell on any single issue or point fingers in any one particular direction. For one, it is hard to place blame when there are so many factors involved; but more importantly, the filmmakers wanted the film to be accessible to everyone in order to foster a greater appreciation for the sagebrush sea and a consequent desire to protect it. The debates regarding this part of the world are heated enough, and those directly involved are already well aware of the issues.

This is a beautiful film. The images it captures are captivating and at times breathtaking. Apart from the sage-grouse, various animal families are introduced throughout, each one stealing your heart. My only complaint is that, at only 53 minutes, the film is too short. Luckily, the world they depicted is right outside my door, and I am now even more inspired to explore it.

To learn more about sage-grouse conservation, visit Sage Grouse Initiative.