Second Movements



I am sitting this morning drinking coffee and listening to Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto on the radio. This is one of my favorite pieces of music. All three movements are very good, but I like the second movement the most. It is a lovely slow movement with a rhythmic feel, full of wistful happiness, the sort of movement that makes you want to close your eyes and breathe deep while you listen. At the end of the movement, the solo violin picks out the simple theme pizzicato while the low strings sing along behind it, and the theme resolves as simply as an old folk song. To my mind, perfect music.

Thinking about this, it comes to me how often the second movement of a work is the one I like most. Even in Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony, I like the second movement more than the very recognizable first. But there are many examples. Ravel’s String Quartet, with its lilting juxtaposition of pizzicato and bowed expressions of the theme, which sounds fiendishly difficult to execute, is just the same very pleasing to listen to. Dvorak’s ‘American’ String Quartet, whose second movement pulses with a melancholy, simple tune: if he wrote any music using Native American themes, as some critics speculate he did, this is the finest example.

All these examples share the traits of beautiful tunes and a quiet meditation. Which reminds me of something that happened many years ago, when I had my first library job in the Music Department of St. Louis Public Library. A young man I’ll leave nameless came to work for the department. To this day, I’ve never known anyone with a broader knowledge of popular music. He was useful for that, but he had no interest in classical music. ‘It’s all too bombastic,’ he said, ‘Sometimes I need music I can relax to.’ It was kind of embarrassing. One hears this often from people who have only heard a little of a genre of music, it’s the old ‘it all sounds alike to me’ criticism, which says more about your lack of experience that it says about the music. I should have compiled for him a recording of my favorite second movements.

A woman I once dated told me about working in an office where the boss played classical music all the time. ‘That angry music,’ she called it, and I wondered, is that really all you hear? Anger? Bombast? Sure, there is bombast in huge movements of the great romantic symphonies and concertos, but it is rarely meant to express anger, and frequently settles into more peaceful slow movements.

Second movements are often the ones with recognizable tunes. The second movement of Haydn’s String Quartet No. 62, the ‘Emperor Quartet’ holds the tune that became the German national anthem. Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, his ‘New World,’ gave us a second movement which is frequently excerpted as a stand-alone tune; in the symphonic rendition, this theme is played by a solo English horn, as beautiful and restful a piece of work as you’ll find in all of music. Bach’s famous ‘Air on the G-string’ is actually the second movement to his Third Orchestral Suite.

The Prokofiev piece on the radio ended a half hour ago, and I have been sitting here playing the pieces I’m writing about. The combined effect is that I am completely relaxed and do not feel like getting up and doing anything on this lovely, sunny Sunday morning—despite too much coffee. My advice to anyone is, when you hear a new piece of music and don’t like it, please wait until the second movement, it may convince you otherwise.



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One of the things that has arguably been made too easy with the advent of cell phones in everyone’s pocket is checking the temperature. Given the strange seasons we have had in the past few years, I have developed the habit of checking my phone app first thing every morning, usually hoping for warm days. Usually, I find that the temperature is exactly what the same app said it would be when I checked it before going to bed last night.

There are several things we look toward as indicators of the seasons—increasing or decreasing sunlight; conditions like rain, snow, or ice; phenological occurrences such as plants greening, flowers blooming, animal activity; and of course, temperature. Of these, temperature affects us the most. Our lives in the modern world change very little in response to seasonal change. The modern food industry delivers strawberries to us in January and squash in April, so we can cook whatever we want in any season. Rain, snow, or ice all must be pretty severe to alter our daily activities. The few things we do reliably with the change of seasons are to change our costumes and turn on heat or cooling in our abodes–both responses to temperature.

It’s funny when we finally have the first moderately cool day after a long, searing summer, and you see women out in their sweaters and scarves, even though the afternoon temperature climbs to 80°. Just can’t wait to break out the warm woolies. It’s the same when the winter yields to a few warm days, and people throng the streets in shorts and T-shirts. You see kids the next day and the next walking to school in brief outfits, even though the temperature has returned to freezing. Our clothes are a statement, not just of fashion, but of our belief in what season it has become.

We have a conflicted relationship with the temperature. We obsess about what the temperature is: thus, the repeated checking of phone apps, and hanging onto every word from a local TV weather personality. Thirty-two degrees is a breaking point for us—is it above or below freezing? But really, anything from 33° to 40° does not feel that much different than 32°. Beer is considered nice and cold at 42°. We complain about the heat until it’s cold enough to complain about the cold. Almost everyone’s favorite season is either spring or autumn, the seasons with the most clement temperatures, and we long for their coming. And then we stay inside anyway.

When I was a boy our parents, and all the parents in our neighborhood, would sit outside on pleasant evenings, talking and watching us kids rollick through the block. Walking down most suburban streets on spring evenings these days is like visiting a ghost town. We’re not out in it, we’re inside: a new season of our show is starting, there’s a new special on Netflix. I recently read the observation from a British author that Americans are odd in that they will heat their homes in winter to temperatures they’d never tolerate in summer, and cool their homes in summer to temperatures they’d never tolerate in winter. I think he’s right—I have been in some icy living rooms in midsummer, and in homes that felt like proof boxes in winter. I just don’t know if Americans are unique in this; most people in the developed world have good heating and cooling systems. Are we alone in being so wasteful, so unaware?

If this is a problem, I’d say the solution is the same as I always prescribe: get out in it. Don’t even check the temperature, just throw wide the windows and see how it feels. Stick your head out the door. Plan different things according to the seasons. Cook different things in spring than you would in autumn. The temperature is an important measure of weather, but it’s also an artificial one. What one person thinks is too hot to be out gardening or picnicking may be your ideal afternoon. What one person thinks is a bitter cold day may feel to you like the best time for a brisk walk. We are not all the same, even if scientific measures like the Fahrenheit scale try to establish some uniformity.

You don’t have to play that game.

At Long Last

Anyone who has followed this blog (or used to, I should say, since I have not posted in quite a while) is aware that it is based on a book I have been working on for a long, long time. I have worked on the book so long that along the way, I even changed the title of the book, though I did not change the name of the blog. The book is about the human experience of the seasons on earth–a large topic, I know. Perhaps that’s why it took so long to write. Or maybe it’s because my life has been through many changes while I worked on it.

Seventeen years ago, when I started thinking about the book, I was married, a father with a young daughter, living in a south St. Louis County suburb and working as adult services librarian at the Richmond Heights Memorial Library in Richmond Heights, Missouri. Since that time I have lived three and a half years on a large property in rural Jefferson County, Missouri, with horse stables, a fruit orchard, large garden, and beehives; for three years in a one-bedroom third floor walk-up in St. Louis city (which I ruefully, though somewhat affectionately called the ‘flophouse’), and now in a much nicer apartment in Webster Groves, Missouri. I have been employed since 2005 as the director of Webster Groves Public Library. I am also now single (divorced), and my daughter is grown, married, and she and her husband had my first grandchild in April of this year.

In addition to writing about things I have learned about  the seasons while working on the book–which is now called The Measure of the Year–I have written quite a lot about the process of writing the book, the good and the bad, the forward motion and the reverses, the times I thought about just giving it up. I suppose that at this moment, I am perhaps the world’s leading authority on the human experience of the seasons on earth. I don’t mean to brag, but do you know anyone else who has spent seventeen years studying the same subject? Anyway . . .

The point of this post is to announce . . . I have finished. I finished a draft last month, and this morning finished one last read through, with quite a few changes. It as a little over 100,000 words, which means about 400 pages of text. As a Word document, it is 365 pages, which I think is a strikingly appropriate number of pages for a book about the natural year.

I am in the process of contacting literary agents to see if anyone wants to take it on. I have had some good responses, some encouraging emails from agents, though no actual takers so far. Wish me luck.

Now I begin work on my new book.


When I went outside this morning I saw, on the tree next to where my car was parked, a male and female cardinal, sitting together comfortably. You’re a day early, I thought.

In European folklore, Valentine’s Day–tomorrow–is the day when all birds choose their mates. It is thought of as a precursor to spring. In Europe the seasons run much like, though about a month ahead of those in America; so February 14 is more like our March 14, and likely does feel like spring is around the corner. Here, we must wait until March, at least.

March is named for the Roman god Mars, a god of fertility. Oh, I know, most of us know of Mars as the god of war, but that came later. In the Roman worldview, war was a matter of control. While the Greek god of war, Ares, was a god of chaos, the Roman god Mars was a god of control. Originally, that control applied to the land, which must be controlled to produce the crops we need. There is a constant battle between humans and nature to keep the land arable and productive. Later, that idea of control extended to making war on their neighbors to bring ever more land under Roman control, and thus Mars became a god of war as well. Both plowing and military campaigning begin in March.

We have had a rough winter, with more snow and ice than the past three or four winters, and everyone is ready for spring. For me, this March spells the last month I will be living in the small flophouse apartment I rented a few years ago. I have things in my personal life more or less under control, and I am ready to move onto somewhere nicer.

Ready for spring, ready for March.



My Last Summer Here

Maybe some big cities are better at tending to the plants and planted areas in their care. In St. Louis, things often seem to run to ruin. When I run several mornings a week, I follow the River des Peres Greenway, a landscaped, paved path for runners, walkers, and bicyclists. I run about a mile and turn around in a section of the path I call Cypress Hollow, because it is a quiet, recessed area lined with several cypress trees. The cypress has been my favorite tree for a while, probably since there was one in the front yard when I lived in the country. I had been unfamiliar with the species, and found it fascinating that there was a deciduous pine tree. I understand that some of the landscaping along the Greenway is ‘prairie reclamation,’ meant to seem like wild nature taking over. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for letting vines and weeds grow thickly through these beautiful cypress trees, strangling their growth.

In the town where I work, which is only a stone’s throw from here, there is a lively discussion going on in the local paper about whether kudzu or bush honeysuckle is the more invasive weed. That paper’s letters to the editor section is always a forum for know-it-alls, and now someone has written to suggest two more alternatives—­raccoon grape and wintercreeper. I am not sure what vine it is choking the cypresses down in the Hollow; I only know that no effort is made to clear it out. I worry that these trees will eventually die, swallowed whole by kudzu, wintercreeper, or whatever.

It has gotten worse since I came to live in my flophouse apartment in late winter, 2016. I have been through three springs here, and am now in the death throes of my third summer. It will be my last summer here. For three summers have I watched the prairie grasses and wildflowers along the Greenway grow and bloom and attract bees and butterflies, goldfinches and cardinals. This spring I began to notice an unusual number of bunnies hopping in and out of the tall grass, which is heartening: but I also notice more hawks about. I also see that the invasive vines are creeping ever higher and thicker in the cypress trees. Now my personal affairs are getting back in order, and I am looking for a new place to live. Barring some misfortune, I am living my last lease at the flophouse.

There are things I will miss. One of them is having a running path practically in my front yard. I will miss watching the artificial prairie grow, and especially my cypress trees. As I pass them in the cool mornings of late summer I think that wherever I move, I will come back sometime to see them, see how they’re faring. But you know what? I won’t. That’s not what Americans do. We move on, we move ahead. The seasons are cyclical, autumn follows summer, winter follows autumn, but we are restless, always moving on, always imagining that we are moving ahead: we do not like for the new season to find us exactly where we were last season.

Am I comfortable where I live? Mostly. But there is something about the flophouse that does not represent who or what I am as an American man, and now that I am able to move on, I will move on, because that’s what we do. And I may say that I can always come back and see my stand of cypress trees, see if the ducks still gather in the pools of the Hollow in spring, see if anyone has taken steps to protect this area from invasive weeds; but I know I won’t. As I leave the Hollow on my way back home, I cross the bridge over Watson Road—which is, by the way, the local name for old Route 66. I already feel it like a countdown, the number of times left that I will cross this bridge, until at last I cross and never look back, leaving cypresses, bunnies, and the recent past to be swallowed whole.

The Indignities of Travel


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I am finally home after a long vacation, 4,500 miles through the Great American West. I’ve been on the road, sleeping in hotels so long that I keep checking under my door in the morning for a receipt and checkout time, wondering why the bed is not made up when I come home in the afternoon. Some things are taken care of for you when you travel, you pay for that, probably too much. That’s what credit cards are for, and vacations, like Christmas, are periods of rationalizing debt. I am happy to spend money to do the things I did on vacation: but I’ll bet I could be just as happy on half the expense. Though travel can take you to places that are wonderful and unique, it is rarely an unalloyed pleasure.

I grow tired of eating in restaurants. It’s always a crap shoot, especially for someone who is carefully attentive to his own home-cooked meals. Only in the best of restaurants do I experience meals better than my own home cooking, and reading menu prices for foods I know will be indifferently prepared from frozen ingredients makes me shiver. Everything, from a nice chicken entree to almost any sandwich, comes with melted cheese on it. Everything comes with fries, from a cheeseburger to a gyro sandwich. That lack of culinary imagination, of effort, is emblematic of eating in most restaurants.

Yes, I still use the word ‘restaurant,’ even though it appears to be passé. Today, a place where one buys prepared meals is likely to be called A Dining Establishment, or An Eating Company, or, most pestiferous to me, An Eatery. A what? Who coined that awkward bit of pompousness? It is used a lot, and given Americans’ penchant for gorging, I wonder if we will soon see An All You Can Eatery?

 Servers struggle with the language. Some are perfectly charming and helpful, but they almost universally share the inability to accept that English ‘you’ is both singular and plural. A table with more than one person seated must be referred to as ‘y’all,’ ‘youse,’ or ‘you guys’—it depends on the latitude—when ‘you’ would be perfectly grammatically acceptable. In St. Louis we fret over the misuse of the word ‘working,’ as in, ‘Are you still working on your dinner, or should I remove your plate?’ I have had some cuts of meat that took work to cut, but usually I do not work at my meals. Even more pernicious though, is the habit of grabbing things. I say, ‘May I have a straw with my soft drink?’ and the server says, ‘Sure, I’ll grab you one.’ ‘Is there any horseradish?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll grab that.’ ‘May I have the check?’ ‘Let me grab it.’ Everyone’s grabbing everything. When I ask the busboy if he has seen my waitress, he promises to grab her. Youse better not.

I tend to be a stickler for correct language and spelling, what is referred to these days as being a ‘grammar Nazi,’ usually by the same people who blamed their teachers when they did poorly in school. As one gets ever deeper into tourism territory, the misspellings increase, even on otherwise professional-looking signs. That’s where my tolerance breaks down; I accept that everyone does not have impeccable spelling ability, but if you paint signs for a living, that’s kind of your job. Buy a dictionary, for Pete’s sake.

Finally, there are the places that are not all they’re cracked up to be. I visited Deadwood, South Dakota, the town where Wild Bill Hickok was sheriff, and had his famous liaison with Calamity Jane, and was finally shot to death. The town was running downhill until several years ago when they approved limited stakes gambling. It is now a seedy little Las Vegas, with gaming in every hotel and restaurant, and busloads of doddering seniors shoving their walkers towards slot machines. I paid for a tour of the town’s historic sites, and sat on a bus while the guide told us that Wild Bill Hickok was never sheriff, only spent a few weeks here, and never had anything to do with Calamity Jane, a drunken, crude woman who looked nothing like Doris Day; Hickok’s murder was the only true part of the story. The guide beamed as he told us all this, though he played at being distraught at having to break it to us. When the bus stopped in the cemetery, giving us all a chance to photograph their graves, I remained in my seat.

The high-point of my trip was Yellowstone National Park. Let me say first that Yellowstone is a marvel, with natural and geographical wonders to be found nowhere else. But . . . it is huge. The park is larger than several states, with parts of in three states. I arrived at the east entrance to the park, from Cody, Wyoming, and got to the west Entrance in Montana days later. We had to eat the dogs on the way. Seriously, ninety-nine percent of what you do in Yellowstone is drive. Old Faithful is fifty miles from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Yellowstone Lake is fifty miles from Artist Point. Gibbon Falls is fifty miles from the Roosevelt Arch. These are the kind of drives that make standing in line at Disney World sound fun. Add in another five percent of your time spent seeking a parking place, and that leaves only a few minutes every few hours to look at one of the dozens of attractions. And another thing—do not be fooled by the legends of bison, elk, and bears picturesquely wandering about. You will see little wildlife, if any, and that mostly ravens, which are a kind of obese crow whose diet consists wholly of smoking roadkill. I know, someone reading this will cry out, ‘I saw lots of wildlife!’ It’s not that it never happens; but heading to Yellowstone with the expectation of seeing bears is just setting yourself up for heartbreak.

I do not regret visiting Yellowstone, any more than I regret the whole trip, which set me back financially for the next several months, and left me bone tired and ready to get back to work for some richly deserved relaxation. The aforementioned natural wonders are things that will stay with me for life, as will the legendary streets of Deadwood and other things I saw. I have been home for several days, back to work most of a week, and I’m starting to think about my next trip.



The Sacred and the Profane


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The Medicine Wheel in Wyoming is not much to see, if one is expecting spectacle, a monument, a marvel of human ingenuity. You must prepare yourself to understand it for what it is, an ancient site of spirituality, a sacred place, one that is still actively used by Native Americans. It is maintained by the U.S. Park Service, and a ranger greets you before you start the mile-and-a-half trek up to the monument (uphill both ways, I heard someone joke), to advise you that the walk is not easy, that you should not hurry, you should hydrate and rest when you have to, and most of all, that this is still a site of religious observance—accord it the same quiet respect as you would any place of worship you visit. Photos are permitted, but not of worshipers.

High in the mountains and deep inside the Big Horn National Forest, the drive to the site is long, though beautiful enough to make it worth the time. There are clear coursing streams, vistas into forest passes and wooded hillsides that quite literally take your breath away—if you have any breath left at this altitude (about 9,500 feet). The day I visited was cloudy, but after a half hour’s drive you are high enough in the mountains to stand above the clouds, an irresistible photo op.

There were no worshipers when I was there, but it was nice that the half dozen visitors that morning maintained a respectful quiet. The Wheel consists of a circular rim of loaf-sized stones, divided by 28 spokes, which are usually seen as the days in a lunar month. There are seven stone cairns within, and these were the focus of prayer activity. They were adorned with many small objects, such as beads, feathers, colored strips of cloth, and animal skulls and teeth, some deeply weathered, but some clearly of recent placement.

Questions swirl in the mind about why this spot, why this particular mountain peak among hundreds in the vicinity. The monument was old before Columbus set foot in the New World, and nobody knows who built it. It is much used by the local Blackfeet Indians, but they will readily insist that their ancestors did not build the Wheel.

Two days before visiting Medicine Wheel, I was at Mount Rushmore, which embodied all the spectacle not present in the older site. It is a little surprising, seeing it for the first time. The sculpted heads are much higher than they appear in most photos, and hard to take good pictures of without professional equipment. Also maintained by the National Park Service, there were hundreds of visitors present both times I went in. I assume they were mostly Americans, but I heard many accents and languages spoken, many mothers calling after scrambling children in words I did not know. While one need not prepare oneself, as with Medicine Wheel, to understand Mt. Rushmore as a sacred place, I think it is best understood that way.

Each evening, people gather in an amphitheater facing the monument. A video plays on a large screen which describes the building of the monument, and details why each president who is represented has his place there. From George Washington’s leadership in the Revolutionary War and his creation of the presidency as we know it, to Thomas Jefferson’s stirring formulation that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; from Abraham Lincoln’s stewardship of the Union through the Civil War, and his appeal to the ‘better angels of our nature,’ to Teddy Roosevelt’s vision of the American Century, and his creation of a National Park System, we have been often blessed by those we chose as leaders.

And yet I was a little heartsick as I watched the program. A little while before, in the park’s gift shop, I saw a young man wearing a Make America Great Again hat. It was the first time I had actually seen anyone wearing one. He didn’t look very intelligent, but perhaps that’s just my view of anyone who would wear such a thing. Maybe he is a brilliant student, studying for his PhD. I doubt it, but it’s possible. As I sat in the bleachers listening to the stories—perhaps more mythical than historical—of our greatest presidents, I found myself hoping that this young man was taking it in, that he was hearing how great presidents talk, what great presidents do, and how, regardless of political differences, they strive to unite us as a nation, rather than create further division and enmity. Mt. Rushmore is also a sacred place, dedicated to those American ideals which have made us a great nation, and the presidents who have embodied those ideals: not only will some presidents never earn a place among them, there are those whose names ought not to be uttered in their presence.



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Running this morning, as I was turning around at my terminus in Cedar Hollow, it seemed to me I was making good time. It also seemed that my run was taking too long; I had other things I need to do this morning. It was a fairly cool and yet humid morning, not unusual for August. We have been taunted in the past few weeks by cooler days here and there, though there’s of course plenty of summer left. Already I am hearing people talk about the fall and its many pleasures. I have a sense that I’d like the summer to be over, as well as a sense that I have not enjoyed the summer enough—have not fished, or camped, or walked in parkland and forest enough. Where has the summer gone? Why won’t the summer go?

In a culture whose summer begins on a day called ‘midsummer’ and whose winter begins at ‘midwinter,’ I’m not sure my feelings are all that unusual. There is always in imprecision in how we define seasons, and in how we feel about them.

The universe is not precise. Despite theories about God as omnipotent watchmaker, the watch does not keep good time, and our timekeeping is a precise system laid over a frustratingly imprecise cosmos. Summer may run from June 21 to September 21, but summer weather runs for as long as it runs: some years, especially lately, it’s been up until mid-October. We gauge the beginnings of the seasons by the sun’s behavior—solstices and equinoxes—but it takes the sun a while to render the terrestrial changes that make for a new season. Given the panoply of other factors, such as wind and rain, that make our weather variable, our wishes for sudden changes in the season are not without foundation.

It’s going to be a hot one today, temperatures in the mid-90s and humid. I’m used to it, the problem is staying used to it, like a lingering backache or a headache that won’t go away. I am going on vacation next week, kind of the high point of my summer, and I am anticipating it with delight. Oh, how I wish the summer would end!



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I hope that people reading the title of this post, expecting me to reveal some striking new realization, won’t be disappointed to learn that I am about to discuss my suspicion of the phenomenon of ‘epiphany.’ Culture, history, and literature are full of supposed cases of someone having a sudden epiphany and hot its heels beginning a new direction in life or in their work. I doubt most of them.

Of course the most doubtful one is Saul of Tarsus, who is said to have fallen off his horse (or been stricken by the Holy Spirit) on the road to Damascus. It was in that moment that Saul, a persecutor of Christians, realized that Jesus was lord—was the Christ—and became the most fervent proselytizer of the new faith in Rome, for some reason changing his name to Paul into the bargain. If there was ever a case of a preformed intention going in search of a motivating rationale, this is it.

The one most students of literature are exposed to is the scene, early on in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, when he dips a madeleine, a delicate cookie, into his tea, and upon tasting it he is filled with such a rush of memories that he must set about writing a seven-volume novel. That seems to me a lot to put on a cookie. Of course Proust was already an aspiring novelist, and was probably always in search of a theme. The madeleine scene is very well written, as is most of In Search of Lost Time–I just regard it as fiction.

In researching my own book, I came across an interesting case of epiphany that gives me doubts. The seasons on our planet are governed by its movements around the sun. These are in turn affected by variations in its orbit, which lead to cycles of warm and cold, the ice ages and the warmer periods in between. These variations were first mapped and described definitively by Milutin Milankovic (1879-1958) a Serbian mathematician. The story is often told that one evening he and a friend were celebrating the publication of that friend’s volume of poetry. As the evening wore on and they grew increasingly intoxicated, both of them swore to do something momentous with their lives. This is the moment when Milankovic decided to spend the next decade in tedious mathematical calculations to define the variations in earth’s orbit. Does that sound likely to you? It doesn’t to me, especially since, in his own memoirs, Milankovic describes the epiphany he had while calmly surveying the sky on a summer’s evening at his family home in the countryside. Did he create this more sober version of events to make his backstory more salubrious? Could be, but it lends a tinge of doubt to both versions.

Then there is the story that Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) tells, of the time when he was working for the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico, when game management mostly meant shooting wolves. Out on a shoot one day, he watched a female wolf expire, and saw ‘a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.’ It was in that moment that he realized that we could not kill our way to conservation, that mankind needed a more ethical path, a partnership with the land and the wild things upon it. Leopold went on to create the discipline of game management, and became one of the 20th century’s foremost ecologists. His story of seeing a wolf die is beautifully and tragically told. I just doubt that Leopold, who had grown up exploring the woods, bluffs, and rivers of Iowa, and studied forestry at Yale, did not already have a growing sense of what was right and wrong when it came to nature.

Epiphanies make for good storytelling, and those stories are told again and again, whether they are true or not. Maybe I am too cynical; maybe people do have intense personal epiphanies, but the word epiphany, with its Greek root indicating the appearance or manifestation of a ‘spirit’ puts me off. Or maybe I am only jealous that in my life, epiphanies have been slow to come.

Aguas de Marco


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Yesterday I was driving home in the rain, and on the radio I heard Susannah McCorkle’s recording of ‘The Waters of March.’ For months I have been working on the chapter of my book that deals with seasonal art, including seasonal songs, and I can’t believe that I almost overlooked this shining gem.

The song was composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim, who wrote both the music and lyrics, including Brazilian and English versions. If there was ever a song with music more perfectly wedded to words, I can’t think of it. The song is about the rainiest month in southern Brazil, when floods carry things along in their stream, and the impressionistic lyrics flow just as the music flows. Almost every line of the song begins with the word ‘ė,’ which means ‘it is.’

It’s the stick, it’s the rock, it’s the end of the road . . .

All these things flow by, and life moves on towards its end. But there is a hint of hope, as the only repeated refrain is:

It’s the waters of March closing summer

It’s the promise of life in your heart

Jobim is likely Brazil’s greatest songwriter. Most Americans know his work from the song ‘Girl from Ipanema,’ maybe Sinatra’s recording of ‘Dindi.’ But ‘Aguas de Marco’—‘The Waters of March’—is his greatest composition. It was once voted the best Brazilian song of all time by a panel of critics and journalists.

It has been recorded many times, in many languages. Baby Boomers may be familiar with a recording by Art Garfunkel on his 1975 solo album Breakaway, a sadly lame version that fails to capture the essential rhythm of the song. (Sorry Art, it’s just not your best work.) Brazilian critics believe the definitive version is the duet between Jobim himself and Brazilian singer Elis Regina, which is lovely.

But for me, the best recording is by the beautiful, fated Elis herself, done with minimal accompaniment of gently chorded piano, bass, and brushed snare drum. The simple instrumentation keeps the vocals front and center, with all those tantalizing Brazilian sibilants flowing across the listener’s senses, whether or not one understands the language. There is a video of this recording here: check it out if you want a real treat.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of ‘Aguas de Marco,’ from a seasonal point of view, is in the fact that Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote two sets of lyrics. In the Brazilian version, March is the rainiest month, the end of summer in southern Brazil, where Rio de Janeiro is located. This is the reversed seasonal pattern of the antipodes, as in Australia and New Zealand. Thus the lyrics about March closing summer and such.

In the English version, all this is changed. March is still rainy, but it is not ending summer, but bringing spring. Lines were added about ‘the promise of spring’ and more to indicate the opposite seasonal pattern. To my knowledge, this is one of the only instances in art—popular or otherwise—that takes this change into account. I mean, Irving Berlin didn’t write an alternate version of ‘White Christmas’ with the words ‘I’m dreaming of a sunny Christmas,’ nor did Sammy Cahn write ‘Let it Shine! Let it Shine! Let it Shine!’ so people in Australia could have songs appropriate to their summertime holiday. So let’s give credit to Jobim, who knew that his songs would be played in the U.S. and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere, for making sure that the lyrics would be about something meaningful.