Why not a godless angel band?

It’s not too often that I play a song on infinite repeat, but yesterday I left Angel Band, the last song on the O Brother, Where Art Thou sound track, going for more than an hour. It’s based on an American hymn written and set to music in 1860 by Jefferson Hascall and William Bradbury, (who also wrote Jesus Loves Me).

My latest sun is sinking fast,
My race is nearly run,
My strongest trials now are past,
My triumph has begun.

O, come, angel band,
Come and around me stand,
O bear me away on your snow white wings,
To my immortal home.
O bear me away on your snow white wings
To my immortal home.

O bear my longing heart to him
Who bled and died for me
Whose blood now cleanses from all sin
And gives me victory

O, come angel band
Come and around me stand
O bear me away on your snow white wings,
To my immortal home.
O bear me away on your snow white wings,
To my immortal home.

The Stanley Brothers performed the version in O Brother, Where Art Thou. It’s almost a capella, with four part harmony, and some guitar and mandolin in the background. It’s a simple song. A comforting deathbed song. I disagree entirely with every sentiment expressed in it, but it’s still moving, almost to the point of tears.

How can that be? And how can it be that I don’t know any naturalistic hymns that are similarly moving? Do they exist, but not get played? Is it a failure of community? Or do they not even exist? Have we not yet had enough time to phrase our understanding of the natural world in emotionally captivating ways? Does it take a thousand years to do that? Or do they not exist because we don’t have naturalistic communities? Or because those naturalistic communities that do exist don’t actually value the fact that they are a community – because they’re not willing or able to do the work required to cultivate and maintain themselves as a community?

I wish there were a similarly moving song about exponential population growth, and the subsequent collapse. Something that might come to mind when someone came across a growth rate stated as a percentage. They’d say “Oh, I know how this story ends – all exponential growth is unsustainable.” We need a kind of pre-emptive post-apocalyptic lament. Stories in verse, set to music, about the ways in which we will have failed. They’d hardly be any more distant from our everyday experience than songs about Passover. Or a set of garden hymns… songs in praise of the organisms that make the nutrients in our composted waste available, the sunshine that distills seawater into rain, the hungry ladybugs, the earthworms aerating our soil, chlorophyll, and the plants that have cooperated in their own domestication. The last song could be like Angel Band, but with our bodies being returned to the garden that nourished us, to nourish our remaining family.

Parkwood Tomatocide

I give up. The tomatoes just aren’t tomatoing. The three cherry tomatoes on the S. side of the back house in 5 gallon pots just won’t stay wet enough with my attention span. They’re crispy. The fruits they have made are leathery and dry, so out they go. The 2 year old Cherokee Purple is likewise fruitless, and turning itself into an arbor crossing the already very narrow walkway. I pruned it back to just the new green growth coming out of the stumps. I think I’ll move the habañros over there now.

There’s definitely a psychological pattern with the garden. So far anyway. Excitement early on, with rapid new green growth, and then confusion. Am I doing this right? Am i overwatering? Is there something wrong? And then less watering. But maybe too much less. And somehow, the plants take it – they put up with it anyway. It seems to take a lot to actually get them to wilt. once they’re a little woody. But maybe it’s enough to keep them from fruiting? And now despair. Something terribly wrong. 40 tomato plants and 10 tomatoes.

Luther Burbank’s Children

On the way out to Bodega Bay yesterday we stopped in Sebastopol at the Luther Burbank Experimental Farm, or what’s left of it anyway – all but three acres of an original 18 have been sold off. It is disheveled, and there are no guided tours, just a few acres of numbered plants, mostly fruit and nut trees, that you can look up on a brochure and map in a box by the barn. That didn’t matter at all. It’s a wonderful place.
Continue reading Luther Burbank’s Children

Visitor Without Stipend

As of Monday, I will be living up to my official title at Caltech. I tried to quit grad school a couple of weeks ago. In response to Bob’s email: “Please let me know that you’re not dead.”, I replied: “I’m not dead, but apparently, I don’t want a Ph.D. either”. Today was to be my last day, with figures cleaned up for the Wahr et al. 2008 stress paper, and helpful outlines of future research projects written for my academic successors. Continue reading Visitor Without Stipend

Virtue, Beauty, and Function

Michael Pollan talks about American gardeners (including himself) being unable to bring themselves to cultivate beauty, or to see that as their purpose.  Instead, he says they cultivate virtue.  Sometimes I wonder if American liberals also suffer from this affliction, except instead of seeking virtue at the expense of beauty, they seek it to the detriment of functionality.  It doesn’t matter if this works, only that it’s right.  And maybe American conservatives do this too.