The Music in their Bones

Music is the trembling urgency and exuberance of life ongoing. Truly, if we can’t save the songs, can we save ourselves?

IT’S NOT EASY TO LAND A BOAT on this wild island. It sits alone in the mouth of a Southeast Alaska bay, smacked by tidal currents that race up and down the channel. The island’s basalt cliffs rise twenty feet from the water, buttressed by fallen boulders, topped by a woven palisade of hemlock and Sitka spruce. But on the south curve of the island, the cliffs collapse into a pile of boulders and shelving stone. In calm weather, it’s possible to nose a skiff into these rocks and jump onto a submerged ledge. From there, it’s a haul and scramble between boulders.

We couldn’t leave the boat tied on a falling tide. Just one contrary wave and the bow would hang up on rocks and stay pinned there, tilting, until the returning tide lifted it again. So my husband landed us gingerly, our two grandchildren and me, and motored into the bay to hold the boat.

On the island, the boulders were the size of woodsheds. The best route seemed to be between them on blue paths of broken mussel shells, and under their overhangs in the dank world of starfish, and over them, up the splintered wave-tossed logs, and around them in water to the top of our boots. It was a long scramble for the little boys. But as soon as we entered the rift in the forest, we found a narrow trail blanketed in moss. It was too delicate a path to have been made by boots — a deer trail instead, I thought, or a trail made by bears. So I was listening carefully, stopping often to hear what we might disturb. What we disturbed was a raven on its nest. It screeched, flapped over, and dropped a stick in our path. A present, a child said. A warning, I thought.

Although trees barricaded the island’s edges, inside that wall was an open nave. Lifted on the black pillars of hemlocks, a green ceiling vaulted high overhead. In a column of light, red columbine nodded and orchids bloomed. Not the big, birdlike orchids of the tropics, but northwest orchids, a pallid spiral of tiny shoes on a stem.

We found tunnels under tree roots in the sanctuary, lots of them, dark pathways beaten smooth by small paws. The mossy carpet was clean. But not just clean. It had been swept of all its litter. The hemlock cones, sticks and twigs, ruffled lichen, needles, and branch tips that usually litter a forest floor had all been gathered into small piles, as if someone were expected to come along with a dust pan to sweep them up. If I hadn’t recognized these as the scent posts of river otters, I would have imagined small nuns singing softly as they glided across the transept with little brooms — the space was that perfectly cared for.

IN THE NAVE, Swainson’s thrushes filled the air with flute-song. Although the boys are taught to sing out for bears, they were quiet here, listening. Light flowed between branches, and because the branches were gently swaying, the light swayed too, and reflections played up from the sea.

feather crop

There, splayed on a mossy bank as if on an altar, was the skeleton of a bald eagle. A large one, so most likely a female, gone mostly to bones. She lay on her back with her wings spread, looking toward the east. Only a few magnificent primaries, the feathers of flight, stuck to the reaching wing-bones. There was the jutting keel of her breast, and a cage of ribs above scattered vertebrae. The eagle’s long leg bones were dull and half buried in moss. The talons remained, although torn somehow off to the side, as if she had dug dirt in the agony of dying. At the top of the spine was her skull, staring with empty eye sockets along the crest of her ferocious beak.

Whoa, a grandson whispered. But I, too, could not have been more surprised. In retrospect, I don’t know why. If we were ever to come upon the bare bones of an eagle, fallen somehow on her back as if blown from a high perch, or laid as if in a sacrificial ceremony on a bed of moss, this is where we would have found her, in the dim light of this wild island. We circled the eagle, touched her. The little boys crouched beside her and stroked her beak. Then I lay on my back beside the skeleton. I wanted to see what the eagle must have seen as she died, to feel the moss on my back and the damp light on my face. I lay there a long time, looking east, listening to the wind and the water-smack. Thinking.

I lay on my back beside the skeleton. I wanted to see what the eagle must have seen when she died.

I didn’t know what to think, there in the presence of this majestic death and two small, eager lives. So much loss surrounds us. I, and all people of my generation, were born into a world packed with life and beauty. Without much noticing, we have lived through the destruction of almost half of it, plowed or burned, poisoned or killed, transmogrified into products or into human flesh, leaving the world half stripped to its rocky bones. So much peril surrounds the children, who were born to this great planetary decision point, soon to witness the rapid reinvention of human civilization or its slow extinction.

EXTINCTION. EXTINGUISH. Cause to cease burning — all the little lives, all the small songs.

I can’t help but think of dinosaurs, the progenitors of the eagles and of all birds. I imagine a tiny theropod breaking open her leathery shell. She sticks out her scrawny neck and emerges into a sea of sound, the rustle-squeak and drone of the crowded forest. It’s even possible that, in the sky, she sees the golden streak of the asteroid that will smash into the Earth, the beginning of the Fifth Extinction. The theropod would have gasped — maybe baby dinosaurs’ only expression is gasping — not at the meaning of the streak, surely. But how could she not gasp at the chorus of sound? How could she not flinch at the sudden light?

My grandsons were born into a world powered by fossil fuels on fire, the beginning of the Sixth Extinction, the end for uncounted species on the planet, and perhaps their own species. This last possibility is a matter of serious, hideous debate. What is beyond debate is Paul Ehrlich’s warning: “Few problems are less recognized, but more important than, the accelerating disappearance of the earth’s biological [richness]. In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it is perched.”

foot crop

Closing their eyes, those baby boys curled their toes and melted into the murmurs of their mother, who loves them more than life. So there we are.

It’s hard to know what to think and how to live in the context of the paradox and peril that face humans and all the other animals.

Our duty at this hinge point in history, some say, is to be grateful and glad. Our role, some say, is to celebrate the Earth and to love it. Our challenge, my friend Hank says, is to “find new beauty in the rushing changes.” The moral obligation of those who love life itself, some say, is to be still and rejoice in the music of the singing world.

The world is still beautiful; celebrate that. It’s true: This island is glorious. The eagle’s bones are light-swept under a fine lace of lichen. The thrush song is woven from shining threads of happiness. The children are a delight ongoing. Already, they are wondering how to use their pocketknives to gouge a flute from a deer femur they found on the beach.

What is the song of a dead bird? What is the whistle of vanished wings?

It can be done, you know. For forty thousand years, people have shaped flutes from the femurs of dead birds. Neanderthal artists, before they vanished, carved whistles from the bones of baby cave bears, now also vanished. In a Utah canyon, I have heard the music of a flute made from the leg bone of an eagle. Not at all the skitter-scrape of a living eagle, that flute made a lovely, lonely sound, the music of wind through bleached bones. All things shall perish from under the sky. Music alone shall live.

But tell me: What is the song of a dead bird? What is the whistle of vanished wings? What music does the mocking rain play on the suddenly mute island?

I will howl against the approaching silence of the empty sky. I will carve a flute from a dead bird’s bone and whistle like a bosun on a sinking ship. I will accept sorrow as a last great offering from a desperate world. But then I will shape anguish into something that is fierce enough to stand in defense of all we love too much to lose.

I know that whatever is left of the planet when the pillage ends, that’s the world that the children will live in. Whatever genetic song lines, whatever fragments of whale squeal and shattered harmonies are left, that’s what evolution has got to work with. Music is the trembling urgency and exuberance of life ongoing. Truly, if we can’t save the songs, can we save ourselves? In a time of terrible silencing, what can we hear if we listen carefully, and what can Earth’s wild music tell us about how we ought to live?

This essay is excerpted from the author’s new book Earth’s Wild Music and by permission of Counterpoint Press.

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