Brain Pickings

Rachel Carson’s Birdsong Notation, Set to Music

A melodic homage to the patron saint of the modern environmental conscience.

Rachel Carson’s Birdsong Notation, Set to Music

One of the loveliest discoveries in my research for Figuring came at Yale’s magical Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where Rachel Carson’s papers are housed: Among her ample letters, manuscripts, and field notebooks I found a piece of railway stationery from the now-defunct Portland Rose train line, onto which Carson had counted bird calls and scribbled the notation of a birdsong melody — that is how this quiet visionary loved our living world, which she set out to protect at immense personal cost as she catalyzed the environmental movement with her landmark 1962 book Silent Spring, titled after the chapter on the devastating pesticide-induced deaths of songbirds.

Bird call counts and birdsong notation in Rachel Carson’s hand. (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Carson’s scribbles so touched me that I decided they must adorn the cover of the 300 signed and numbered limited editions of Figuring, stamped in gold onto deep sky blue vegan leather — it felt like the most perfect poetic symbology for a book animated by the cherishment of nature, the longing for truth and beauty, and the way in which the personal tendernesses of change agents fomented their epoch-making cultural contributions.

What a sweet surprise, then, when my supremely talented, supremely generous and warmhearted singer-songwriter friend Dawn Landes drew the melody out of Carson’s penciled notation and set it to music — birdsong transfigured into a mesmerizing arrangement of guitar, piano, synth, layers of violin, and two harmonizing voices: Dawn and her sometime-bandmate Lauren Balthrop. Sit back with a pair of good headphones, think of Carson, and savor:

Couple with a very different musical tribute to Carson’s legacy, then revisit Neil Gaiman’s splendid poem celebrating her courage, read by Amanda Palmer.

Published February 12, 2019




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