An album review

Identification is a most powerful skill. It illuminates, reveals, unlocking a secret world just beyond the edge of our tongue. There was magic in my early days as a naturalist, endless lost hours spent pouring over the intricacies of the various species of Atriplex that licked the salty scrub coast of California. As my ID skills developed I began to see patterns in the land, to appreciate the nuance of a slope’s aspect, the soil’s affinity for water, the lingering influence of land use on vegetative communities. I also came to understand that identification isn’t a language, it isn’t even the syntax, only the barest tracings of what the world is, a necessary foundation to reveal deeper truths about the world we inhabit. E.E. Cummings’ words strolled through the arid chaparral with me: 

since feeling is first
who pays any attention 
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

I was again reminded of this poem while listening to Burlington musician Wren Kitz’s new album, Natural History vol.1.

A reflection on patience

Somewhere between now and my life in California, I seem to have lost much of my patience. The luxury of those endless hours with The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California is too often replaced with a fleeting moment of instant gratification using iNaturalist’s Seek (an app that allows you to identify nearly anything by simply pointing your phone’s camera at it) or Cornell’s Merlin (which listens for bird sounds and spits out a list of those species making noise). In outsourcing identification, I’m aware that I am (and have already) lost something dear.

In listening to Wren’s new album, I felt a joyful return to this lost sense of patience, the art of quiet observation. The album is a meandering journey across the seasons that takes us through the wild soundscape of northern New England. But to call it meandering is not to say that it’s random or without purpose. We start in the fall, with a riot of crows, a bird so common as to be forever ignored. Thousands of birds paint the background in an indecipherable wave of caws punctuated by startlingly strange rattles and chirps. Crows, while notoriously opaque in their garrulous gossiping, here seem to aim their cacophony directly at us, imploring us to spend the time actively listening, as though this might allow us to decipher their meaning. 

Wren’s voice, just on the slower side of Marlin Perkins (the host of Disney’s Wild Kingdom), gives us context to the sound of crows: “We begin in autumn, with the sound of crows traveling overhead toward their roost in the hemlock forest of Southern Burlington, Vermont.” His introductions to each soundscape are similarly terse and unobtrusive, reminiscent of museum labels that accompany art in a gallery. But beyond that, there’s not much to help us make sense of the crows. Nor do we linger quite long enough to discover any real intention behind their utterings.  

A footstep in the water interrupts the crows as the track fades to the gentle lapping of a night at the Isle of Shoals, and I’m reminded that these sounds are Wren’s gaze, his quiet moments listening in on and capturing the musings of nature. The occasional subtle flourish, like when we find him in a Vermont swamp: “Notice the particular and peculiar grumbling call of the northern leopard frog,” reminds us too that these sounds are indeed peculiar, that they are worthy of our attention. We travel on to encounter “the unique conversation between a mourning dove and a northern cardinal,” “the generous calls of various gulls and shorebirds,” and “the clunking rolls and tumbles of ice in the waves,” and I find myself hearing a world in conversation with itself, wondering what magic I’m missing by not listening with the patience and focus with which Wren has listened.

Wren recorded the sounds using 50 year old recorders similar to the equipment used to create the recordings in the early stages of building the Macauly library, which formed the basis for the digital era of bird recordings and audio identification

Gordon Hempton, who has spent the past five decades capturing those rare places on the planet still free of the abrasive racket of human presence said: “There is a deeper way of listening. When you’re really listening you aren’t trying to hear what you want to hear, but you’re just being there.” Wren isn’t quite as passive as Hempton or one of those museum labels, and his narrations speak directly to us, gently guiding us to a more poetic way of listening. In the context of Wren’s album, it’s not so much about content, about what the crows or toads or loons or sheets of ice are saying as it is about how we’re listening. This is implicit in the quality of the recording, an artifact of the 45-55 year old recorders Wren used to capture the sounds (these recorders are similar to the equipment used to create the recordings in the early stages of building the Macauly library, which formed the basis for the digital era of bird recordings and audio identification). 

I define Natural History as aesthetic ecology. Here the pursuit of scientific knowledge is centered, but there is a conscious and intentional art to the pursuit and presentation of this ecological understanding. Wren’s album, Natural History, vol.1 provides us not with a tool for identification, with more content, or even with anything particularly useful, but it is most certainly Natural History, a deeply necessary reminder of the process of listening, of lingering, of forging connection. I look forward to volume 2.

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