‘It is the marriage of the soul with Nature that makes the intellect fruitful and gives birth to the imagination.’
Henry David Thoreau
One of the most beautiful things about time spent in nature is the effect it can have on the imagination and the power it has to stimulate creativity. If you think of any great creative person, how they reflect the environment they exist in is often really apparent; no-one lives in a ‘bubble’ isolated and detached from the world that surrounds them. Indeed, the world around us feeds our imaginations, providing the source of our stories and nourishing our desire to express ourselves creatively. The link between environment and creativity is primal, synergistic and as Thoreau suggests, tapping into this ‘marriage of the soul’ has led to the creation of some of the greatest works in human history. This is also true of the humble ‘pop’ song.
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that a lot of my CDs (showing my age I know) and playlists include songs about nature or have some connection to it. It may surprise you to realise how many of your own playlists also include songs with some nature connection. I’m not talking about those specifically about nature – often the plight of the environment – but those which, subtly, have been created with nature in mind or, perhaps more correctly, ‘in soul.’ In this blog I suggest a ‘Top 5’ of songs I really love and which in some way, inspire me to go outdoors and feed my own imagination. You can check out my ‘Top 5’ playlist on my YouTube channel – NatureWise:
I’d love to hear about the songs that inspire you as well, especially if there is some connection to the environment and the natural world. Here are my choices…
1. Blackbird (Lennon/McCartney) 1968
Originally written for the Beatles’ self-titled 1968 album – also known as ‘The White album’ – composer, Paul McCartney, claims that the song came to him after he heard the calling of a blackbird whilst studying transcendental meditation in Rishikesh, India. He subsequently attributed the song to the rising racial tensions in the USA during the spring of ’68. It seems that several influences were evident during Paul’s creative process with the poem ‘Blackbird Singing’ by R.S.Thomas (allpoetry.com/A-Blackbird-Singing) being credited by McCartney in later years.
Whatever the influence, at its core the experience of a blackbird singing is the central image of the song and whether symbolic of racial struggle or more simply, the purity of birdsong, McCartney’s composition focuses on an experience of nature which we can all identify with. For me, the song is one of hope and resilience, with its ticking meter and gently affirming lyrics enveloped by the beautifully arranged guitar accompaniment, reaching its climax with a recording of the blackbird’s song – crediting nature itself with the beauty of the song’s creation. Like the poem, the evident beauty of the song is also tinged with the ‘darkness’ of the night and the bird itself, reminding us that we too hold both light and dark and that the idea of awaiting a moment ‘to be free’ or to ‘arise’ signifies to us that the night will end, heralded by the triumphant call of the blackbird and a new day.
2. Albatross (Green) 1968
Weirdly, it was only when I started to write this blog that I realised that my first two choices were both inspired by birds and released in 1968! Albatross is the classic instrumental creation of Peter Green and performed by Fleetwood Mac before the change in line-up that would see them go on to become global superstars. It is often easy to forget that there was a life before Stevie Nicks, but this great song is actually Fleetwood Mac’s only UK number one single.
Not usually one for instrumentals, this song is so evocative of the long journeys these giant birds take to find their feeding grounds and during their migrations that it carries me along on the thermals of its gently rolling timpani sound and cymbal splash to an imagined desert island bathed in a golden sunset. The dream-like sigh of Green’s guitar over the perfectly measured bass rhythm is a call to freedom, to choose my own direction and to be completely ‘chilled’ in the process! It is such a relaxing song that it should come with a warning not to operate heavy machinery at the same time! Clearly, the imagery of the far-travelled bird roaming the blue expanse of the ocean held a deep fascination for Green, proving to be the source of his greatest chart success. If I ever need encouragement, this song reminds me that the journey may well be a long one but the like the Albatross, I will always find land eventually, even if it is nowhere immediately in sight.
Albatross is also the only Fleetwood Mac song to have inspired the writers of my first choice, The Beatles, to create another nature connected song – ‘Sun King,’ from their 1969 album ‘Abbey Road.’
3. Men-An-Tol (Friend, Kenton-Heather, Chadwick, Sevink and Cunningham) 1995
‘So I find myself among, the brave South Western hills…’ is almost enough explanation for a west-country boy but this great song by The Levellers, released on their ‘Zeitgeist’ album of 1995, is an evocative lament for the changing way in which society regards and connects with nature. A sucker for an electrified violin and crashing bass lines, this song accompanied me on the beginnings of my journey towards re-thinking my connections with nature and questioning the route I had already navigated through life. For years, I had studied hard, worked hard, been a good student at school, bought into the consume, consume, consume and found myself on the path to more of the same. The connections that were most natural, my marriage, my love of the outdoors, family all stood out so clearly as being ‘the Truth’ whilst the trappings of career, possessions and accumulating even more, became a more uncomfortable feeling. Certainly, in 1995 I was nowhere near doing anything about it, but this song kept cropping up as a reminder every now and then.
I have been to Zennor Tor once. It is a mysterious, eerie and bleakly beautiful place and I can absolutely understand why the Levellers attributed to it a ‘more than just a feeling’ and ‘a different way of seeing.’ They reference the way ancient people honoured the lands that they found themselves living in. Not just treating the land with respect but finding a deeper meaning, a deeper connection with the land – a power which sustained them, clarified their lives and gave meaning. All over the country, there are ancient monuments, much of there meaning obscure and distant to us now but all showing a deeper reverence for the land than we, unfortunately, show today. For me, that place is not Zennor Tor but White Horse Hill, Uffington (Oxfordshire). I can’t really explain it and it doesn’t really need explanation but my connection to that place is almost tangible and, as the song goes, is ‘Something I believe in.’
4. Solsbury Hill (Gabriel) 1977
If you are ever going to get me up and dancing (believe me, a challenge) you would do well to start with this 1977 classic from Peter Gabriel’s eponymous debut solo album. Not that it would be a kind of dancing you would either recognise or want to be around for too long!
Following the theme of deeper connections mentioned in the last song, ‘Solsbury Hill’ was written following Gabriel’s spiritual experience on top of Little Solsbury Hill in Somerset, following his decision to leave progressive rock group Genesis. The song, in part, explains his decision to leave but also references not only the spiritual connection he felt with the landscape but also a more general societal scepticism about these ‘spiritual’ experiences. Gabriel, himself, said of the song that is was about ‘…being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get, or what you are for what you might be. It’s about letting go.’ Thus began a journey to express himself more freely than he had been able to in his role as lead singer in Genesis.
For me, it is a brave song, a challenge and where The Levellers played the background to my growing awareness of my self and my connection to nature, this song grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and asked me the question, ‘When then?’ When, apparently, is now and whilst I am a slow learner it would seem, I am a much happier one as a result.
5. The White Hare (Lakeman) 2006
The last choice in my list follows the whole spiritual, eerie connection to nature theme once again but takes a slightly different approach. I not only love the way Lakeman performs this song but also that he wrote it so that I could actually play it on my guitar as well! I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his intention though.
Rather than dealing with the clash of reality and the esoteric, this song is more about the integration of the two and how creators, over time have always looked to nature and their environment for inspiration. Lakeman is renown for setting his songs amongst the many myths and legends of the South West and beyond and this song is no exception. The White Hare is about the legend of a witch on Dartmoor who transforms into the figure of a white hare. When she is looked upon by a man, the witch transforms into a beautiful woman whereupon the man will instantly fall in love with her, going mad with obsession and love for the witch until the day he dies. Ok, so not a happy ending but still, a beautifully crafted song which is incredibly evocative of the bleakness of the Dartmoor wilds and the power of an image, the White Hare itself.
These images and inspirations from the natural world are often used as symbols which we look to as guides throughout our lives. The NatureWise owl (drawn beautifully by my daughter) is a symbol of the wisdom I find in contemplating the natural environment. Just think of the symbols for the Chinese New Year (in 2020 this will be the Year of the Rat), each animal representing a characteristic or pattern experienced in cycles across the years. Natural symbols are powerful and meaningful – take the White Horse at Uffington as an example – and inspire people in numerous ways. They live in the collective consciousness of societies and emerge as myths and legends, defining an area perhaps or giving a sense of identity. A feat Lakeman captures so well in this song.
This list is by no means exhaustive and there are so many more songs that could (and perhaps should) have been included as well. It would be great to hear your thoughts about the songs on this list and perhaps a few suggestions of your own and why they are meaningful to you. Looking forward to hearing from you and expanding my own musical knowledge!
Have a great and musical day. Steve@NatureWise.