The Geiger Counter
We took our eight-year-old daughter to her first “grown up” concert last night. It was the luminous Sierra Ferrell at the Stoughton Opera House.
We are lucky in this part of Wisconsin, because many small towns here have world class venues to host artistic performances. They exist because our communities were founded by farmers, and while farmers toil from sunup to sundown during most of the year, there were always a few cold, dark months during which everyone needed to sit inside and try not to descend into boredom and frigid madness. The answer, of course, was to make beautiful things, which is really the only way to fend off sorrow. People had to mend sweaters and socks and quilts so they would not freeze to death, and the next thing you knew they were creating vast, expressive pieces that did not merely warm the body, but also the soul.
They had to make things, so they chose to make them beautiful. People would sit for hours and sing to one another, and to themselves, and their voices would resonate in small microclimates of warmth on cold winter nights. The fiddle, the guitar, the washboard, even kitchen spoons would all be picked up and played, and in that way, a bunch of fire-wielding, hairless apes would make music through the days and nights.
People got so good at the arts here in farming country, that they needed places to gather and perform for one another. And so, tiny towns that were little more than clusters of a few modest homes, dappled with bars and churches, surrounded by fields and forests, would come together and build beautiful, ornate opera houses, with vaulted golden ceilings and glowing wooden stages from which voices would ring out for generations to come. To walk into the Stoughton Opera House, or the Mineral Point Opera House, or any of the many other old concert halls in Wisconsin, is to immediately indebt yourself to those who came before you for having their priorities in order, because these people knew that our species must eat grain and meat to stay alive, but we also have to consume the arts if we want to fully live.
I recently listened to a presentation on YouTube given by David Ian Howe, an anthropologist who specializes in the evolution of early humans and their dogs. He spins fascinating yarns with the fabric of prehistory, telling us who we are, and who our pets are, through physical artifacts, mythological touchstones and a healthy bit of guesswork. He points out that pretty much anywhere in the world you have gone for the past 10,000 to 40,000 years, there have been apes walking around with domesticated wolves, from dense, muggy jungles to wastes of snow and ice, these two species have lived their lives together. And he likes to point out that our prehistoric ancestors were not the simpletons many people claim. They were full of complex thoughts and created nuanced arts, from paintings to pottery.
On a podcast with Wyoming state archaeologist Dr. Spencer Pelton, the two discussed the theory that it was our ability to build free-standing homes that led to the development of the nuclear family, which was at the center of social and political development for so many thousands and thousands of years, in every corner of the world. Basically, people lived for thousands of years in caves, which they simply found, but did not build or significantly alter, apart from the art they made on their walls, and the cave bear and deer skulls they placed on altars in them. But at some point, people in all the many cold parts of the world started figuring out how to make their own dwellings, which they could dream up, build and change. In those early homes, people would spend long, deadly winters making human clothing and making, I assume, the stories, poems and songs that would sustain our species from then until the end of time. Those early homes were the places where songs and poetry were born.
In those huts and yurts, people worked to make simple cloaks out of the hides of animals they killed. Over years and years, the rough garments became more refined, and eventually they began to follow the very contours of the people who wore them. They grew arms and legs, they enhanced people’s hips or shoulders; from them dangled decorations and accessories, pieces of art that told stories about the people wearing them. In those early homes, where people huddled so as not to freeze to death, people made things they needed to stave off death, then, just as importantly, they made those things beautiful, to stave off madness. To fend off death and madness with beauty, of course, is to experience joy. And experiencing joy in the face of death, I think, is what it really means to be human.
Last night, we put on our garments, which were made by strangers far away but still do tell a story about who we are, and climbed into the car. My wife drove, because according to her my vehicle is too messy for humans to ride in it. (The insinuation is that it’s the type of Subaru that should only really be called into service when you need to relocate some hogs.) As we rode along the highway, we saw clusters of deer feeding in fields, their brown forms perfectly suited for this cold land, their hooves never having walked through any door of any kind, their eyes having never looked up at a ceiling, their backs never having felt the embrace of a shirt. It was a full moon, and the orb that has been there since before hairless apes, dogs and even deer, was so low and red it looked like Mars was bleeding on the ground just over the horizon. We went to the Stoughton Opera House, climbed up the balcony and listened while Sierra Ferrell and her band made the most incredible music, told the most beautiful stories, well beyond any eight-year-old child’s bedtime. The sounds ricocheted off the green and gold walls, covered in fleur-de-lis, just as the walls of those early huts were covered in the flowers of those times and places.
We put away our phones, took a moment to briefly mourn the pitiful, soulless zombies who decided to spend the entirely of the concert alone, filming the music with their phones, holding them up in the faces of the people behind them, looking at a little screen made by a child slave in a factory far away, rather than the living, breathing human being whose voice rang out in front of us. We maneuvered our heads to direct our eyes around the screens, at the people a few yards in front of us, who sang and strummed, telling us stories.
She played a song based on the letters Michelangelo wrote to the men he loved. Then she played our daughter’s favorite, “The West Virginia Waltz.” As the night progressed, she stood on the stage and stomped her white boots, the microphone covered in flowers, and sang: “I know it’s hard how we’re thrown into this life, then one day we must die; But that river will flow on, even after we’re all long gone; That river will flow on; Take me with you now…” The song is called, “In Dreams.”
Hadley sang along and whispered to me with excitement about the various songs she recognized.
“I can feel people stomping their feet to the music,” she said with a smile.
Around 10 p.m., Hadley’s eyes started to close. I saw her slap her own face in an effort to stay up and not miss the end of the show. Then her head began to bow forward. A few minutes later, the musicians put down their instruments and walked off the stage, while my daughter’s breathing slowed and she fell asleep in my arms.
A minute later, they came back and played one more song, this one without any amplification, without any electricity – no tricks, no technology – just a woman, her guitar, and three men playing violin, bass and mandolin. As Hadley drifted off to sleep, at the tail end of another first in her life, they came to the edge of the stage and sang, in ancient voices, and played on ancient instruments, one last tune.
“Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams; Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.”
We are so incredibly lucky to be here, even if only for a little while. To fall asleep while someone sings you a song. To hold your daughter in your arms and know she will get to laugh and listen to music in a world from which you will someday be ripped by the hands of time, is not to be taken lightly. We should give thanks and not resent our own frailty in the face of all our species has endured.
We climbed down the stairs and out into the frigid street, reminded that we live in a very cold place, and that the climate in the opera house, all its warmth and light, was a small oasis in a sea of darkness and cold. Without our clothes and our buildings, we would quickly die. Without our art, we would cease to be human. Thankfully, we have both. We went home. I carried Hadley up the stairs and into her bedroom, where she slept through the night, dreaming of who knows what. I fed the dogs, so happy to see us, and climbed into bed myself, just a fire-wielding, hairless ape in a free-standing home on a winter night, in a cold land, surrounded by family, a melody in my head as I drifted off to sleep.