“Singing is simply a sign of human habitation, like smoke.” (John Berger)

This morning I woke at five and lay for a time listening to birdsong — robins, Swainson’s thrushes, at least one varied thrush, a western tanager, and others I couldn’t identify. I found myself thinking of Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. I bought a copy in New Mexico, in the lovely Tome on the Range in Las Vegas, and brought it home to be savoured over during the course of a week. Cather noticed landscape and how it shaped people. Shaped her, no doubt — no one notices the geography and weather of a place so much as one who has felt the imprint of that place on skin, the soles of feet walking its contours, eyes opened to its sky. I haven’t read all her books but certainly My Antonia and O Pioneers are full of Nebraska and Death Comes For the Archbishop is like a map of New Mexico, the arroyos and piñons lovingly recorded.

The Song of the Lark is Thea Kronborg’s story. Born in Moonstone, a small Colorado town, she knew from the very beginning that she would do something grand.

 “Many a night that summer she left Dr. Archie’s office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside her low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window — or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardor and anticipation. It was on such nights that Thea Kronborg learned the thing that old Dumas meant when he told the Romanticists that to make a drama he needed but one passion and four walls.”

Thea’s gift is music. And she aspires to be a singer. The novel traces her quest for teaching and for experience. She’s not entirely likeable and the men she encounters are a bit obsequious, even the one who knows her best and believes in her ability. Of course they — the men, I mean — are not free to love her wholly (what is it about Cather and the hidden wives, the dystunctional marriages?). But they offer money and encouragement and one of them, the wealthy Fred Ottenburg, offers her time in a transcendent place: his father’s remote ranch which contains Cliff-Dweller ruins. It’s here, in Panther Cañon, that Thea finds her voice again. Literally. (And it’s significant that the middle register is the range she has had trouble with.)

“Here she could lie for half a day undistracted, holding pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind — almost in her hands. They were scarcely clear enough to be called ideas. They had something to do with fragrance and colour and sound, but almost nothing to do with words. She was singing very little now, but a song would go through her head all morning, as a spring keeps welling up, and it was a like a pleasant sensation indefinitely prolonged. It was much more like a sensation than an idea, or an act of remembering.”

I loved this section of the novel. Cather takes the reader deep into the cañon where cottonwood seedlings flicker gold-green by the stream and swallows swim in the blue air. There are pot sherds (I saw so many of these at the Pecos monument) to remind her always of the original population:

“This care, expended upon vessels that could not hold food or water any better for the additional labour put upon them, made her heart go out to those ancient potters. They had not only expressed their desire, but they had expressed it as beautifully as they could. Food, fire, water, and something else — even here, in this crack in the world, so far back in the night of the past! Down here at the beginning, that painful thing was already stirring; the seed of sorrow, and of so much delight.”

The title of the novel is inspired by Jules Breton’s painting of the same name:

The_Song_of_the_Lark_(Jules_Breton,_1884)I can see how it appealed to Cather and the woman is certainly emblematic of prairie strength and beauty. But to my mind, it’s dated, and this novel has a rugged and contemporary heart. My copy has instead a cover image of a bird, clutching a strand of grass (maybe barley?), and looks almost pictographic in its simplicity. Like an image on a pot sherd, tawny and ochre, expressed as beautifully as some of the writing in this novel.song of the lark

books along the way

Sometimes I wish I read less. I panic when I have nothing to read, no pages to turn in my bed at night, my own  bed or a strange one. I brought Lilac and Flag by John Berger along with me but finished it two days into this ten-day (thus far) journey. I’d read the other novels in the trilogy, Into Their Labours, but somehow not this one. And JB is probably my favourite non-fiction writer or maybe I just mean favourite writer. Period. You forget what genre you’re reading — and it doesn’t matter, though universities are debating the fine points of creative non-fiction, the lyrical essay, documentary journalism, et. al. What is legitimate, what isn’t. What you can say and what you can’t. So there was Lilac and Flag for the first three days and then a visit to a bookstore in Santa Fe for Linda Hogan’s The Woman Who Watches Over the World, which is wonderful. And (because we were on our way to Taos) a biography of Mabel Dodge Luhan, which I’m reading right now. I walked over to her house last night and tried to imagine DH Lawrence in its garden, listening to the same magpies I was listening to.

A little while ago, we went into Tome on the Range, here in Las Vegas, and wow, there were tables and shelves of books I had to restrain myself from buying — because of space, mostly. My suitcase is already bulging and we will be going to Edmonton from here for five more days, which means more stuff (though I try to resist; but who could resist the Acoma pot from Sky City Mesa or the linen dress from Santa Fe?). But then I saw a beautiful edition of When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, by Terry Tempest Williams, a writer I’ve always loved for her rich sense of the natural world and how our bodies respond to it (and our minds, too). So I bought it, of course. And couldn’t walk by a Willa Cather I haven’t yet read, The Song of the Lark — because I have had her Death Comes for the Archbishop in my head over the past ten days, travelling this landscape which Father Jean Marie Latour travelled through in 1851.