All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Posts Tagged ‘environmental music; Joni Mitchell; Rachelle Van Zenten; Neil Young: Natalie Merchant; Mary Chapin Carpenter; Halley’s comet

Environmental music

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Rachelle Van Zenten has been making the internet rounds lately with her wonderful song My Country.  It’s a reminder of how powerful music can be in stirring emotions – and, in this case, environmental awareness about northern BC.  It doesn’t hurt that in her video, her song is framed by very powerful, moving images.

Van Zenten’s music got me reminiscing about what could loosely be called environmental songs.  What is it about music that can touch us so deeply – and make impressions that last decades?

Take the archetypal enviro song of the sixties, Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.  Forget for a moment that spots on apples have nothing to do with DDT (that would be fungicides, or ALAR – also banned).  She’s got the “leave me the birds and the bees” right.  But ultimately, the facts really don’t matter.  The song may have a cheerful melody, it is lines like

Don’t it always seem to go / You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone

that create a profound, melancholy impact.  A lot of the environmental thinking, ultimately, is summarized in these lines: preserve nature, its habitats, its animals – you have no idea how much you will miss them if they’re gone.  This has been the thinking behind creating national parks in the 1900s, all the way to contemporary efforts aimed at preserving clean air, clean water – or genetic integrity, for that matter.


Neil Young is another who penned a number of brilliant songs, rich in nostalgia.  After the Gold Rush was seen by many as a paean to the environmental movement, dressed in apocalyptic, sci-fi imagery.

Look at Mother Nature on the run / in the nineteen seventies

I was thinking about what a friend had said / I was hoping it was a lie

That last line, in particular, is suitably vague and ambiguous to carry just about any meaning – but hoping for a lie can never be good, in love or in life.  Bizarrely, it makes me think of climate deniers, painting them in a sympathetic light: an insight into the dread that seems to motivate denial of unpleasant realities (in convenient truth, as it were).


And speaking of Mother Nature on the run, who can forget Natalie Merchant’s Motherland:

Where in hell can you go / Far from the things that you know
Far from the sprawl of concrete / That keeps crawling its way / About 1,000 miles a day?


There are of course, many more instances, and David Roberts’ Friday music blogging in Grist as well as numerous articles in Treehugger (for instance, this one on the musical influence of the environmental movement) serve as excellent sources.

But if I were to pick one artist that stays me with, I’d go with Mary Chapin Carpenter.  Her lyrics sometimes touch on environmental issues, as in the devastation following Katrina, or the social disruption that go with climate change, as in The Age of Miracles:

Greenland is melting, the west is on fire / But don’t ever stop praying for rain
It’s a curious place between hope and desire / Different gods, but the prayer is the same
And thousand-year storms seem to form on a breeze / Drowning all living things in their paths
And when a small southern town finds a rope in a tree / We’re all once again trapped in the past


But this isn’t why she has a soft spot for me.  Rather, it is because her songs are always so aware of her immediate surroundings, her environment in the most natural sense, like the magic of Twilight:

The sun’s going down past the pines / Shadows grow long down the hill
Follow the path known by heart / Down to the wide open fields
Now that it’s twilight / magical twilight


When Halley came to Jackson holds a special magic for me.  A comet may seem a mundane thing – just another streak in the sky – but there is something very special about a comet, especially in an age before media.

As its tail stretched out like a stardust streak / The papers wrote about it every day for a week
They wondered where it’s going and where it’s been / When Halley came to Jackson in 1910
Now Daddy told the baby sleeping in his arms / To dream a little dream of a comet’s charms
And he made a little wish as she slept so sound / In nineteen eighty-six that wish came ’round

Halley’s comet, however peculiar, is not a single event; it comes back every seventy two years, a long amount of time, yet just short enough to be accessible to most once in a lifetime – or twice, if long life is given, like to the baby in the song.  It speaks of continuity, of events beyond human intervention – yet, somehow, it seems magical, endowed with the ability to grant a wish.

Maybe this song means more to me because I discovered it near the time when my father died.  There’s a photo of him in his last year, on a country road, with his great-grandchild.  Maybe it’s the simple country setting, maybe the span of generations, but this photo, and this song, makes me think about things that continue across generations.  Maybe that’s why we are attached to our environment; it is what binds us to something larger than ourselves.  A little bit of believable magic.

across the generations: Dad and great-grandson Victor