The writer Jim Harrison says that anyone born after about 1960 can’t do anything without listening to music. He is probably right, because I know I can’t, but then again, listening to music is generally healthy. Dr. Phil Maffetone, a doctor/musician who counted Johnny Cash as a patient, says that listening to music can control stress, reduce pain, and improve brain function. For gardeners, I would add that it can keep you company. After all, ours is usually a solitary pursuit.
For me, one of the pleasures of garden design is that I can plug in and let Radiohead or Bach fill my head with sonic waves while I draw. This is something I can’t do when I’m writing—when any musical waves I generate need to come from within. But designing gardens, and working in gardens, are perfect activities for listening to music. A day spent outdoors with an iPod in a back pocket and Felco pruners in my right hand is my idea of a great staycation.
A habitual list-maker, making playlists is one of my favorite things to do. Every December, I make a list of my favorite songs from the previous year. In my high school and college years, I bought chrome cassette tapes to make mix tapes for prospective (and occasionally actual) girlfriends. Like the John Cusack character in the movie High Fidelity, I surrounded myself with music. What is harder than you might think is finding songs about plants. If you exclude references to roses, there aren’t all that many.
The following songs, with plant-related themes, have become some of my favorites over the last decade:
1. “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes. For me, its weird Beach Boy-like harmonies and odd lyrics simultaneously evoke memories of picking strawberries and butchering rabbits.
2. “Sycamore” by Bill Callahan. What gardener doesn’t love a song about a big white-barked American tree sung by a guy with a voice deep enough to give Lou Reed a run for his money? As Callahan says, “There’s sap in the trees if you tap ‘em.”
3. “Summertime” by Josh Rouse. This song comes pretty close to capturing the nature of summertime. I have liked a lot of Josh Rouse songs over the last decade so it was hard to choose.
4. “Someday Some Morning Sometime” by Billy Bragg & Wilco. Bragg and Wilco manage to take this Woody Guthrie song, with its promise to “…build you a house all covered in vines…” and make it melancholy.
5. “Passing Afternoon” by Iron & Wine. A song about loss, leaves, and bougainvillea seeds. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen a bougainvillea seed although they are planted everywhere here. Must investigate.
6. “Nude” by Radiohead. Has nothing to do with gardening, but it is moody and atmospheric and wonderful.
7. “Nomenclature” by Andrew Bird. Who among us hasn’t been maddened and disgusted by ever changing plant nomenclature? What use are Latin names that are constantly in flux? As Bird sings, “nomenclature is washing us all away.”
8. “Jardin” by Gustavo Santaolalla. A little instrumental gem from The Motorcycle Diaries soundtrack that might make you think about water dripping on leaves.
9. “In The Flowers” by Animal Collective. This 2009 song is the least accessible of the bunch, but if you play it a few times, the sonic noodling and background noises grow on you. It starts off slowly and builds to a crescendo that makes me want to run through a field of flowers.
10. “Turn the Dirt Over” by Seawolf. With lyrics such as, “Oh, turn the dirt over, if you want to gro-o-o-w back”, this is a pretty straightforward gardening tune.
11. “Changes” by Seu Jorge. Who would have guessed that David Bowie songs in Portuguese could be so lovely and isn’t change what gardens are all about anyway?
12. “Bramble Rose” by Tift Merritt. I have to confess that since Tift Merritt signed my guitar with a Sharpie in a Barnes and Noble a few years ago, I’ve been a little in love with her. I’m not much of a fan of roses, but bramble roses, well… “So my love has/ turned as hard as/ a bramble rose/ I’m a real good woman nobody knows.”
So, fellow gardeners, what are you listening to? Do you have a pruning playlist?