Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Listen to This, Listen to That: Everything's Environmental

by Dan Froid

In “Listen to This, Listen to That,” a new feature from Prairie Schooner, we pair episodes of our podcast series Air Schooner with songs that strike us as thematically relevant, insightful, or enjoyable complements.

Kathleen Flennikin served as 2012-2014 Washington State Poet Laureate and won the 2006 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for her collection Famous. Flennikin grew up near the Hanford Site, the former home to numerous nuclear reactors and plutonium processors established as part of the Manhattan Project. Steve Edwards’s memoir Breaking into the Backcountry (2010) tracks his time as caretaker of a ninety-two-acre homestead in southwestern Oregon. These two writers appear in Episode 22 of Air Schooner, “Everything’s Environmental,” where they read from their work and discuss environmental literature. Check out the episode here.

Flennikin’s and Edwards’s perspectives on nature couldn’t be more different: Flennikin grew up with the threat of danger and human destruction of nature looming, while Edwards spent months alone as an  adult enjoying nature’s unsullied beauty. Flennikin points to the complex, ambiguous ethics of living near nuclear plants in “To Carolyn's Father: Thomas Jerry Deen (1929-1988),” the poem she reads in the episode. She’d “written on command / an impassioned letter for the life of our nuclear plants / that the government threatened to shut down” as a third-grader, but some of the collateral effects of those plants had already begun:

as you milled uranium into slugs or swabbed down
train cars or reported to B Reactor for a quick run-in-
run-out and by that morning Mr. Deen
the poisoning of your blood had already begun

At the same time that the wellbeing of her community is threatened by the plants’ possible shutdown, the environment—and her friend’s father’s life—are destroyed by those plants. Compare this to the story Edwards relates, in which, after being startled by a particularly beautiful scene in nature, he asks himself, “How many things as beautiful as this have you seen and already forgotten?” He feels urged—and urges us—to live equally beautiful lives and share our experiences with others.

I want to introduce yet another perspective: that of musician Joni Mitchell. Not only because my love for her borders on the creepily obsessive, but—well, yeah, that’s partly why. Linking songs with podcasts, though, makes sense to me. It’s a way of bridging ideas that captivate us whatever the form. For me, and for other people I know, too, listening to a podcast seems to be a different experience from listening to music, at least in theory. Music’s on in the background when you cook, or work, or drive; you can tune it out and let it play. Podcasts seem to demand greater attention; you feel like you’re learning something. That distinction doesn’t necessarily hold, though. Music can be as potentially provocative and demanding as, say, the latest episode of Serial—or our wealth of Air Schooner episodes. And I think we’re drawn to exploring the same ideas in different mediums, even if they might seem disparate: books, music, or podcasts.

As far as I’m concerned, my environmental perspective would perhaps still be dormant if not for Joni Mitchell’s music. Nature recurs throughout her body of work as one of her most significant concerns, in different ways and with different emotional resonances. At the very least, listening to her songs over and over prompted me to, you know, consider what she often sings about, and it awakened an interest I didn’t know I had. Mitchell’s often touted as hippie-dippie folkie par excellence, but her music tends to be rather more complex than that. Check out “For the Roses,” her ostensible “Goodbye to All That,” a brief farewell to the music industry:

I heard it in the wind last night
It sounded like applause
Chilly now
End of summer
No more shiny hot nights
It was just the arbutus rustling
And the bumping of the logs
And the moon swept down black water
Like an empty spotlight

Mitchell desires to stay out of the spotlight, and yet it lingers, it follows her. Nature offers an alluring retreat, but, still, it doesn’t absorb as she wishes, and she sees in the wind and the moon a stage: another audience, watching her. Here (and in much of her work) Mitchell views nature as a retreat from the disappointments and frustrations of her regular life, but she also invokes the pathetic fallacy, seeing herself reflected in nature—she can’t escape her life, and projects it onto her surroundings. Rather than considering the recklessness with which we treat nature or contemplating its beauty (though she does both elsewhere), here Mitchell finds in nature a wholly other companion: one that offers a reliable respite or sanctuary and yet continues to be out of reach.