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A Better Day

Uniformed Rural Letter Carrier and Vehicle

A Better Day is a rare song that just showed up pretty much in finished form one day in 2020. There’s not a lot to it, musically and it’s lyrically pretty straightforward. Many of us show up to work we’re not particularly passionate about as a means to achieving some kind of larger goal. Sometimes those goals are accomplished, sometimes not, but we keep showing up in the morning regardless. I have different opinions about that depending on the day, as I’m sure many people do, but so far I haven’t cracked the code that would allow me to do whatever I want 100% of the time.

On the other hand, when I was growing up, I remember often asking “Do I have to?” when told to do something around the house, to which came the dutiful reply “Not if you want to.”

That response drove me nuts as a kid, but it might be the only secret there is to living a happy life.

Pitamakin* Pass

The summer before our oldest daughter was born, a good friend and I took a week-long farewell to non-parenthood road trip, thinking it would be the last opportunity to do such a thing. It turned out to be so beneficial to both of us, that we’ve made an almost annual tradition of taking some kind of backpacking trip together. A couple of highlights inspired Pitamakin Pass. The namesake is a place in Glacier National Park. We had just come out of a pretty disappointing failed attempt in the Bob Marshall wilderness area, and on the last full day of the trip decided to do a 17-mile loop in Glacier that had been recommended to us by a trusted local friend. It did not disappoint. In fact, it was one of the most awe-inspiring places either of us has been to date.

On these trips, we spend a lot of time in good-natured arguments about philosophy, politics, social issues, religion, etc. It seems increasingly difficult with age, at least for me, to get friendships to go deep enough to really engage openly about those kinds of issues, so I hold these trips and conversations dear and look forward to them all year.e

So that’s the backdrop. When I originally wrote this song back in about 2018 I was doing a lot of rock climbing and backpacking and thinking a lot about wildness vs. domestication in a human being. I have made a lot of what I think are pretty good responsible decisions in my young adulthood, which have helped my wife and me to attain a degree of stability in life that many people don’t have at our age. The trade-off of that is that neither of us has embraced spontaneity very much. We’ve mostly lived in the same county with a couple of short departures, have done a trip or two each year to the mountains or desert, but haven’t explored the world in the same way as some of our more free-spirited friends. All that to say I was struggling to figure out how to balance the demands of responsibility that come with family life against my desire to live a little further out into the edge of wildness. Something I still hope to achieve somehow. 

Hog Killing ends with “Let the stroke or the heart attack drop me, Let me die on my way to the ground.” Pitamakin revisits that idea with a different perspective, “If I fall, may I know I’m falling; If I die, may I know I’m dying,” a desperation to fully experience life, not to miss anything, even the experience of death. “While I live may I be absorbed in every moment.”

*Turns out I’ve been spelling the name of this place wrong for the past, oh, 7 years. If you Google it, it’s “Pitamakan.” Thanks, internet.

Indian Blanket Flower

I lost a wonderful friend back in 2007; Indian Blanket Flower is something I wrote sometime around 2015, in one of the most depressed years of my life to this point (Shadow Come Creeping was written around the same time) after going to visit the cemetery, a place I spent a fair bit of time during that period. Cemeteries are a place where you can be just about as socially awkward as you like and not feel bad about it, anyone who knows me would understand why I might enjoy that freedom.

I still feel the same way about the world my daughter’s are going to inherit, only more so now, at the end of 2021. I don’t know how other parents deal with this, but I feel a thousand foot deep sense of sorrow over the direction I see the world going and my inability to meaningfully protect them from it. I am also constantly encouraged by their joyful way of interacting with life, with their musicality, their creativity, their adventurous spirits. What a privilege it is to be a Dad! This is a subtext that shows up a lot in my songwriting, because it’s a hugely important element of my life.

Hog Killing

Tanya Amyx Berry, For the Hog Killing, 1979.

Hog Killing, if you don’t know, is based on a poem from one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry. Mr. Berry’s work heavily influenced the trajectory of my life, both philosophically and occupationally through my 20’s, during which time I was deeply interested in figuring out a way to make a living in small scale agriculture. Many lessons were learned, and I ultimately relegated agriculture back into the category of “hobby,” at least for now, but I continue to believe that a society with a healthy food production system stands a better chance than one without.

One the phases of my agricultural experimentation involved the raising of hogs, first for direct sale meat, and later breeding for sale as feeder pigs. I was young and very broke and shy about asking questions of people who knew what they were doing, those last two things turned out to be big limitations. In any case, I spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship we humans have to our food. Wendell Berry’s poem For the Hog Killing struck a chord with me (G minor, I guess it was), and I unceremoniously carved up his poem, added some of my own thoughts, and created the song Hog Killing. Only later did I have the decency to ask his permission, which he granted, with perhaps a bit of well founded hesitancy. The poem’s lines are carefully crafted, well refined, and for someone else to cut apart the words of a master poet takes a bit of irreverence on the part of the butcher, I admit.

The idea behind Hog Killing, and the meaning I took from Mr. Berry’s original poem, is that we have an inescapable bond with the earth, whether we acknowledge it or not, and that through being mindful and respectful about the ways in which we must take life to sustain our own, we have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of and intimacy with God, who is, after all, the creative force behind the hogs and cattle as well as the mountains and canyons and bighorn sheep and dare I say even people. The making and eating of food is such an elemental source of potential delight, and yet, without a bit of mindfulness we can easily relegate food to an obligatory act of merely continuing our physical sustenance. Perhaps part of this is due to the incredible abundance and availability of food in modern wealthy nations. Either way, my own lived experience, and that of many who have gardened, fished, hunted, raised animals etc., says that the more materially involved we are in the production and preparation of our food, the more likely we are to engage with the incredible beauty contained within it.

It is something foreign to many people to eat the flesh of an animal you knew well, and cared about on an individual level. There is a sorrow in it, and a guilt too, and rightfully so. Those feelings are justified, and necessary if we are to act decently on this planet. I am not here to try to convince anyone not to eat meat; I do, and I enjoy it deeply, but I do think we hold a responsibility to acknowledge the death of another sentient being, to hold that sorrow close as a necessary part of the experience of full living, whenever we do eat. Actually, that applies to salad too. Watch a spinach leaf wilt down in the afternoon sun only to stand tall and vibrant and beautiful the next morning, and tell me that plant doesn’t have some kind of sentient experience. I find it hard to imagine.

Buffalo Hunter

I thought I’d start this off with a couple of thoughts about the opening song on the record.

People do a lot of thoughtless things in pursuit of love and money. Buffalo Hunter‘s main goal, I think, is to ask us to examine what we might be doing in our daily lives that history will look back on with a puzzled expression and furrowed brows. Maybe it’s hard to tell in the moment what actions may amount to lasting damage, but the goal, I think, is that we learn from the mistakes of past generations and try to move forward with a greater wisdom.

Also, if anybody ever cares to know, it’s in Double C (my favorite base tuning) with the 5th string tuned to E. A neat tuning that spawned the foundational elements of this song.