How would Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis have fared if they had performed on trumpets fashioned from cucumbers and yellow bell peppers? Would James Galway have become a great flautist using a hollowed-out carrot? If Kenny G had gone to cooking school, would he today be blowing smooth jazz through broccoli florets?
The transformation of plants into instruments is a kitchen industry. Carvers who understand the science of sound make play-things out of edibles from A (asparagus) to Z (zucchini). The First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra performs concerts in a city that was once home to the likes of Mozart and Beethoven—or perhaps I should say beet-hoven.
At least one crudité band I've seen (on video) ends its concert by turning its instruments into vegetable soup for the audience. That's a more savory finale than the rock tradition of smashing an electric guitar, though I suppose there's a veggie-strumming Pete Townshend out there who might thrill the stadium crowd by dramatically dicing his cuke-ulele.
We're already looking ahead to the 2012 season at The Naturalist's Notebook and our plan to make music one ingredient in our strange nature-science-art-curiosity soup. It's not too early to start carving your carrot.
What Did the Blind Carpenter Bird Do? He Picked Up a Hammer and Saw
Sounds of all sorts are in the air, one day after the 226th birthday of artist and bird-documenting giant John James Audubon. Robert Krulwich of National Public Radio did a piece this morning about the lyrebird, the world's greatest avian mimic. Krulwich describes lyrebirds as accidental historians who record decades of past sounds.
Pamelia and I have been fascinated by lyrebirds since first encountering them on one of our trips to Australia back in the 1990s. Here is an Australian news video about Chook, a 30-year-old lyrebird at the Adelaide Zoo. You have to see—or hear—his sound imitations to believe them:
While we're on the subject of birds, I should note that red-breasted mergansers have arrived back at our bay in Maine. They're lovely ducks with long, thin bills and distinctively spiky head plumage that would have served them well in the punk music era. They've been diving underwater in front of our house to catch fish or other sea creatures—was that an urchin in the mouth of one surfacing merganser yesterday?
The movie Waste Land is not be confused with The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot's masterpiece poem from 1922 that begins with the famous line, "April is the cruelest month..." Waste Land is a superb piece of art in itself—an Academy Award-nominated 2010 documentary about artist Vik Muniz spending parts of three years in the community of impoverished men, women and children who make their living by picking recyclable trash out of the world's largest landfill, in Rio de Janiero. Pamelia and I finally saw the movie last night and (like most of the reviewers) found it powerful and, strange as this may sound, uplifting.
The trash-pickers (who are paid by companies that recycle what the pickers collect) are experts on every type of recyclable and have a detective's skill for interpreting clues; they know almost instantly from a trash bag's contents what a person's life is like. One line that sticks with me from the film came from an older worker at the landfill. He described well-off people holding up a single bottle at home and asking what difference it really made if they threw the bottle away instead of recycling it. The man, who has stooped to pick up tens of thousands of discarded bottles, answered with this simple comment: "Ninety-nine is not one hundred."
Hard at Work:
Our Naturalist's Notebook preparations for this year are still top secret, but here's a shot of some of us at the shop last week. Artist Kathy Coe (far right in photo below), who'll be back teaching our children's art classes this summer, was up visiting. Along with a wonderful group—her two daughters, their two friends and three great College of the Atlantic students who are part of our team—she helped us create, shall we say, a new window on the universe.
Answer to the Last Puzzler:
Q: Why did the fungus go to the party?
A: Because he was a fun guy.
Two to test you today:
This second brain-teaser comes from the late puzzle guru Jim Fixx:
An electric train heads north at 80 miles per hour. The wind is blowing from the east at 20 mph. In what direction will the smoke from the engine point?
As mentioned above, John James Audubon, the Haitian-born artist and birder, would have turned 226 on Tuesday. "Haitian-born" is a bit misleading; Audubon was the son of a French sea-captain and plantation owner and was raised in France before being sent to America at age 18 and living the rest of his life there. I'm looking forward to reading an upcoming essay on Audubon by my friend Bob Sullivan, the editor of Life books; I'll give you more on that when it's released.
Charles Richter, the Ohio-born physicist and seismologist who invented the best-known measurement scale for earthquakes, would have turned 111 on Tuesday. It may register as a 7.0 on your personal Richter scale to learn that, besides being a pioneer in science, Charles was a "naturist"—that is, a nudist, who spent time at many clothing-free retreats.
William Shakespeare, the English playwright, would have been 447 on Tuesday. Perhaps you've heard of him.
Anne McLaren, the British biologist, geneticist and zoologist who helped develop in vitro fertilization, would have turned 84 today. McLaren (who died in a car crash in 2007) also worked for the welfare of children and was such a soccer fan that, according to the British newspaper The Guardian, "when any international match was on television it was a waste of time trying to talk to her."
Wallace Carothers, the Iowa-born inventor of nylon, would have turned 115 on Thursday. He was working for DuPont, doing research to create new materials that might or might not have any practical value, when he found a super-polymer from which he felt strands of fabrics could be made. Plagued by depression all his life, and convinced that he had accomplished little in his career, he eventually committed suicide.
Walter Lantz, the New York-born auto mechanic-turned-animator who created Woody Woodpecker, would have been 111 on Thursday. Lantz's inspiration for his most famous cartoon character was a woodpecker who rat-a-tat-tatted on the roof of the building in which Lantz and his wife, Grace, were spending their honeymoon. Grace is the one who suggested turning the bird into a cartoon figure; her husband was skeptical that anyone would like it.