The Song Quilt

by Katharyn Privett-Duren

It’s often amused me that my plants do not get the privilege of choosing the music that’s played to them when they are young. I approach this situation in the same way that I handled long van rides with my raucous sons twenty years ago: Just deal with it. And don’t make me turn this garden around. When they are little scragglers, I’m in charge of the channel. When they begin to “stalk up,” I have bent to some rather curious tastes. It’s all good, though. Everybody’s got their own jam, and my unruly farm is no exception.

My tomatoes tend to love Andrew Duhon from New Orleans. His bluesy, Cajun storytelling infuses their fruit and haunts its flavor in the deep swelter of July—but they will swell at anything with a righteous melisma. The okra, on the other hand, is very specific: Smokey Robinson, The Jackson Five, and a smattering of Marvin Gaye stretches their reach for the sky. Our green beans have been known to go a bit rogue, shimmying and shaking to everything from Rod Steward to Snoop Dogg. Pirates, all of them.

And while my musically-inclined plants can get particular in their fertile months, I harden them off as seedlings with something a bit more tender. James Taylor has encouraged quite a few cucumbers to throw off their cotyledons and get on with the business of being a plant. Dr. Dre, on the other hand, has given my habaneros the kick they need to turn that spicy shade of peach. It turns out, they all just respond like a band of hungry hooligans to the provocation of music.

I can relate. It moves my flavor, too. 

When I find myself dancing in bare feet among the pumpkins, humming with the bees in the late afternoon light, I don’t care who sees. It’s the rhythm, the pulse and the thump that appears to have the most effect on vigorous growth, after all. My ancestors understood this in the most primal of ways, marrying the beat of a drum to sacred circles and the celebration of a harvest. All of those notes, from then to now, have composed themselves into a quilt that’s got more soul than a backwoods moonshine preacher. It’s just the sound, man. And it can bring a farmer to her knees.

Still, I wonder at the conversation between rock-and-roll and a green bean vine. After all, songs tell a story–thundering tales of resistance, whispering the lore of magic, and tapping into the arterial tributary of love like no spoken words could ever hope to do. It’s doubtful, I know, that the Phaseolus vulgaris crawling across our rusted hog-wire fence would care much for the politics behind The Rolling Stones’ devilish lamentation. It is possible, I contend, that such a plant would respond to that barbaric yawp embedded along the way. 

I mean, they are a rebellious lot.

Of course, we’ve long known that there is something ontological about the sovereignty of music. Catherine Clement and Julia Kristeva spoke to the preternatural origin of music in their work The Feminine and the Sacred, claiming that: “Of all the arts, music is no doubt the closest to that elevation without words, before words, beyond words, the passion made voice, sound, rhythm, melody, and silence that the sacred communicates.”[1] Although plants don’t “hear” the way that we do and though applied research has proven precious little about the effects of music upon their growth, it occurs to me that lore, magic, and myth is just science that has not yet been qualified. Some studies still claim that classical and Indian music stimulate plant growth, although, such assertions are still considered to be theoretical in nature within the scientific community. 

No matter.

The silent years before I played music on my farm produced nothing close to what my semi-feral verdant audience does today. I create playlists for planting time and harvest, exhausted chickens and fruit-laden trees. Elton John has graced many a bunny feeding; Jackson Browne has called in many a sunset. And, just to be fair, I’ve moved over and let AC/DC baptize a day or two of hard weeding. It all just manifests out there, impromptu concerts stitched together by the memories of an aging GenXer with dirty fingernails and a green thumb. 

Still, the milky spores will land in spite of glaring sun, and the army worms have been known to slide up generous stalks without any regard to the musical blessings of the land. When the world has beaten me into the Alabama clay, I forge forward with my garden hose, carried only by a stubborn refusal to let the plants down. Regardless of the hum of my speaker, sometimes I just can’t hit the rhyme. The Boss serves as refuge and I lean against the whine of a harmonica, my hands aching against the steel fence of what life should have been. I have to watch how I sing to my farm in those hard-scratch days. Something horribly off-key wants to wail from my chest and blanket the air, suffocating the things that I love the most.  

But then, the praying mantis wakes from her sac to nod her pretty, deadly head, and I know that help is on the way. She leans against the frame of the high tunnel, considering the work at hand, bouncing to a song her mother wrote for her. She handles my lightweights, guarding her castle in fierce refusal to negotiate her spirit for the next meal. It’s a predacious life, tapped out in quarter time, and it lifts the hard rock of a bad day to find her on the stage again. 

I always did love a good come-back tour.

In early summer, when the fireflies are a no-show, I pray in C Major. I await their silent performance, cursing our neighbor’s poisoned yards and praying for a miracle. Somewhere between Sam Cooke and the Commodores, their tiny butts wake and mark the down notes across a sleeping farm. That moment, that light concert in the trees, eclipses anything Pink Floyd ever put together in 1979. On those evenings, I long for a lighter to hold high above the day as I sway into the crescendo of cicadas, crickets, and the bass reverberation of summer thunder. 

It’s one hell of an opening act, and I’ve got a backstage pass.

And when folks tell me that it’s not real, that plants don’t respond to the sacred vibration of music, I sink into the well of voices that has buoyed me up for fifty-six years and close my eyes. It’s alright. It saved me, this song quilt of the last five decades. I grew as a seedling against concrete, in blinding wind and a darkness that tried to swallow me whole. Music created a hammock under me, lifting my roots from a childhood that had threatened to starve them. It was my ancestor, my diary, my scream that only the wild things could hear—and when everything else was gone, there was Pink telling me to fight. A song slipped through my phone one night, wrapped itself around my bones, and dared me to let life break me. After all, anything else just leads to silence. That was enough to make me turn the volume up, and it’s enough for my farm. If I’m wrong, it all still sounded so damn good. But if I’m right, well. 

A jar of pickled okra will taste like Motown.

[1] Catherine Clement and Julia Kristeva, The Feminine and the Sacred, Trans. Jane Marie Todd (New York: Columbia UP, 1998), 136.

photo credit: Alex Blajan, Unsplash