Kage Baker had a tremendous emotional dependence on the steady progression of the seasons. She wasn’t afraid of their not progressing -she liked the beat, man; she heard, and loved, the heartbeats of the year. Don’t roll your eyes and say white women don’t hear the beat; she’d roll her eyes right back (and, oh, could she roll her eyes!) and tell you that a white woman certainly could hear the beat; she just heard a different beat.
But she heard it all the time.
Some it it, I am sure, was a sensitivity to rhythm that was unique to Kage herself. A sort of internal metronome; an instrument, incidentally, that fascinated Kage. I offered frequently to get her one, just for amusement’s sake. But she demurred, saying she didn’t want anyone to know that she could be entertained by just sitting around listening to a metronome tick. I thought she could use it as a meditation aid, but she said, No, that’s what the Who turned up loud was for …
The rest of her hearing the annular beat was just – listening. Listening with extreme sensitivity to vibration, as many animals do; developing an intensely delicate aural palette, that could hear the grass growing and tell the difference between the fall of mist and the fall of star dust. About 14 tons of stardust falls to Earth every day, you know; that’s a freaking lot more dust that falls than water, here in Southern California. Maybe the difference helped.
Kage claimed she could hear the music of the spheres, and loved our years in the oak forests and in Pismo Beach – the emptiness of where we lived allowed any noise to translate into the subtle ringing of crystal spheres and glass gears. For Kage, these were sounds most prevalent on windy spring and breathless hot summer nights. But they were background noise to all the seasonal sounds – for Kage, waves of chilled or heated air sweeping over us from the deserts and the seas, the constant straining and sighing of plants, even the sounds of particular animals prowling at night.
Living in the empty places exposes you to an amazing lot of feral noise …
Vixens are both paranoid and opportunistic; they will hide their babies from you until one evening you hear a yipping at the front door, and open it to find a tired mamma fox and three kits half her size inquiring after possible leftovers? Deer will come 24/7; you learn when the soughing noise is the wind, and when it is a doe eating your cotton and linen clothes off the line. And it gets exciting when something hits the side your house or trailer in the middle of the night, and you need to wait until daylight to find out if it’s a bear or a stag. And even if is a stag, it is not very calming, because it left hoof prints the size of dinner platters, and Kage keeps reciting the story of the Ceryneian hind sotto voce (it had golden antlers and breathed fire and was twice the size of non-inflammatory deer). Badgers, though, are nearly perfect neighbors: quiet, handsome, uninterested in the garbage.
Here on the edges of the LA River and Griffith Park, I have learned how much amazing bird noise persists in such an urban setting. I can tell the difference between a crow and a raven; crows seldom sound like parrots or thumb pianos, and ravens do. Hawks are good at marking out the seasons – in spring they shriek their desire from high in the air, and scream while they plummet together in ecstasy; in fall, the year’s fledglings sit amid the thinning leaves and cry for their moms to come feed them. (Which they seldom do.) Mockingbirds sing all summer and all night, so if you hear a song sparrow or a finch or Jethro Tull at midnight, it’s probably a mockingbird. Peacocks sound like cats being murdered, and mark summer. Geese not only trumpet, their wings beat strongly enough to hear them in the cold autumn air.
In fall, rain and leaves fall. You learn to tell if the whispering patter is falling leaves or rain across the porch. After years of sleeping at Faires in buildings held together with duct tape and dried beer, I have become ridiculously anxious about both sounds, and now have to get up and pace through the house to make sure everyone is under a roof and the roof isn’t leaking. And if you’re sleepy enough, you can get awfully confused as to what season it really is – while mostly what it does in LA is not rain, what it alternately does is rain whenever the hell it feels like it.
Kage tried to keep time with all of it. While this sometimes necessitated changing in mid-stride from a burgomasque to a pavane, that didn’t faze her. She could dance to the counter-beat if it struck her. She was a genius at harmony. But you could see the physical delight in her steps and movements when she fit them, half-unconsciously, to the beat of a woodpecker or a blacksmith’s hammer, dancers’ bells, or a drum, or a thousand hands thundering in applause.
Now it’s nearly winter. The mornings are cold and silent, except for the distant chorus of the geese, which tempts me to leap out of my warm bed go haring off after them down the frosted street. (I would fall over, turn blue and ascend to fly with the geese within half a block … but one does remember one’s youth at times like that.) The stars have begun to sing; the owls have begun to chant. And now the faint sweet chiming of the holiday lights has begun.
Have you never noticed that, Dear Readers? As the strings of lights go on and off, each small bulb gives a tiny, delicate ting! as it switches back and forth. You must lie very still to hear it – but if you do, then all the blinking lights on the tree, the mantel, around the windows and railings of the porch give a constant song as soft and clear as a baby’s breathing. All night; all winter.
It is the sleeping heartbeat of the world, transmitted through the coloured fire we light to mark the winter darkness. Listen for it this season, Dear Readers. The planets and the sweet darkness between them all sing to us, assuring us of rest and quiet sleep.