Saxophones and Saxifrage: Improv Jazz Meets Natural History

[At this year's Burlington's Discover Jazz Festival I enjoyed an amazing performance by one of my favorite artists, Terence Blanchard. In many ways, my training in jazz helped define my approach to environmental education and engagement. Here's the piece I wrote on the topic for the most recent edition of Field Notes.]

In an apocryphal story from the annals of jazz lore, a stranger woke on the floor of a smoky New York hotel room shared by two of the greatest legends in American music. Dim morning light seeping through the blinds illuminated John Coltrane, hunched on the edge of a vinyl chair playing licks on his saxophone, and Thelonious Monk, out cold on the bed. Somewhere between meditation and frenzy, Coltrane drilled imaginative, improvised passages again and again, turning them around and backwards, modulating them through every key, and working every tempo. The stranger left to tour the city for the day, returning 14 hours later to find Coltrane in the same place, horn to his lips. The licks were different, but the room was still smoky, the blinds still half-drawn.

Jazz is an improvised, unscripted conversation between the soloist, the band, and the audience. The swirling music evokes a feeling, and the fingers and breath channel what the spirit has to say about it. Those endless practice trances built repertoire that Coltrane retrieved to bare his soul fluently when the moment presented itself. This is called “woodshedding” in the jazz world: chopping and stacking musical ideas for future use.

The naturalist is cut from Coltrane’s cloth. I practice bebop scales on a trumpet for the same reason I devour textbooks on bear biology, pour over medicinal mushroom guides, or stare at a coyote track for an hour. It’s woodshedding: building the notes and phrases to express something significant when that solo comes around. As naturalists, we are enamored of nature’s complexities and captivated by discovering them. That motivation is the product of our own passion, like the enraptured saxophonist playing scales for 14 hours.

Most people are also deeply motivated by a need to express. We want others to understand what makes us tick. “The main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things that he knows of and senses in the universe,” Coltrane explained in a 1962 DownBeat Magazine interview. “I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life and we all try to do it in some way.” So we drill scales in that vinyl hotel room chair because expressing our souls on cue takes practice, whatever the vocation.

As naturalists, we often find ourselves in the performer’s role, where we can simultaneously realize both of those deep motivations: to exercise our passions and to express ourselves. We should recognize those moments in the woods with an audience as the rare opportunities they are. They’re the personal and unfettered occasions when layers of pressures and obligations fall away, and we try to deliver simple experiences like those that shaped us.

If we trace the origins of our love of nature, we find particular occasions in the woods that rocked and redirected us. I have powerful memories of my father showing me a scarlet tanager in the back yard, and a middle school science teacher bringing me on a mission to catch moths with a UV light. Consider your own similar examples, and you’ll often find someone else orchestrating those experiences. Whether it was an enthusiastic park ranger or a loved one nudging you toward something you might otherwise have overlooked, that person set you up to be profoundly affected.

We need to respect these high-stakes opportunities when they arise by knowing what we’re trying to deliver. Remember that song—maybe it’s your favorite—that came on the radio at a powerful time in your life. All the sounds jibed with the notes and lyrics, just right, and the sound sizzled through you. That feeling satiates and nourishes. It makes you scrunch up your nose, close your eyes, and quietly go “yeah!”

And that feeling pervades humanity. It’s resonance in its purest form: your insides vibrate because you are exactly in tune with what you’re receiving. It’s when the baseball connects with the bat just right, it’s biting into a PB&J on top of a mountain, or a really good phone call with an old friend. Everyone resonates differently, but when we reflect upon these moments, we find that they are the punctuations—or even the chapter breaks—of our lives.

The performing naturalist aims for that resonance. Like a jazz musician, we play the woods as a piano, riffing on improvised arrangements of repertoire and unrestrained enthusiasm to ignite points of resonance that connect our audience with the woods. For the frequent-flyer businessman in the audience, the naturalist plays the arctic tern that flew nearly a million miles in its lifetime. For the real estate agent, the naturalist plays the 150-year-old stone wall, covered in moss, representing the first subdivision in the entire town. For the doctor, it’s the willow bark containing the compound that inspired aspirin. For the police officer, it’s holding the mushroom that was found in the pocket of a 5,000-year-old murder victim. When treated as an improvisational art, the simple nature walk becomes a most powerful tool.

This type of sorcery, the conjuring of meaningful experience, was Coltrane’s goal. “I would like to bring to people something like happiness,” he said. “I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed.” Likewise, the skilled improv naturalist wields a vast array of tangible and abstract features on the landscape, curating and channeling them to resonate with the very psyche of his audience over the course of a few hours or even a few years.

We rarely look to musicians for professional advice, but Coltrane’s philosophy extends beyond earshot of his saxophone. Inspiration is every naturalist’s role, whether or not it’s written in the job description. We are all driven to express passionately what we find most profound. If we didn’t oblige, we’d be jazz musicians who never took the stage. This takes practice, but it especially takes courage. At some point we must take our armload of butterfly chrysalises and saxifrage sprouts, leave that smoky hotel room, and perform.