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Outdoors: Minimalism

Pine tree closeup

Years ago, I was a volunteer usher at Interlochen the night Philip Glass gave a concert.

Needless to say, the minimalist music performed that night was a far cry from the orchestral works I was used to hearing from the Kresge stage.

I confess to being unimpressed, or at least confounded.

Later that week, while chatting with a member of the theory faculty here at the camp, I told him I just didn’t get it.

“It’s so repetitious. The music doesn’t go anywhere,” I said.

“Yes it does,” he assured me. “You’ve watched clouds on a calm summer day, haven’t you?”  

Good, he was speaking my language. 

He explained that if you just glance now and then at the sky, the clouds seem to be going nowhere.

But if you pay attention, you notice slight shifts in the layers, little changes in speed, little changes in form and after a while, the skyscape is different - the clouds are going somewhere.

So now that fall has come, I would like to suggest the evergreen trees are very much like minimal music; years seem to repeat but there are tiny shifts and changes over a period of decades.

Folks call conifers evergreens, and a surprising number of people assume that the needles stay green forever. 

But no - as in music, there are changes in the tempos of life, in the rhythm of the seasons.

An evergreen always appears green, but each year it changes just a bit.

From the tips of each branch, new twigs form; new needles are added.

It’s subtle; you have to be paying attention to notice. 

But this time of year, change is a bit more noticeable.

The inner needles (the ones which have been on the tree for three or four years) on pines and fir and the sprays on arbor vitae are turning brown and dropping.

Little changes, hardly noticeable, but after a number of years, a conifer tree has changed shape, just like clouds and just like a piece of minimalist music.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.