March 17, 2021

The Rev George Yandell, Rector

The Key of Earth

In 1978 I heard a remarkable song on the FM jazz station in Metro Washington D.C. It was ‘Common Ground’ by Paul Winter on the album of the same title. The DJ gave some background on the album- it featured songs of the humpback whale, the African fish-eagle and a Canadian timber wolf named Jethro. (I kid you not.) The animals’ songs were woven into compositions by Paul Winter and others. Two days later I had the album. I was entranced by the recordings. Reading the liner notes I saw the name of the cellist- David Darling. It rang a bell. Turns out I’d read in National Geographic some years prior about a scientist named Darling who’d been doing pioneering recordings of humpback whales- Jim Darling was his name. David was Jim’s older brother- the connection jumped out at me- the early hydrophone recordings of the humpbacks must have captured David’s attention and he linked Paul Winter into the research. (David died just two and half months ago at age 79.)

The album featured Darling, Paul McCandless (oboe) (both original members of the Paul Winter Consort and later members of Oregon- I heard them in concert in early 1979) along with Steve Gadd (drummer for Chick Corea, Paul Simon, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Bob James, Nancy Wilson, Joe Cocker, and Eric Clapton to name a few). And Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary. An eclectic assemblage of passionate artists.

Winter and his colleagues discovered an amazing thing: the songs of the humpback, timber wolf and fish-eagle were all the same key: D-flat. Winter says in the liner notes for the song ‘Trilogy’ (which features all three animals’ songs without accompaniment): “I’ve enjoyed speculating on whether this is a lucky coincidence, or a gift from the Muse. I was told by a teacher once that in some esoteric systems D-flat is considered to be the key of the Earth.”

In the notes for the song ‘Wolf Eyes’, Winter writes, “This song was inspired by a magnificent Canadian timber wolf named Jethro, and by the extraordinary wolf music I have heard in the wild… The closing duet was recorded live at the North American Predatory Animal Center in the California Sierras. Ida, the wolf who sang with me there (on my alto sax), is pictured on the back cover.” He writes in the notes for ‘Ocean Dream’: “This song is a fantasy inspired by experiences I’ve had playing saxophone to grey whales from a small raft in the Pacific off Vancouver Island with the Greenpeace Expedition of 1975, and later from a rowboat in Magdalena Bay, Baja California, as part of a film about whales.”

In July of 1994, I was lucky to be with my daughters on a whale watching trip out of Northeast Harbor, Maine. Bob Bowman captained the small ferry/mailboat with about 15 of us on board. We motored out toward Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse, 18 miles from land. The wind was calm, the water glassy. We spied a lone puffin paddling along- everyone got their cameras out- that tiny bird was evidence of a recovering puffin population on the islands near Acadia.

Captain Bowman talked with local lobstermen, asking about whale sightings. We could hear one of the lobstermen responding over the radio, “We’ve seen two humpbacks spy-hopping about two miles from you- you might motor toward them.” Sure enough, as we drew near the location, two humpbacks surfaced and swam near the boat. After a few minutes, they dived. We waited, motor off. Then one of the whales rose up on the port side of the boat- all of us moved to that side- the whale was about 12 feet from the rail, vertical in the water, looking at us. On a whim, I moved to starboard by myself, leaning over the side. The second whale was deep below me, coming to the surface. Over the clamor of the other group, the whale surfaced 5 feet from me, his huge left eye on level with my own. I was entranced. It seemed everything went silent in reverence. In his/her eye, I saw and felt the presence of an ancient, sentient being. He/she stared at me for over 30 seconds, then slowly subsided under the surface.

I’ve not felt the same presence since. An out-of-body connection to one of the largest most majestic creatures ever to live on earth.

It’s now thought that not only male humpbacks sing their intricate, repeating songs, but that females sing at lower tones only now being recorded and studied. Makes sense to me- why should only males get to sing? George Yandell