In legends, humans didn’t have flutes all along. They were given to those in dire need.
In Comanche myth, the first man who was given the flute was mourning the death of his wife and four kids. He wept without end. He set up his tipi apart from his tribe so his cries would not disturb them.
In a dream, the man was told he had better cut it out. To keep weeping like that would break his spirit. There’s another way, he was told. Later, out in the woods, a woodpecker showed him how to make an instrument from a cedar branch. He channeled his sorrow into beautiful music, and so let go of his grief.
In another story, a youth was failing at the elk hunt. To continue failing would break the youth’s spirit, and even their place in the tribe. That’s when the woodpecker called out. The youth listened, followed the woodpecker to the cedar tree where it revealed the secret.
Archeologists have found flutes made of cedar branch, swan bone, and bear femur. Mammoth tusk, sunflower stalk, goat horn. Each of these ancient flutes has an origin story. In every story I’ve read, the recipient is someone overwhelmed with mourning, hunger, or unrequited love.
My older brother chose a flute for his band instrument in 4th grade. I made the same choice three years later and was given his beginners flute as a hand-me-down. I bought my second during early COVID times. Although it’s brass, and equipped with modern valves, springs, and levers, it’s the direct descendent of the cedar branch. I don’t play it as much as I’d like, but I felt moved to take it for a walk one recent morning around the land.
As I walked, I felt troubled.
Like a lot of people, I embrace busy-ness. The more tasks I can check off my list, the more projects I’ll complete. When people say to me, “Looks like you’ve been busy,” I beam like it’s a compliment. When I tell my boss that “Things have been hectic,” I feel relevant.
One thing my father and I agreed on was how satisfying it used to be to finish a tube of toothpaste. I’d roll the aluminum over on itself as tightly as my fingers could squeeze it. Several days and squeezes later, nothing left, throwing it in the trash, a job well done!
Plastic toothpaste tubes killed the charm of that. I’ve moved on to other forms of satisfaction, like emptying my email inbox, or emptying the cardboard recycling from the trunk of my car. “Life hacks” and “productivity tools” gleaned from podcasts I listen to at 1.5x speed help me squeeze more out of my day. I check farm projects off my list while I listen to zoom calls.
But even when projects are going well, I’m continuing to feel stressed and overwhelmed. Is “hectic” inevitable in today’s always-on world? Or is there another way? In the flute-origin legends, you don’t always have to find the answers within yourself. Remain open, and something, a new tool or a secret, might be given to you that helps you find your way through.
I was sitting in front of a tree playing some somber notes on my flute when I remembered a dream from last night. This ash tree is growing through a stone wall. It has a root that, as it arches its way to the ground, cradles several stones. In my dream, the root was broken. I felt sad, upset, overwhelmed with despair. It fit my mood, and the music.
What the ash tree said to me, or what I realized (what’s the difference?), is that overwhelm is a hungry ghost. No checking of boxes, no achievement, no added measure of security, will ever satiate the drive of the hungry ghost. What will quiet its troubled soul?
Listen for the woodpecker.
Thorin MacArthur has been here all week digging a pond behind our house. I’ve dreamed of and planned this pond since before my son was born. It’s one of the biggest “projects” around here with task lists of clearing and getting the proper approvals going back years.
The reason for the pond is to enjoy its beauty, and for the animals to do so as well. But as Thorin worked, I struggled to connect with the beauty of the moment. The digging satisfied me in checking an item off my list, but added a slew of new to-dos, from cleanup to planting.
I also had worries. After the first day of digging, I was surprised by how little the water level had come up. I felt panic that the pond wouldn’t fill.
Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed it helps to play a B-flat on my flute for as long as my breath holds out. It helps me to slow my thoughts and notice things. Maybe you have your own way of doing this.
On the second day, the excavator hit a vein of clay in the subsoil. I’ve never dug and found clay here. When it appeared, the dirt pile changed from a sandy grit to delightful, soft lumps.
I’m a grownup, and my son’s not known for throwing himself into mud puddles. But neither of us could help pick up clumps of it and throw them in the gathering water, where Oliver the dog submerged his head to bite at them. We haven’t had more fun since our last snowball fight.
Alison’s parents were visiting from Charlotte, North Carolina. Later on, we’d laugh at Glenn’s stories from the ponds of his youth in Laurinburg, like “gigging” for frogs by flashlight and the time he “helped” train the search-and-rescue volunteers looking for the dummy in the swamp.
But for a while in the gathering dusk, everyone, even Oliver, went quiet.
Glenn stood around the muddy pit, first here and then there, studying the ground. He showed us the four different springs he’d found feeding the pond. Even in this August drought, he found tiny gullies in the mud, the smallest of ripples in the puddle, and an extra-muddy spot on the south side of the pond. These showed us where Mother Earth was pushing out water into the void. Meanwhile, my son and I were each holding a lump of clay, our hands molding it into shapes as we walked around. I collected some to make an ocarina.
It was as if we were all listening to something, and following it. Something not on the to-do list, but emanating from our deeper nature.