Wednesday, September 08, 2010

`While He Stirs His Fire'

My days are filled with music and I’m the soundtrack, a chronic singer/whistler/hummer, like Glenn Gould minus the piano and usually silent when conditions call for it. I don’t mean classics though I find myself humming Satie’s third “Gymnopédies” with growing frequency. Show tunes, Dylan and The Band, the Billboard Top Forty for 1968, “Dixie” and “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic,” Christmas carols, fifty-year-old television theme songs and commercials (Moola Coola?), Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” all spliced together by whimsy and free-association.

Tuesday’s Song of the Day was “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” a sea shanty I know from Peter, Paul and Mary, The Pogues and Van Dyke Parks. Often the reason a song enters my head is a mystery but this time I knew the origin. On Monday my brother- and sister-in-law hosted a barbecue and introduced us to their new au pair. She’s Greenlandic, the first of her nation I’ve ever known. We spent an hour looking at photographs of Greenland on her computer. It’s a beguiling, elemental landscape of ice, sky, sea and rocks, and now I want to visit. It’s the world’s largest island and the least densely populated country, the national dish is seal and its fourth-largest city is named Qaqortoq.

My other literary association with Greenland is Samuel Johnson’s The Rambler, #186, “Anningait and Ajut; a Greenland history,” and #187, “The History of Anningait and Ajut concluded.” Johnson’s curious little tale is one of his familiar calls to gratitude but hardly flattering to Greenland:

“A native of England, pinched with the frosts of December, may lessen his affection for his own country by suffering his imagination to wander in the vales of Asia, and sport among the woods that are always green, and streams that always murmur; but if he turns his thought towards the polar regions, and considers the nations to whom a great portion of the year is darkness, and who are condemned to pass weeks and months amidst mountains of snow, he will soon recover his tranquillity, and, while he stirs his fire, or throws his cloak about him, reflect how much he owes to Providence, that he is not placed in Greenland or Siberia.”

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