Forty years ago, a friend introduced me to the music of Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Coburn), thinking that, as a poet, I would appreciate his thoughtful lyrics. My friend was right. Throughout the years, I have returned to Cockburn’s music again and again (like a favorite book) to voice aspects of my own faith, awe, delight, and anger. For those who don't already know Bruce Cockburn's music, I happily introduce him. For those who do, I invite you to revisit his music if you haven't lately. In a time of global crises, his voice is compelling.
With the challenges of our world, there is room and reason for the passion you find in Cockburn's music. Although his images are sometimes difficult to dissect in clinical terms, they resonate with me; I'm not sure what "the rose above the sky" means exactly, but I feel its truth in my bones. His passion of delight isn’t distinct from his passion for social justice and humanity; they are integrated within his music in the same way that creation is integrated and the character of God is integrated. His songs are about trees—and rocket launchers. He sings about love—and greed. You don't get a complete picture of his music from a single song; after 40 years of listening to his music, I no longer work so hard at a thorough analysis, but just accept the deep sense it makes to me.
Through words and music, he eloquently expresses love for the world, grief for our losses, and anger at the short-sightedness that so often plagues us and precipitates many of these losses. In “If a Tree Falls in the Forest,” a favorite of environmental advocacy, we are given images of great beauty and also images of bleak horror. The trees, both physically and symbolically, represent the intricate, amazing system of the created world, a system that is at risk because of actions we choose. Here is a verse of the song.
If a Tree Falls in a Forest
Mist and mystery
Green brain facing lobotomy
Climate control centre for the world
Ancient cord of coexistence
Hacked by parasitic greedhead scam
From Sarawak to Amazonas
Costa Rica to mangy B.C. hills
Cortege rhythm of falling timber
It’s easy to hear the anger in these lyrics. Written in 1988, they address the rapid destruction of rainforests, which Cockburn rightfully predicted would have long-term, detrimental effects culminating in further cascading catastrophes. The lyrics show deep emotion, as well as asserting certain facts. The phrase “green brain facing lobotomy,” for instance, is objectively true—the forests are a controlling force of the climate, but neither this phrase nor “parasitic greedhead scam,” is merely a dispassionate descriptive phrase, but is a heartfelt emotional response to the destruction we can and do cause to the world. The songwriter cares deeply about this created world and the effects our negative actions have on both the human and the non-human inhabitants. We see this combination of emotion and objective truth throughout the song.
What kind of currency grows in these new deserts
These brand new flood plains?
Cut and move on
Cut and move on
Take out trees
Take out wildlife at a rate of species every single day
Take out people who've lived with this for 100,000 years
Inject a billion burgers worth of beef
Grain eaters methane dispensers.
The deforestation does cause desertification and flooding. It does cause extinction of wildlife and people groups. It is a poor trade-off to replace a rainforest with huge cattle yards. All of this is true. But what makes it emotionally more compelling is the refrain, a recurring lament asking us,
If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear?
Anybody hear the forest fall?
There is a plaintiveness in this chorus—Do we hear? Does God hear? Does anybody hear when a tree falls?
Do we care that with the trees, also go whole species of animals? This loss is also voiced in "If a Tree Falls in the Forest:"
Busy monster eats dark holes in the spirit world
Where wild things have to go
In Beautiful Creatures, he expands on this theme:
From the stones of the fortress
To the shapes in the air
To the ache in the spirit
We label despair
We create what destroys,
Bind ourselves to betray
The beautiful creatures are going away
With both flora and fauna being decimated, what is our response? Sometimes, gratitude for the bit of light that gets through is the most we can manage.
Sun's up, uh huh, looks okay
The world survives into another day
And I'm thinking about eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me...
Wondering Where the Lions Are
The combination of realism in these lyrics (relief that the world is still here at the start of another day), dark humor based in the awareness that it could all come to an end quickly, and “ecstasy” at the beauty and reality of this world, creates an intersection between fear and hope. One leads from and to the other. The fact that it’s such an incredible world makes the destruction of any part of it tragic. The fact that it’s such an incredible world makes being alive within it for a single more day something well worth celebrating. Our ability as humans to look on this situation with a grim smile signals our capacity to change. If awareness of reality, ability to change, and ecstasy dawn in enough people, it can create an impetus of change and enable us to step back up from the precipice and return to the good and sustainable ecology that God designed.
Anger is understandable and real. From If I Had a Rocket Launcher:
Here comes the helicopter -- second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they've murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher...I'd make somebody pay
The truth is that climate change itself disproportionately affects those with less power and the anger this generates is understandable and right. When effects are felt, those who can't buy their way out of the situation will be the ones who suffer most. I know this make me angry. When I saw Simon Kofe, foreign minister of Tuvalu giving a speech knee-deep in water, it reminded me of my post from a few months ago. The situation remains unchanged—if those who can do something, don't do something very soon, his country's land will be lost to rising tides very soon. They don't cause the problem, but they suffer from the results.
So, what do we do with this anger and how do we relate to people we vehemently disagree with on these issues? Currently, it seems like there are relational rocket launchers going off all over the place.
I end this post with a new song of Cockburn's, not even on an album yet, which he made available so that it could be included in the current conversations. I end with it because it reminds us, especially those who follow Jesus, of the fundamental stance we need to keep to, no matter what. Our "Orders" remain unchanged and must inform the way we respond to the people we live around, the planet we live on, the faith we live out, and the anger we feel and express. Click here to listen to the song, "Orders".
Reflection Questions: How do you find yourself able to hold both hope and grief? What do you think "loving them all" looks like in our current culture and time?
As always, feel free to contact me directly at info@circlewood.