Don’t count the feathers: Dan Mangan, nature study and a surprise Charley Harper reference

This is an updated version of a post written as Song of the Week at The Finch & Pea on February 25, 2012.

Dan Mangan‘s “About as Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All”, from his 2011 album Oh Fortune, has more than a few layers to peel back. The mysterious title is crying out for interpretation, but that’s not nearly the most interesting thing about the song.

There’s no doubt it’s beautiful. There are soaring and melodic strings and brass, a driving waltz time, poetic lyrics and Vancouver native Mangan’s compelling and perfectly raspy voice. As a former theory student, I love that there seems to be a short time signature change while the violins play at 2:16. So this started me thinking, wondering what science connections I could find in it. The lyrics have a sort of kinship with early practices of science, nature study and natural philosophy. Mangan places himself in the middle of a wondrous dream world  he’s trying to remember and describe. I was thinking of writing about Louis Agassiz and Liberty Hide Bailey advocating for children to experience the natural world to learn about it.

I lit up like a match,
‘Cause I bled gasoline.
Made a torch of myself
‘Till the moon was mine.
Stars made of me.
How I lit up that sky.

Both feet together,
Slowly progressing,
Always in time.
Don’t count the feathers,
Just count the wings.

Wait. That sounds familiar. Don’t count the feathers, Just count the wings. I’m sure I’ve heard that before. Or is it just lyric déjà vu where good ones have a truth that makes them sound familiar? Don’t count the feathers, Just count the wings.

With a huge smile, I realize that I have heard it before. And I really wasn’t far off in making the connection to nature study. The line references mid-century American nature artist Charley Harper* whose imaginative and stylized work not only advertised the US National Park Service but also adorns the cover of a scientific journal. Typically described as a modernist, he is known for identifying the essential elements of an animal’s form and, even with simplified figures, creating action and narrative. Harper attributed these qualities to his careful observations, “I learn as much as I can about the creatures that interest me, and they all do. I observe them and find out how they interact with each other and their environments and ask myself, ‘What if?'” When asked to describe how he could move from careful observation to stylized images that are at once beautiful and accurate, he was known to reply…

“I just count the wings, not the feathers.”

And that warm feeling you’re getting while looking at the image? That’s gentle recognition that Harper illustrated some of the very first science books that many of us read: The Golden Books series. It was through Harper’s eyes that I first realized that birds might come in different types that could be named and described to understand them better. Though the gorgeous Big Golden Book of Biology, countless children got their first visual representation of evolution, and like the others it was playful and appealing without sacrificing essential and identifying details.

Likewise the work of a playful and evocative song writer, “About as helpful” takes us on a journey not only through a world that Dan Mangan is trying to understand but also maybe through our own childhoods and the first stirrings of an interest in science. Sit back and soak it in.

*Mangan confirmed the reference via Twitter.

It’s been two months since I started writing regularly about science and music as the DJ at the online science pub The Finch & Pea. It has quickly become one of my favourite things to do each week. To celebrate, I’m posting a few of my favourite ones here at Boundary Vision. These are the ones that best represent the intersection between science and culture that I aim for here. Enjoy!

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