On Sage Thrashers, Music and Autistic Architects

Betty and I recently spent time in south-east and south-central Oregon with friends, looking at the rippling water, the green-gray sage, the juniper, the snow-covered mountains. While driving between Pete French’s round barn and Diamond, we heard a particularly melodic bird song. I stopped the car and rolled down my window and the sweetest sound carried over the cold spring ground, the sagebrush, and flitted off towards the hills. I looked through a set of binoculars and saw that the bird was a male sage thrasher, a bird whose plumage so blends in with the hard land it was a surprise, nearly a shock, to hear such a beautiful tune come from its beak.

I don’t know what it is about me, always trying to equate beautiful sound, beautiful other things—art, music, pies and cakes, most anything with what I consider to be the 21st Century’s archetypal, human, physical beauty. I don’t know if it is just me or if all of us think that successful, creative people look like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. I am old enough to know better, and intellectually of course, I do, but I still find myself tying physical beauty to intelligence and talent.

The sage thrasher is the color of the land he lives in and should be judged beautiful in his or her own right, and not by some standard we have developed due to movies and photography. What’s that old saying? “Beauty is only skin deep” and I know this subject is probably a bit hackneyed, but then it is clichéd for a reason, I suspect. We do judge people by how they look. Don’t you see it everywhere: clothes make the man, you are how you dress, the squared-away Marine is a good Marine.

Montana Poet and songwriter, Paul Zarzyski, has written a poem that ponders the notion of what we expect from people based on how they look.

From Montana Second Hand

Down’s syndrome can’t hinder the Saint
Vincent de Paul thrift store
troubadour of the shoe department,
John Jasmann, singing his pedal steel guitar
love songs into his rhapsodical
job—sorting used footwear……

In his poem, Zarzyski immediately identifies the “type” of individual he is going to write about. I say “type” because we categorize, segregate, allocate people into groups so we can deal with them, think about them, define them, stereotype them. In this case, the poem’s subject is categorized with “Down’s syndrome,” a condition we had more crude words for when I was younger. Zarzyski goes on, in the middle of the poem, to describe the subject and setting and ends his poem with these words:

Listen—as each shopper.
gawking with awe toward Shoes,
pictures some rockabilly god,
some rhythm-‘n’-blues aficionado,
maybe Saint Vinny himself,
rolling a ruby-ringed finger
over the solid gold dial
tuned to Angelic Debut.
May grace taking shape
tangibly in a single line of singing
draw us all one lonesome day
toward the mysterious
display of white shoes
staggered with black boots
across wrought iron racks. There, may each shelf
holding the notes, sharps, flats,
show us how the maestro—excited
by the infinite, cued to the unique
movements we make
arranged together in perfect time—writes
out of all our used lives
one sweet music.

Through the use of shoes, music and references to the spiritual, Paul Zarzyski shows us how we can find beauty in spots we normally are ashamed to look for it, or spots where we mask our fears with pejorative comments and language.

Beauty, talent and ability come in all kinds of shapes, forms and packages. Back in the early 1970s I worked at a big cattle feeding outfit half-owned by John Wayne. There was a young woman who hung around in retro gabardine western suits like cowpoke babes (or want-to-be cowboy babes) wore back in the late forties and early fifties. You know the kind of clothes, with the bright poppy or lime colored piping at the tops of the pockets, and the embroidered yokes, with vivid images of bucking broncos and bull riders, sagebrush and western scenes. She was a reporter for one of the local agricultural magazines and was always looking for an interview. She stood around and looked at us a lot, just stared and little did we know, at the time, she was autistic. We laughed at her strange ways and guffawed at the way she came to the feedyard all decked out in the Hank Williams-era get-ups.

Little did we know that inside that mind was a person who understood as much about cattle and their feelings, yes, I said feelings, than the best waddy or buckaroo around. She just didn’t look the part, as we thought the part was supposed to look. To us she was strange and frightening—yes, I said frightening; her difference frightened us. And then, as the years went by, she created cattle handling systems that mitigated the jagged corners, the bang-clang blare and jangle of livestock pens. Out of her knowing she made architectural things of beauty, elegant art, practical, but yes, elegant, yes beautiful.

That’s something about life I have discovered, that beauty resides in almost every person and every thing as does beauty’s antithesis, whatever you want to call it—ugliness, hate, bilious behavior, fear. These are the things that battle beauty and sometimes the beauty cannot be seen because of our own ugliness, hatred or fear. We can’t see beauty, artistic panache in an autistic architect and expert on animal behavior, because all we can see is how that person is different from us, and we can’t see it in a Downs syndrome man because what that man has, what makes him different from us, scares us. And we don’t like to be scared. And when a bird sits on top of a sagebrush bush and warbles out the sweetest tune in the Steens Mountain watershed, we are surprised, because in the midst of that dry and drab land, a masterpiece wafts to our windows on the strands of the afternoon wind.
There is beauty there, in most everything, the music from a Down’s syndrome baritone, a desert dwelling bird, an autistic architect….in the good, yes, and in the “ugly.”

1 Paul Zarzyski, from “Montana Second Hand,” from 51, Bangtail Press, Montana, 2011, pp 183-184. By permission from the author.

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