The Pink Floyd Connection

It’s been almost thirty years since I first wrote about Pink Floyd. To be honest, I never felt compelled until last Thursday, when my friend Dave, who co-teaches my English 11 class with me, mentioned Pink Floyd while we reviewed the words for a vocabulary test. More on that later, but for now, let me take you back to 1989.

I’m in seventh grade, reading about Pink Floyd for a report for school. I listen to a lot of their music, not the deepest cuts, but the best stuff. The Dark Side of the Moon. The Wall. Wish You Were Here. And more recently, I’ve bought the live album Delicate Sound of Thunder on cassette, which fascinates me with its pictures and liner notes. I’m also learning to play guitar, which is mostly due to my love of David Gilmour, the lead guitarist from Pink Floyd. Naturally, when Mrs. O’Connor, my English teacher, assigns a report, I pick my favorite band, and she lets it ride. I find an article or two and complete my outline. Soon I’m writing the essay, and when it’s done, I slip it into a blue folder, decorating the front with a couple pictures and blazing the band’s name neatly across the top. I can still remember walking into class with that report in hand.

Thoreau in the Dark Side of the Moon Album Cover

Here’s the reason that story’s important. After publishing last week’s post about Walden, I thought I had finished with Henry David Thoreau for a while, but then the Pink Floyd connection surfaced. We’re reviewing the vocabulary for our Transcendentalism test, discussing the word fritter, which means to waste money and time on inconsequential things—a thoroughly Thoreau theme—and Dave, who often surprises me, brings up the lyrics of “Time” from The Dark Side of the Moon. Boom! There it is, in the opening lyrics no less, and I’d never made the connection. Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day / Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. And with that revelation, I get nostalgic about that essay I wrote so long ago, when I was listening to Pink Floyd almost every day. It’s not déjà vu, but some other feeling, suggesting the hidden connectedness of our actions. Maybe a happy coincidence, though I’d like to think of it as more than that.

Later I keep digging. I’m reading the lyrics to “Time” when I make another connection: Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. It just keeps getting better; I mean this is surely a direct allusion to Thoreau’s famous line in Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Soon I’m Googling keywords, digging for more confirmation, and I’m beside myself when I find an entire essay comparing the themes of Thoreau to The Dark Side of the Moon. I’m scrolling pages, looking at blog posts mentioning the same thing, too. I even learn that Thoreau’s famous aphorism about “quiet desperation” may be not entirely original. It’s all good, though, and pretty soon, I’m up in my attic, digging through boxes, looking for that old report. I still have it after thirty years.

So where does it all begin? Was it with the mention of the word fritter? Was it the moment I chose to include the word on that vocabulary list several years ago? Or was it when I heard The Wall for the first time, playing through my father’s car stereo? I’m not sure, but there’s this line from Walden that comes to mind. “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us . . . There is more day to dawn.” It’s from the final paragraph of the book, and suggests the end is really not the end, but perhaps only a beginning. There’s something more to see, more to understand, more to connect. Maybe we’re just on the dark side of the moon.

From the Raven to the Muskrat

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting at a desk in the back of my classroom. My students sat quietly, each working to complete the test before them, and it was one of those rare moments where I could just relax, observing everything around me. I took a deep breath. I’m a high school English teacher. This is my classroom. It’s a Tuesday.

And as I looked around, I noticed all the birds. It’s been organic, I might say, but I’ve collected quite a few over the years. My oldest is a large drawing of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the book cover with a ball of string and the tree’s knot hole. I also have a smaller mockingbird picture, more recently given to me. There’s a scarlet ibis, often mistaken for a flamingo, that one of my students painted for me after reading the story by James Hurst. Of course, I have a few ravens. One is a cardboard prop I made long ago, and every year while teaching “The Raven,” I run across the floor, jump as high as I can, and slap it to the wall above my door. Sometimes it stays there all year. A couple years ago a student painted me a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe with a raven superimposed on his face, so that’s up there on my front wall too. That’s a total of five birds, but there’s more. This year, I finally learned how to string the origami cranes that I make with my students as part of their study of Hiroshima by John Hersey, and some of those hang from the ceiling.

All this gets me thinking about animals in literature. In addition to those already mentioned, we read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and “To Build a Fire” almost every year. Sometimes we read The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, which uses lots of bird symbolism. There’s Of Mice and Men, too, where Steinbeck describes the death of Candy’s old dog at the hands of Carlson. And of course, when I think about epic stories and animals, Moby Dick rises to the surface.

The raven, however, might be the most recognizable of these literary creatures. After all, only one sports team, the Baltimore Ravens, is named for a poem about a fictional animal. I find this very satisfying, and I think Poe would be honored. That bird, most indeed, refused to fly away, and never-nevermore did Poe find a better symbol for despair that just doesn’t quit.

Henry B. Kane's woodcut image of a muskrat

But there’s another favorite of mine, Henry David Thoreau’s muskrat.

In recent years, this muskrat has become more sentimental to me than ever. It’s found a home with me alongside the other animals. And whereas my last post about Thoreau focused on a passage from the beginning of Walden, the relevant passage here comes from the last few paragraphs of the book. Thoreau writes, “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.” I just love this passage, especially for its stark contrast to the raven.

Whereas Poe’s raven is all about hopelessness, the narrator’s failed attempt to recover from the despair caused by a dead lover, Thoreau’s muskrat is a symbol of hope. He says “the life in us is like water in the river,” trying to make us understand there’s always more, always greater possibilities within the confines of our lives. And those pesky habits, those troubles we’ve come to live alongside like varmints in our house, those “muskrats” so to speak—well, Thoreau says, yes, we can get rid of those. To me, that’s so hopeful. Perhaps that’s the most powerful lesson in all of Thoreau, one which Poe’s biography, to the best of my understanding, suggests he never seemed to learn. We can change our lives. We can drown our muskrats.

The picture included with this week’s post is located at the end of a 1951 edition of Walden published by W. W. Norton & Company, which was illustrated by Henry B. Kane. He is known for his nature drawings. The muskrat seems to be afloat, at least for the moment, while the flood waters rise.