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Musica Universalis

All the sounds of the earth are like music.

Oscar Hammerstein II

Sometime around the year 1600, the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler undertook a study of the motions of the planets. Over the next decade-and-a-half he revolutionized the way astronomers understood the heavens. While every right-thinking star-gazer believed that the planets moved in circles around the Sun, Kepler proved that they travelled in ellipses—slightly squashed circles. Then, in 1618, he worked out the exquisite formula that relates a planet's period, p—the length of time it takes for the planet to orbit the sun—to its mean distance from the sun, d:

Kepler called his discoveries "harmonic" laws, and with them he claimed to have worked out the long-imagined musica universalis—the “music of the spheres,” the songs rendered by the planets on their long and lonely rounds about the Sun. Venus, according to Kepler, tolled an eternal monotone. Mercury's melody was long and lyrical. Earth cycled repeatedly between the notes mi and fa.

(You can hear fanciful and somewhat spooky renditions of musica universalis here.)

Kepler’s discovery of Earth’s song was revolutionary. But he left much undone, for every song has a hundred components and he supplied only the melody. How to explain the rhythm of the song? What of the timbre, the color, the tempo, the emotion? Does every region of the planet contribute in some small but vital way to the fully realized composition? If so, what part does the American West play in the great song, with its endless rocking back and forth between the notes mi and fa?

* * *

The Lyrics of the Song

With a friend I was camped in a grove of Jeffrey pines, somewhere in Kings Canyon National Park. Following a hard week of work we had driven many hours from the Bay Area, and now we were free and it was well after midnight in cold, dark October, the best time of the year to sleep without shelter in deep forest beneath a sky festooned in stars.

I crawled into my bag and fell asleep quickly. Tomorrow, my friend and I would navigate a trail and a mountain. Tonight I would inhabit a realm that soon became a dream...then a disturbance...then a realization...then a song. I awoke in pitch blackness to a chorus of flamboyant coyotes parked not fifty yards from where I lay, doing what flamboyant coyotes excel at: serenading the stars. Tall screaming cries, calls-and-responses, electrifying solos, a duet, a young one crying, an old one returning comfort, silence, a rapid exchange of ideas, silence, soul, music, joy.

The performers of this symphony carried on at great length. Listening, it was possible to imagine that they knew all about mi and fa: that they understood the history, the meaning, and the importance of every note that they sang.

* * *

The Magnitude and Brilliance of the Song

Mount Sill is a grand 14,000-foot mountain that towers over a glacier in an enchanting corner of California’s High Sierra called the Palisades. With three friends, I had climbed the peak via a route on its north side. Now, perhaps an hour after leaving the summit, we were crossing a level and seemingly endless boulder field on our way back to camp. The going was slow. Each step had to be planned, measured, and executed with great caution, for we were tired, and a slip could mean a sprained ankle, or worse.

To complicate matters, there was the weather. On the summit we had lolled for half an hour in bright sunlight. During the descent the sky turned. As we set out across the boulder field, auguries of thunder, scarcely noticeable at first, then gradually mounting in magnitude and believability, caromed among the peaks. A light rain began to fall. A flash of lightning lit up the sky, then another.

I was perhaps fifty yards from my mates when the third flash appeared. It was followed in a few seconds by an awful tumble of thunder.

I realized I was in a jam. Looking about, I spotted a tiny island of sand set amidst the sea of rocks. I crossed quickly to the location and threw off my pack.

I knew the drill. Every second counted. I donned coat and rain gear. Knowing metal to be perilous in situations like mine, I pitched my ice axe into an opening beside a boulder a short distance away. Returning quickly to my spot, I crouched down as low as I could, bowed my head, closed my eyes, and locked my hands over my ears. The idea, as books on mountain safety explain, is to make of oneself as small a target as possible.

The lightning bolt struck the boulder that held my axe. A terrible crash of light and sound exploded in my eyes and ears. Heart racing wildly, I tried to make myself smaller. A torrent of rain swept over me, followed by another blast of thunder. I did not think of Johannes Kepler. But I believe that if he had been there, he might have said...The light, my friend—that is mi. The explosion is fa. My, what wondrous music you are privileged to enjoy!

* * *

The Nobility of the Song

John Muir spent the winter of 1872 toiling as the caretaker of Black’s Hotel in Yosemite Valley. Early on the morning of March 26, the valley—and indeed much of the east side of the Sierra—was struck by a violent earthquake. The quake’s magnitude is today estimated at 7.6 on the Richter scale.[i] Muir wrote of the event in this famous passage from his book, Our National Parks.

In Yosemite Valley, one morning about two o'clock, I was aroused by an earthquake; and though I had never before enjoyed a storm of this sort, the strange, wild thrilling motion and rumbling could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, near the Sentinel Rock, both glad and frightened, shouting, "A noble earthquake!" feeling sure I was going to learn something. The shocks were so violent and varied, and succeeded one another so closely, one had to balance in walking as if on the deck of a ship among the waves, and it seemed impossible the high cliffs should escape being shattered. In particular, I feared that the sheer-fronted Sentinel Rock, which rises to a height of three thousand feet, would be shaken down, and I took shelter back of a big Pine, hoping I might be protected from outbounding boulders, should any come so far. I was now convinced that an earthquake had been the maker of the taluses and positive proof soon came. It was a calm moonlight night, and no sound was heard for the first minute or two save a low muffled underground rumbling and a slight rustling of the agitated trees, as if, in wrestling with the mountains, Nature were holding her breath. Then, suddenly, out of the strange silence and strange motion there came a tremendous roar. The Eagle Rock, a short distance up the valley, had given way, and I saw it falling in thousands of the great boulders I had been studying so long, pouring to the valley floor in a free curve luminous from friction, making a terribly sublime and beautiful spectacle--an arc of fire fifteen hundred feet span, as true in form and as steady as a rainbow, in the midst of the stupendous roaring rock-storm. The sound was inconceivably deep and broad and earnest, as if the whole earth, like a living creature, had at last found a voice and were calling to her sister planets. It seemed to me that if all the thunder I ever heard were condensed into one roar it would not equal this rock roar at the birth of a mountain talus. Think, then, of the roar that arose to heaven when all the thousands of ancient canon taluses throughout the length and breadth of the range were simultaneously given birth. [ii]

* * *


[ii] John Muir, Our National Parks, Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1901

The epigraph “All the sounds of the earth are like music” is from the song “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” from the musical Oklahoma! Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, copyright © 1943 by Williamson Music, New York, N. Y.

Palisades photo by Robert Leonard Reid

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