Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 195– a podcast by Quentin Bega for lovers of music, poetry, and the Crack- that most Irish of nouns which may encompass, news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Quotidia is that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
I have a foot in both camps- that of the Arts, especially literature and music, and that of the Sciences, particularly cosmology and biology. A couple of items from my news feeds caught my attention today as I was pondering how to begin this letter. The first was a Sky News Australia piece on the International Space Station:
A highly anticipated change of command ceremony between the United States and Russia has taken place on the International Space Station at the end of March this year. Despite mounting tensions between the two countries, NASA has repeatedly reaffirmed that it continues to work closely with Russian space agency Roscosmos. Eyes have been on the ISS since war broke out in Ukraine but tensions on the earth did not reach into space. Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov in his handover address affirmed those on the space station were “one crew”.
The second item was from Science Alert with the dread-inducing, eye-popping headline, How a Zombifying Virus Can Manipulate Caterpillars Into Killing Themselves. It sounds like something out of a horror movie. What happens is a group of insect-infecting viruses known as nucleopolyhedroviruses (NPVs) get into a host organism, for example, cotton bollworm caterpillars. NPVs are known to drive their caterpillar hosts to the top of plants before dying, whereas the more natural behavior is for the caterpillars to sink to the earth before pupating. If caterpillars are dying up at the top of plants, it presumably gives the host virus more opportunity to spread further, whether that’s being carried on the wind or chewed up by a predator.
OK so my question is: what sort of virus has infected the brains of humans that propel us to climb the ladder of increasing risk and conflict seeking out a mushroom-cloud-shaped apotheosis? Or is a compulsion towards violence hard-wired into our DNA? In further science news I learn that the puzzle pieces are all assembled now. The human genome has now been completely mapped according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, but after reading through the material and listening to interviews with a couple of scientists I realised that there is still a lot more work to do and that we will not be able to excise the errant genes that may cause this propensity to violence any time soon. It’s akin to the mapping of an alien planet but not really being able to determine what is actually on the ground. Sorry to get your hopes up- no rescue from the worst elements of ourselves just yet.
But it’s time for a song. And we’re returning to the International Space Station for this one. Written and recorded by David Bowie, it was first released on 11 July 1969, nine days before Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the lunar surface. And it only took 44 years for Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield to give us all a treat by filming himself singing Space Oddity while floating on the International Space Station in 2013. [insert song]
Here are three stanzas about our companion satellite by the wonderful American poet Emily Dickinson, The Moon was but a Chin of Gold/A Night or two ago—/And now she turns Her perfect FaceUpon the World below—/Her Forehead is of Amplest Blonde—/Her Cheek—a Beryl hewn—/Her Eye unto the Summer Dew/The likest I have known—//Her Lips of Amber never part—/But what must be the smile/Upon Her Friend she could confer/Were such Her Silver Will—//
On TV tonight I watched a BBC newscast about the Red Cross trying yet again to bring in desperately needed food to Mariupol and ferry out some of the 100,000+ citizens still trapped in a place that resembles not so much an enclave of God’s green earth but a blasted and apocalyptic movie set on the cratered, airless, dusty surface of the moon. And there are military planners who would like to reduce the other port cities of Ukraine, notably Odesa, to a similar state.
On the same BBC newscast, I watched people in the centre of Odesa listening to warning sirens-perhaps more cruise missiles coming in from ships lurking over the Black Sea horizon-they were listening without flinching or moving, so inured have they become to the sound. But the camera caught a young boy, traumatised by his experience of sirens, explosions and horror in other places he and his family had to flee from, being led away from the open square to, presumably, shelter out of the camera’s view.
And in the midst of this sombre scene, the redemptive power of song, as members of the Odesa musical community filled the square with sound that uplifted hearts rather than cast them down. The Ukrainian president, Vlodymyr Zelenskyy, in a surprise address to the 2022 Grammy Awards on 3 April, said to all of us, Our musicians wear body armour instead of tuxedos. They sing to the wounded. In hospitals. Even to those who can’t hear them but the music will break through anyway…we defend our freedom to live, to love, to sound. On our land, we are fighting Russia which brings horrible silence with its bombs. The dead silence… fill the silence with your music. Fill it today, to tell our story. Support us in any way you can. Any, but not silence.
Music has played this role throughout history. Just think of the rich gift of American music to the world, particularly that brought by the slaves to the New World has blossomed into jazz and the blues and rock music. Another native of Putin’s city of birth was the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. He wrote a symphony to memorialise the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis between 1941-44 when, over 872 days, a million people starved to death: he wrote, My idea of victory isn’t something brutal; it’s better explained as the victory of light over darkness, of humanity over barbarism, of reason over reaction. Plea to V.P. Read again your own history before allowing the brutal siege of Mariupol to continue! It mimics that of the Nazis of your own birthplace.
Canadian folk-singer Bonnie Dobson wrote the song which concludes this Letter after seeing the 1959 black-and-white film On the Beach The film depicts the aftermath of a nuclear war. The final scene shows, and thanks, Wikipedia, for this dramatic sentence: The empty windblown streets of Melbourne are punctuated by the rise of dramatic, strident music over a single powerful image of a previously seen Salvation Army street banner: “There is still time .. Brother”.
Bonnie wrote the song, Morning Dew, the first of her career-and what a first!- after friends she was staying with in L.A. went to bed. It has endured down the years, being covered by a wide range of artists. It was first released in 1961, As recently as autumn 2021 she was touring at the age of 81- what a woman, eh? The song has universal themes- which I will not insult you by explicating here- the 21 year-old Bobbie Dobson set it out as clear as the morning dew [insert song]
And now I look to C.S. Lewis’s sane advice when confronted in the mid-20th Century with fears of Armageddon,: when it comes [let it] find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. Or Robert Frost, who asks us to reflect with an equanimity bordering on Stoicism, on the beauty, fragility and transience of life in this short poem, Nature’s first green is gold,/Her hardest hue to hold./Her early leaf’s a flower;/ But only so an hour./Then leaf subsides to leaf./So Eden sank to grief,/ So dawn goes down to day./Nothing gold can stay.// To conclude, may I rescue that Salvation Army banner from the empty, end-of-the-world-streets of Melbourne and wave it above my head without irony but with a lot of desperate hope- there is still time…brother. ‘til next time!
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.