Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
If we're being honest with ourselves, we tend to recognize and pay attention to our surroundings a woefully insignificant amount of the time. We are too often busy with something else to give much mind to all of that stuff that's always there, that never changes. We only become concerned with the huge spruce tree in our front yard - the one that's been there for a hundred years and should you give it a second would mesmerize with its rhythmic and leafy sway - when it gets sick or has a fat and weighty limb splintered by lightning from the great trunk, only to crash into our sun room or lose its sap and life there in our lawn. We too, too often do not survey and admire what that wooded cluster of branches and green represents. We often do not stand and stare and just appreciate the quiet and unassuming manner in which those trees went about putting themselves where they put themselves and then had the audacity and toughness to remain for decades and decades - watching the people, cars and animals around them (hundreds, if not more) die off as they just stood resilient and tall. We don't frequently wander out into their territory, under their cover and just revel in those lanky structures of ghost-faced and glassy passivity - those markers of solitude and unhurried, non-fussy beauty.
Baltimore school teacher and songwriter Bob Keal, who makes music under the name Small Sur, is one of those men who would count the trees as his mute friends, always aware of where they were and how they were eating and leaning on any particular day that you should ask him. He would be a man who, about to embark on a walk through a dense and deep forest, would never have been caught packing a bread bag with crumbs to drop,because if he were never to get back out from that sanctity's clutches again, it might not be so bad. It wouldn't be anything to fight or to be afraid of. He would feel a sense that those trees would nourish him and protect him.
He'd find a way to stay dry, we're guessing, even if he had to procure the lumber by chopping it with a pocketknife. Keal is perfectly comfortable on these walks, without a cause or a care, bringing that very sensation into his writing, involving us in all of the small and wondrous whispers and glories that land on us all of the time - invisibly and secret unless we are awake to them. His songs stroll just as he must when he walks - out with his great and surly beard and maybe a dog obediently loping along at his side, panting along with the steps. These walks likely open up upon some rocky cliffs where you can see for miles and the waters look to be relaxing, but in a way that also looks like strenuous work - clapping against those stones and splaying itself out flat. The images that Keal presents to us are bare-naked and subtle in their recounting, giving us a chance to casually soak them in - some coming to us as if we they were being channeled through Will Oldham, but always giving us a chance to find our own bodies and souls within them.
*Essay originally published December, 2009