I have several violins that were handed down to me by my father. It is a difficult instrument to master, but I couldn’t see letting them gather dust in my attic, so I picked out one and decided I would try to teach myself to play.
There is a book that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the violin, Stradivari’s Genius. It was written by Toby Faber, and traces the history of five violins and one cello made by Antonio Stradivari.
In one of the early chapters, Mr. Faber mentions that the violin became a popular cultural phenomenon in the 17th century, and began to appear in the paintings of some of the most famous artists from that era, because it was “the most advanced technology of the age."
When I read that, I had to stop and read it again, in order to imagine a time when “technology” meant something completely different than it does today. We think of technology in terms of electronics, computers, cell phones, or any number of devices, but in Stradivari’s time, there was no electricity, no batteries, no earphones, loudspeakers, or any form of amplified music whatsoever. The only sound was produced by the instruments themselves, pure and simple, but for someone hearing music for the first time, it must have seemed like the dawn of technology itself.
The year before my wife and I were married, I bought her a kayak, just on a whim. We both enjoy the outdoors, and I wanted to have something we could do together besides hiking and camping. For that reason, I picked out a large “two-seater,” or tandem kayak, which I now affectionately refer to as “the boat.” When compared to the much lighter, brightly colored, single-seaters that have become so popular today, and are probably a lot easier to load on top of a car, it easily falls into that category.
There have been times since I bought the boat when I have gone out in it by myself. I like to go up to the lakes in the Highlands and fish, or just explore the shoreline looking for turtles and frogs, and interesting wildflowers to photograph. I usually pack a small lunch or snack, and always bring my camera. On one occasion, after spending half-an-hour on Potash Lake casting my line, and not getting any takers, I put my rod aside and spent the rest of the morning taking pictures. The weather was perfect for it, and the sun was shining at just the right angle. I captured a line of ducks carefully making their way through a marshy area on the east side of the lake, and a stunning white egret, standing tall and regal against the dark shadows of the shoreline at the north end. The more I looked, the easier it was to find something to photograph. As I made my way around the lake, I noticed a large bird perched on a single branch protruding from the surface, about 100 feet from the shore. I put the camera down and paddled toward him, hoping he wouldn’t spook and fly off before I had a chance to take a few pictures. I pointed the kayak toward the branch, and paddled hard enough to set it in motion directly toward the bird, while I took photos. As I got closer, I switched to video mode, and started to film him instead. I was getting prepared for the excitement of capturing a big bird flapping his wings and taking off, but it soon became apparent that he was just as determined to ignore me. The kayak was drifting straight toward him, getting closer and closer, before he actually turned to look at me. What happened next surprised me as much as it did him. The kayak ran right into the branch and shook it hard enough to cause him to lose his balance, but not enough to make him fly away. Instead, he righted himself, shook his feathers a bit, and turned toward me with a look that I can only describe as “disdain.” He stubbornly clung to the branch, and stared off into the distance as if this sudden intrusion on my part was too trivial to warrant any further response. He had made his feelings known, and he was not about to budge. It was a moment I will never forget, and using the technology available to us today, I was able to post the video on youtube to share with the rest of the world.
The experience of being on the water has another significance for me. Besides being very peaceful and serene, it allows me to understand what it must have been like thousands of years ago, when crudely fashioned boats carved out of logs allowed our earliest ancestors to cross rivers, venture out into lakes and ponds, and explore otherwise remote areas in search of food and habitable living conditions. Much like the technology of Stradivari’s violins, these early boats were the first of their kind, and must have created just as much excitement, for entirely different reasons.
When I think about going out in our kayak, I like to imagine myself taking my wife on a "moonlight cruise,” and drifting dreamily over the water, while playing one of Bach’s concertos on my violin, but I can say with some degree of certainty that if my friend the bird is still sitting on his perch, that would be the one thing in the world that would cause him to fly off and seek refuge in a more secluded spot.