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If you spend time with a tree, it will share its story, says Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist professor at SUNY and author of Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), her way of introducing her students to their classroom forest. And it’s precisely story that tweaks imaginations and sparks fire; without it, we languish.

From my study window, I glimpse my neighbor’s golden raintree thriving by his driveway, its growth since last year, considerable. I used to walk by it in all seasons: summer’s clusters of small yellow flowers mantling the ground beneath with the appearance of wetness—thus its name; autumn’s bronzing its fruit into what looks like three-pointed Chinese pagodas, only slowly dropping them; and winter’s sloughing off gray leaves and black pods to inquisitive gray squirrels.

So, what does this golden raintree say to me? Have I picked up its story? We both have been around for some years and I’ve been gifted with this new day to appreciate summer’s pristine splendor: the primary greens, still glossy, and the secondary yellows, still sun-catching—they play off each other and invite us to do the same.

Although change can be hairy at times, still it happens. The golden raintree is the same tree, but different and more herself. Yes, she’s feminine and lends herself to storytelling.

Look for her along city streets, backyards, and be delighted.

All memorable stories remain lodged in imaginations, for centuries.

I was hoping to find one in Madonna’s Yakov and the Seven Thieves (2004), sourced from the collection composed by the followers of the eighteenth-century Rabbi Baal Shem Tov. She entitled hers, Yakov and the Seven Thieves, but how she handled the material feels flat.

At the outset, all the components of crisis are laid out: the Angel of Death; the ruse played on the robbers by the Old Man; and Yakov, the impoverished cobbler grieving over his son’s illness. On the back jacket, the author adds”a story even for grown-ups.” Yet, the entire narrative and illustrations are too thin to substantiate the conversion of heart: the whole point of the rabbi’s work among lowly folks in the West Central Ukrainian villages where he taught.

In Madonna’s version of the Rabbi’s story, no shivering, no looking ahead toward the ending, no tears occur. Only the high-tech illustrations by the Russian Gennady Spirin distract in their occasional details that veer on comedy. The needed pitch is absent, especially for the young. I hope I stand corrected upon this assumption.

So where find Titanic struggles that encapsulate our own? Where is the primacy of good played out, as it is, not without periodic clashes?

Seldom do I find significant stories out there…

Use of the old revitalizes the new, a truism exemplified in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major (1900). Like his peers, he discovered collections of centuries-old German folklore and reworked significant ones for voice and orchestra. One of those collections was Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1805) collated by the Romantic authors, Achim von Arim and Clemens Bretano.

From this classic, Mahler selected the poem, Child’s Vision of Heaven/Das himmilsche Lebe. He incorporatedits four verses, by intervals, within the fourth movement of his Fourth Symphony. The soprano’s lilting playfulness always brought smiles to audiences and referenced similar patterns in preceding movements: The result was an hour of music that intrigued psyches and enlarged humdrum worlds.

This always has been my experience with Mahler’s Fourth, both in symphony halls and YouTube. Yet my unfamiliarity with the German language prompted me to look up Das himmilsche Lebe and imagine that rustic world of past ages when Christianity was shared.

The poem reflects the simple, unadorned faith, simplicity, and joy of children, just in from the fields, gathered around the itinerant storyteller beneath the sprawling oak.

Critical to their sense of heaven is the heavenly vegetable patch: good greens of every sort, good apples, good pears, and good grapes…The abundance of fish, fowls, lambs, and wine suggests the satisfaction of full bellies, accompanied by bread that Saint Martha and the angels make. Overseeing this harmony are other saints Peter, John, Luke, and the martyr Ursula, reputed from Cologne, Germany. In that world, whenever it was, such listeners thrived until the arrival of the next storyteller.

In the poem, Das himmilsche Lebe, all is indeed very well. Mahler’s arrangement for soprano provides inexplicable joy to the score—Such is the Kingdom of heaven. 

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