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Around the Blooming Heather

Wild Mountain Thyme – Liam Clancy

Picture, if you will, the mountains. Picture them tall and snow-capped, with grass adorning the crags and spurs of stone, and perhaps a stream of water like glass, falling from some pinprick niche in the rock. Picture them in spring, when the ground is soggy with melt and there is perhaps a wild goat with curling horns, or an errant sheep from some farm over the ridge. Now picture those mountains far-off, see them from the window of your sedan, through the tiny porthole of your American Airlines window seat, see them in liquid crystal glory on your phone while you sit in your darkened parlor. Imagine those flowers atop them.

Robert Tannahill, a Scottish weaver, penned this song. It lasted far beyond him, beyond his ragged little life. After a great deal of success, it took one denial from a publisher to topple the foundation he’d carefully crafted. He burned all of his unpublished manuscripts and leapt into the Paisley Canal. Such grief in a man that not even this song could express it all, and even as just a sliver of that abiding melancholy, there is immense power in it. I can hardly bear to sing it without choking up. 

Liam Clancy performs my mother’s favorite version. He was an impressive man, doing for Celtic traditional music what Stan Rogers and Woody Guthrie did for North America, saving the ballads and reels before the hegemony of Britain could reduce them to faded recollections. Now, for me, there is a Dylan version, stripped-down and slow… a duet. With Joan Baez. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve picked flowers. And I mean really picked flowers, not plucked. Grabbing one off of a low-hanging branch is not picking. There is no seeking. It’s an arrangement of circumstance. If you went outside your door, saw a deer, and shot it through the heart, that’s not hunting. Picking flowers is hunting if I’ve ever seen it: traversing far afield to find a beautiful living thing, approaching it with caution and reverence, saying softly “Thank you for your being,” and then pinching a finger and removing it from where it ought to be. It’s yours now, for your own use, to take and to have and to give. Wildflower bouquet is just another term for a carefully extracted heart.

The song is easy to play – just four cowboy chords – but that’s only taking into account the technicals. You can’t simply pick up a guitar and strum this out around a campfire to impress the ladies. This can’t be sung for the sake of vanity. Sing it with people you love and want to pick flowers for. 

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