If I Had An Orchard, I’d Work ‘Til I’m Raw

By Taylor K. Long

Sometimes it feels like a song has been written with a piece of you. Like someone invaded your house when you weren’t there, sat on your bed with a cup of tea, and looked at your old photos, read all your e-mails, and all of your notebooks. This is what it feels like every time I hear “Helplessness Blues,” the first single and title track from the Fleet Foxes’ second album. It feels like Robin Pecknold found a portal into my head, Being John Malkovich style.

Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (download)

I was raised up believing
I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see

Most of us have aspirations of doing wonderful, special things. We want to live our own individual stories, in which we create or do something never done before. In the spinning of our tales, we do and have it all, and we get it in the most magnificent fashion. We have a legacy.

And now after some thinking
I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon, you will see

But eventually you see every great tale eclipsed by a greater one, or sadly, a worse one. You learn that stories of people who have made something out of nothing are everywhere, and so are the stories of people who squashed something into nothing. You watch ambition segue into greed, as people turn works of art into brand names, and vice versa. For every world record made, another is broken. For every deserving award-winning movie, there’s another one that can’t find funding, and a terrible one that eclipses it because it could. The spotlight is short and small, and just as sad as the times it skips over someone are the times that someone can’t let it go.

Lofty ambitions are beautiful, but even the simplest things hold a certain amount of awe. Many of us question most if not all of the four pillars of marriage, kids, house, career at some point. But when I watch my closest friends and family get married, have kids, buy houses, it’s hard to deny the appeal. You start to wonder if there’s a reason why the road is so well worn.

What’s my name, what’s my station
Oh, just tell me what I should do
I don’t need to be kind to the armies of night
That would do such injustice to you

Or bow down and be grateful
And say, “Sure, take all that you see”
To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls
And determine my future for me

And I don’t, I don’t know who to believe
I’ll get back to you someday soon, you will see

It’s easier to think of taking the road more travelled by because you get glimpses of what it holds. It’s easier to be told what to do because you don’t spend as much time figuring it out, you can just get started. You can get so tired of worrying about your own little life that you wonder if there’s a way you can be doing something greater. You wonder if your reach isn’t better suited to a broader spectrum of people than just yourself.

But that has its drawbacks, too. Ask anyone who’s worked in politics or worked for a cause. It’s like that old Bob Dylan quote, To say ’cause of peace’ is just like saying ‘hunk of butter.’ I mean, how can you listen to anybody who wants you to believe he’s dedicated to the hunk and not to the butter.” Dreams that benefit “the people” run into as many roadblocks as dreams that benefit one. In times of growing information and diminishing fact-checking, it’s hard to know who to trust. Where’s the proof that doing “the right thing” is actually the right thing to do?

If I know only one thing
It’s that every thing that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable
Often I barely can speak

But you want so badly to work for something greater when the world is full of greatness. Should you stand in front of the Great Canyon and truly try to grasp it, it’s inconceivable. I stared at it from above, from hiking down, from hiking up, and my mind malfunctioned. It’s so big you can’t capture it with your eyes, so old you can’t capture it in years. You could spend days hiking and camping in it and still never fully understand its magnitude. It’s everything Danny Glover talks about in Grand Canyon and more. It’s Bill Bryson’s passage from The Lost Continent,The scale of the Grand Canyon is almost beyond comprehension. It is ten miles across, a mile deep, 180 miles long. You could set the Empire State Building down in it and still be thousands of feet above it. Indeed you could set the whole of Manhattan down inside it and you would still be so high above it that buses would be like ants and people would be invisible, and not a sound would reach you. The thing that gets you—that gets everyone—is the silence. The Grand Canyon just swallows sound. The sense of space and emptiness is overwhelming. Nothing happens out there.”

I think about the Grand Canyon long enough and I start to realize it’s just one thing. It’s just one marvel in a world full of marvels. I see how my passage and Bryson’s passage are not so different from character Alleluia Cone’s passage about Everest in Satanic Verses (which is both a testament to the convincing nature of Salman Rushdie’s writing, as well as the ubiquity of this brand of awe), “‘Everest silences you,’ she confessed to Gibreel Farishta in a bed above which parachute silk formed a canopy of hollow Himalayas. ‘When you come down, nothing seems worth saying, nothing at all. You find the nothingness wrapping you up, like a sound. Non-being. You can’t keep it up, of course. The world rushes in soon enough. What shuts you up is, I think, the sight you’ve had of perfection: why speak if you can’t manage perfect thoughts, perfect sentences? It feels like a betrayal of what you’ve been through. But it fades; you accept that certain compromises, closures, are required if you’re to continue.'”

Yeah, I’m tongue-tied and dizzy
And I can’t keep it to myself
What good is it to sing helplessness blues?
Why should I wait for anyone else?

And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf
I’ll come back to you someday soon, myself

It’s hard to reconcile greatness and big scale change with immediacy and direct causation. The things that are big take time and force to change, and the things that can change quickly and easily are the things in one’s own atmosphere. But the feeling of helplessness can cover the highest levels to the lowest. Romance frustrates as easily as government. If someone puts you on a shelf, places you on the sidelines, it’s your responsibility to get yourself down, to put yourself in the game. What are you doing letting someone else decide where you go, anyway?

­I hear the cacophony at the 2:48 mark, and wonder if this moment is those frustrations irking themselves out, shifting from brutish strumming, slowing down into a chirping dance that is the new direction.

If I had an orchard
I’d work till I’m raw
If I had an orchard
I’d work ‘til I’m sore

And you would wait tables
And soon run the store

Gold hair in the sunlight
My light in the dawn

If I had an orchard
I’d work ‘til I’m sore
If I had an orchard
I’d work ‘til I’m sore

Someday, I’ll be
Like the man on the screen

I’ve talked so much of Vermont that the thought of owning an orchard has become the not-so-much-of-a-joke-anymore about my future. And next thing I know, Pecknold is putting his heavenly voice to it.

After spending the song not knowing what he wants, not knowing who to believe, not knowing who he is, Pecknold finds his resolution, in a time when the work was physical, and you chose someone to rely on for life. With the increasing rarity of this kind of life, it carries a certain romance. It can be the literal romance of appreciating simpler things with someone you love, or a more nostalgic romance, the thought of narrowing your life down to a more manageable size. It’s easier to feel more effective when your life has a tangible boundary. It’s easier to measure progress in apples.

Apples, by Taylor K. Long