Don’t count the feathers: Dan Mangan, nature study and a surprise Charley Harper reference

The title alone of Dan Mangan‘s “About as Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All”, from his 2011 album Oh Fortune, seems to be crying out for a comparison to graduate school experiences but that’s not nearly the most interesting thing about this song. Let me take you through my thought process on this one.

It’s a beautiful song. There are soaring and melodic strings and brass, a driving waltz time, poetic lyrics and Vancouver native Mangan’s compelling and perfectly raspy voice. The nerd in me loves what seems to be a brief time signature change during the violin break at 2:16. So this post started with me thinking, “Wow, this is a really great song. I wonder if I can find something to write about it.” The lyrics have a sort of kinship with early practices of science, nature study and natural philosophy. Mangan places himself in the middle of a wondrous dreamworld  he’s trying to remember and describe. I was thinking of writing about Louis Agassiz and Liberty Hide Bailey advocating for children to experience the natural world to learn about it.

I lit up like a match,
‘Cause I bled gasoline.
Made a torch of myself
‘Till the moon was mine.
Stars made of me.
How I lit up that sky.

Both feet together,
Slowly progressing,
Always in time.
Don’t count the feathers,
Just count the wings.

Wait. That sounds familiar. Don’t count the feathers, Just count the wings. I’m sure I’ve heard that before. Or is it just lyric déjà vu where good ones have a truth that makes them sound familiar? Don’t count the feathers, Just count the wings.

In a eureka moment I realize that I have heard it before, and I really wasn’t far off in making the connection to nature study. The line (presumably) references mid-century American nature artist Charley Harper* whose imaginative and stylized work not only advertised the US National Park Service but also adorns the cover of a scientific journal. Typically described as a modernist, he is known for identifying the essential elements of an animal’s form and, even with simplified figures, creating action and narrative. Harper attributed these qualities to his careful observations, “I learn as much as I can about the creatures that interest me, and they all do. I observe them and find out how they interact with each other and their environments and ask myself, ‘What if?'” And when asked to describe how he could move from careful observation to stylized images that are at once beautiful and accurate, he was known to reply…

“I just count the wings, not the feathers.”

And that warm feeling you’re getting while looking at the image? That’s gentle recognition that Harper illustrated some of the very first science books that many of us read: The Golden Books series. It was through Harper’s eyes that I first realized that birds might come in different types that could be named and described to understand them better. Though the gorgeous Big Golden Book of Biology, countless children got their first visual representation of evolution, and like the others it was playful and appealing without sacrificing essential and identifying details.

Likewise the work of a playful and evocative song writer, “About as helpful…” takes us on a journey not only through a world that Dan Mangan is trying to understand but also maybe through our own childhoods and the first stirrings of an interest in science. Sit back and soak it in.

*Mangan later confirmed the reference via Twitter.

Author: mcshanahan

Science education researcher and writer

3 thoughts on “Don’t count the feathers: Dan Mangan, nature study and a surprise Charley Harper reference”

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