Natural Talent: Neko Case
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Critically-acclaimed singer/songwriter Neko Case speaks on her love of nature, her ties to Vermont, and her “Entering The Lung” newsletter
In one of the opening lines of a standout cover track from her celebrated 2009 album Middle Cyclone, Neko Case speaks from the heart as she offers a sincere warning to her listeners:
“Never turn your back on mother earth.”
Although the song was originally recorded by Sparks several decades earlier, Case’s haunting performance imbues the song with new levels of heartfelt emotion. Throughout the course of her creative career, Case has always been a staunch and outspoken advocate for environmental conservation and animal rights. Although Case’s passion for environmental advocacy is manifested through the lyrics of many of her most famous songs, her new Entering The Lung newsletter is a stark departure from the allegorical mystique that has defined her music for decades. Through her bold and candid newsletter posts, Case speaks on the transformative power of nature, her personal connection to Vermont, and the intersectionality of mental health and environmental awareness. Much like the forests that surround her property in the hills of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, her writing is powerful, unyielding, and constantly evolving.
Although Case’s life and musical career has taken her all over the world, she has long-standing ties to the Green Mountain State. From the moment that Case first came to Vermont as a young child, she was enchanted by its natural beauty. “I came to Vermont for a couple of years when I was a kid,” recalls Case. “I lived up in a little town called Waterville in Lamoille County. I absolutely loved it. It was my favorite part of my childhood.”
When Case returned to Vermont decades later in 2007 to visit the site of her childhood home, she was surprised to find that the area remained strikingly similar. After running into old friends and reliving past memories, she made the decision to purchase a nearby property. “Everything was exactly the same as I had left it,” says Case. “It was magical.” After Case acquired the property in the hills of Northeastern Vermont near St. Johnsbury, she built a recording studio in her barn there. It was there that she recorded many of the songs for Middle Cyclone, and found peace and artistic inspiration by reconnecting with her inner child through nature.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t think too hard about what it means to culturally separate from the animals and natural world around you. I felt like I was actually talking to nature when I was younger. I remember feeling that a presence was watching me in the woods here in Vermont, but it wasn’t a creepy presence. It was looking out for me. I remember walking through big stands of trees with red leaves all over the ground and feeling entirely new sensations. It felt like every single molecule around me was alive and talking.”
Case says that she had a similar revelatory experience after she returned to Vermont as an adult. “Watching little ecosystems unfold around you makes you realize that you’re not the most important thing in the world. As someone who has spent a lot of time dealing with severe depression, it took a weight off my shoulders when I realized that human beings are not the end-all-be-all of everything on planet earth.”
Over a decade after she returned to the Northeast Kingdom, Case still feels that same sense of deep connection to Vermont and its natural landscape. Case is currently in the process of rebuilding her house, which burned down in a devastating fire in 2017 while she was at an overseas recording session in Sweden. Although Case says that the experience was traumatic on multiple levels, she continues to find inspiration and solace through her repeated trips into the woods surrounding her house to this day. According to Case, the moments of clarity and serenity that she experienced during her trips into the Vermont wilderness played a direct role in inspiring her to create the Entering The Lung newsletter. “Living in Vermont, that rampant, verdant, continually-moving kind of nature is all around you. I’ve always felt the most joy when I’ve been out in the woods and noticed something that I’ve never seen before. Those moments kept happening for years, and it seemed like they were happening for a reason. I felt like I needed to put the pieces together.”
After Case was contacted by the online platform Substack in early 2021, she decided that she was ready to write a column focused on how her experiences with nature had shaped her worldview. Case refers to the forest around her house as “The Lung” in all of her postings, which also serves as the inspiration behind the Entering The Lung newsletter’s name. Case says that although her writing comes from a similar creative place as her songwriting, the newsletter has given her new freedom to express her thoughts in a more unconstrained way. “I’m a little bit freer with the newsletter, because it’s not written in a poetry style. I occasionally find myself being a bit too formal with it, but I’m trying to loosen it up. I’m just kind of figuring things out as I go. I love writing this way.”
In one of Entering The Lung’s opening posts, Case waxes poetic as she speaks on the connection between art and nature: “Art and nature are my real parents. They have gotten me out of all of the bad places and taken me around the world to meet good people and feel the connection that is ‘humanity.’ Even when I’m far away from home, their vastness comforts me, and I know that I will never ever begin to understand either one. I’m happy inside the process of following the questions. It’s a sublime, nutritious education.”
In a later post, Case touches on how her connection with nature has enabled her to recognize the power of love and acceptance. “When I look closer at something in the natural world, I start to love it unconditionally. Maybe it’s a way to practice a gentle kind of acceptance, but less from a human-centric perspective? It feels closer to serving ancient curiosity, but I like both possibilities.” Some posts are written in the style of stream-of-consciousness poetry. Others are more structured and offer insight on issues such as indigenous land rights and water protection activism. Each post provides a revealing glimpse into the inner workings of Case’s mind and serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of conscientious environmental stewardship.
Case wholeheartedly believes that everyone who comes to live in Vermont should educate themselves about their local ecosystem and also take preventive steps to ensure the future health of their land. “My advice to anyone who comes to live in Vermont is to remain aware of your impact. Talk to all of your neighbors. If you have the option, talk to a forester or to somebody who has managed the land before. Figure out what endangered species may be growing on your land, and do everything that you can to protect them. Vermont is an oxygen producing wetland. Wetlands change carbon and they reverse pollution, which is a very big reason to protect them.”
Case adds that through her trips into “The Lung,” she has also become increasingly conscious of the role that nature can play in improving mental health. “I think that the fact that we, as a society, are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature is one of the reasons that we have such high numbers of people who suffer from anxiety. If people can just take two extra minutes to think about what is making them anxious or why they feel like there’s no joy in their life, they might find that they are missing out on the beautiful natural moments that are happening all around them. People get so wrapped up in what’s expected of them. So many people are going through so much trauma that they don’t get to spend any time with themselves. Nature teaches me a lot about letting go and willfully observing.”
As Case moves forward with her newsletter, she intends to interview environmental specialists and use her platform to effect positive change in any way she can. “I thought about what kinds of questions I should ask people for future interviews. I think the only really important question that will be the same in every interview is ‘What are we doing right?’ I want to know what we’re doing right in terms of fighting climate change, helping endangered species, and shrinking our carbon footprint. There is so much negativity out there that it gets old. I’m not going to ignore the negative, but I want to move the conversation forward in a positive way.”