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The Boltzmann Brain Paradox: An Animated Thought Experiment About the Hallucination of Reality

A pleasingly disorienting foray into the fundamental perplexity of life.


You look at a tree. That tree is reality — part of some external reality, and partial to some internal reality of its own. But the tree you see is entirely your mind’s rendition of reality. Consciousness is both the projector and the screen, rendering something you comprehend as a tree. In an absolute sense, then, you can never be sure that the tree exists outside your mind — there can be no evidence of it, for you are both the evidence-gatherer and the evidence.

That is what a thought experiment known as the Boltzmann Brain Paradox explores, inspired by the work of the brilliant and tragic Austrian physicist and philosopher Ludwig Boltzmann (February 20, 1844–September 5, 1906).

Although his theories are now central to modern physics — Boltzmann developed one of its pillars, statistical mechanics, threw an epochal gauntlet to the second law of thermodynamics, provided the current definition of entropy, and mentored the great Lise Meitner — he was so severely criticized for them that his already biochemically precarious mental health (he was afflicted by what we now term bipolar disorder) careened toward the tragic. One late-summer day in his early sixties, while vacationing with his wife and daughter, he died by the breakage of the mind we call suicide, having lived believing that, as mortals, our “destiny is the joy of watching the evershifting battle” and that even though we are each “an individual struggling weakly against the stream of time,” it is in our power to contribute meaningfully to the knowledge and reverie of reality.

With a mind this extraordinary — literally, beyond the ordinary in both its brilliance and its brokenness — Boltzmann reckoned wildly with the nature of reality, the battle for reality, laying the foundation for later questions that eventually took shape in the Boltzmann Brain Paradox:

Complement with the little loophole in the Big Bang and an animated thought experiment about the limits of knowledge and the mystery of consciousness, then revisit the story of the forgotten prodigy William James Sidis, who built on Boltzmann’s legacy to dismantle the dogmas of life and death with his challenge to the second law of thermodynamics.


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For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Dec 2022 | 2:40 pm(NZT)

Montaigne on How to Succeed at Solitude and His Antidote to the Three Great Fears That Haunt Self-Knowledge

“There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.”


Montaigne on How to Succeed at Solitude and His Antidote to the Three Great Fears That Haunt Self-Knowledge

“There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” the poet May Sarton wrote in her ravishing ode to solitude. “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other,” Rilke wrote a generation before her as he reckoned with the heart of a healthy relationship. It may be that our relationship with ourselves — the extent to which we are able to be intimate with our own spirit and make of that intimacy a sanctuary — is a matter of learning to stand guard over our own solitude.

That is what Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533–September 13, 1592) explores in some passages from his relentlessly insightful meditations predating psychology by centuries, rendered in a new translation by the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor in his altogether wonderful book The Art of Solitude.

One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for the essays of Montaigne

Montaigne spent much of his own life in solitude — the crucible of his enduringly insightful meditations on the fundaments of life. With life-tested surety, he allays the three great fears haunting solitude — boredom, the loss of social rewards, and self-confrontation. He writes:

We have a soul that can turn in on itself; it can keep itself company. It has the means to attack and defend, to give and receive. Don’t worry that solitude will find you hunched up in boredom.

Rather than boredom, such inner stillness leads us to what Bertrand Russell so memorably termed “fruitful monotony” — an inner quieting that becomes fertile compost for creativity. But even at its most generative, solitude succumbs to the basic binary of life: being any one place means not being another — an equivalence that metastasizes in the classic fear of missing out. Montaigne cautions against such preoccupation with the external world and calls for the vital self-mastery of learning to govern the internal:

It should no longer be your concern that the world speaks of you; your sole concern should be with how you speak to yourself. Retreat into yourself, but first of all make yourself ready to receive yourself there. If you do not know how to govern yourself, it would be madness to entrust yourself to yourself. There are ways of failing in solitude as in society.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

To succeed in solitude, he argues, is to learn to “keep yourself settled, straight, inflexible, without movement or agitation,” so that you can begin to observe the mind as it happens unto itself — the happening that is our entire experience of life. He writes:

It is a tricky business to follow so meandering a course as that of our mind, to penetrate its opaque depths and hidden recesses, to discern and stop so many subtle shifts in its movements.

[…]

Others study themselves in order to advance and elevate their mind: I seek to humble it and lie it down to rest.

Complement with Emerson — Montaigne’s Transcendentalist inheritor — on how to trust yourself and what solitude really means and Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, sex, and creativity, then revisit Montaigne’s cumulative wisdom on how to live.


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For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Dec 2022 | 6:04 am(NZT)

Trees, Rivers, and the Exquisite Interdependence of Life: Artist Meredith Nemirov’s Consummate Map Paintings

“To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together.”


When the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology in 1866 after the Greek words for “house” and “study” to denote the study of the relationship between organisms in the house of life, he had no idea just how intricate this relationship would be revealed to be by the science of the following century.

Imagine how astonished he would have been to know that one day we would find salmon in trees and trees in plankton.

Long after Haeckel had returned his borrowed atoms to the ecosystem, scientists discovered that nitrogen-15 — an isotope of nitrogen found almost exclusively in the oceans — is the reason some trees grow thrice as fast as others. This improbable fertilizer ends up in their root systems thanks to salmon, which carry it in their fatty bodies from the Pacific Ocean as they migrate upstream to spawn. Black bears fishing in the rivers ingest the salmon and metabolize the nitrogen, depositing it into the forest, where it seeps into the soil to be taken up by the hungry trees.

But this relationship between ocean and forest is reciprocal, flowing both ways across the conduits of river and tree: In turn, trees shed their leaves into the river, which carries the acids in them to the ocean to feed plankton — the first link in Earth’s food chain, in turn feeding the salmon and all other creatures uplink, including us.

This exquisite interdependence comes alive in artist Meredith Nemirov’s series Rivers Feed the Trees — consummate paintings of aspens atop historic topographic maps of the Colorado river.

Created in the wake of the region’s devastating wildfires, while a global pandemic was illuminating afresh the profound ecological interbeing of our Pale Blue Dot, this conceptual “rewatering” of the landscape is intended as a kind of visual rain dance — a prayerful invocation of water in acrylagouache and cartography.

The artist reflects:

The linear elements and patterns assigned by map makers to the various aspects of the geology of the land are visual elements in the landscape and the form of the tree. The idea of connectivity in nature has been a recurrent theme in my work and is expressed in this particular series and in this quote by Barry Lopez, “To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together.”

Couple with Lithuanian illustrator and storyteller Monika Vaicenavičienė’s illustrated love letter to rivers, then revisit Olivia Laing’s magnificent meditation on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.

HT Orion Magazine


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 5 Dec 2022 | 5:41 am(NZT)



Affirmation in Solitude: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Poetry of Penguins

“The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel the other’s warmth.”


Affirmation in Solitude: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Poetry of Penguins

“If there is poetry in my book about the sea,” Rachel Carson reflected in her superb National Book Award acceptance speech, “it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” Carson saw the sea as a microcosm of all life, and indeed, there is native poetry in the wonder of reality that we access whenever we step beyond our habitual frames of reference and simply pay attention to what is other than ourselves. Her hero Henry Beston undrestood this when he observed that non-human animals move through the world “finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear” — the voices of poets in the deepest and widest sense of poetry as an instrument of living with wonder.

Ursula K. Le Guin

That is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores in her short story The Author of the Acacia Seeds: And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics, included in her 1982 collection The Compass Rose (public library) — the story of a group of scientists studying non-human languages, one of whom sets out “to approach the sea literature of the penguin with understanding.”

That Le Guin was writing before we had decoded the sonic hieroglyphics of dolphins or discerned the dance-language of bees only attests to her extraordinary foresight and penetrating wisdom into the more-than-human world.

The King Penguin by Thomas Waterman Wood, 1871. (Available as a print.)

Le Guin — who was a poet and believed that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside [and] both celebrate what they describe” — writes of the kinetic poetics of penguins:

The beauty of that poetry is as unearthly as anything we shall ever find on earth… Imagine it: the ice, the scouring snow, the darkness, the ceaseless whine and scream of the wind. In that black desolation a little band of poets crouches. They are starving; they will not eat for weeks. On the feet of each one, under the warm belly feathers, rests one large egg, thus preserved from the mortal touch of the ice. The poets cannot hear each other; they cannot see each other. They can only feel the other’s warmth. That is their poetry, that is their art. Like all kinetic literatures, it is silent; unlike other kinetic literatures, it is all but immobile, ineffably subtle. The ruffling of a feather; the shifting of a wing; the touch, the faint, warm touch of the one beside you. In unutterable, miserable, black solitude, the affirmation. In absence, presence. In death, life.

Complement with a neuroscientist on the pengin’s antidote to abandonment, then revisit Le Guin on storytelling and the power of language, suffering and getting to the other side of pain, and the magic of real human conversation.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Dec 2022 | 8:23 am(NZT)

How the Psychedelic Amanita Muscaria Mushroom May Have Inspired the Santa Legend of Lapland

Shamans, neurochemistry, and the metabolic byproducts of wonder.


It took humanity 200,000 years to “discover” mushrooms. Although they have accompanied us since the dawn of our species, although they far predate us and will far outlast every other living thing on Earth, we are only just beginning to understand their layered mysteries — from their properties as portals into “the Beyond” to their status as nature’s instruments for listening.

But while mushrooms have been part of ancient spiritual traditions the world over, they might also have inspired the most materialist mainstream holiday of Western civilization: Christmas. One species in particular: Amanita muscaria — a mushroom whose strong toxins have psychedelic properties considered the world’s oldest known intoxicant, predating alcohol by 10,000 years.

Amanita muscaria from “Atlas des Champignons Comestibles et Vénéneux,” 1891. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

According to the BBC, the shamans of the indigenous Sámi people of Lapland consumed small amounts of Amanita muscaria in their visionary rituals and drank urine from their reindeer, who eat the iconic red-and-white mushroom as part of their diet and metabolize its toxins without harm, excreting a fluid still full of psychoactive compounds but free from toxins. One of the known psychedelic effects of Amanita muscaria on humans is the sensation of flying, which might explain the origin of the myth about the man clad in red and white soaring through the sky on his reindeer-drawn sled, dispensing tokens of love to the world.

A decade after the BBC first brought this speculative theory to the popular imagination, filmmaker Matthew Salton set out to reenvision Christmas as a celebration not of capitalism but of shamanism in a wonderful op-doc for the New York Times, lensing the theory through the work of two scholars — Boston university classicist Carl Ruck, who studies ancient shamanistic traditions and ecstatic rituals, and mycologist Lawrence Millman.

Maybe we should be asking Santa for something different this year, something more in the tradition of our shaman forefathers — like time for reflection and looking inward.

For more on Amanita muscaria and its chemistry, its cultural myths, and its scientific promise, ethnobotanist Rob Nelson of Untamed Science has an excellent (and beautifully cinematic) primer:

Complement with Sylvia Plath’s haunting poem “Mushrooms,” then revisit Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s little-known mycological studies.

HT Ologies


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 3 Dec 2022 | 7:38 am(NZT)



The Art of Divination: D.H. Lawrence on the Power of Pure Attention

“An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer.”


The Art of Divination: D.H. Lawrence on the Power of Pure Attention

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” Simone Weil observed as she considered the relationship between attention and grace at the peak of her short life. “Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote a generation later in her beautiful elegy for her soul mate, “is only a report.”

Before Oliver, before Weil, D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) took up the subject of attention as our portal to the sacred in one of the pieces in Sketches of Etruscan Places and Other Italian Essays (public library) — the rich posthumous collection of travel writings that gave us his reflections on the strength of sensitivity.

D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence finds himself contemplating the birds on the walls of the Tarquinia tombs, painted by artists before whose eyes they “flew through the living universe as feelings and premonitions fly through the breast of man, or as thoughts fly through the mind.” For those artists, the birds became a lens on “the complex destiny of all things” — the elemental hunger for truth and meaning we live with, which requires what might best be termed divination.

But at the center of such divination, whether we perform it through art or through science, lies the hallmark of our consciousness — the capacity for unalloyed and prayerful attention, which can turn any object into a miniature of all things and all meaning. (The poet J.D. McCatchy captured this essential fact beautifully in his observation that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”)

Lawrence writes:

If you live by the cosmos, you look in the cosmos for your clue. If you live by a personal god, you pray to him. If you are rational, you think things over. But it all amounts to the same thing in the end. Prayer, or thought or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice, it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination. All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.

[…]

It is the same with the study of the stars, or the sky of stars. Whatever object will bring the consciousness into a state of pure attention, in a time of perplexity, will also give back an answer to the perplexity.

Couple with Lawrence, lensed through Anaïs Nin, on how to be un-dead and live most fully, then revisit William James’s pioneering investigation of attention and its blind spots and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on how to walk through the everyday world more attentively.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Dec 2022 | 6:53 am(NZT)

The Poetry of Science and Wonder as an Antidote to Self-Destruction: Rachel Carson’s Magnificent 1952 National Book Award Acceptance Speech

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that… is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction… There can be no separate literature of science.”


The Poetry of Science and Wonder as an Antidote to Self-Destruction: Rachel Carson’s Magnificent 1952 National Book Award Acceptance Speech

A century and a half after Novalis declared that laboratories will be temples, the poet turned marine biologist Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) consecrated science in her lyrical writings about the natural world. At the center of her creative cosmogony was a vital symbiosis between literature and science in illuminating the nature of reality — a credo she formulated directly only once, in the acceptance speech, excerpted in Figuring, for the National Book Award her 1951 book The Sea Around Us had earned her: “a work of scientific accuracy presented with poetic imagination and such clarity of style and originality of approach as to win and hold every reader’s attention,” read the award citation.

Rachel Carson

At the ceremony held on January 29, 1952, the drama critic John Mason Brown welcomed Carson to the stage with introductory remarks that captured the unexampled allure of her scientific-artistic sensibility:

Miss Carson [has] made those odd creatures of the sea, those bipeds known as men and women, interested the world over in the mystery of our beginnings and the profundity and beauty of something far greater than mortals, with their petty egotisms and vanities, can hope to know… She has atomized our egos and brought to each reader not only a new humility but a new sense of the inscrutable vastness and interrelation of forces beyond our knowledge or control. She has placed us as specks in time and yet inheritors of a history older, and certainly deeper, than many of us realized… Where prose ends and poetry begins is sometimes hard to say. But I do know that Miss Carson writes poetic prose or prose poetry of uncommon beauty.

Rising from the table she shared with the poet Marianne Moore, Carson took the podium, looked softly, almost shyly, at the audience with her eyes the color of sea water, and spoke with confident composure about the animating ethos of her work:

The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man* without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.

The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.

19th-century Solar System quilt by Ellen Harding Baker, embroidered over the course of seven years as a teaching tool in an era when women were barred from higher education in science. (Available as a print.)

Speaking before we discovered the double helix, before we set foot on the Moon, before we heard the sound of spacetime in the collision of two black holes, Carson considers how science invites us to be wonder-smitten by reality, which is the ultimate poetry of existence:

We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.

[…]

The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.

In a sentiment she would echo a decade later in her bittersweet farewell and challenge to posterity, she intimates that such a worldview can make us better stewards of this irreplaceable world — which means, invariably, better stewards of our own survival:

I wonder if we have not too long been looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We have looked first at man with his vanities and greed and his problems of a day or a year; and then only, and from this biased point of view, we have looked outward at the earth he has inhabited so briefly and at the universe in which our earth is so minute a part. Yet these are the great realities, and against them we see our human problems in a different perspective. Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vis- tas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.

Complement with Carson, at her finest, on the ocean and the meaning of life, the story of how she inspired M.C. Escher, and this stunning choral tribute to her legacy, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the relationship between poetry and science.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 1 Dec 2022 | 2:47 pm(NZT)

Farmhouse: Sophie Blackall’s Poetic Illustrated Tribute to Time and Tenderness

“Over a hill, at the end of a road, by a glittering stream that twists and turns, stands a house…”


Farmhouse: Sophie Blackall’s Poetic Illustrated Tribute to Time and Tenderness

Every year, monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico. Each passage takes three to four generations, and each generation manages to communicate to the next, without language as we know it, the direction and call of the journey as it dies. Along the way, the caterpillars of the new generation feed exclusively on milkweed — the only host plant of the species, the only taste of home for these eternal migrants.

A house is the milkweed of human life. Within it, generations live out their lives, passing customs and apple pie recipes and personality traits to each other.

One spring not long ago, my darling friend, occasional collaborator, and Caldecott-winning children’s book maker Sophie Blackall bought an old dairy farm that came with a ramshackle house, in which twelve children had been born and raised a century ago; the old lady who sold it to her was one of them.

After years of immersion in the enchanting remnants of their bygone lives — photographs and hand-printed wallpaper, a handkerchief and a wedding dress, old brass keys and dusty books, a box of mud-soaked rags that turned out to be twenty colorful hand-sewn dresses — Sophie brings them alive in her wondrous book Farmhouse (public library) — a consummately illustrated, painstakingly hand-collaged story in the shape of a poem that is a single sentence, undulating with its “ands” and “ors” like a life does.

It begins:

Over a hill,
at the end of a road,
by a glittering stream
that twists and turns,
stands a house
where twelve children
were born and raised,
where they learned to crawl
in the short front hall,
where they posed, arranged
on the wooden stairs,
and were measured with marks
over the years,
where they carved potatoes
and dipped them in paint
to pattern the walls
with flowers and leaves,
and painted the cat,
about which they lied,
for which they were scolded
and maybe they cried
and then were enfolded
in forgiving arms
in the serious room…

…and on and on it goes, as their lives unfold…

…until one day,
the youngest child,
who was now quite old,
took a last look around
and picked up her case
and opened the door
and stepped outside
and into a car,
where her sister was waiting,
to drive to the sea,
which they’d always,
always wanted to see,
and the house
gave a sigh
and slumped
on the stones,
which caused
a slight lean
in its beams
and its bones,
so the door
swung open
to let in
the breeze…

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Sophie reflects on the splendid confluence of chance and choice by which it all came together:

I first explored the house on a late-spring day. Outside, the meadow was noisy with chattering birds, and the wildflowers nodded their heads in the sun. Inside, everything was cool and dark and quiet. The floor was scattered with brittle leaves, a saucepan lid, and a stiff leather shoe. An ornate parlor organ held walnut shells and the curled-up pages of lovesick songs. A waterlogged catalog offered beehives and waffle irons, bedsprings and guitar strings. In the kitchen, newspapers, with reports of milk prices and war, lined sagging pantry shelves of rusted tin cans. A straw mattress slumped in a corner. A calendar still hung on the wall, open to July 1970, the month and year I was born.

A willow sapling grew through a hole in the floor, reaching toward a hole in the roof. Nobody had lived there for a long time. Well, no people, that is. Plenty of animals had taken shelter. Raccoons, judging by the droppings; squirrels, by the walnut shells; swallows, by the nests. Not to mention mice and bats and wasps. It was as well I didn’t know, until a farmer told me later, that a bear had been sleeping in the basement.

I was convinced then and there that I needed to honor this farmhouse.

She honored it with this lovely book. But she also, with much love and much labor, turned the farm into a wondrous residency for children’s-book artists and writers called Milkwood, after Dylan Thomas’s poetic 1954 radio drama Under Milk Wood, which begins: “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black.” Under the century-old wooden beams, in a majestic library that was once a heap of hay, a new generation of storytellers are gathering to tell stories of what we are and how the world works — stories that, in words and pictures, transmit to the next generations that monarch knowledge of where we are going.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 30 Nov 2022 | 12:41 pm(NZT)

The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self: How a Circle of Friends and Lovers United Nature and Human Nature

“Mind is invisible nature, while nature is visible mind.”


The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self: How a Circle of Friends and Lovers United Nature and Human Nature

Just after the revolutionary work he recounted in Awakenings, Oliver Sacks wrote in a note to the music therapist at Beth Abraham Hospital: “Every disease is a music problem; every cure is a musical solution.” He was quoting Novalis — the young German poet and philosopher who, while working in a salt mine and studying mathematics, geology, physics, and biology, was composing tortured and transcendent poems inspired by the death of his teenage beloved.

Novalis is one of the characters who animate Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self (public library) — the story of a circle friends and lovers in late-eighteenth-century Germany who refined their ideas in ricochet — ideas that shaped our present understanding of art and nature, mind and reality, the world and ourselves as function and functionary of it.

After the formidable Germaine de Staël popularized their ideas outside Germany, the tendrils of their influence went on to touch Coleridge and Emerson, Whitman and Joyce, sinking into the very soul of the modern world and its self-regard.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Having previously written about Alexander von Humboldt and the “invention” of nature — in the sense of the birth of its modern conception — Wulf now chronicles the “invention” of the modern self, the Ich, in the intellectual kiln of the same time and place, revealing the two to be inseparably related, reminding us that we can’t understand nature if we don’t understand ourselves or care for one without caring for the other.

She calls them the Jena set, after the town in Duchy of Saxe-Weimar where they constellated their portable universe of radicalism, and writes:

They were rebellious and felt invincible. Their lives became the playground of this new philosophy. And the story of their tiptoeing between the power of free will and the danger of becoming self-absorbed is significant on a universal level. The Ich, for better or worse, has remained centre stage ever since. The French revolutionaries changed the political landscape of Europe, but the Jena Set incited a revolution of the mind. The liberation of the Ich from the straitjacket of a divinely organised universe is the foundation of our thinking today. It gave us the most exciting of all powers: free will.

Against the grain of their time, they exercised their free will in open marriages and long-term monogamies without marriage. With names that sounded alike and intellectual passions that fired alike, they became a kind of hive mind fixated on celebrating the self and set out to “symphilosophize” — a term they invented for the intellectual symbiosis and symphonic creative collaboration at the heart of their life. Wulf writes:

Taken together, the knowledge available in the minds of those who lived in Jena was like a great living encyclopaedia covering a vast range of subjects from antiquity to comparative anatomy, from electricity to Spanish literature, from philosophy to poetry, from history to botany.

Among them, of course, were Goethe and Schiller, whose intergenerational friendship was the intellectual and creative anchor of both of their lives. Humboldt flits in and out of the scene, with his experiments in galvanism and his passionate devotion to the web of life. But there are also central characters now nearly forgotten — the influential brothers August Wilhelm Schlegel and Friedrich Schlegel, who believed that they were “all part of the same family of magnificent outlaws” and stood against Rousseau in their conviction that both boys and girls deserved a rigorous education; the young Friedrich Schelling, who at age eleven had informed his teachers that they had nothing else to teach him and had become the youngest professor appointed at the University of Jena at twenty-three, who “radiated infinity,” and who believed that “mind is invisible nature, while nature is visible mind” and told his students:

As long as I myself am identical with nature, I understand what living nature is as well as I understand myself.

Goethe’s color wheel from his theory of color and emotion. (Available as a print.)

There was Novalis, who “regarded the ordinary with wonder” and “slept little and worked hard” — at his poetry and in the salt mines — and believed that we and the world are an integrated system, each indispensable to the other, so that our task is to “catch sight of ourselves as an element in the system.” Wulf writes:

His notebooks are filled with more than a thousand sections which analyse, synthesise and connect everything from music to physics, poetry to chemistry and philosophy to mathematics. And he did so with a fluidity and lightness that reveals a mind wide open to everything. Novalis began to assemble his ideas and material under conventional headings, such as archaeology, religion, nature, politics, medicine, and so on, but also under more unusual groupings, such as “theory of the future,” “musical physics,” “poetical physiology” and “theory of excitation.”

It was Novalis who offered the closest thing they had to a founding credo of Romanticism:

By giving the commonplace a higher meaning, by making the ordinary look mysterious, by granting to what is known the dignity of the unknown and imparting to the finite a shimmer of the infinite, I romanticise.

But by far the most colorful character is Caroline Schlegel, who was to the German Romantics what Margaret Fuller was to the American Transcendentalists. Vivacious, opinionated, educated far beyond the gendered limits of her time, Caroline spent time in prison for her revolutionary leanings, had a baby by a young Napoleonic soldier after a fiery one-night stand, and was animated by what she called “a firm, almost instinctive need for independence.” She besotted both Schlegel brothers, married one in what was at base an amicable friendship, and took the young Schelling as a lover, becoming the great love and muse of his life. The slight squint of her blue eyes cast the spell binding everyone into the “magic circle” of the group. “We have to build a poetic world out of ourselves,” Novalis told her as he declared her the beating heart of that world.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print, benefitting the New York public library system.)

They all believed in the power of language. “You have not just to carry out revolutions,” Friedrich Schlegel wrote, “you have to speak them too.” No one spoke them more revolutionarily than the young Schelling, whose lectures enchanted a generation of thinkers with a whole new way of seeing the world — his students called it his “poetry of the universe.” Wulf writes:

For millennia, thinkers had turned to their gods to understand their place and purpose in the unknowable divine plan. Then, in the late seventeenth century, a scientific revolution began to illuminate the world. Scientists had peered through microscopes into the minutiae of life or lifted new telescopes to the skies to discover Earth’s place in the universe. They had dissected human hearts to learn how the body functioned and classified plants, animals and minerals in neat categories to impose order on the world in which they lived. They had calculated the distance between the Sun and Earth, described how blood circulated through the body, and sailed to Australia, a “new” continent some ten thousand miles away on the other side of the world. They had discovered oxygen and used mathematics to define the laws of planetary motion and gravity.

The Enlightenment had truly enlightened. But this new rational approach had also created a certain distancing from nature and excluded the roles of feeling and beauty. Nature had become something that was investigated from a so-called objective perspective. Light, for example, was no longer appreciated for its kaleidoscopic play of iridescent colours, Novalis said, but for its refraction and “mathematical obedience”: hence its elevation to the term “Enlightenment” itself. This was why Schelling’s students fell for their young professor. He reunited what the scientific revolution had separated: nature and humankind. No matter how much scientists observed, calculated and experimented, there was something emotional, something visceral and perhaps inexplicable about humanity’s connection to nature. However we feel it, nature can soothe, heal or simply fill us with joy. Schelling gave us the philosophical explanation.

And by doing so, his philosophy of oneness became the heartbeat of Romanticism.

Art by Charlie Mackesy from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

In consonance with William Blake’s lifelong devotion to turning art into a lens on the universe, the Jena set understood that because we are part of nature, the products of our creative imagination are how nature examines itself, comprehends itself, and coheres. Wulf considers how Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism “became the philosophical underpinning of Romanticism”:

An artwork — a painting, a sculpture, a poem — was therefore the expression of the union between the self and nature. Whatever an artist produced was created by nature through him or her. Nature — the unconscious product of the self — and the conscious self came together in the artistic creation. Art was therefore essential in order to make sense of the world, Schelling declared. Neither rational thought nor the most accurate scientific instruments held the key to understanding the world. Art was the finite or concrete representation of the infinite. Art opened “the holiest of holies,” Schelling wrote. It was the revelation of the universe through the creative production of an artist.

These were ideas the entire Jena set shared. Friedrich Schlegel proclaimed that “all art should become science and all science art.” Novalis insisted that “science in its perfected form must be poetic” and that “laboratories will be temples.” Caroline Schlegel prophesied that “when the world goes up in flames like a scrap of paper, works of art will be the last living sparks.”

Works of art only ever spring from the particular vantage point of a particular authentic self — an Ich — and this is the enduring legacy of the first Romantics.

But all great ideas, if followed not critically but cultishly, run the risk of metastasizing into dogmas. Today, we are living with one such metastasis of Romanticism in our staggering epidemic of selfing — rather than connecting us to each other and the living world as kindred elements in a system, the inflamed Ich has folded us unto ourselves: living proteins of ego. It is by returning to the original philosophy, before its mutation, that we stand a chance of reclaiming the self as a crucible of creativity and a portal of connection to nature.

Art by Paloma Valdiva for Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions

Wulf reclaims the legacy of the Romantics:

Life is a negotiation between our rights as an individual and our role as a member of a community, including our responsibilities towards future generations who will inhabit this planet. How can we live a meaningful life in which we determine the direction of our path while also being a morally good person? How do we reconcile personal liberty with the demands of society? Are we selfish? Are we pursuing our dreams? Are we treading on someone else’s liberty? Are we looking only after ourselves? Or others? Or both? We have entered a social contract with each other and with our governments, agreeing to abide by laws and conventions — yet this only works if we are free and trust one another at the same time.

The Jena Set believed that we have to be conscious of our selves — to be “selfish” in the sense of being aware of and in control of our own being and free will.

[…]

The “Art of being Selfish,” in the context of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, also means understanding one’s place in this great interconnected living organism that is nature. “Since we find nature in the self,” one of Schelling’s students concluded, “we must also find the self in nature.” Being selfish in that sense means comprehending and recognising the concept of unity with the universe. Not harming the planet therefore means not harming yourself.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

With an eye to Novalis’s insistence that “without perfect self-understanding we will never learn truly to understand others,” she adds:

Only if we are fully aware of ourselves — of our needs, our wishes, and of our thoughts — can we truly embrace the other. This emphasis on the Ich means being “self aware” as the prerequisite for “being aware and concerned for the other.” Only through self-awareness can we feel empathy with others. Only through self-reflection can we question our behaviour towards others. Self-examination in that sense is for the greater good — for us, for our wider community, for society in general and for our planet.

Complement Magnificent Rebels with poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan — a modern-day Romantic, writing in her nineties — on the self and the universe, then revisit the Schelling-influenced Emerson on how to trust yourself and Whitman’s Humboldt-inspired poem “Kosmos.”


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Nov 2022 | 12:00 pm(NZT)

Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Almost Unbearably Sweet Account of Sole-Parenting His Small Son

“Mercy on me, was ever man before so be-pelted with a child’s talk as I am! It is his desire of sympathy that lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement.”


Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Almost Unbearably Sweet Account of Sole-Parenting His Small Son

Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) was forty-seven when he became five. He had never had a childhood himself — his father, a sea captain, had died when Nathaniel was a small boy, hurling his mother into a near-catatonic grief from which she never recovered. But when his own small son was left in his sole care for three summer weeks in the mountains, Hawthorne contacted the spirit of childhood with uncommon sweetness and sincerity as little Julian collected flowers, fished with an imaginary rod, “philosophized about rainbows” in the August mist, and ran across the room “with a marvellous swagger of the ludicrousness of which he seems perfectly conscious.” Hawthrone partook of their joint sword-war on the thistles “which represented many-headed dragons and hydras,” climbed trees, engaged in nightly wrestling, and relished the ravishments of nature with childlike wonder.

On July 28, 1851, his wife Sophia — a gifted artist, and sister to the pioneering education reformer and Transcendentalism founding mother Elizabeth Peabody — left for Boston on business for three weeks, taking with her their beloved daughter Una and their newborn baby Rosebud, and leaving the five-year-old Julian in his father’s care in the Red Shanty — the modest red farmhouse they had rented in the Berkshires, where Hawthorne met and cast his spell on the young Herman Melville.

Nathaniel Hawthorne by John Adams Whipple

Melancholy by nature and painfully introverted to the rest of the world, Hawthorne came alive in a different way with his children. “He was capable of being the gayest person I ever saw,” Una would later recall. “He was like a boy.”

Now, alone with Julian and their pet rabbit, Hawthorne was simultaneously five and almost fifty, both playmate and artist at the peak of his powers, trying to write while affectionately grumbling about “the babble which [runs] like a brook through all my thoughts” in the diary he kept for Sophia, rediscovered nearly a century later — the almost unbearably wonderful Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa (public library).

With infinite sweetness, tenderness, and patience, Hawthorne indulged little Julian’s bombardment of questions, nursed his stomachaches, attended to the misfires of childhood with touching amiability (“There had been a deluge in his bed, and nowhere else.”), and curled the boy’s hair each morning before they headed out on their daily expedition for milk, picking flowers and fighting thistles along the way.

It was joyful, but it was hard. “I have all his mother’s anxieties, added to my own,” Hawthorne wrote in the diary. “It must have been weary work [for my father],” Julian would recall half a lifetime later of those three weeks, “though for the little boy it was one uninterrupted succession of halcyon days.”

Julian with his sister Una

Having been made to tip-toe around the baby since her birth in the spring, Julian immediately sets about making unfettered ruckus as soon as he is alone with his father, hammering on an empty box with great enjoyment — Hawthorne, bemused rather than annoyed, lets him — before exhausting himself and growing very pensive about his mother’s absence. Then begins the barrage of queries and musings, pelting the helpless father from dawn until dusk, making it impossible “to write, read, think, or even to sleep (in the daytime).” And yet Hawthorne delights in the “genial and good-humored little man” — “the old gentleman” — with such unalloyed love that he finds it difficult to get annoyed, even as he watches his son “felicitating himself continually on the license of making what noise he pleased… He enjoys his freedom so greatly, that I do not mean to restrain him.”

Hawthorne marvels:

He is never out of temper or out of spirits, and is certainly as happy as the day is long. He is happy enough by himself; and when I sympathize or partake in his play, it is almost too much; and he nearly explodes with laughter and delight.

He meets even the boy’s occasional remonstrations with the loving assessment that his “sharp, quick, high voice” makes him sound “very much like the chattering of an angry squirrel.” When the father does reach the end of his rope, it is only with bemused amiability:

Either I have less patience to-day than ordinary, or the little man makes larger demands upon it; but it really does seem as if he had baited me with more questions, references, and observations, than mortal father out to be expected to endure. He does put me almost beside my propriety; never quitting me, and continually thrusting in his word between the clauses of every sentence of all my reading, and smashing every attempt at reflection into a thousand fragments.

He reflects on the storm of interruptions with lucid and largehearted insight into their deeper roots in human nature, always clearest in children:

Mercy on me, was ever man before so be-pelted with a child’s talk as I am! It is his desire of sympathy that lies at the bottom of the great heap of his babblement. He wants to enrich all his enjoyments by steeping them in the heart of some friend. I do not think him in danger of living so solitary a life as much of mine has been.

A living reminder that even the largest minds and most generous spirits are captors of their time and culture, the diary reveals Hawthorne’s ineptitude in domestic matters and his genuine confusion about how to take care of himself, much less his son, in Sophia’s absence:

Went to bed without any supper — having nothing to eat but half-baked, sour bread.

He does receive the steady help of a part-time housekeeper — a Mrs. Peters, who comes to make breakfast for the two boys and whom Hawthorne regards with respect bordering on deference; only toward the end of the diary, in a passing mention, do we learn that the cherished woman is “a colored angel.” Most of the time, though, Julian is in Hawthorne’s sole care, down to the suppers of crushed currants and plain bread, which father and son savor with perfect contentment upon finishing each long summer day of outdoor adventure. Over and over, Hawthorne delights in the child’s delights:

Julian climbed up into the tree, and sat astride of a branch. His round merry face appeared among the green leaves, and a continual stream of babble came dripping down upon me, like a summer shower.

[…]

After a while, I took him down from the tree; and removing a little way from the spot, we chanced upon a remarkable echo. It repeated every word of his clear little voice, at his usual elevation of talk ; and when either of us called loudly, we could hear as many as three or four repetitions — the last coming apparently from far away beyond the woods, with a strange, fantastic similitude to the original voice, as if beings somewhat like ourselves were shouting in the invisible distance. Julian called “Mamma,” “Una,” and many other words; then he shouted his own name, and when the sound came back upon us, he said that mamma was calling him. What a strange, weird thing is an echo, to be sure!

Together, father and son observe their pet rabbit, who at first “does not turn out to be a very interesting companion” — “with no playfulness, as silent as a fish, inactive,” passing his life “between a torpid half-slumber, and the nibbling of clover-tops, lettuce, plantain-leaves, pig-weed, and crumbs of bread” — but eventually becomes a curious object of meditation. (Shine the beam of curiosity upon even the dullest object and it becomes interesting; polish anything with attention and it becomes a mirror for the meaning of life.) Reflecting on the bunny’s tendency to tremble “as an aspen leaf” and the general “apprehensiveness of his nature,” Hawthorne considers the creature’s unwelt:

I do not think that these fears are any considerable torment to Bunny; it is his nature to live in the midst of them, and to intermingle them, as a sort of piquant sauce, with every morsel he eats. It is what redeems his life from dulness and stagnation.

[…]

The mystery that broods about him — the lack of any method of communicating with this voiceless creature — heightens the interest.

One of Japanese artist Komako Sakai’s tender illustrations for The Velveteen Rabbit

As the days unspool, Hawthorne finds himself “getting rather attached to this gentle little beast” and devoted to satisfying the bunny’s increasingly finicky appetite with only the freshest grass and leaves, shares of his own bread, and borrowed green oats from the neighbor.

He ate a leaf of mint to-day, seemingly with great relish. It makes me smile to see how he invariably comes galloping to meet me, whenever I open the door, making sure that there is something in store for him, and smelling eagerly to find out what it is.

[…]

He has, I think, a great deal of curiosity, and an investigating disposition, and is very observant of what is going on around him. I do not know any other beast, and few human beings, who, always present, and thrusting his little paw into all the business of the day, could at the same time be so perfectly unobtrusive.

Punctuating the diary is Hawthorne’s exquisitely attentive relishment of the living world, once again affirming him as the greatest nature writer of all the nineteenth-century American novelists, second perhaps only to Mary Shelley. In one of many exquisite examples of the unphotographable, he writes:

The heavy masses of cloud, lumbering about the sky, threw deep black shadows on the sunny hill-sides; so that the contrast between the heat and coolness of the day was thus visibly expressed. The atmosphere was particularly transparent, as if all the haze was collected into these dense clouds. Distant objects appear with great distinctness; and the Taconic range of hills was a dark blue substance, with its protuberances and inequalities apparent — not cloud-like, as it often is. The sun smiled with mellow breadth across the rippling lake — rippling with the north-western breeze.

Two days later, on the last day of July, he records another reverie:

It was another cloudy and lowery morning, with a cloud (which looked as full of moisture as a wet sponge) lying all along the ridge of the western hill; beneath which the wooden hill-side looked black, grim, and desolate. Monument Mountain, too, had a cloud on its back; but the sunshine gleamed along its sides, and made it quite a cheerful object; and being in the centre of the scene, it cheered up the whole picture, like a cheery heart. Even its forests, as contrasted with the woods on the other hills, had a light on them; and the cleared tracts seemed doubly sunny, and a field of rye, just at its base, shone out with yellow radiance, quite illuminating the landscape.

Art from Every Color of Light — a stunning Japanese illustrated celebration of the weather and the fulness of life

A week later, admiring “the Kaatskills blue and far on the horizon,” he reverences another atmospheric dazzlement:

Across our valley, from east to west, there was a heavy canopy of clouds almost resting on the hills on either side. It did not extend southward so far as Monument Mountain, which lay in sunshine, and with a sunny cloud midway on its bosom; and from the midst of our storm, beneath our black roof of clouds, we looked out upon this bright scene, where the people were enjoying beautiful weather. The clouds hung so low over us, that it was like being in a tent, the entrance of which was drawn up, permitting us to see the sunny landscape. This lasted for several minutes; but at last the shower stretched southward, and quite snatched away Monument Mountain, and made it invisible, although now it is mistily re-appearing.

Along their rambles, Julian invents Giant Despair — an evil spirit responsible for every misfortune that befalls them, from the cow dung he runs through to the menacing summer storms.

Hawthorne himself frequently touches despair as he dwells on Sophia’s absence — his Phoebe. He misses her terribly. He walks to the post office again and again, anguished each time he finds no letter from her; when the letters do come, he mourns how “excruciatingly short” they are. “I spent a rather forlorn evening,” he writes after another joyful day with Julian, “and to bed at nine.”

Visits from Melville, ever-adoring, distract him, prompting Julian to declare that he now loves “Mr. Melville” as much as he does his mother and Una. (“I do not think he has given Rosebud any place in his affections yet.”) He records:

After supper, I put Julian to bed; and Melville and I had a talk about time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters, that lasted pretty deep into the night.

Herman Melville by Asa Weston Twitchell

When spells of Hawthorne’s lifelong melancholy descend upon him, he finds nothing more salutary than Julian’s contagious cheer. During one of their daily jaunts to the local lake, watching the indefatigable boy amuse himself, he writes:

I lay on the bank, under the trees, and watched his little busyness — his never-wearing activity — as cheerful as the sun, and shedding a reflected cheer upon my sombreness.

Two weeks into this experiment in sole-parenthood, Hawthorne’s longing for Sophia and the girls grows unbearable, prompting an ecstatic outpouring on the pages of the diary he knows she will soon read:

Let me say outright, for once, that he is a sweet and lovely little boy, and worthy of all the love that I am capable of giving him. Thank God! God bless him! God bless Phoebe for giving him to me! God bless her as the best wife and mother in the world! God bless Una, whom I long to see again! God bless little Rosebud! God bless me, for Phoebe’s and all their sakes! No other man has so good a wife; nobody has better children. Would I were worthier of her and them!

And then, immediately, he adds a forlorn reflection on the reality of their absence:

My evenings are all dreary, alone, and without books that I am in the mood to read; and this evening was like the rest. So I went to bed at about nine, and longed for Phoebe.

But then, on the eve of Sophia’s much anticipated and thrice delayed return, Giant Despair deals his cruelest blow — after a spell of shivers in the evening, Bunny is found still and stiff in his lair by morning. Julian, however, becomes a living testament to children’s ability to perceive the naturalness of death as a part of life, before it has been tainted with our adult dogmas and frights. After breakfast, father and son dig a small hole in the garden and bury the creature as Julian whispers his hope that a flower will spring up over the grave, then elaborates on his ecological cosmogony, telling his father:

Perhaps tomorrow there will be a tree of Bunnies, and they will hang all over it by their ears!

One of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for The Velveteen Rabbit

Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa is a charm of a read in its entirety. Complement it with Hawthorne on life, death, and what fills the interlude with meaning — his touching account of watching his young daughter interact with his dying mother — then revisit Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to him and Kahlil Gibran’s poetic advice on parenting.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Nov 2022 | 9:08 am(NZT)

The Choreography of Everyday Life: A Leaping Antidote to Our Modern Loneliness

Finding that vitalizing “a reciprocity between us perceiving the world together through art, and the world in turn reading us through what we make.”


The Choreography of Everyday Life: A Leaping Antidote to Our Modern Loneliness

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so,” Alan Watts wrote as he contemplated our search for meaning. “The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”

It is a fertile metaphor, for the way we move through the world — and how we move the world through the mind — shapes our entire experience of it. Out of this existential choreography, which we perform a million times a day in a million unconscious ways, arises our perception of reality.

The metaphor comes alive with uncommon vitality in The Choreography of Everyday Life (public library) by choreographer Annie-B Parson, who has shaped living artworks by cultural icons ranging from David Bowie and David Byrne to Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

Reading the Odyssey as a kind of secular theology and reckoning with Tik-Tok as the folk art form of our time, she turns a cautious eye to our menacing pandemic of selfing, observing the self-made corner into which we have punished ourselves:

Social media forms are performative solo forms with an odd conflation of friendship and marketing; the body is alone in a room performing the self, with an undercurrent of desire for applause. Without a town square to gather in and hash out the day with neighbors, social media communications have a shading of loneliness underneath.

Art by Maira Kalman for her illustrated adaptation of David Byrne’s American Utopia, choreographed by Annie-B Parson

The way out, she intimates, is movement — a movement of the spirit that mirrors the movement of bodies toward the togetherness of the town square, the place where generative change takes place, for all creativity — which is the antidote to loneliness — is a kind of dance we perform not in isolation but with the world:

The wide shot is the camera position that allows the audience to see the full body of everyone in the scene in their environment, it’s the most objective and potentially the most compositional of camera positions, and for very brief moments I can perceive our wide shot: that we experience contentment, then we suffer, we slog through what we deem uninteresting, we get inspired, we see things, we miss things, we trip or fall or slowly crumble, we get up, we fight, we reconnect, and then in despair or fascination or just reflexively, we write about it.

And this desire to articulate what you feel and perceive, to tell it, to name it, to describe it, this is as natural as the progression from walking to running to leaping, to shaping that leap into a pattern of leaps, and then a group of leapers in unison — into a dance.

And if I go into the extreme wide shot, I can see a generative duality between us and the world, a reciprocity between us perceiving the world together through art, and the world in turn reading us through what we make. In this mirror structure, I can imagine the creative act as world-actualization rather than self-actualization, that what we make becomes a part of nature’s generative system.

Art by Maira Kalman for American Utopia

Couple this fragment of The Choreography of Everyday Life with Zadie Smith on what writers can learn from the great dancers, then revisit Helen Keller, upon visiting Martha Graham’s studio, on how dance is like thought.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Nov 2022 | 5:12 pm(NZT)

David Bowie on Creativity and His Advice to Artists

“It’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations”


Every creator’s creations are their coping mechanism for life — for the loneliness of being, for the longing for connection, for the dazzling incomprehension of what it all means. What we call art is simply a gesture toward some authentic answer to these open questions, at once universal and intimately felt — questions aimed at the elemental truths of being alive, animated by a craving for beauty, haunted by the need to find a way of bearing our mortality. Without this elemental longing, without this authentic gesture, what is made is not art but something else — the kind of commodified craftsmanship Virginia Woolf indicted when she weighed creativity against catering.

The year he turned fifty, and a year before he gave his irreverent answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire, David Bowie (January 8, 1947–January 10, 2016) contemplated the soul of creativity in a television interview marking the release of his experimental drum’n’bass record Earthling — a radical departure from the musical style that had sprinkled the stardust of his genius upon the collective conscience of a generation, and a testament to Bowie’s unassailable devotion to continual creative growth.

Nested into the interview is his most direct advice to artists and the closest thing he ever formulated to a personal creative credo.

In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s splendid insistence that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Bowie reflects:

Never play to the gallery… Always remember that the reason that you initially started working is that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations — they generally produce their worst work when they do that.

Echoing Beethoven’s life-tested insight that though the true artist “may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun,” Bowie adds a mighty antidote to the greatest enemy of creative work — complacency:

If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.

Complement with John Lennon on creativity, Nick Cave on the relationship between art and mystery, Paul Klee on how an artist must be like a tree, and Wassily Kandinsky on the three responsibilities of the artist, then revisit Virginia Woolf’s account of the epiphany that revealed to her what the creative life means.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Nov 2022 | 5:11 pm(NZT)

The Art of Receiving: John Steinbeck on the True Meaning of Gratitude

“It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness.”


The Art of Receiving: John Steinbeck on the True Meaning of Gratitude

“It’s only when we demand that we are hurt,” Henry Miller observed when he weighed the delicate balance of giving and receiving. A demand is a metastasis of longing. Because longing is the defining feature of human life, learning to bear our longing without demanding is the beginning of healing.

Nothing is more salutary to the soul than that which comes unbidden and is received freely. And yet, paradoxically enough, it is in receiving that we most often trip up — for to receive is an act of tremendous trust and tremendous vulnerability. True gratitude has as its object not what is given but what is received. The art of receiving is therefore the precursor to any sense of gratitude — our deepest wellspring of thanks-giving.

That is what John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) explores in one of the myriad dazzling passages that strew The Log from the Sea of Cortez (public library) — his uncommonly insightful meditation on how to think better and see the pattern beneath the particulars.

John Steinbeck

With an eye to a friend so skillful at receiving that “everyone felt good” in giving to him — “a present, a thought, anything” — Steinbeck writes:

Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is a downright destructive and evil thing. One has only to remember some of our wolfish financiers who spend two-thirds of their lives clawing fortunes out of the guts of society and the latter third pushing it back. It is not enough to suppose that their philanthropy is a kind of frightened restitution, or that their natures change when they have enough. Such a nature never has enough and natures do not change that readily. I think that the impulse is the same in both cases. For giving can bring the same sense of superiority as getting does, and philanthropy may be another kind of spiritual avarice.

It is a countercultural notion, this indictment of the greed of generosity, especially in our culture of virtue-signaling and performative giving. But only by acknowledging this particular form of selfing can we begin to appreciate the beauty of its mirror-image in the art of receiving — an art truer and more tender, for it requires not an exercise of the ego but its exorcism.

Art by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

Steinbeck writes:

It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.

It requires a self-esteem to receive — not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez remains one of the finest things I have ever read. Complement this fragment with Seneca on gratitude and what it really means to be a generous human being, then revisit Steinbeck on love, the necessary contradictions of human nature, the difficult art of the friend breakup, and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech about what it means to be a writer.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Nov 2022 | 6:29 am(NZT)

Storytelling and the Art of Tenderness: Olga Tokarczuk’s Magnificent Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

“Tenderness is the most modest form of love. It is the kind of love that does not appear in the scriptures or the gospels, no one swears by it, no one cites it… It appears wherever we take a close and careful look at another being, at something that is not our ‘self.’”


“I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being,” James Baldwin observed as he offered his lifeline for the hour of despair. “I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”

When we do save each other, it is always with some version of the mightiest lifeline we humans are capable of weaving: tenderness — the best adaptation we have to our existential inheritance as “the fragile species.”

Like all orientations of the spirit, tenderness is a story we tell ourselves — about each other, about the world, about our place in it and our power in it. Like all narratives, the strength of our tenderness reflects the strength and sensitivity of our storytelling.

That is what the Polish psychologist turned poet and novelist Olga Tokarczuk explores in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Olga Tokarczuk by Harald Krichel

Tokarczuk recounts a moment from her early childhood that deeply moved her: Her mother, inverting Montaigne’s notion that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” told her small daughter that she missed her even before she was born — an astonishing gesture of love so total that it bends the arrow of time. Across the abyss of a lifetime, along the arrow of time that eventually shot through her mother’s life, Tokarczuk reflects:

A young woman who was never religious — my mother — gave me something once known as a soul, thereby furnishing me with the world’s greatest tender narrator.

Our present bind, Tokarczuk observes, is that the old narratives about who we are and how the world works are untender and clearly broken, but we are yet to find tender new ones to take their place. Observing that in our sensemaking cosmogony “the world is made of words” yet “we lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables,” she laments the tyranny of selfing that has taken their place:

We live in a reality of polyphonic first-person narratives, and we are met from all sides with polyphonic noise. What I mean by first-person is the kind of tale that narrowly orbits the self of a teller who more or less directly just writes about herself and through herself. We have determined that this type of individualized point of view, this voice from the self, is the most natural, human and honest, even if it does abstain from a broader perspective. Narrating in the first person, so conceived, is weaving an absolutely unique pattern, the only one of its kind; it is having a sense of autonomy as an individual, being aware of yourself and your fate. Yet it also means building an opposition between the self and the world, and that opposition can be alienating at times.

This optics of the self, the way in which the individual becomes “subjective center of the world,” is the defining feature of this most recent chapter of the history of our species. And yet everything around us reveals its illusory nature, for as the great naturalist John Muir observed, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Art by Arthur Rackham from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to her lifelong fascination with “the systems of mutual connections and influences of which we are generally unaware, but which we discover by chance, as surprising coincidences or convergences of fate, all those bridges, nuts, bolts, welded joints and connectors” — the subject of her Nobel-winning compatriot Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Love at First Sight” — Tokarczuk reflects on our creativity not as some separate and abstract faculty but as a fractal of the living universe:

We are all — people, plants, animals, and objects — immersed in a single space, which is ruled by the laws of physics. This common space has its shape, and within it the laws of physics sculpt an infinite number of forms that are incessantly linked to one another. Our cardiovascular system is like the system of a river basin, the structure of a leaf is like a human transport system, the motion of the galaxies is like the whirl of water flowing down our washbasins. Societies develop in a similar way to colonies of bacteria. The micro and macro scale show an endless system of similarities.

Our speech, thinking and creativity are not something abstract, removed from the world, but a continuation on another level of its endless processes of transformation.

We sever this dazzling indivisibility whenever we contract into what she calls “the uncommunicative prison of one’s own self” — something magnified in all the compulsive sharing on so-called social media with their basic paradigm of selfing masquerading as connection. Instead, she invites us to look “ex-centrically” and imagine a different story — one tasked with “revealing a greater range of reality and showing the mutual connections.” Amid a world riven by “a multitude of stories that are incompatible with one another or even openly hostile toward each other, mutually antagonizing,” accelerated by techno-capitalist media systems that prey on the greatest vulnerabilities of human nature, Tokarczuk reminds us that literature is also an invaluable tool of empathy — an antidote to the divisiveness so mercilessly exploited by our “social” media:

Literature is one of the few spheres that try to keep us close to the hard facts of the world, because by its very nature it is always psychological, because it focuses on the internal reasoning and motives of the characters, reveals their otherwise inaccessible experience to another person, or simply provokes the reader into a psychological interpretation of their conduct. Only literature is capable of letting us go deep into the life of another being, understand their reasons, share their emotions and experience their fate.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
Century-old art by the adolescent Virginia Frances Sterrett. (Available as a print and stationery cards.)

She calls for something beyond empathy, something achingly missing from our harsh culture of dueling gotchas — a literature of tenderness:

Tenderness is the art of personifying, of sharing feelings, and thus endlessly discovering similarities. Creating stories means constantly bringing things to life, giving an existence to all the tiny pieces of the world that are represented by human experiences, the situations people have endured and their memories. Tenderness personalizes everything to which it relates, making it possible to give it a voice, to give it the space and the time to come into existence, and to be expressed.

Echoing Iris Murdoch’s unforgettable definition of love as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real,” Tokarczuk adds:

Tenderness is the most modest form of love. It is the kind of love that does not appear in the scriptures or the gospels, no one swears by it, no one cites it. It has no special emblems or symbols, nor does it lead to crime, or prompt envy.

It appears wherever we take a close and careful look at another being, at something that is not our “self.”

Tenderness is spontaneous and disinterested; it goes far beyond empathetic fellow feeling. Instead it is the conscious, though perhaps slightly melancholy, common sharing of fate. Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time. Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and codependent on itself.

Literature is built on tenderness toward any being other than ourselves.

Complement with Ursula K. Le Guin on storytelling as a force of redemption, then revisit Toni Morrison’s superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the power of language.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Nov 2022 | 4:16 am(NZT)

How the Eel Almost Became America’s Thanksgiving Food

“At night, he came home with as many eels as he could well lift in one hand, which our people were glad of. They were fat & sweet.”


How the Eel Almost Became America’s Thanksgiving Food

We habitually underestimate just how much chance and choice converge to make us who we are, as individuals and as cultures.

In the midsummer of 1620, the Mayflower set sail from England for America with 102 desperate optimists aboard seeking refuge from religious persecution in the New World, along with about thirty crew. By the time it dropped anchor at Cape Cod ten grueling weeks later, the inhospitable conditions of New England winter and the hostility of the local tribes forced the pilgrims to remain aboard for weeks in their ramshackle floating hostel. Tuberculosis, pneumonia, and scurvy soon broke out among this small nation, captive and malnourished. By the time spring arrived, nearly half of them were dead. When the survivors finally ventured ashore in March, they knew nothing about where to hunt, which plants were safe to eat, or how to slake their thirst with potable water.

That is when they met Tisquantum — also known as Squanto — and their fate took a propitious turn.

Tisquantum returning one of the pilgrims’ lost children. Art from the 1922 children’s book Good Stories for Great Birthdays.

Patrik Svensson tells the story in The Book of Eels (public library) — that wondrous journey into the science and myth of Earth’s most mysterious creature:

A member of the Patuxet tribe, [Tisquantum] had been captured by the English years earlier, taken to Spain, and sold as a slave, before managing to escape to England, where he learned the language. Eventually, he boarded a ship back to North America, only to find that his entire tribe had been wiped out by an epidemic probably brought by the English.

And yet, despite the fate he and his people had suffered in colonial hands, he saw the individuals beyond the group identity and came to the pilgrims’ rescue — something a Christian might call turning the other cheek, and a rationalist might simply call kindness. Svensson writes:

One of the first things he did was gift them an armful of eels. After their very first meeting, Tisquantum went down to the river, and “at night, he came home with as many eels as he could well lift in one hand, which our people were glad of,” noted one of the pilgrims in a diary later sent back to England. “They were fat & sweet, he trod them out with his feete, and so caught them with his hands without any other Instrument.” It was a gift from God in their hour of need, the salvation they had never stopped praying for.

Before long, Tisquantum had taught the pilgrims how to catch eels and where to find them. He also gave them corn and taught them how to cultivate it; he showed them where they could find wild vegetables and fruits and advised them on how and where to hunt. Not least, he helped them communicate with the local natives and was key to negotiating the peace agreement that was pivotal to the lost Englishmen’s future in America.

Art from the world’s first color encyclopedia of marine life (1719), partway between natural history and myth. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

When the first anniversary of dropping anchor arrived in November 1621, the pilgrims made a holiday of it — the first original holiday of this seedling nation — and called it Thanksgiving: an expression of their gratitude for the generosity with which this new land had ultimately welcomed them, and for the lavish supply of fresh eel they had feasted on night after night.

With an eye to the myriad conspiracies of chance and choice, and to the silent biases that pock even the most grateful heart, Svensson reflects:

It would have made complete sense for the eel to have become an important figure in American mythology, a fat, shiny symbol of the promised land, the gift that sealed what was preordained. But that didn’t happen. Perhaps because the eel’s nature doesn’t lend itself well to solemn symbolism. Perhaps because it soon became associated with the simple eating habits of the poor rather than with feast days. Perhaps also because the gift had come from a native man.

For some reason, this gift from God to the early pilgrims has been all but erased from the grand narrative. The story of the colonization of North America is full of myths and legends, but the story of the eel isn’t one of them. On Thanksgiving, Americans eat turkey, not eel, and other animals — buffalo, eagles, horses — have been the ones to shoulder the symbolic weight of the patriotic narrative of the United States of America.

One of the most maddening facets of human nature is that, under the fetishism of self-reliance — itself a byproduct of the delusion of the separate self — we are always ambivalent about our saviors. Ungrudging gratitude may be one of the hardest moral triumphs for the human animal. In some parallel universe of possibility, there is sustainably fished eel on the Thanksgiving table and Tisquantum on a hundred-dollar bill.

But meanwhile, in this universe, we have the chance to tell an untold story over turkey.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Nov 2022 | 5:59 am(NZT)

The Poetic Science of the Aurora Borealis

“And now commenced a display which baffles all description.”


On the evening of February 19, 1852, a scientist at the New Haven station of the nascent telegraph witnessed something extraordinary:

A blue line appeared upon the paper, which gradually grew darker and larger, until a flame of fire followed the pen, and burned through a dozen thicknesses of the prepared paper. The paper was set on fire by the flame, and produced considerable smoke. The current then subsided as gradually as it came on, until it entirely disappeared, and was then succeeded by a negative current, which bleached instead of colored, the paper; this also gradually increased, until, as with the positive current, it burned the paper, and then subsided, to be followed by the positive current.

The early telegraph was an electro-chemical technology that used a current passing through chemically coated paper to record a message from a faraway station. Lightning storms and other electrical disturbances were a known interference — a current of normal electricity would emit a bright spark while passing from the stylus to the moistened paper, but it would not set it aflame and would produce no color.

This was something else entirely.

It came in waves of varying intensity all throughout the evening, interpolating between positive and negative current with each wave.

Scientists knew of only one phenomenon in nature that corresponds to this pattern: the Aurora Borealis.

Aurora Borealis, observed March 1, 1872, 9:25 P.M.
Aurora Borealis by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, 1872. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

More than two millennia earlier, despite never having traveled far enough north from his Mediterranean home to witness this spectacle of the higher latitudes, Aristotle had described the phenomenon in his book on meteorology. An even more detailed depiction comes to us from Seneca, also captive to the lower latitudes his whole life, who described the northern lights in his Natural Questions, calling them Chasmata — chasms, rifts, gapings — of the sky:

Like a crown encircling the inner part of the fiery sky, there is a recess like the open mouth of a cave… A stretch of the sky seems to have receded and, gaping open, displays flames deep down. These all come in many colors: some are a very intense red; some have a weak, pale flame; some have a bright light; some pulsate; some are a uniform yellow with no discharges or rays emerging… The sky is seen to burn, the glow of which is occasionally so high it may be seen amongst the stars themselves, sometimes so near the ground that it assumes the form of distant fire.

In 1865, a decade and a half after he published Moby-Dick, Herman Melville was moved to commemorate the peaceful disbanding of the Civil War armies with the lush symbolism of the northern lights:

AURORA BOREALIS
by Herman Melville

What power disbands the Northern Lights
   After their steely play?
The lonely watcher feels an awe
   Of Nature’s sway,
      As when appearing,
      He marked their flashed uprearing
In the cold gloom —
   Retreatings and advancings,
(Like dallyings of doom),
   Transitions and enhancings,
      And bloody ray.
The phantom-host has faded quite,
   Splendor and Terror gone —
Portent or promise — and gives way
   To pale, meek Dawn;
      The coming, going,
      Alike in wonder showing —
Alike the God,
   Decreeing and commanding
The million blades that glowed,
   The muster and disbanding —
      Midnight and Morn.

For as long as human animals have roamed the higher latitudes of the Northern hemisphere, the flaming dance of the sky has struck awe and wonder in the soul. But for the vast majority of the history of our species, it had no official name, appearing in various mythologies and early works of natural philosophy in various linguistic guises and poetic exultations.

Art from “L’aurore boréale” by Selim Lemström, 1886. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

The Aurora Borealis was christened by an improbable admirer — not Galileo, to whom the term is often misattributed, but the young French priest, philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Pierre Gassendi (January 22, 1592–October 24, 1655) — the first human being to witness the transit of another planet (Mercury) across the face of the Sun.

A lecturer in Aristotelean philosophy and an expert in sunspots — miniature blackenings of the Sun’s photosphere due to drops in surface temperature caused by magnetic flux — Gassendi had long been captivated by Aristotle’s description of the northern lights and yearned to see them for himself, to savor their magic and work out their science, suspecting a correlation between sunspot activity and aurora sightings.

In 1621, he set out to put himself in the path of wonder and headed north. Chance favored him — this was one of the most active periods of auroral activity ever recorded; beginning just a few years later, the northern lights would slip into a long coma, not to shine again for nearly a century.

Art by Anne Bannock from Seeking an Aurora by Elizabeth Pulford

What the 29-year-old Gassendi witnessed seemed nothing less than the work of some cosmic god. He took it upon himself to name the nameless wonder, and it was only fitting that it bear a divine name: He chose Aurora, after the Roman goddess of dawn, and Borealis, after Boreas — the Greek god of the North wind.

Reasoning that this phenomenon takes place high above ground and only appears near the cold polar regions, Gassendi deduced a cause kindred to that of parhelia, or sundogs — bursts of light that typically appear in pairs around 22° to the left and right of the Sun, caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere refracting sunlight.

While his hypothesis was not entirely correct, it was the first robust scientific effort to discern a cause, and the closest any human being had come to an explanation since the dawn of our species.

Art by Sophie Blackall. (Personal collection.)

It wasn’t until a century and a half after Gassendi’s death that the polymathic English “natural philosopher” Henry Cavendish — who lived in an epoch before the word scientist was coined — made measurable observations in 1790, estimating that aurora light is produced between 100 and 130 kilometers above ground. More than a century later, in 1902, the Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland performed an experiment with a magnetized model of Earth — a sphere known as terrella, Latin for “little Earth” — which he placed inside a vacuum chamber and showered with streams of the newly discovered electron. He watched with pleasure as the magnetic fields of the terrella steered the electrons toward its poles, illuminating the true cause of the northern lights — charged particles flowing through the gas of the upper atmosphere. It took more than half a century, until 1954, for actual electrons to be observed in the Aurora Borealis by detectors aboard a rocket launched into the polar skies.

Aurora Borealis from “Aurorae: Their Characters and Spectra” by John Rand Capron, 1879. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

And so it was pieced all together, this symphony of wonder generations in the composition: Auroras are caused by fluctuations in the Sun’s corona that send gusts of solar wind across the austere blackness of empty space, rippling through Earth’s magnetosphere. Magnetized by the solar wind, particles in the upper atmosphere above both poles — which is dominated by oxygen and nitrogen — grow excited, absorbing energy so that electrons jump from a lower to a higher state, or become ionized, losing an electron.

Because each element absorbs light from a different portion of the spectrum, and because its absorption pattern changes as atoms grow excited or ionized, we see bands of otherworldly light — the same electrochemistry by which neon lights work and television screens fluoresce. Oxygen — the dominant atmospheric gas — takes on the mid-range wavelengths of green (557.7 nm), slipping toward rose-red (630.0 nm) as it grows excited; ionized nitrogen colors the sky with the shorter wavelengths of blue and purple, while excited nitrogen blazes crimson. And so aurorae are primarily green, with swirls of pink and red toward the top, more prominent the more magnetic activity there is.

“Spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric” from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

During particularly ferocious magnetic storms, the range of auroral activity, known as the aurora oval, widens as Earth’s atmosphere expands, sending those luminous colors higher and higher into the sky and farther and farther away from the poles, so that aurorae become visible at lower latitudes. As the excited nitrogen and low-density oxygen rise with their rosy hues, aurorae seen in lower latitudes tend to be dominated by red rather than green — so much so that a Roman emperor had once dispatched an army to aid a colony seemingly in flames, only to discover an apparition in the sky.

In the late summer of 1859, aurorae blazed across the skies of New York and California, Jamaica and Rome — the product of the most intense geomagnetic storm in recorded history, known as the Carrington Event, after the British astronomer Richard Christopher Carrington, who observed the solar flare that sparked it; it was the first recorded observation of a solar flare — a dramatic eruption of electromagnetic radiation in a concerted spot of the Sun’s atmosphere, which foments ferocious solar wind.

Magnetograms of the Carrington Event recorded at the Greenwich Observatory (British Geological Survey)

Because photography was still young then, and because the grandeur of the aurora naturally belongs in the category of the unphotographable, what delivered the spectacle to those not lucky enough to have witnessed it were not images but lyrical narrative accounts — the mind’s eye, enchanted and rendered awestruck by the evocative power of words.

One particularly wonderful account, far surpassing any possible photograph in detail and nuance of image, appeared in a small-town paper in Alabama, doing for the aurora borealis what Annie Dillard did for the eclipse, or Virginia Woolf:

At 1 o’clock… the whole atmosphere to the South was filled with greenish white masses of light resembling smoke, from a rapidly burning fire, or cumulo stratus clouds in a state of rapid motion from west to east, for which indeed they were first taken. But they were perfectly transparent, small stars being plainly visible through the largest of them. They retained the appearance of clouds only a short time — soon collecting near the zenith and assuming more brilliant hues. And now commenced a display which baffles all description: the light gathering to a focus, assuming the most fantastical forms, exhibiting the most eccentric motions — dispersing and recollecting with a rapidity that was almost bewildering, and a beauty that cannot be described. Several times a scroll or wave of white light, like a flag, would roll away from the brightest of the foci… and slowly disappear…

On the horizon of the west was a bank of dark clouds, and where the arch came in contact with these, it was a deep red color; and indeed whenever and wherever a cloud, however small, appeared, there the light was of a deep red — where the sky was clear, pale green and white were the prevalent colors. The light was evidently behind and beyond the clouds, and the red color resembled the red of a cloudy sunset.

To the North the appearance was singular. The sky was perfectly clear, and of an intense metallic brilliancy, having a distinct greenish tinge; and though the source of the light was evidently in this quarter of the heavens no shapes or motions of light were visible there…

The light afforded by this aurora was so great, that small objets were distinctly visible at great distances. Fine newspaper print could be read in the open air [at night] and many persons mistaking it for daylight, arose and commenced their daily avocations before discovering their mistake. It nearly resembled the light of early dawn and threw no shadow. It continued, with varying brilliancy, till obscured by daylight.

What human beings have witnessed beyond the shallow reach of recorded history we shall never know, but we do know that a detailed description of a low-latitude aurora appears in the first chapter of the Biblical book of Ezekiel. In our own century, scientists have used historical records and modern tools to uncover that the Carrington Event was far from unique — our planet has long been spectator and subject to its star’s ionic dramas. In the last week of summer in 1770, an intense magnetic storm sent aurorae all the way to Japan. A century later, in early February 1872, another ferocious solar flare colored the skies of Egypt, the Caribbean, and even the southern portions of Africa with its swirling radiance. It is possible that Aristotle and Seneca did, after all, see aurorae first-hand.

Eyewitness sketch of an aurora seen in Japan in September 1770. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In consonance with Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s poetic meditation on the relationship between knowledge and mystery, I feel that the science of it — this work of immense forces across immense distances, this work of the human imagination across a lineage of minds thirsting for truth — only magnifies the magic of the celestial spectacle. Suddenly, we are plunged into a dazzling awareness of our cosmic origins and our connection to one another, each of us a link in the unbroken chain of time going back to Gassendi, back to the first human animal who looked up at the storm of color and was stilled with awe, back to the Big Bang that produced the particles roiling in the night sky. Whenever we gasp at an aurora, our lungs inhale molecules of air made of atoms forged in the first stars, and we are left wonder-smitten by reality — the only way worth living.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Nov 2022 | 10:23 am(NZT)

How We Co-Create and Recreate the World: Octavio Paz on Sor Juana, Poetry as Rebellion, and the Creative Collaboration Between Writers and Readers

“A work responds to the reader’s, not the author’s, questions.”


How We Co-Create and Recreate the World: Octavio Paz on Sor Juana, Poetry as Rebellion, and the Creative Collaboration Between Writers and Readers

All societies are both the creators of their myths and are created by them. All artists are the makers and remakers of our myths of meaning — myths we co-create whenever we engage with art. The best of them transmigrate across societies and epochs, naming what is difficult to name and difficult to bear, touching other lives — often lives wildly different from the artist’s — with that luminous longing for elemental truth that is the creative impulse in its purest form, the fundament of our shared humanity.

Octavio Paz (March 31, 1914–April 19, 1998) explores the legacy of one such artist in Sor Juana (public library) — his superb more-than-biography of the radical seventeenth-century Mexican nun, poet, playwright, philosopher, and composer.

Sor Juana

Like Sister Corita Kent, Juana Inés de la Cruz used the cloister as a crucible of creative insurrection, making unexampled art that stood up to the politics of her time and place, filling her convent cell with books, art, and scientific instruments. Like Sappho, she comes to us only in fragments across the abyss of entropy and erasure, most of her plays, essays, and other papers gone, all of her correspondence destroyed, only her poems surviving, and those all but forgotten for more than two centuries, between their last posthumous printing in 1725 and their rediscovery in 1940. In the wake of her death, she was rose from the posthumous page as “the Mexican phoenix,” celebrated as “the Tenth Muse” — a distinction originally Sappho’s. Long before Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman’s great-great-grandparents were born on European soil, Sor Juana was lauded as “the Poetess of America.”

Nested into Paz’s rigorous and loving study of Sor Juana is a broader meditation on the creative spirit and the relationship between those who make art and those who enjoy art, be it literature or song — a relationship entwines intents to shape not only the destiny of the art but the landscape of the society in which it lives.

With an eye to the paucity of surviving biographical detail on Sor Juana’s life, and to the understandable but limited and limiting human impulse to mine the private lives of artists for information presumed to further illuminate their public art, Paz writes:

It is clear that an author’s life and work are related, but the relation is never simple: the life does not entirely explain the work, nor does the work explain the life. There is something in the work that is not to be found in the author’s life, something we call creativity or artistic and literary invention.

That invention, Paz argues, is not the author’s own but a kind of co-creation process that invites and involves the reader:

The work shuts the author and opens to the reader. The author writes impelled by conscious and unconscious forces and objectives, but the sense of the work — and the pleasures and surprises we derive from the reading — never coincides exactly with those impulses and objectives. A work responds to the reader’s, not the author’s, questions. The reader stands between the work and the author. Once written, the work has a life of its own distinct from that of its author, a life granted by its successive readers.

Art by Ping Zhu for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting The New York Public Library.

That succession of readers spills into the collective we call society. Turning now to the particular art-form of poetry — a form that has always carried a society’s most rebellious and generative impulses toward resisting and revising the status quo — Paz writes:

To a writer’s life and work we must add a third term: society, history… It would be absurd to close our eyes to this elementary truth: poetry is a social, a historical, product. To ignore the relation between society and poetry would be as grave an error as to ignore the relation between a writer’s life and work. [But] in the same way that there are elements in art and poetry that cannot be reduced to psychological and biographical explanations, there are elements that cannot be reduced to historical and sociological explanation.

Thinking of Sor Juana but speaking to every enduring creative visionary, Paz observes that it is not enough to see a great artist’s work as a product of history — we must also see history as a product of their work. (James Baldwin — another example of such an artist — touched on this in his unforgettable proclamation that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” Artists are the vital destabilizing forces of the status quo, who shake the very structure of society — with all of its structural biases — and incline it toward a more evolved architecture of values.) Paz returns to the vital role the community of writers and readers plays in this recreation, shaping and reshaping the landscape of social permission:

A work exists not in isolation but in relation to other works, past and present, that are its models and its rivals… There is another, no less determinant, relationship: that of work to reader… In every society there is a system of prohibitions and sanctions: the domains of what can and cannot be done. There is another area, usually broader, that is also divided into do’s and don’ts: what can and cannot be said. Authorizations and prohibitions encompass a range of nuances that vary from society to society. Even so, they can be divided into two broad categories, the expressed and the implicit. The implicit prohibition is the more powerful; it is what is never voiced because it is taken for granted and therefore automatically and unthinkingly obeyed. The ruling system of repressions in each society is based upon this group of inhibitions that do not need to be monitored by consciousness.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a menacing prophecy about the age of publishing focus groups and “sensitivity readers,” which is the death of literature as art and the triumph of the book as market commodity, Paz writes:

In the modern world, the system of implicit authorizations and prohibitions exerts its influence on writers through their readers.

In a passage that reminds me of the deadly silence with which the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was met — a book of lush and daring sensuality, composed not only against convention but beyond the parameters of anything previously known — Paz adds:

An unread author is an author who is a victim of the worst kind of censorship, indifference — a censorship more effective than the Ecclesiastical Index.

Throughout history, poetry has regularly fallen out of favor in periods of turmoil, for it has always been a form of rebellion — something evident in the fact that in all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the poets are the first to be jailed and persecuted when society begins bubbling with uprising. Paz writes:

Poetry is not a genre in harmony with the modern world; its innermost nature is hostile or indifferent to the dogmas of modern times, progress and the cult of the future. Of course some poets have sincerely and passionately believed in progressive ideals, but their works say something quite different. Poetry, whatever the manifest content of the poem, is always a violation of the rationalism and morality of bourgeois society. Our society believes in history: newspapers, radio, television, the now; poetry, by its very nature, is atemporal.

Art by Violeta Lópiz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print, benefiting The New York Public Library.

Turning again to Sor Juana’s work as a lens on the broader picture, Paz observes that the most timeless poetry is made not only of its words but of the silence surrounding the words, which is “not the absence of meaning” but the opposite — the negative space contouring what cannot be said under the sanctions of its milieu. He writes:

Usually the author is a part of the system of tacit but imperative prohibitions that forms the code of the utterable in every age and society. Nevertheless, not infrequently, and almost always in spite of themselves, writers violate that code and say what cannot be said, what they and they alone must say. Through their voices speaks the other voice: the condemned voice, the true voice.

He returns to the role of the reader in the ongoing composting of ideas we call culture:

A work survives its readers; after a hundred or two hundred years it is read by new readers who impose on it new modes of reading and interpretation. The work survives because of these interpretations, which are, in fact, resurrections: without them there would be no work. The text transcends its own history only by being assessed within the context of a different history.

[…]

A society is defined as much by how it comes to terms with its past as by its attitude toward the future: its memories are no less revealing than its aims.

Complement Paz’s altogether magnificent Sor Juana with Audre Lorde on poetry as an instrument of change and Nabokov on what makes a good reader, then revisit Paz on the meaning of hope and the mightiest portal to change.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Nov 2022 | 5:01 am(NZT)

M.C. Escher on Creativity and Grasping the Largest Mystery Through the Immense Beauty of the Very Small

“What is that so-called reality; what is this theory other than a beautiful but primordially human illusion?”


M.C. Escher on Creativity and Grasping the Largest Mystery Through the Immense Beauty of the Very Small

Nothing shapes our experience of reality, and nothing limits it, more than our frames of reference. Every transcendent achievement of perspective is the product of a shift in the frame of reference, as is the hard-earned glory of maturity.

Few artists have recognized this more clearly and made of that recognition a more enchanting plaything than M.C. Escher (June 17, 1898–March 17, 1972).

Despite the staggering loneliness of his gift, Escher considered his work a “marvelous game” of letting thought penetrate “into the farthest reaches of so-called real space,” winged with the ultimate question:

What is that so-called reality; what is this theory other than a beautiful but primordially human illusion?

M.C. Escher: Self-Portrait in Spherical Mirror, 1935

He questioned our “rigid faith in our senses” — the sense-perception we take for the ultimate proof of reality, yet which has so often mislead us: the flatness of the Earth, the geocentric universe, the myriad self-referential subjectivities that have blinded us to the real reality. In consonance with the Nobel-winning quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr’s reckoning with subjective vs. objective reality, Escher observed:

All of our senses reveal only a subjective world to us; all we can do is think and possibly mean that therefore we can conclude the existence of an objective world.

For Escher, deducing an objective world was a matter of training our senses to pay closer and closer attention — a way of grasping the largest mystery by attending ever more acutely to the very small. A century before the bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer made her exquisite case for moss as a lens on attentiveness to wonder at all scales and years before the great nature writer Henry Beston (who inspired Rachel Carson, who inspired Escher) made his soulful case for the sacredness of smallness, the twenty-five-year-old Escher wrote in a letter:

I want to delight in the smallest of small things, a bit of moss 2 centimeters in diameter on a little piece of rock, and I want to try here what I have been wishing for so long, namely to copy these tiniest bits of nothing as accurately as possible just to realize how great they are. I’ve already started that but it is so dreadfully difficult. With your nose right on top of it, you see all of its beauty and all of its simplicity, but when you start drawing, only then do you realize how terribly complicated and shapeless that beauty really is.

M.C. Escher: Study (September, 1942)

Escher spent a lifetime translating this passionate devotion to the scales of delight into his perspective-shifting art. In a letter penned in his mid-fifties, he placed the essence of creativity in this fidelity to making the invisible visible, bridging subjective and objective reality in the gesture of generosity we call art:

With every artistic expression, whether it concerns music, literature, or the visual arts, it is first of all a question of sending a message to the outside world, that is to say, making a personal thought, a striking idea, an inner emotion visible to others in a sensual manner and this in such a way that the viewer does not remain uncertain about the creator’s intent.

Couple with Beethoven on creativity, then revisit the story of the refugee who revolutionized the mathematics of reality with the discovery of fractals and Ellen Bass’s poignant poem of perspective, “The Big Picture.”


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Nov 2022 | 2:51 pm(NZT)

Le Monde de la Mer: Stunning 19th-Century French Illustrations of the Wonders of the Sea

Dive into “the world of the sea in its luxury and its agitations.”


In 1866, the year the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology while working on his otherworldly illustrations of jellyfish, a kindred book appeared across the artificial divide of ecosystems that is the national border — a lavishly illustrated volume by the French naturalist and physician Christian Horace Benedict Alfred Moquin-Tandon, former Director of the French Academy of Sciences, published under the pseudonym Alfred Fredón three years after his sudden death.

Le Monde de la MerThe World of the Sea — took readers into a world then more mysterious than the Moon. The first underwater submersibles were still across the horizon of the next century. Rachel Carson was yet to invite the human imagination into the marine world with her pioneering poetic masterpiece Undersea. What shimmered and lurked beneath the blue veneer covering most of our planet was still the subject of mystery and myth, probed with science fiction and crude speculation.

Sea anemones. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

After eulogizing the author, the preface captures the spirit of his work:

Struck with admiration at the sight of the majestic painting of the ocean, touched by the magical spectacle of the life of the waters, the author paints the world of the sea in its luxury and its agitations.

Breaking waves. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

Inspired by his painting of breaking waves, Fredón commissioned the scientific artist Pierre Lackerbauer to illustrate the book with hundreds of intricate black-and-white etchings and two dozen dazzling color plates. From sea slugs to seagulls, from psychedelic lobsters to candy-colored anemones, from the development of jellyfish to the hatching of shorebirds, the vibrant illustrations eclipse photography in their ability to beckon the human imagination into the underwater wonderland — a place that still, even after all of our scientific probings and discoveries, holds some elemental mystery hinting at the meaning of life.

Bird development. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Algae. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

Some of the art is clearly influenced by Haeckel’s drawings of radiolarians, which so inspired Darwin.

Radiolarians. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

Others call to mind Willian Saville-Kent’s breathtaking illustrations of corals and anemones.

Coral. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Coral development. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

Radiating from the totality of them is a sense of exuberant wonder at the variousness of life on this improbable planet we are lucky to call home.

Sea flora. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Jellyfish. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Jellyfish development. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Sea cucumber. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Lima Tenera. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Sea slugs. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Annelids. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Lobster, crab, and shrimp. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Hermit crabs fighting. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Seagulls. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
Flying fish, albatross, and sea bass. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

Complement with these sensual drawings from the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures and some otherworldly life-forms from the coastal shallows, then savor these luscious botanical illustrations of terrestrial wonders from another French volume of the same era.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 16 Nov 2022 | 8:58 am(NZT)

Nature Is Always Listening: The Science of Mushrooms, Music, and How Sound Waves Stimulate Mycelial Growth

What playing music has to do with the happiness of the forest.


Nature Is Always Listening: The Science of Mushrooms, Music, and How Sound Waves Stimulate Mycelial Growth

Fungi are the evolutionary cardinals of the Earth — the first to conquer it and the last to inherit it, composing the living substratum beneath every forest and every field and every backyard ecosystem. Each cubic inch of mycelium compresses eight miles of fine filaments folded unto themselves — the original superstrings of this terrestrial universe. Wildly unlike us, they are inseparable from our creaturely inheritance. Since the dawn of our adolescent species, they have been touching our cuisine and our consciousness in ever-evolving ways, the underlying mystery of which we are only just beginning to unravel.

Art by Arthur Rackham from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In the early 2000s, a series of groundbreaking studies began revealing yet another facet of that mystery — the way mushrooms respond to sound, despite having no auditory organs. One [PDF] found that high-frequency sounds inhibit spore generation and mycelial growth. Another [PDF] affirmed the correlation from the other side, finding that low-frequency sound waves stimulate mycelial growth.

The aptitudes and abilities of every organism — ours included — are puppeteered by evolutionary adaptation. This means the curious relationship between sound vibration and mycelial growth must confer some substantive evolutionary advantage upon mushrooms, honed over the eons.

Master-mycologist Paul Stamets, author of the millennial bible Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (public library), set out to solve the enigma.

Amanita muscaria from “Atlas des Champignons Comestibles et Vénéneux,” 1891. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

In an episode of musician Matt Whyte’s altogether wonderful podcast Sing for Science podcast, Stamets offers a possible — and deliciously plausible — hypothesis.

In that peculiar and recurring way indigenous wisdom has of anticipating the discoveries of science, the folkloric traditions of many first nations across Europe, North America, Japan, and Russia hold that lightning strikes mushrooms more readily than other organisms. Stamets observes that we now know this to be true in measurable ways that contour a measurable evolutionary advantage — the 50,000 volts of electricity a log incurs when struck by lightning greatly stimulates the yield of the shiitake mushrooms growing on it.

This is where Stamets’s deduction gets interesting: Before lightning strikes, thunder sounds — a rolling tide of low-frequency waves unspooling from the horizon. Having had hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary training and triumph by harnessing the elements and the environment, mushrooms would want something to awaken them to the impending rain event in order to get ready to absorb the water and electricity so beneficial to their propagation. Low-frequency sound waves, under this hypothesis, act as a warning bell — a mycelial clarion call for duty.

Satan’s bolete (Rubroboletus satanas) from Atlas des Champignons Comestibles et Vénéneux, 1891. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

Stamets reflects on the deeper undertones of this interdependence:

Nature is always listening via mycelium. Mycelium is like strings on a violin, strings on a piano, strings on a guitar — these are filaments that are sensitive to vibrations.

Sensing these low-frequency sound waves, the mycelium begins “responding with joyous, bountiful nutrients” — compounds that nourish not just the fruiting body of the mushroom above, but the entire forest ecosystem — which, as we now know (thanks to pioneering forester Suzanne Simard, who appeared in the inaugural episode of Sing for Science), is undergirded by a complex mycelial communication network carrying simple electrical and chemical signals between trees and other plants. The healthier the mycelium, the happier the canopy, and the more plentiful the flowers and berries beneath it.

Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) from Atlas des Champignons Comestibles et Vénéneux, 1891. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

Returning to the consanguinity between science and music the show celebrates, Stamets reflects:

People coming together and celebrating with music: nature is responding with the mycelial networks being invigorated and inducing upchannel nutrients benefitting the commons.

What an astonishing world we live in — a world in which, as the poetic naturalist John Muir observed epochs before our science, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Complement with cellist Zoë Keating reading and reflecting on Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mushrooms” from The Universe in Verse — a kindred celebration of science through the lens of poetry, with a side of music — then revisit Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s influential illustrated studies of mushrooms.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


newsletter

The Marginalian has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Source: Brain Pickings | 14 Nov 2022 | 11:39 am(NZT)











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