“At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe,” William James wrote in the first years of the twentieth century as he considered the shifting place of spirituality in a science-illuminated world. “Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether?”
For those of us who stand with Simone de Beauvoir on the question of religion and take to poet Diane Ackerman’s answer to spirituality,there is hardly a lovelier gospel than “The Faith of a Naturalist” by John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) — one of the dozen exquisite pieces in his 1920 collection Accepting the Universe: Essays in Naturalism (public library | public domain).
Two generations after the young Emerson delivered his rousing Harvard Divinity School address about nature and its echo in human nature as the only true religion, which led Harvard to ban him from campus for thirty years, the elderly Burroughs — a self-anointed “naturist” by creed — writes:
To say that man* is as good as God would to most persons seem like blasphemy; but to say that man is as good as Nature would disturb no one. Man is a part of Nature, or a phase of Nature, and shares in what we call her imperfections. But what is Nature a part of, or a phase of? — and what or who is its author? Is it not true that this earth which is so familiar to us is as good as yonder morning or evening star and made of the same stuff? — just as much in the heavens, just as truly a celestial abode as it is? Venus seems to us like a great jewel in the crown of night or morning. From Venus the earth would seem like a still larger jewel. The heavens seem afar off and free from all stains and impurities of earth; we lift our eyes and our hearts to them as to the face of the Eternal, but our science reveals no body or place there so suitable for human abode and human happiness as this earth. In fact, this planet is the only desirable heaven of which we have any clue.
Nearly a century before NASA’s Kepler telescope discovered the first known potentially habitable world in another solar system, Burroughs posits that “innumerable other worlds exist in the abysses of space” and considers our conflicted fallibility, which is both part of our humanity and part of our divinity. Drawing on his lifelong devotion to the consolations of the cosmic perspective, he writes:
It is not until we treat man as a part of nature — as a product of the earth as literally as are the trees — that we can reconcile these contradictions. If we could build up a composite man out of all the peoples of the earth… he would represent fairly well the God in nature.
In a sentiment his twenty-first-century counterpart — the wildlife ecologist and ornithologist J. Drew Latham — would echo in his lyrical reflection on nature as worship, Burroughs adds:
Communing with God is communing with our own hearts, our own best selves, not with something foreign and accidental. Saints and devotees have gone into the wilderness to find God; of course they took God with them, and the silence and detachment enabled them to hear the still, small voice of their own souls, as one hears the ticking of his own watch in the stillness of the night. We are not cut off, we are not isolated points; the great currents flow through us and over us and around us, and unite us to the whole of nature… The language of devotion and religious conviction is only the language of soberness and truth written large and aflame with emotion.
Defining religion as “a spiritual flowering” that can bloom in any bosom, Burroughs writes:
A man is not saved by the truth of the things he believes, but by the truth of his belief — its sincerity, its harmony with his character… Religion is an emotion, an inspiration, a feeling of the Infinite, and may have its root in any creed or in no creed.
A generation after the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” Burroughs observes:
Men of science do well enough with no other religion than the love of truth, for this is indirectly a love of God. The astronomer, the geologist, the biologist, tracing the footsteps of the Creative Energy throughout the universe — what need has he of any formal, patent-right religion? Were not Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and Lyell, and all other seekers and verifiers of natural truth among the most truly religious of men? Any of these men would have gone to hell for the truth — not the truth of creeds and rituals, but the truth as it exists in the councils of the Eternal, and as it is written in the laws of matter and of life.
Echoing Thoreau’s declamation that “every walk is a sort of crusade,” he adds:
Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance… There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants. The beauty of natural religion is that you have it all the time; you do not have to seek it afar off in myths and legends, in catacombs, in garbled texts, in miracles of dead saints or wine-bibbing friars. It is of to-day; it is now and here; it is everywhere. The crickets chirp it, the birds sing it, the breezes chant it, the thunder proclaims it, the streams murmur it, the unaffected man lives it. Its incense rises from the plowed fields, it is on the morning breeze, it is in the forest breath and in the spray of the wave. The frosts write it in exquisite characters, the dews impearl it, and the rainbow paints it on the cloud. It is not an insurance policy underwritten by a bishop or a “priest; it is not even a faith; it is a love, an enthusiasm, a consecration to natural truth.
An epoch before W.H. Auden — the son of a physicist and the survivor of two world wars — could write of “stars that do not give a damn” in one of his most devastatingly beautiful and humanistic poems, Burroughs considers what many call “Providence,” but we might equally call chance. In place of the narcissistic self-delusion embedded in all notions of a god dispensing personal partialities, Burroughs celebrates the sober transcendence of accepting an impartial universe:
There is no special Providence. Nature sends the rain upon the just and the unjust, upon the sea as upon the land. We are here and find life good because Providence is general and not special.
Life is here because it fits itself into the scheme of things… We find the world good to be in because we are adapted to it, and not it to us.
As every era takes its science for the beacon that signals the end of ignorance, Burroughs reflects on how the scientific revelations of his time — a time when we still scoffed at the existence of galaxies beyond our own, had no knowledge of DNA or tectonic plates or Pluto, and considered ourselves the only conscious animal — are breaking apart the old edicts of religion to release a deeper and truer spirituality within:
In our day we read the problem of Nature and God in a new light, the light of science, or of emancipated human reason, and the old myths mean little to us. We accept Nature as we find it, and do not crave the intervention of a God that sits behind and is superior to it. The self-activity of the cosmos suffices… We accept the bounty of the rain, the sunshine, the soil, the changing seasons, and the vast armory of non-living forces, and from them equip or teach ourselves to escape, endure, modify, or ward off the destructive and non-human forces that beset our way. We draw our strength from the Nature that seems and is so regardless of us; our health and wholeness are its gifts.
We have life on these terms… Rain brings the perils of rain, fire brings the perils of fire, power brings the perils of power… Unmixed good is a dream; unmixed happiness is a dream; perfection is a dream; heaven and hell are both dreams of our mixed and struggling lives.
Now here is a faith a person of warmth and wakefulness can get behind:
The naturalist or naturist… sees the cosmic forces only; he sees nothing directly mindful of man, but man himself; he sees the intelligence and beneficence of the universe flowering in man; he sees life as a mysterious issue of the warring elements; he sees human consciousness and our sense of right and wrong, of truth and justice, as arising in the evolutionary sequence, and turning and sitting in judgment upon all things; he sees that there can be no life without pain and death; that there can be no harmony without discord; that opposites go hand in hand; that good and evil are inextricably mingled; that the sun and blue sky are still there behind the clouds, unmindful of them; that all is right with the world if we extend our vision deep enough; that the ways of Nature are the ways of God if we do not make God in our own image, and make our comfort and well-being the prime object of Nature… He that would save his life shall lose it — lose it in forgetting that the universe is not a close corporation, or a patented article, and that it exists for other ends than our own. But he who can lose his life in the larger life of the whole shall save it in a deeper, truer sense.
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.
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 May 2022 | 9:29 am(NZT)
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timeless meditation on living with presence. “Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s,” Seneca exhorted two millennia earlier as he offered the Stoic balance sheet for time spent, saved, and wasted, reminding us that “nothing is ours, except time.”
Time is all we have because time is what we are — which is why the undoing of time, of time’s promise of itself, is the undoing of our very selves.
In the dismorrowed undoing of 2020 — as Zadie Smith was calibrating the limitations of Stoic philosophy in a world suddenly time-warped by a global quarantine, suddenly sobered to the perennial uncertainty of the future — loss beyond the collective heartache besieged the miniature world of my sunny-spirited, largehearted friend and Caldecott-winning children’s book maker Sophie Blackall. She coped the way all artists cope, complained the way all makers complain: by making something of beauty and substance, something that begins as a quickening of self-salvation in one’s own heart and ripples out to touch, to salve, maybe even to save others — which might be both the broadest and the most precise definition of art.
One morning under the hot shower, Sophie began making a mental list of things to look forward to — a lovely gesture of taking tomorrow’s outstretched hand in that handshake of trust and resolve we call optimism.
As the list grew and she began drawing each item on it, she noticed how many were things that needn’t wait for some uncertain future — unfussy gladnesses readily available in the now, any now. A century after Hermann Hesse extolled “the little joys” as the most important habit for fully present living, Sophie’s list became not an emblem of expectancy but an invitation to presence — not a deferral of life but a celebration of it, of the myriad marvels that come alive as soon as we become just a little more attentive, a little more appreciative, a little more animated by our own elemental nature as “atoms with consciousness” and “matter with curiosity.”
Sophie began sharing the illustrated meditations on her Instagram (which is itself a rare island of unremitting delight and generosity amid the stream of hollow selfing we call social media) — each part record of personal gladness, part creative prompt. Delight begets delight — people began sending her their responses to these prompts: unbidden kindnesses done for neighbors, unexpected hobbies taken up, and oh so many sweet strange faces drawn on eggs.
A slipstream of tomorrows hence, her list became Things to Look Forward to: 52 Large and Small Joys for Today and Every Day (public library) — a felicitous catalogue partway between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and poet Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, every page of it radiant with the warmth and wonder that make life worth living and mark everything Sophie makes.
You can relish a rainbow and a cup of tea, sunrise and a flock of birds, a cemetery walk and a friend’s newborn, the first blush of wildflowers in a patch of dirt and the looping rapture of an old favorite song. You can’t tidy up the White House, but you can tidy up that neglected messy corner of your home; you can’t mend a world, but you can mend the hole in the polka-dot pocket of your favorite coat. They are not the same thing, but they are part of the same thing, which is all there is — life living itself through us, moment by moment, one broken beautiful thing at a time.
Sophie writes in the preface:
I have always been a cheerful sort of person, able to find the silver lining in just about any cloud, but 2020 was a son-of-a-cumulonimbus. There was the pandemic, of course, which knocked us all sideways. Like most people, I tried to remain hopeful, counting my blessings, grateful to be alive when so many were dying. But also like most people, I was full of anxiety and fear and grief and uncertainty. My partner, Ed, and I worried about bills, fretted about my aging parents, and missed our kids, who were living away from home. Deciding to downsize, we moved out of the apartment we had happily rented for ten years with our blended family, the longest either of us had ever lived anywhere. We canceled our wedding, because we knew we couldn’t get married without our loved ones. Then in the fall, Nick, the dear, queer father of my children, died in an accident on the other side of the world. The thunderclouds really closed in then, and for a while I struggled to find any rays of hope. I almost lost sight of beauty and wonder and delight.
With an eye to the dangerous seductions of nostalgia — that longing not for a bygone time but for the bygone selves and certitudes that time contained — she adds:
I have often found myself romanticizing the Before Times, when we could travel the world and hug our friends and shake hands with strangers, but I have come to the conclusion that it’s better to look forward: to gather the things we’ve learned and use our patience and perseverance and courage and empathy to care for each other and to work toward a better future for all people. To look forward to things like long-term environmental protection and racial justice; equal rights and an inclusive society; free health care and equitable education; an end to poverty, hunger, and war. But we can also look forward to everyday things that will buoy our spirits and make us laugh and help us feel alive and that will bring others comfort and hope.
Tucked between the quiet joys of painting on pebbles and rereading a favorite passage from a favorite book and enfolding a loved one in a simple hug is the unfailing consolation of the cosmic perspective and its simplest, most enchanting guise, which the visionary Margaret Fuller reverenced, a century and a half earlier amid a world torn by revolutions and economic collapse, as “that best fact, the Moon.”
In the twenty-first entry, devoted to the full Moon, Sophie writes:
Wherever we are in the world, we see the same moon. It’s the same moon earliest humans would have seen, waxing and waning, rising and setting. Depending on where we were thousands of years ago, we would look to a full moon to mark time, to tell us when to plant corn, when to lay the rice to dry, and when to expect the ducks back. Now we look to the moon and marvel that men have traveled there in unlikely contraptions and actually set foot on its surface. It is our stepping-stone to the vast universe, and looking at a full moon can make us feel very small and very young. But it can also remind us to make the most of our time here on earth, to pop corn and throw rice and watch for ducks.
What makes the book so wondrous is that each seemingly mundane thing on the list shimmers with an aspect of the miraculous, each fragment of the personal opens into the universal, each playful wink at life grows wide-eyed with poignancy.
In the thirtieth entry, titled “Clean Laundry” and illustrated with a stack of neatly folded grey T-shirts, Sophie writes:
I tend to put off washing clothes until the last possible day, when I’m reduced to leggings with holes and the mustard top that inspires people to ask if I’m feeling OK, but clean laundry means a whole closet of possibilities. I can dress like a nineteenth-century French farmer or an Edwardian ghost or a deckhand on a whaler off Nantucket. Actually, those are pretty much my three options, but there are many subtle variations.
My clothes are pre-owned, unruly, and difficult to fold, but my partner wears a uniform. Not the kind with epaulets or creased slacks or his name embroidered on his chest, but a deliberate, self-selected uniform. Ed is a playwright and a teacher, and he heeds the advice of Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Once a year, he purchases six gray T-shirts and a dozen pairs of black socks and multiples of carefully chosen, unremarkable shirts and pants. On laundry day, his neatly folded piles of clean clothes are so dear and familiar they put a lump in my throat.
Pulsating through the book, through the list, through the life is the one thing that saves us all: love — the love of partners and of friends, of children and of flowers, of books and music and list-making and this whole improbable living world. Indeed, the entire book is one extended love letter to life itself, composed of the miniature, infinite loves that animate any given life.
In entry №37, titled “Falling in Love,” Sophie writes:
I met my husband, Nick, when I was twenty-one, and we moved in together before the year was out. We got married when I was twenty-five, and I had my first child at twenty-six. But I didn’t fall in love, not properly, until I was thirty-six. And it wasn’t with my husband. It wasn’t that Nick and I didn’t love each other. We did. We were best friends. He could play “My Funny Valentine” on his teeth and make anything out of nothing: a 1930s-style playhouse, a shirt out of a vintage tablecloth, Halloween costumes that made the news. He had a blinding temper, but he was as funny as he was angry, so I laughed at least as much as I cried. When we met, he thought he was 5 percent gay. It turned out he was 5 percent straight. But that was enough to make two excellent children, and we thought we were happy.
Days with young children can pass by in a blur of drop-offs and pickups, bath time and bedtime, Hot Wheels and carrot sticks and Shrinky Dinks. If you’re in love with your partner I can imagine finding moments to notice each other, managing, even through the blur, to see one another clearly. But if you’re not sure, then you can become kind of blurry yourself.
Later, when I met Ed, the man I would fall in love with, I was still a bit blurry, but I saw him in distinct detail. I noticed everything: his beautiful profile, his generous ears, his kind eyes. The way he shoved his T-shirt sleeve up on his handsome shoulder as he talked. His heartbreakingly neat handwriting. The way he was always reading, even when he was walking down the street, underlining without breaking stride. The way he carried everything in a stack: book, extra book, notebook, pen, phone, as though he’d never heard of bags. The way he followed a recipe and put all the ingredients in little bowls. The way his tongue stuck out when he chopped onions or dribbled a basketball or tied a child’d shoe. The way he made all the babies laugh. The way he made me laugh. The way he made my hands tremble.
And I noticed the way he noticed me too. He saw me more clearly than anyone had, ever before.
And bit by bit, I realized that I’d previously had no idea, no idea on earth, what it was to be in love and to be loved in return. Those were heady days. Fourteen years later, they still are. The point is, of course, that you can look forward to falling in love with the love of your life, day after day. If you haven’t found love yet, or found it and lost it, then it can find you, perhaps when you least expect it.
Complement Things to Look Forward to, to which neither screen nor synthesis do service, with Sophie’s splendid animation of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Dirge Without Music” — a sort of mirror-image counterpart to this elemental awareness that our time, finite and savage with creative force, is all we have — then revisit her illustrated celebration of our shared world.
Illustrations courtesy of Sophie Blackall
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.
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 May 2022 | 2:27 pm(NZT)
“And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” wondered Whitman two years before he wrote a manual on “manly health and training” and two decades before he recovered from his paralytic stroke with a rigorous exercise regimen in the gymnasium of the wilderness.
But this natural equivalence, as obvious as it was to Whitman and as evident as the neurophysiology of consciousness is making it in our own epoch — was opaque, even obscene, for much of human history.
The world’s first known book on exercise was written almost exactly two millennia ago, sometime in the 220s, by the Greek philosopher and teacher Flavius Philostratus, then in his fifties. In On Gymnastics, he argued that athletic training is an art and “a form of wisdom,” on par with the other arts, no less beautiful or substantive than poetry or music. His treatise was in part an act of resistance to the wave of oppression and erasure sweeping in with the new regime of Roman rule and the advent of Christianity, which was beginning to eradicate the ancient Greek culture of Olympic Games and casual athletics, of public bathhouses and gymnasia.
Under Christian doctrine, the body was too sinful an instrument to be afforded public celebration or private homilies. The cerebral solemnity of the cathedral replaced the joyful physicality of the gymnasium, where crowds had once gathered as much to tone their bodies as to hone their minds on Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy lectures. (The one place where Christianity and ancient Greek culture converged was that women were not permitted to compete in the Olympic Games or enter the gymnasium — even though the athletic Plato, outlining the laws of civilization in his last and longest dialogue, decreed that “women, both young and old, should exercise… together with the men” — and, to this day, women are not permitted to sing in the Vatican choir or hold major leadership positions in the Catholic Church.)
And so it is that the notion of exercise fell out of the popular imagination for a millennium. The word itself did not enter the English language until the fourteenth century, when it was originally used in the context of animal farming and husbandry, meaning “to remove restraint.” Like the etymological evolution of “to lose,” “to exercise” came to encompass other contexts beyond the literal and the physical: one could exercise restraint, or altruism, or caution. But not one’s body — not yet.
And then, in the sixteenth century, while roaming the ruins of Greek and Roman gymnasia, an Italian physician named Girolamo Mercuriale (September 30, 1530–November 8, 1606) took it upon himself “to restore to the light the art of exercise, once so highly esteemed, and now plunged into deepest obscurity and utterly perished.” Far ahead of his time on both the scale of a lifetime and the scale of civilization, Mercuriale was only twenty-two when, writing a treatise on parenting, he made a passionate case against the prevalent use of wet nurses, insisting instead that breastfeeding by mothers made for healthier and happier children. His work inspired the world’s first formal proposal for physical education in school curricula, made by the English educator on whom Shakespeare modeled the schoolmaster in Love’s Labor Lost.
But Mercuriale’s most lasting legacy was the 1573 book De Arte Gymnastica, or The Art of Exercise. (Incidentally, in my native Bulgarian, the academic term for gym class translates verbatim to “physical art.”) On its pages — writing in an elaborate form of medieval Latin that only a handful of scholars can translate today — Mercuriale resolved:
I have taken as my province to restore to the light the art of exercise, once so highly esteemed, and now plunged into deepest obscurity and utterly perished… Why no one else has taken this on, I dare not say. I know only that this is a task of both maximum utility and enormous labor.
If there is one person in the modern world who can reinvigorate Mercuriale’s enormous unfinished labor and bridge the physical, the philosophical, and the poetic — bridge Whitman and Warhol, Plato and Peloton, Kafka and Curie, Tennessee Williams and Serena Williams; bridge the “immediate bodily now” of exercise with “the wisdom of the past that had faded from living memory” — it is Bill Hayes. And so he does, in Sweat: A History of Exercise (public library) — an expedition, both existential and historical, spanning two thousand years and three continents, exploring “how the arts of exercise were invented, lost, and rediscovered,” raising questions about what distinguishes exercise from practice, labor, or sports; about whether, like art forms and literary genres and languages, there are “certain forms of exercise that are similarly endangered or have already gone extinct — unrecorded, undescribed”; questions like:
Do you choose your form of exercise, or does it choose you?
At the heart of Mercuriale’s work, written in a world of pre-scientific almost-medicine, was his exultant fascination with “how utterly mysterious — and therefore miraculous — the human body could be,” as Hayes puts it four and a half centuries later, animated by the same exultant fascination as he undertakes his biography of an idea: this ancient yet perennially strange idea that our lives unfold inside bodies in motion across space and time, dragging mind and spirit along for the ride. What emerges is a lovely fusion of the scholarly and the sensual, the personal and the universal, the playful and the poignant, radiant with Hayes’s delight in the elegant machinery of our bodies and the minds they carry — that transcendent place where physiology and psychology converge to produce something best described as spiritual.
A history of exercise is not really — or certainly not only — a history of the body. It is, equally, perhaps even primarily, a history of the mind — of will, desire, self-discipline — for one cannot get exercise without an intentional wish, a motivation, a reason, to do so.
Just as neuroscience is now revealing how somatic feeling might have given rise to complex consciousness, and not the other way around, Hayes follows evolutionary theory to its pleasantly unsettling intimation that the athletic use of the body may have fomented the development of brain size and cognitive capacity in early humans, and not the other way around.
To reveal the evolutionary and cultural history of the body as so deeply intertwined with the mind is to face afresh our limited and limiting standard model of intelligence. With an eye to Plato, who believed that the body and the mind should be harmonized and cultivated with equal devotion, he writes:
As one can see most obviously in gifted athletes and performers, the body itself can be a source of knowledge — coordination, grace, agility, stamina, skill — both intuitive and learned. Indeed, there are a rare few who might be called Einsteins of the body — geniuses at inventing, expressing, and employing movement. Is that not what the choreographer Mark Morris is? Or Serena Williams?
Woven into the cultural history is Hayes’s personal history — growing up with five sisters and a hyperathletic father who had once been captain of the West Point swim team; learning boxing at a gym that had once been a used bookstore he frequented with his partner until his sudden death of a heart attack, young and strong, in the middle of the night in their bed in San Francisco; starting his life over in New York, where he becomes one of the city’s foremost street photographers and falls in love again — with the irreplaceable Oliver Sacks, whom Hayes memorialized in his splendid previous book and whose loving memory haunts this one, particularly the chapters on swimming. But even Hayes’s bereavement — which occasioned his break with exercise after a lifetime of devotion, which in turn occasioned his interest in the history of how the body and the soul entwine in the act of exercise — is radiant with love:
This whole phase, this breakup that exercise and I had, started not long after I lost Oliver, who died at eighty-two in August 2015. We used to swim together two or three times a week — usually a mile-long swim at a nearby pool—sharing a lane and often splitting a weekly session with a swim coach. We swam wherever we could — in cold mountain lakes, in salty seas, and in New York’s overchlorinated public pools. We swam at elegant hotels in London and Iceland, Jerusalem and San Francisco. We went scuba diving in Curaçao and St. Croix. One of the funniest memories I have is of swimming with Oliver in the huge public pool in Central Park on a steamy hot summer night — so hot that the pool was jammed with swimmers, kids, families, New Yorkers. The few lifeguards on deck were frantically trying to impose some order, keeping boys from cannonballing or dive-bombing, their whistles blaring above the din. But it was a lost cause, more like swimming in Times Square. And there in the middle of it all was Oliver, half-blind but indomitable, trying to do laps as I swam right beside him, his stressed-out bodyguard.
Hayes approaches his history of exercise with the same total and indomitable devotion, diving as ardently into archives as into mountain lakes, trailing rare book librarians and training with boxing champions. Along the way, he encounters a cast of wondrous characters, dead and alive: an elderly retired schoolteacher in Kansas City with one good eye and the excellent name Miss Irene Blasé, who spent years translating Mercuriale’s works into English for the first time, four hundred years after they were written, and died at ninety a year before her labor was published; an archivist at the Academy of Medicine in East Harlem, part “twenty-first century Minerva” and part dandelion with her tall slight frame “crowned by a nimbus of pewter gray,” who shepherds Hayes’s first encounter with Mercuriale’s original work in a rare surviving volume “the weight of a small dumbbell or a large human brain”; a very English elderly historian of medicine and former Cambridge don “with the aspect of a majestic bird” and the excellent name Dr. Vivian Nutton, who rings six-hundred-pound church bells for exercise; a very French elderly scholar of Mercuriale’s work, obsessed with American pop comics and the question of what it means to have a body, who had been raised Catholic, then traveled to India to study yoga and meditation with the masters and to America for encounter groups and primal scream therapy; legendary chef Alice Waters, who tells him during a chance encounter in Rome that she wakes up at 7 each morning and goes for a 45-minute walk no matter where she is and no matter the weather — her miniature act of resistance to humanity’s lost association between “exercise and manual work, exercise and nature”; Ruth Bader Ginsburg who, in her eighties, staggers him with the matter-of-fact report that she does twenty push-ups every day; an enormously tall man with long hair and a bushy beard, who looks like a time-traveler from the Middle Ages and who hand-delivers to him, at the majestic redwood reading table of a French library, the three-foot rare book he had voyaged there to see.
Over and over, he perseveres over the militant boredom of the bureaucrats who are so often the keepers of the keys to the reliquary of culture, so often more wardens than stewards of scholarship. The archetype culminates in an apathetic French public librarian who, looking down at the printout of his research query, looks up at him with sour skepticism and issues the bored indictment Why? before giving him vague directions to some other office. (There is hardly a burn more painful to your research passions than a librarian’s imperious dismissal of your query — I say this with the scorched surety of both a frequent archive dweller and the daughter of a defected librarian.)
Walking the seemingly infinite empty corridors of the Parisian public library and getting nowhere, Hayes thinks about Aristotle’s reckoning with the physically fatiguing effects of infinity, then distracts himself from “the vaguely existential meaninglessness” of his project by making the act of walking itself part of the investigation. (This might be what separates great minds from lesser minds, or perhaps just artists from non-artists — what occasions boredom or frustration in some occasions curiosity and a quickening of creativity in others.)
An epoch after Nietzsche contemplated the relationship between walking and creativity and a generation after Thomas Bernhard observed that “there is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking,” Hayes details the embodied poetics of our most primal propulsion:
One might consider walking the simplest of exercises. But this is hardly so, as someone who has to regain the ability to walk would certainly know. Some two dozen major muscles of the lower body are involved in every cycle of walking — a cycle being the split — second from the contact of one foot on the ground to the next contact of the same foot. And far more is happening than simply forward locomotion. A physical therapist once put it to me this way: “Think of walking as a series of aborted falls.” The muscles of the hips, legs, and feet are just as involved in keeping one from collapsing as they are in keeping one moving. The hamstrings — the long powerful muscles behind the legs — are chiefly responsible here. They reach their peak of activity as they “arrest movement” at the hip joint at the moment the heel strikes the ground. The quadriceps femoris — the bundle of four muscles otherwise known as the thigh — then begin to contract to control the load being imposed on the knee joint by the body.
But no poetry of motion has reverberated through the hallways of history and the human bodymind more powerfully than walking amplified. “Running is supreme,” Mercuriale had declaimed in his treatise, and so Hayes picks up the declamation as both spiritual incantation and scientific inquiry:
I make this my mantra:
Running is supreme, I think, as I wait for a light to change green in front of my building.
Running is supreme: as I dodge cars and dogs on leashes and bicyclists on the sidewalk.
Running is supreme: as I reach the Hudson and head down the West Side of Manhattan on a smoothly paved path.
What made running supreme in Mercuriale’s mind was not only that it met the definition for exercise he carefully laid out in his book, but that it is “granted to all.” Anyone is capable of doing it — man, woman, child. One doesn’t need a gymnasium. One doesn’t need equipment or an opponent. (Not even shoes are necessary, some today say, following the longtime practice of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, although ultimately one’s feet may disagree.) One needs only healthy lungs and a pair of reasonably strong legs. I am acutely conscious of mine as they run, how they do this automatically. But I also find myself enjoying willing them to do what I like, as if I were driving a car. I take a right and run to the end of a pier. I run backward, then forward, and then steer back to where I began. I never look down. Each of my feet will touch the ground a thousand times, at least, perhaps twice that, for every mile I cover, while absorbing three times my body weight.
This exquisite automation is a hard-earned, long-honed gift of evolution. Although many animal species are bipedal, very few others can walk or stand upright at all, and almost none of them can run for more than an awkward teeter across a short distance. The human body owes its gift of running largely to women: its upright spine evolved to alleviate the weight distribution of pregnancy and its wider hips to make childbirth safer for both mother and infant as an increasingly large cranium, housing an increasingly powerful brain, had to pass through the birth canal.
In a passage evocative of Alison Bechdel’s kindred-spirited masterpiece of personal and cultural history, Hayes details the science behind the elaborate symphony of aliveness that plays itself through us when we partake of this deceptively simple activity:
When one is running, time passes differently. I can get from here to there quickly — quickness is embodied, experienced — and I can keep going. I will run until I feel tired, until I’ve had enough, and then I will go just a little farther, at which point a wave of well-being-ness washes over me. This is not coincidental. My brain is rewarding me for doing something grueling that is beneficial to my overall health — and providing an incentive to do it again. Sustained activity triggers the release of specific neurochemicals, endorphins, which have a kind of tranquilizing effect. On top of that, the body gets a deposit of human growth factor, a repairer of muscle tissue, as well as specialized proteins that, according to new research, are involved in the creation of neurons and the connections between them, synapses.
Then there is the evolutionary glory of sweat — a development so miraculous that Hayes takes it for the title of his book; a development enveloped in a cautionary cultural history of how religious dogma has repeatedly stood in the way of science, which is the way of knowledge and wonder. Under the longstanding prohibition of cadaver dissection by the major religions, the true mechanism of how and why we sweat remained a mystery. Instead, there were ample theories — all spectacular, all wrong — by some of humanity’s most curious and visionary minds: Plato and Galen, Hippocrates and Avicenna, and Mercuriale himself, who . It was only after the discovery of sweat glands — the structure of which Hayes poetically likens to “the stem of a tiny hydroponic flower turned upside down,” and which form by the millions in utero — that sweat was revealed to be the great thermostatic regulator of our precarious homeostasis.
Radiating from his chronicle of the history and science behind the varieties of physical activity we now call exercise is a reminder that every form of movement is tethered to the corpus of culture by an invisible chainlink of values and assumptions, permissions and prohibitions; that every exercise — from the commonest to the most esoteric — reflects the body politic and emanates an ethic of thought.
There is dueling, once condemned by the church and punished with excommunication, which evolved into an art — the art of fencing, now both an Olympic sport and an intellectual exercise celebrated as “physical chess.”
There is yoga, an ancient Indian practice on which a nineteenth-century Swede based his system of mass group exercise, which was then adopted by the British Army during its colonial occupation of India.
There is bicycling, which vitalized women’s political and personal emancipation.
These hidden histories, and the myriad invisible cultural forces and scientific phenomena behind the way we exert our bodies, come alive in Sweat, which blends personal memoir and the biography of a scientific idea with the same humanistic enchantment Hayes brought to his earlier book on sleep. Complement it with a pictorial history of athletic women and the great Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein’s guide to mastering the ancient bodymind art of walking meditation, then revisit the uncategorizable kindred wonder that is The Secret to Superhuman Strength.
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Source: Brain Pickings | 11 May 2022 | 11:55 am(NZT)
Something happens when you are in a garden, when you garden — something beyond the tactile reminder that, in the history of life on Earth, without flowers, there would be no us. Kneeling between the scale of seeds and the scale of stars, touching evolutionary time and the cycle of seasons at once, you find yourself rooted more deeply into your own existence — transient and transcendent, fragile and ferociously resilient — and are suddenly humbled into your humanity. (Lest we forget, humility comes from humilis — Latin for low, of the earth.) You look at a flower and cannot help but glimpse the meaning of life.
Perhaps because the life of a garden is also a vivid reminder that anything of beauty and radiance takes time, takes care, takes devotion to seed and sprout and bloom, gardens have long been living cathedrals for the creative spirit.
Here, drawn from a lifetime of marginalia on great writers’ and artists’ letters and diaries, essays and novels, is a florilegium of my favorite exultations in the rewards and nourishments of gardens.
In the spring of 1939, looking back on her life, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) recounted her earliest memory — red and purple anemones printed on her mother’s black dress — and her most vivid childhood memory, also of a flower, in the garden by the large white house on the Celtic Sea coast where she grew up:
I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later.
All writers are unhappy. The picture of the world in books is thus too dark. The wordless are the happy: women in cottage gardens.
This was less a lament than a life-tested truth, for Woolf had found the most reliable salve for her own battle with the darkness in a cottage garden.
At the end of WWI, as the Spanish Flu pandemic was sweeping the world, Virginia and Leonard Woolf knew they had to leave London — their landlord had given them notice a year earlier. They went to the country, went to an auction, and purchased, for £700, Monk House — a sixteenth-century clapboard cottage without running water or electricity, but with a splendid acre of living land. Its story and its centrality to Woolf’s life and art comes alive in Virginia Woolf’s Garden (public library) by Caroline Zoob, who lived at Monk House and tended to its lush grounds for a decade.
At first, Virginia Woolf approached gardening the way one approaches any new creative endeavor: with passionate curiosity and quavery confidence. She wanted to grow her own food, but was unsure what would thrive or how to tend to it; she wanted flowers, but was unsure what would bloom or how to start the seeds, so she planted some in soap boxes filled with soil, then wrote to a friend asking if this was the way. Within a couple of years, much thanks to Leonard’s increasingly ardent devotion to the garden, she was eating pears for breakfast and reporting that “every flower that grows booms here.”
At the peak of her first spring at Monk House, having worked in the garden past sunset on the unusually chilly last day of May, Virginia exulted in her diary:
The first pure joy of the garden… weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.
Over the next few years, the garden became her great joy and solace; for Leonard, it became a life’s work and his great creative achievement. Just before the December holidays of 1925, during that most contemplative of seasons, she wrote in her diary:
I’ve had two very happy times in my life — childhood… and now. Now I have all I want. My garden — my dog.
For nine years at Monk House, she had been using the unheated garden toolshed as a writing studio. In 1928, the surprising success of Orlando — the art she made of her love for Vita Sackville-West, which Vita’s son later called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — rendered Virginia and Leonard solvent for the first time in their shared life. Now, with a half-disbelieving eye to a proper room of her own, she exulted in finally having “money to build it, money to furnish it.”
And build it she did, overlooking the garden, which she came to regard as nothing less than “a miracle.” She gazed out at the “vast white lilies, and such a blaze of dahlias” that, even on cold grey English days, “one feels lit up.”
After a particularly debilitating spell of her lifelong depression began lifting, she found her “defiance of death in the garden,” declaring in the diary: “I will signalise my return to life — that is writing — by beginning a new book.”
But it seems to me that it was only after a guided tour of Shakespeare’s house one May day in her early fifties that Virginia Woolf, in recognizing the role of the garden in his creative life, fully allowed herself to recognize its role in her own.
Marveling at the mulberry tree outside Shakespeare’s window and the “cushions of blue, yellow, white flowers in the garden,” she wrote in her diary:
All the flowers were out in Shakespeare’s garden. “That was where his study windows looked out when he wrote The Tempest,” said the man… I cannot without more labour than my roadrunning mind can compass describe the queer impression of sunny impersonality. Yes, everything seemed to say, this was Shakespeare’s, had he sat and walked; but you won’t find me, not exactly in the flesh. He is serenely absent-present; both at once; radiating round one; yes; in the flowers, in the old hall, in the garden; but never to be pinned down… To think of writing The Tempest looking out on that garden: what a rage and storm of thought to have gone over any mind.
I find it not coincidental that Shakespeare haunts the conclusion of her exquisite reflection on the childhood memory of the flower-bed that revealed to her the meaning of art and the meaning of life, inspiring her most direct formulation of a personal philosophy:
It is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.
“If we love Flowers, are we not ‘born again’ every Day,” Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) wrote to a friend just before her springtime death at fifty-five. When her coffin was carried across the field of buttercups to the nearby cemetery, as she had requested, most of the townspeople awaiting it knew the enigmatic woman with the auburn hair as a gardener rather than a poet. Her first formal act of composition as a girl had been not a poem but an herbarium, and only four of her nearly two thousand surviving poems had been published in her lifetime, all sidewise to her overt consent. Susan — the great love of Emily’s life, to whom she had written her electric love letters and dedicated most of her poems — listed her “Love of flowers” as the foremost attribute of the poet who often signed herself as “Daisy.”
But make no mistake — the garden was the true laboratory for Emily Dickinson’s art, and in that art flowers figured as her richest symbolic language. She might have written her poems on the seventeen and a half square inches of her cherrywood writing desk upstairs in the sunlit bedroom facing West, but all creative work comes abloom first in the mind — the rest is mere transcription — and her mind was most sunlit among her flowers. It was there, too, that she beamed her penetrating intellect at the invisible interleaving of the universe and came to see, a year before Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology, how every single flower is a microcosm of complex ecological relationships between numerous organisms and their environment.
Emily Dickinson captured this understanding in a spare, stunning 1865 poem, in which the flower emerges not as the pretty object of admiration to which the conventions of Victorian poetry had confined it but as a ravishing system of aliveness — a silent symphony of interconnected resilience, which the flower-loving one-woman orchestra Joan As Police Woman set to song for the opening installment in the animated season of The Universe in Verse, with art by Ohara Hale based on Emily Dickinson’s herbarium and lettering by Debbie Millman based on Emily Dickinson’s handwriting:
by Emily Dickinson
Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower
And casually glance
Would cause one scarcely to suspect
The minor Circumstance
Assisting in the Bright Affair
So intricately done
Then offered as a Butterfly
To the Meridian —
To pack the Bud — oppose the Worm —
Obtain its right of Dew —
Adjust the Heat — elude the Wind —
Escape the prowling Bee
Great Nature not to disappoint
Awaiting Her that Day —
To be a Flower, is profound
A century after Virginia and Leonard Woolf started their Monk House garden amid the Spanish Flu pandemic, Debbie Millman — my longtime former partner and now darling friend — and her wife Roxane undertook a kindred act of resistance to despair as the deadliest pandemic of our own century was furling humanity into fetal position. Watching their small garden grow into a blooming emblem of aliveness, Debbie composed an illustrated love letter to its unexpected gifts, to the way it bridged the seasonal and the cosmic, the transient and the eternal, to its blooming, buzzing affirmation of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetic-existential observation that “wherever life can grow… it will sprout out, and do the best it can.”
In The Book of Delights (public library), poet and gardener Ross Gay records his splendid yearlong experiment in willful gladness, conducted between his forty-second birthday and his forty-third, amid a world so readily given — and not without reason — to despair.
Looking back on the record of his experiment, he observes:
Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.
The garden indeed proves to be his readiest source of daily delight — a living reminder that spontaneity, unpredictability, and the occasional gladsome interruption of our habitual consciousness are essential components of delight. In an early-August entry titled “Inefficiency,” he writes:
I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb — and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.
This wildly delightful tone, fusing the miraculous and the mischievous, carries the book:
When people say they have a black thumb, meaning they can’t grow anything, I say yeah, me too, then talk about the abundant garden these black thumbs are growing.
Inevitably, Gay — like every gardener — arrives at the spiritual aspect of this earthliest and earthiest of the arts:
A lily was the first flower I planted in my garden, and I pray to it daily in the four to six weeks that it offers up its pinkish speckling by getting on my knees and pushing my face in, which, yes, is also a kind of kissing, as I tend to pucker my lips and close my eyes, and if you get close enough you’d probably hear some minute slurping between us, and for some reason I wish to deploy the verb drowning, which, in addition to being a cliché, implies a particular kind of death, and I will follow the current of that verb to suggest that the flower kissing, the moving so close to another living and breathing thing’s breath, which in this case is that of the lily I planted six years ago, will in fact kill you with delight, will annihilate you with delight, will end the life you had previously led before kneeling here and breathing the breathing thing’s breath, and the lily will resurrect you, too, your lips and nose lit with gold dust, your face and fingers smelling faintly all day of where they’ve been, amen.
It is hardly a surprise that Universe in Verse staple Diane Ackerman — poet laureate of the cosmos and the orchard, self-baptized “Earth ecstatic” — should devote an entire book to the ecstasies of kneeling at the brown altar of lowercase earth. In her 2002 gem Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden (public library), she writes:
I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life, with islands of surprise, color, and scent. A seductive aspect of gardening is how many rituals it requires… By definition, the gardener’s errands can never be finished, and its time-keeping reminds us of an order older and one more complete than our own. For the worldwide regiment of gardeners, reveille sounds in spring, and rom then on it’s full parade march, pomp and circumstance, and ritualized tending until winter. But even then there’s much to admire and learn about in the garden.
Considering the existential universals that pulsate beneath the particulars of any category of creative expression, she adds:
Gardeners have unique preferences, which tend to reflect dramas in their personal lives, but they all share a love of natural beauty and a passion to create order, however briefly, from chaos. The garden becomes a frame or their vision of life… Nurturing, decisive, interfering, cajoling, gardeners are extreme optimists who trust the ways of nature and believe passionately in the idea of improvement. As the gnarled, twisted branches of apple trees have taught them, beauty can spring in the most unlikely places. Patience, hard work, and a clever plan usually lead to success: private worlds of color, scent, and astonishing beauty. Small wonder a gardener plans her garden as she wishes she could plan her life.
The preeminent bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer has devoted her life and her lyrical prose to contemplating our relationship with the rest of nature. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (public library), she bridges her scientific training with her Native heritage to explore “the equations of reciprocity and responsibility, the whys and wherefores of building sustainable relationships with ecosystems” — questions rendered most intimate and alive in the garden.
In a splendid antidote to the four-century delusion of dualism Descartes cast upon us, Kimmerer writes:
A garden is a way that the land says, “I love you.” … Gardens are simultaneously a material and a spiritual undertaking.
Half a century after the protagonist of Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia exclaimed while lying on his back in his grandmother’s garden that to find happiness is “to be dissolved into something complete and great,” Kimmerer reflects:
It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness.
I was hunting among the spiraling vines that envelop my teepees of pole beans, lifting the dark-green leaves to find handfuls of pods, long and green, firm and furred with tender fuzz. I snapped them off where they hung in slender twosomes, bit into one, and tasted nothing but August, distilled into pure, crisp beaniness… By the time I finished searching through just one trellis, my basket was full. To go and empty it in the kitchen, I stepped between heavy squash vines and around tomato plants fallen under the weight of their fruit. They sprawled at the feet of the sunflowers, whose heads bowed with the weight of maturing seeds.
As she ambles past the potato patch her daughters had left off harvesting that morning, Kimmerer considers the parallels between parenting and gardening in what it means to care for, to steward, to love — whether the particular piece of nature that is every child and every living thing, or the totality of nature. Drawing on the ways she shows her daughters love — making them maple syrup in March, bringing them wild strawberries in June, watching the meteor showers together in August — she finds a mirror-image in the way nature loves us:
How do we show our children our love? Each in our own way by a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons.
Maybe it was the smell of ripe tomatoes, or the oriole singing, or that certain slant of light on a yellow afternoon and the beans hanging thick around me. It just came to me in a wash of happiness that made me laugh out loud, startling the chickadees who were picking at the sunflowers, raining black and white hulls on the ground. I knew it with a certainty as warm and clear as the September sunshine. The land loves us back. She loves us with beans and tomatoes, with roasting ears and blackberries and birdsongs. By a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons. She provides for us and teaches us to provide for ourselves. That’s what good mothers do.
I am reminded here of how the English language, unlike my native Bulgarian, pays homage to this parallel between parenting and planting in its lexicon: nursery is the word for both the place where we nurture our young as they start their lives and the place where we start our gardens. Kimmerer captures this parent-like responsibility to the life of the land, to the mutuality of care:
In a garden, food arises from partnership. If I don’t pick rocks and pull weeds, I’m not fulfilling my end of the bargain. I can do these things with my handy opposable thumb and capacity to use tools, to shovel manure. But I can no more create a tomato or embroider a trellis in beans than I can turn lead into gold. That is the plants’ responsibility and their gift: animating the inanimate. Now there is a gift.
People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationship between land and people. My answer is almost always, “Plant a garden.” It’s good for the health of the earth and it’s good for the health of people. A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes far beyond the garden gate — once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself.
In The Botany of Desire (public library) — the modern classic that gave us the radical roots of the flying-witch legend and the story of how a virus created the most prized flower of the Renaissance — Michael Pollan considers the enchantment of gardening as a sort of devotional practice: a worshipful remembrance of our creaturely belonging.
In a passage evocative of Denise Levertov’s poetic indictment that “we call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” he writes:
The garden is a place of many sacraments, an arena — at once as common as any room and as special as a church — where we can go not just to witness but to enact in a ritual way our abiding ties to the natural world. Abiding, yet by now badly attenuated, for civilization seems bent on breaking or at least forgetting our connections to the earth. But in the garden the old bonds are preserved, and not merely as symbols. So we eat from the vegetable patch, and, if we’re paying attention, we’re recalled to our dependence on the sun and the rain and the everyday leaf-by-leaf alchemy we call photosynthesis. Likewise, the poultice of comfrey leaves that lifts a wasp’s sting from our skin returns us to a quasi-magic world of healing plants from which modern medicine would cast us out.
Half a century after Rachel Carson observed that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” because our own origins are of the earth, he adds:
Such sacraments are so benign that few of us have any trouble embracing them, even if they do sound a faintly pagan note. I’d guess that’s because we’re generally willing to be reminded that our bodies, at least, remain linked in such ways to the world of plants and animals, to nature’s cycles.
“If war has an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it,” Rebecca Solnit writes in Orwell’s Roses (public library) — the unsynthesizably wonderful story of the rose garden the thirty-three-year-old George Orwell planted at the small sixteenth-century cottage his suffragist aunt had secured for him as he contemplated enlisting in the Spanish Civil War.
Solnit observes that the garden, paradoxically, both feeds and counterbalances the art that is both her life’s work and Orwell’s:
A garden offers the opposite of the disembodied uncertainties of writing. It’s vivid to all the senses, it’s a space of bodily labor, of getting dirty in the best and most literal way, an opportunity to see immediate and unarguable effect.
To spend time frequently with these direct experiences is clarifying, a way of stepping out of the whirlpools of words and the confusion they can whip up. In an age of lies and illusions, the garden is one way to ground yourself in the realm of the processes of growth and the passage of time, the rules of physics, meteorology, hydrology, and biology, and the realms of the senses.
In this place of paradoxes and pleasing tensions — control and chaos, transience and durability, planning and surprise — none is more pleasing than the garden’s dual reminder that we are insignificant particles in vast a cosmos of process and phenomena, and we are potent seeds of change, our littlest actions rippling out into the evolutionary unfolding of the whole. Solnit captures this with her signature pointed poetics:
To garden is to make whole again what has been shattered: the relationships in which you are both producer and consumer, in which you reap the bounty of the earth directly, in which you understand fully how something came into being. It may not be significant in scale, but even if it’s a windowsill geranium high above a city street, it can be significant in meaning.
In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994) left the bustling pretensions of London for a simple life on the shingled shores of Kent. He took up residence in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant on the headland of Dungeness, a newly designated a conservation area. He named it Prospect Cottage, painted the front room a translucent Naples yellow, replaced the ramshackle door with blue velvet curtains, and set about making a garden around the gnarled century-old pear tree rising from the carpet of violets as the larks living in the shingles sang high above him in the grey-blue English sky.
At low tide, he collected some handsome sea-rounded flints washed up after a storm, staked them upright in the garden “like dragon teeth,” and encircled each with twelve small beach pebbles. These rudimentary sundials became his flower beds, into which he planted a wondrous miniature wilderness of species not even half of which I, a growing gardener, have encountered — saxifrage, calendula, rue, camomile, shirley poppy, santolina, nasturtium, dianthus, purple iris, hare-bell, and his favorite: sea kale. (A gorgeous plant new to me, which I immediately researched, procured, and planted in my Brooklyn garden.)
As the seasons turned and his flowers rose and the AIDS plague felled his friends one by one, Jarman mourned loss after loss, then grounded himself again and again in the irrepressible life of soil and sprout and bud and bloom. The garden, which his Victorian ancestors saw as a source of moral lessons, became his sanctuary of “extraordinary peacefulness” amid the deepest existential perturbations of death, his canvas for creation amid all the destruction. On the windblown shore, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, gardening became his act of resistance as he set out to build an alternative garden of Eden:
Before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.
The record of this healing creative adventure became Jarman’s Modern Nature (public library) — part memoir and part memorial, a reckoning and a redemption, a homecoming to his first great love: gardening. What emerges from the short near-daily entries is a kind of hybrid between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Thoreau’s philosophical nature journals.
On the last day of February, after planting lavender in a circle of stones he collected from the beach under the clear blue sky, he writes:
Apart from the nagging past — film, sex and London — I have never been happier than last week. I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Plated lavender and clumps of red hot poker.
In the first week of March, Jarman arrives at what may be the greatest reward of gardening:
The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.
Read more of Jarman’s gardening journals here.
Derek Jarman is one of the animating spirits of Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (public library) by Olivia Laing — that marvelous tessellated meditation on art, activism, and our search for meaning, drawing on the lives of artists whose vision has changed the way we see the world, ourselves, and each other.
In the essay on Jarman, titled “Paradise,” she twines the questions of whether gardening is a form of art and whether art is a form of resistance — a necessary tool for building the Garden of Eden we imagine a flourishing society to be:
Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shoots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is an abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.
Is art resistance? Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil. But it seems to me that whatever else you do, it’s worth tending to paradise, however you define it and wherever it arises.
Read more here.
A century and a half after Walt Whitman extolled the healing powers of nature after his paralytic stroke, the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) gave empirical substantiation to these unparalleled powers.
In a lovely short essay titled “Why We Need Gardens,” found in the posthumous collection Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library), he writes:
As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.
Having lived and worked in New York City for half a century — a city “sometimes made bearable… only by its gardens” — Sacks recounts witnessing nature’s tonic effects on his neurologically impaired patients: A man with Tourette’s syndrome, afflicted by severe verbal and gestural tics in the urban environment, grows completely symptom-free while hiking in the desert; an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease, who often finds herself frozen elsewhere, can not only easily initiate movement in the garden but takes to climbing up and down the rocks unaided; several people with advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, who can’t recall how to perform basic operations of civilization like tying their shoes, suddenly know exactly what to do when handed seedlings and placed before a flower bed. Sacks reflects:
I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication… The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.
“I had a pleasant time with my mind, for it was happy,” Louisa May Alcott wrote in her diary just after she turned eleven, a quarter century before Little Women bloomed from that uncommon mind — a mind whose pleasures and powers were nurtured by the profound love of nature her father wove into the philosophical and scientific education he gave his four daughters.
The progressive philosopher, abolitionist, education reformer, and women’s rights advocate Bronson Alcott (November 29, 1799–March 4, 1888) developed his ideas about human flourishing and social harmony by observing and reflecting on the processes, phenomena, and pleasures of the natural world — something he shared with the Transcendentalists of his generation, and particularly with his best friend: the naturalistic transcendence-shaman Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1856, while living next door to the visionary Elizabeth Peabody in Boston — the seedbed of Transcendentalism, a term Peabody herself had coined — Alcott borrowed and devoured Emerson’s copy of a book sent to him by an obscure young Brooklyn poet as a token of gratitude for having inspired it: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published months earlier.
Whitman’s unexampled verse — so free from the Puritanical conventions of poetry, so lush with a love of life, so unabashedly reverent of nature as the only divinity — stirred a deep resonance with Bronson’s own worldview and inspired him to try his hand at the portable poetics of nature: gardening. Right there in the middle of bustling Boston, where his young country was just beginning to find its intellectual and artistic voice, Alcott set up his humble urban garden. One May morning — a century and a half before bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer contemplated gardening and the secret of happiness, before Olivia Laing wrote of gardening as an act of resistance, before neurologist Oliver Sacks drew on forty years of medical practice to attest to the healing power of gardens — the fifty-six-year-old Alcott planted some peas, corn, cucumbers, and melons, then wrote in his journal:
Human life is a very simple matter. Breath, bread, health, a hearthstone, a fountain, fruits, a few garden seeds and room to plant them in, a wife and children, a friend or two of either sex, conversation, neighbours, and a task life-long given from within — these are contentment and a great estate. On these gifts follow all others, all graces dance attendance, all beauties, beatitudes, mortals can desire and know.
By mid-summer, Alcott had discovered in his garden not only a creaturely gladness but a portal into the deepest existential contentment — something akin to the creative intoxication that he, like all artists, found in his literary calling:
My garden has been my pleasure, and a daily recreation since the spring opened for planting… Every plant one tends he falls in love with, and gets the glad response for all his attentions and pains. Books, persons even, are for the time set aside — studies and the pen. — Only persons of perennial genius attract or recreate as the plants, and of books we may say the same, as of the magic of solitude.
A chief gladness of gardening comes from its dual nature, from how it salves our longing for making order out of chaos but also frustrates it. There is elemental satisfaction in the reminder that we can never fully control nature — that, in fact, any sense of control is a childish fantasy, for we ourselves are children of nature, made by the selfsame forces and phenomena we play at bridling.
That is what the writer and gardener Jamaica Kincaid celebrates in My Garden (Book) (public library) — a fractal delight I discovered via Ross Gay, who devotes to it a midsummer entry in his yearlong journal of daily delights. (All delight is fractal.)
Writing in the first year of the twenty-first century, in a passage evocative of the poetic physicist Richard Feynman’s insistence that “nature has the greatest imagination of all,” Kincaid reflects:
How agitated I am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so agitated. How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed. What to do? Nothing works just the way I thought it would, nothing looks just the way I had imagined it, and when sometimes it does look like what I had imagined (and this, thank God, is rare) I am startled that my imagination is so ordinary.
What to do? becomes the recurring incantation of the garden’s imagination. Puzzled by why her Wisteria floribunda is blooming out of season and reason, in late July rather than in May, Kincaid wonders:
What to do with the wisteria? should I let it go, blooming and blooming, each new bud looking authoritative but also not quite right at all, as if on a dare, a surprise even to itself, looking as if its out-of-seasonness was a modest, tentative query?
My garden has no serious intention, my garden has only series of doubts upon series of doubts.
This, of course, is the definition of the scientific method — the vector of revelation as a series of doubts and tentative queries continually tested against reality. But there is also a spiritual dimension to Kincaid’s questioning refrain, to the longing for an answer from an external entity with higher powers of omniscience — this, of course, is the definition of religion. In her gasping wonderment, she arrives at something beyond reason and beyond belief — the single animating force beneath all science and all spirituality:
What to do? Whom should I ask what to do? Is there a person to whom I could ask such a question and would that person have an answer that would make sense to me in a rational way (in the way even I have come to accept things as rational), and would that person be able to make the rational way imbued with awe and not so much with the practical; I know the practical, it will keep you breathing; awe, on the other hand, is what makes you (me) want to keep living.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 May 2022 | 2:13 pm(NZT)
“You are at all times independent. This absolute freedom of the cyclist can be known only to the initiated,” Maria Ward wrote in her blazing 1896 manifesto Bicycling for Ladies, celebrating the bicycle as an instrument of emancipation, self-reliance, and unselfconscious joy a year after the New York World published its tragicomical list of don’ts for women on two wheels.
These might seem like amusing specimens from the fossil record of culture, but they encode the broader and darker history of regulating women’s sovereignty of sinew and spirit — our autonomy of over our own bodies: how we move them through the world and how the world moves through them. Today, with neuroscience finally affirming what the poets and philosophers have long known — that consciousness is a full-body phenomenon, or as Walt Whitman memorably put it in Maria Ward’s time, that the body is the soul — it is more plainly evident than ever that regulatory control of the body is a bid for control of the mind, of the soul, of consciousness itself.
That is what visionary composer and National Sawdust founder Paola Prestini explores with elegance and enchantment in her piece Biking Through Time, which I had the pleasure of seeing performed live by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus — the constellation of young people who, several springs earlier, brought to life David Byrne’s countercultural anthem of resistance and resilience.
Anchored in three historical artifacts — this “map of woman’s heart” from the first half of the nineteenth century, satirizing Victorian gender stereotypes; the aforementioned list of don’ts for women on bicycles from the end of the nineteenth century, which includes dicta like “don’t faint on the road,” “don’t scream if you meet a cow,” and “don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes to see how it feels”; and these rules of conduct for women, pinned on the door of a Spanish church in the 1960s, which decree that “no decent woman or girl is ever seen on a bicycle” — the piece then time-travels to “the land of the free,” synthesizing some of the legally sanctioned don’ts for American women in the 1970s: no credit cards, no Ivy League education, no protection from sexual harassment in the workplace, no legal access to birth control.
Punctuating the incantations of what women may not do is the sudden, striking, almost ironic chorus line:
You may ride a bike!
No… no… must comply with your husband.
You may ride a bike!
No… no… must comply with your husband.
You may ride a bike!
No… no… no… no… no… no… no… no…
Suddenly, the piece becomes a sort of cultural elegy, in the classic sense of celebration and lamentation fused into one, reminding us just how long the arc of progress is, how much of what we take for granted today is the hard-won victory of generations past (as I realized afresh, having ridden my bicycle to the nineteenth-century fishery turned event space where the young people sang), and how, as Zadie Smith observed in her electrifying meditation on optimism and despair, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
Complement with “Thrush Song” — the haunting choral tribute to Rachel Carson, on which Paola and I collaborated for the 2020 Universe in Verse, brought to life by another constellation of young voices — then revisit the trailblazing life and art of Alice Austen, who mounted fifty pounds of photography equipment on her bicycle to become a pioneer of street photography and the nineteenth century’s foremost documentarian of queer culture.
Source: Brain Pickings | 6 May 2022 | 4:26 pm(NZT)
“Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted,” Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her loss-lensed reflection on life. “In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.” Indeed, it is often said that grief is the price we pay for love, that grief is love’s other side. But I have found that grief is also the other side of hope, and hope is what lives on the other side of grief. Grief, too, is a thing with feathers. These are the twin wings of what may be the most quietly powerful of human passions: longing — grief, the longing for something that once was, is no more, and never again could be; hope, the longing for something that could be but is not, not yet.
These are the thoughts I am having while leafing through an uncommonly tender book full of feeling: Finn’s Feather (public library) by Australian author Rachel Noble, illustrated by Portland-based artist Zooey Abbott — a fine addition to the most soulful and sensitive books to help young humans grieve and make sense of loss.
Fomented by the feather Noble herself found on her own doorstep after the death of her own son, Hamish, the magical-realist story follows a boy named Finn, who finds a large white feather, beautiful and perfect, on his doorstep on the first day of spring after the long winter that is grief: grief for is brother, Hamish.
Immediately, Finn decides that the feather is a gift from Hamish.
“Bubbling with excitement,” he runs to his mother with the feather to tell her. But she meets it with “a deep breath” and “a great, big hug.”
Puzzled that she is not more excited about the feather — “it was definitely from Hamish” — Finn takes it to school to show it to his teacher.
But she too meets it with “a deep breath” and “a great, big smile.”
Just as Finn’s confusion about the grownups’ reaction begins collapsing into sadness, his friend Lucas appears at lunch and asks about the beautiful white feather.
“I think my brother Hamish sent it.”
“Really?” Angels can do that?” asked Lucas.
“I think they can,” said Finn.
“It’s a nice feather.”
I am reminded of William Blake’s first vision as a child — a tree filled with angels that had appeared to him while walking through one of London’s parks. And how, upon returning home and recounting the vision to his parents, he incurred a wrathful punishment for what his father took to be a lie. And how children believe the world as it appears to them unquestioningly, until made to feel wrong in their beliefs. And how all belief is simply how we process our feelings about reality, and how therefore there are no right or wrong beliefs — only true beliefs.
Pondering why Hamish might have sent the feather, Finn and Lucas decide that it must be to encourage Finn to have more fun. (This, after all, is the heaviest hope we carry while hollowed by grief — that life will one day be enjoyable and full again.)
They decide to build “the biggest castle in the whole world and tick the feather on top!” And so they do.
Finn and Lucas relish watching the other kids admire their miniature cathedral, complete with the shimmering spire of the white feather, then go on adventuring — the feather as plaything, the feather as emblem of delight, the feather as instrument of aliveness.
“This feather is the best!” said Lucas. “It’s so great that Hamish left it for you. He’s a really cool angel.”
“He was a really cool brother. I miss him.”
Finn ran his finger down the spine of the feather, happy to have his friend at his side.
But then, just like that, the wind snatches the feather from Finn’s hands and whisks it away.
The boys chase after it in despair, until a tree catches it in a crown too high for Finn to reach. And so the other children flock to lift him up.
So too with life: Eventually, it snatches away everything and everyone we love, including our own lease on it. Along the way, we have only love and the lever of sympathy to lift us up.
When Finn returns from school and tells his mother about his fun day with the feather, she still meets it with a deep breath, but this time she smiles as she gives him that “great, big hug.”
Somehow, Finn’s belief in the feather — now no longer white and perfect — seems to have revivified some of her own belief in life, painfully imperfect and love-worn as it may be.
Complement with the German gem of a picture-book Duck, Death, and the Tulip, the French gem of a picture-book The Scar, the Danish gem of a picture-book Cry, Heart, But Never Break — also from my friends at Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion, who published Finn’s Feather (and my own children’s book on a not entirely unrelated theme) — then, for a grownup counterpart, savor Kathryn Schulz on losing love, finding love, and living with the fragility of it all, Nick Cave on grief as a portal to aliveness, and Emily Dickinson on love and loss.
Source: Brain Pickings | 5 May 2022 | 5:40 am(NZT)
“Time is being and being time, it is all one thing, the shining, the seeing, the dark abounding,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her splendid “Hymn to Time” shortly before she returned her borrowed being to eternity.
In 1932, when Le Guin was only just beginning her being, when humanity was still reeling from its first global war and seething with the forces about to stir the second, the Swiss poet, philosopher, and linguist Jean Gebser (August 20, 1905–May 14, 1973) saw, in what he later described as a “lightning-like flash of inspiration,” the elemental disruption of the human spirit pulsating beneath the savage tumults of the surface: our altered relationship with time — a transformation catalyzed by the Galilean dawn of timekeeping in the sixteenth century, accelerated by the invention of motion photography in the nineteenth, and exploded by the birth of relativity in the twentieth.
Gebser, who swam in Jung’s circles and drank at Rilke’s fount, realized that for us creatures of time, creatures whose very consciousness is woven of temporality, an altered relationship with time is an altered relationship with ourselves — inner upheaval so profound on the scale of the individual, and so total on the scale of the species, that every major upheaval in the outer world can be traced to it when followed back closely and lucidly enough. To live more harmoniously with ourselves and each other, Gebser concluded, demands nothing less than a recalibration of our relationship with time itself.
For seventeen years, through the next World War and its aftermath, he turned these ideas over in his mind, turned them into poetry and turned them into prose, eventually distilling them in the 1949 masterwork The Ever-Present Origin (public library) — an effort “to render transparent our own origin, our entire human past, as well as the present, which already contains the future.”
Origin is ever-present. It is not a beginning, since all beginning is linked with time. And the present is not just the “now,” today, the moment or a unit of time. It is ever-originating, an achievement of full integration and continuous renewal. Anyone able to “concretize,” i.e., to realize and effect the reality of origin and the present in their entirety, supersedes “beginning” and “end” and the mere here and now.
Writing at first for his own generation, Gebser came to find as the years unspooled into decades that the subject was not only timeless but rediscovered with ever-growing urgency by the next generation. In a passage of astonishing resonance for our own time, he observes:
The crisis we are experiencing today is not just… a crisis of morals, economics, ideologies, politics or religion. It is not only prevalent in Europe and America but in Russia and the Far East as well. It is a crisis of the world and mankind such as has occurred previously only during pivotal junctures — junctures of decisive finality for life on earth and for the humanity subjected to them. The crisis of our times and our world is in a process — at the moment autonomously — of complete transformation, and appears headed toward an event which… can only be described as a “global catastrophe.” … We must soberly face the fact that only a few decades separate us from that event. This span of time is determined by an increase in technological feasibility inversely proportional to man’s sense of responsibility — that is, unless a new factor were to emerge which would effectively overcome this menacing correlation.
To ward off the menace, Gebser cautions, we need to find this “new factor,” to seize it for all it is worth and wrest from it the transformation — which he calls a “mutation” of consciousness — necessary for ensuring our continuance as a planetary species.
In a sentiment evocative of the Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön’s insight that “only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” he writes:
If we do not overcome the crisis it will overcome us; and only someone who has overcome himself is truly able to overcome… Either time is fulfilled in us — and that would mean the end and death for our present earth and (its) mankind — or we succeed in fulfilling time: and this means integrality and the present, the realization and the reality of origin and presence.
Gebser anchors his argument in the fundament fact of time, out of which arises the poetic truth of the present:
As the origin before all time is the entirety of the very beginning, so too is the present the entirety of everything temporal and time-bound, including the effectual reality of all time phases: yesterday, today, tomorrow, and even the pre-temporal and timeless.
With an eye to how the Renaissance discovery of perspective in art and architecture radicalized our relationship to space, thus revolutionizing our consciousness itself, Gebser argues that a similar transformation needs to take place in our relationship to time — a shift from the “unperspectival” past to a properly perspectival present that opens the portal to an “aperspectival” future, something beyond perspective, implying a fully integrated and interconnected consciousness indivisible into separate perspectives — the ultimate way of achieving perspective,” we might say. In a sentiment of staggering prescience nearly a century later — which is also a touching testament to our being a perennial work in progress that continually mistakes itself for near-complete — he writes:
The condition of today’s world cannot be transformed by technocratic rationality, since both technocracy and rationality are apparently nearing their apex; nor can it be transcended by preaching or admonishing a return to ethics and morality, or in fact, by any form of return to the past.
We have only one option: in examining the manifestations of our age, we must penetrate them with sufficient breadth and depth that we do not come under their demonic and destructive spell. We must not focus our view merely on these phenomena, but rather on the humus of the decaying world beneath, where the seedlings of the future are growing, immeasurable in their potential and vigor. Since our insight into the energies pressing toward development aids their unfolding, the seedlings and inceptive beginnings must be made visible and comprehensible.
A new consciousness and a new reality, Gebser cautions, can only arise from a more intimate and examined knowledge of the past and its pitfalls — “a consciousness of the whole, an integral consciousness encompassing all time and embracing both man’s* distant past and his approaching future as a living present,” which is not an intellectual but a spiritual orientation to time. In a lovely antidote to the diffusion of responsibility that marks our social species — and that, in its most urgent present manifestation, has landed us in our climate catastrophe — he roots us back into the tiny, infinite locus of our personal potentiality:
If our consciousness, that is, the individual person’s awareness, vigilance, and clarity of vision, cannot master the new reality and make possible its realization, then the prophets of doom will have been correct. Other alternatives are an illusion; consequently, great demands are placed on us, and each one of us have been given a grave responsibility, not merely to survey but to actually traverse the path opening before us.
Gebser argues that it is only by rendering transparent “the concealed and latent aspects” of our dawning future, in those vital periods of transition, that we come to fully “clarify our own experiencing of the present.” Affirming humanistic contemporary Erich Fromm’s insistence on the need to move beyond the simplistic divide of optimism and pessimism, Gebser calls for “overcoming the mere antithesis of affirmation and negation” as essential to this evolution in consciousness by which we can attain the new reality — “a reality functioning and effectual integrally, in which intensity and action, the effective and the effect co-exist; one where origin… blossoms forth anew; and one in which the present is all-encompassing and entire.”
He adds an essential disclaimer consonant with the basic ethos of The Marginalian, reverberating with the reason I spend my days and nights with long-gone visionaries like Gebser:
Before we can discern the new, we must know the old.
Looking back on the history of ideas — which is the history of our resistance to change, strewn with what David Byrne called “sleeping beauties”: creative and intellectual breakthroughs that lay dormant for centuries and millennia, rejected by their contemporaries, only to be affirmed and accepted epochs later — Gebser considers Democritus’s atomic theory, two millennia ahead of particle physics, and Zeno’s anticipation of relativity, worlds ahead of Einstein, and writes:
These inceptions were all anticipations, the seedlings as it were, of later blossoms that could not flourish with visible and immediate effect in their respective ages, since they were denied receptive soil and sustenance.
In a sentiment Bertrand Russell would echo two years later in the seventh of his ten commandments of critical thinking for a more possible future — “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Gebser adds:
Acceptance and elucidation of the “new” always meets with strong opposition, since it requires us to overcome our traditional, our acquired and secure ways and possessions. This means pain, suffering, struggle, uncertainty, and similar concomitants which everyone seeks to avoid whenever possible.
In the remainder of The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser goes on to explore the three consciousness structures that have marked the history of our species — the magic, the mystical, and the mental: all springing from origin, but each successive one increasing the intensity of consciousness. Dismantling the limiting dualism of Western thought along the way, he delivers a lucid, luminous vision for a different way of being: freer, more present, more whole.
In the postscript to the book, penned in the early 1950s amid a world scarred by two World Wars and newly petrified with the terror of the Cold War, Gebser calls out to the highest and most courageous part of us, the part even more assaulted by the mass cowardice of cynicism in our own time, amid the transitional world we live in, the world Gebser presaged:
At a time when mankind is suffering… from scepticism and suspicion or… from ideological anxiety, anyone audacious enough to recall some basic values that run counter to the superficial course of events and seem to lack any immediate “efficiency” in a world given over to quantification is all too readily dismissed as being, in the familiar clichés, “unrealistic” and “idealistic.” These are perhaps the most innocuous of the terms used by those who confuse realism with material utility and thus fall prey to a dualistic fallacy even where it has nothing to do with idealism. As a type, they lack perception of those powers of which realism and idealism are only conceptual and classifying aspects. In addition there is the obstinacy resisting change which emerges even where it is obvious that it is unable to resolve an intractable problem. A person for whom the present, even during his or her finest hours, is no more than a time-bound moment, will not participate in the emerging transformation. Only those will succeed for whom the present becomes a time-free origin, a perpetual plenitude and source of life and spirit from which all decisive constellations and formations are completed.
A short verse from “Das Wintergedicht” — the long 1944 “Winter Poem” through which Gebser first gave shape to the ideas that became The Ever-Present Origin, composed in a single forty-five-minute burst of creative force — captures the heart of his timeless and atemporal insight into the urgency of being:
Who speaks of the future?
“It shall be”?
and you see within:
Complement with physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic meditation on time and the antidote to our existential anxiety, then revisit the nineteenth-century psychiatrist and mountaineer Maurice Bucke’s pioneering theory of cosmic consciousness, formulated half a century before Gebser, and cosmologist Stephon Alexander, writing a century after him, on dreams, consciousness, and the nature of the universe.
Source: Brain Pickings | 30 Apr 2022 | 2:10 pm(NZT)
“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” Loren Eiseley wrote in his exquisite meditation on our search for meaning. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.” Meanwhile, the poetic physicist Richard Feynman was remembering the miracle while standing at the seashore, remembering that we are each “atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity… a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.”
A century before Eiseley and Feynman, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) became the poet laureate of this atomic miracle, reminding us again and again, across space and time, across confusion and erasure, that to cherish ourselves is to cherish the universe and to cherish the universe is to cherish ourselves.
He called himself a “kosmos,” spelled after the title of Humboldt’s epoch-making book, which had lit up Whitman’s formative imagination and had awakened humanity to the interconnectedness of nature with the poetically phrased proclamation that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.”
He called his most intimate poems, which were also his most universal, Song of Myself — a hymn to human nature itself, to its numberless and fathomless fractal manifestations in particular selves, reverberating with the eternal truth that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
In the early spring of 2020, epochs after Whitman, with humanity furling into fetal position amid a global lockdown, feeling at once more fragile and more connected than ever before in our shared lifetime, Whitman’s ethos came alive anew, his cosmic songs resonant with tones we needed to hear more than ever — tones that both soothe and vivify the discomposed soul dwelling then in each of us fractals of the world-soul.
In the wake of the disorientation, as I endeavored to go on with the annual Universe in Verse — to preserve its spirit as a celebration of life in an atmosphere of deadly terror — I could think of no better person to inspirit Whitman’s poem “Kosmos” than my friend, neighbor, and co-dreamer of improbable dreams Dustin Yellin — a visionary artist animated by the questions of a physicist, or a child, and the answers of a poet, or a child; founder of Pioneer Works, without which there would be no Universe in Verse; composer of five-ton poems of glass, color, and stainless steel; a creature of unselfconscious multitudes: part Plato, part Frida Kahlo, part The Little Prince.
Two springs later, as humanity slowly unfurls, newly awakened to the kosmos of connection that binds us to each other and to the great living poem of a reality in which not one atom can be considered in isolation, Whitman returns to remind us that each and every one of us is the survivor not only of a deadly pandemic but of myriad cataclysms stretching back to the Big Bang — a miraculous miniature of the universe itself.
by Walt Whitman
Who includes diversity and is Nature,
Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth, and the great charity of the earth and the equilibrium also,
Who has not look’d forth from the windows the eyes for nothing, or whose brain held audience with messengers for nothing,
Who contains believers and disbelievers, who is the most majestic lover,
Who holds duly his or her triune proportion of realism, spiritualism, and of the aesthetic or intellectual,
Who having consider’d the body finds all its organs and parts good,
Who, out of the theory of the earth and of his or her body understands by subtle analogies all other theories,
The theory of a city, a poem, and of the large politics of these States;
Who believes not only in our globe with its sun and moon, but in other globes with their suns and moons,
Who, constructing the house of himself or herself, not for a day but for all time, sees races, eras, dates, generations,
The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.
Complement with Emily Dickinson’s ode to the interconnectedness of nature, brought to life as an animated song, then revisit Meshell Ndegeocello’s enchanting performance of Whitman’s own ode to the interconnectedness of nature.
Source: Brain Pickings | 30 Apr 2022 | 2:09 am(NZT)
“The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth,” the poet Robert Penn Warren wrote in his impassioned and insightful challenge to the notion of “finding yourself” — something the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert captured half a century later in his memorable quip about our blind spots of becoming: “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”
An epoch earlier, Herman Melville (August 1, 1819–September 28, 1891) wove the everlasting questions of being and becoming into the heart of Moby-Dick (free ebook | public library) — the 1851 classic he composed as a 927-page love letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Two millennia after Plutarch probed what makes you you in his enduring thought experiment, two decades before Nietzsche admonished that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” and a century before James Baldwin turned to the sea for existential evidence that nothing in this world is fixed, including us, Melville considers the myriad twists and turns, the forward leaps and backward steps, the detours and digressions by which the story of life tells itself through us. At the heart of his meditation is a warning: We must set ourselves free from the illusion that there is a steady vector of personal growth, along which we glide unperturbed toward some final completeness, where we at last become our fully realized selves and where life is at last permanently becalmed. He writes:
The mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: — through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’s doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?
As the novel nears its own last pause, Melville makes his most poignant and perspectival point about personhood — a reminder that we, wondrous as we each are in our individuality, are far less unlike one another than we like to believe, when viewed with impartial remove free from human vanity. “All sorts of men in one kind of world,” he marvels. But then he pivots to the underlying fact we — creatures born self-referential and raised to feel singular — are always uneasy facing:
Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary.
We are indeed near-identical copies of the same basic needs, hopes, fears, and soul-quickenings, made of the same common stardust. This, after all, is why a novel — or any work of art — that sprang from the imagination of a single individual can stir and enchant millions across time and space, across cultures and centuries and selves.
Complement with Melville on the value of being uncomfortable and Patti Smith’s cure for insomnia, inspired by Moby-Dick, then revisit Simone de Beauvoir on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are.
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Apr 2022 | 2:29 pm(NZT)
“To be a flower,” Emily Dickinson wrote in her prescient ode to the interconnectedness of nature, “is profound responsibility.”
A passionate lifelong gardener, the poet had fallen under the spell of wildflowers while composing her astonishing herbarium as a teenager. But it was an uncommonly beautiful book her father gave her just before she turned thirty — not long after she wrote to an ill-suited suitor, “My flowers don’t know how far my thoughts wander away sometimes.” — that fueled her poetic passion for nature’s own garden: Wild Flowers Drawn and Colored from Nature (public library) by the botanical artist and poet Clarissa Munger Badger (May 20, 1806–December 14, 1889).
Published the year On the Origin of Species shook science and artistically modeled on The Moral of Flowers, with which the poet and painter Rebecca Hey had enchanted English readers a quarter century earlier, Badger’s book contained twenty-two exquisite scientifically accurate paintings of common New England wildflower species — violets and harebells, the rhododendron and the honeysuckle — each paired with a poem bridging the botanical and the existential: some by titans like Percival and Longfellow, some by long-forgotten poets of her time and place, some by Badger herself.
For a taste of her fusion of playfulness and poignancy, here is a fragment from Badger’s ode to the rhododendron — a flowering wonder that was here when the dinosaurs roamed Earth, long before small warm-blooded mammals with large minds and poetic hearts evolved the opposable the thumbs to paint flowers and the consciousness to contemplate the meaning of life in a flower:
I charge thee, flower, of beauty born,
Lift not thy head too high,
For, like the lowliest of thy race,
Thou, too, wert born to die.
The Power that lifts thee to the sun,
And bends thee to the gale,
Doth watch, with equal care and love,
The Lily of the vale.
Seven years later, as Bronson Alcott was contemplating the relationship between gardening and genius while raising his visionary daughter a state over in New England and Ernst Haeckel was coining the word ecology, Clarissa Munger Badger gave her wildflower masterpiece a domestic counterpart in Floral Belles from the Green-House and Garden (public library | public domain).
Bringing her brush to the beauty of the pansy and the lily, the day-blazing geranium and the night-blooming cactus, the tulip and the rose, and once again pairing her paintings with poems, she celebrated garden flowers as “brilliant hopes, all woven in gorgeous tissues,” as “stars… wherein we read our history” — a vibrant testament to Oliver Sacks’s clinically substantiated belief in the healing power of gardens.
Couple with these stunning French botanical drawings of some of Earth’s most otherworldly plants from Badger’s epoch, then leap forward a century with pioneering plant ecologist Edith Clements’s Rocky Mountain wildflower drawings, then leap back two with the self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell’s gorgeous illustrations from the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of medicinal plants, then straddle the centuries with this layered reflection on flowers and the meaning of life, starring Emily Dickinson and The Little Prince, then slake your soul on this.
Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Apr 2022 | 7:43 am(NZT)
This is the final installment in the nine-part animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the rest here.
Here we are, each of us a portable festival of wonder, standing on this rocky body born by brutality, formed from the debris that first swarmed the Sun 4.5 billion years ago and pulverized each other in a gauntlet of violent collisions, eventually forging the Moon and the Earth.
Here we are, now standing on it, on this improbable planet bred of violence, which grew up to be a world capable of trees and tenderness. A conscious world. A world shaped by physics and animated by art, by poetry, by music and mathematics — the different languages we have developed to listen to reality and speak it back to ourselves.
Here we are, voicing in these different our fundamental wonderment: What is all this? This byproduct of reality we call life: not probable, not even necessary, and yet it is all we know, because it is all we are, and it is with the whole of what we are that we reckon with reality, that we long to fathom it — from the scale of gluons to the scale of galaxies, from the mystery of the cell to the mystery of the soul.
Every once in a while — perhaps once or twice a century, if we are lucky — atoms shed by dying stars constellate into a living mind so shimmering, so uncommonly gifted in multiple fathoming-languages, that poems and paintings, elegies and equations, theorems and songs spring from it with equal ardor and equal beauty. Rebecca Elson was one. Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) was another — a Nobel-winning physicist, a philosopher, an artist, composer of the world’s most lyrical footnote and most bittersweet love letter, who saw no boundary between knowledge and mystery, between our different modes of fathoming reality and serenading the wonder of the universe that made us.
In the autumn of 1955, a decade before he won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on quantum electrodynamics, Feynman took the podium at the National Academy of Sciences to contemplate the value of science. Midway through his characteristically eloquent and intellectually elegant lecture, addressing the country’s most orthodox audience of academic scientists, he burst into what can best be described as a splendid prose-poem about the mystery and wonder of life, inspired by a reflective moment he spent alone on the edge of the sea, where Rachel Carson too found the meaning of life. It later became the epilogue to Feynman’s final collection of autobiographical reflections, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (public library), published the year of his death.
In this ninth and final installment of the animated Universe in Verse, legendary cellist and Silkroad founder Yo-Yo Ma — one of the most boundlessly curious and wonder-smitten minds I know, who knew Feynman and shares with him a passionate appreciation of science as the native poetry of reality — brings this prose-poem to life in a soulful, symphonic reading with a side of Bach, animated by artist and designer Kelli Anderson (who previously animated Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” at the second annual Universe in Verse in 2018 and Amanda Palmer’s reading of “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich at the third live show in 2019).
Radiating from it all — from Feynman’s words, from Yo-Yo’s music, from Kelli’s animation — is what Feynman himself once told Yo-Yo: “Nature has the greatest imagination of all.”
[UNTITLED ODE TO THE WONDER OF LIFE]
by Richard Feynman
I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves… mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business… trillions apart… yet forming white surf in unison.
Ages on ages… before any eyes could see… year after year… thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what?… on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.
Never at rest… tortured by energy… wasted prodigiously by the sun… poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.
Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves… and a new dance starts.
Growing in size and complexity… living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein… dancing a pattern ever more intricate.
Out of the cradle onto the dry land… here it is standing… atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity.
Stands at the sea… wonders at wondering… I… a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.
Previously in the series: Chapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers); Chapter 4 (dark matter and the mystery of our mortal stardust, with Patti Smith and Rebecca Elson); Chapter 5 (a singularity-ode to our primeval bond with nature and each other, starring Toshi Reagon and Marissa Davis); Chapter 6 (Emmy Noether, symmetry, and the conservation of energy, with Amanda Palmer and Edna St. Vincent Millay); Chapter 7 (the science of entropy and the art of alternative endings, with Janna Levin and W.H. Auden); Chapter 8 (nonhuman consciousness and the wonder of octopus intelligence, with Sy Montgomery and Marilyn Nelson).
Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Apr 2022 | 3:09 am(NZT)
While the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell was contemplating social change and the life of the mind and her contemporary Walt Whitman was instructing America’s young on what it takes to be an agent of change, on the other side of the globe, the poetic and politically wakeful scientist Peter Kropotkin (December 9, 1842– February 8, 1921) was laying the foundation of a moral revolution while revolutionizing evolutionary biology.
Having grown up in the atmosphere of the European revolutions — that first continent-wide flare of warning that capitalism, with its basic power structure built upon labor-extorted property ownership, is not working for the vast majority of people — Peter (or, rather, Pyotr) was twelve when he renounced the hereditary title Prince. The son of an aristocratic patriarch who owned more than a thousand serfs, this precocious boy saw early and clearly how such staggering inequality foments abuses of power and feeds the worst of the human soul. He felt there must be another way for human beings to live together, felt a deep calling to find it.
At seventeen, Peter fell under Darwin’s spell and found in the dawning evolutionary science a ray of optimism for humanity — assurance that if the world can and does change, so can we; that we are not doomed to social conditions set in stone by some higher power that renders us powerless to evolve morally the way species evolve biologically. When his father withheld the kind of education he hungered for, the young man left for Siberia as an officer, using the military pretext to join geological expeditions and study glaciation — research he eventually published while in prison. He arrived in the tundra ablaze with idealism, with the yearning to change an oppressive system, and left with a lucid awareness that the system was broken beyond structural repair — he had seen the myriad abuses of government power, the corruption, the indifference; he had seen how the peasants governed themselves with a superior knowledge of the land and deep bonds of mutual trust.
Meanwhile, he was translating Voltaire into Russian, dreaming of a life modeled on Humboldt’s, writing a physics primer and a book on how advances in technology will liberate women from domestic drudgery, and diving deeper into evolutionary theory as he made meticulous field observations of the natural world, of how living creatures interacted with one another and with their environment. A century before Jane Goodall, Peter Kropotkin became the first scientist to speak of empathy among non-human animals and to insist, an epoch ahead of Lewis Thomas, that empathic altruism is our natural condition; a century before E.O. Wilson, he studied the extraordinary cooperation networks of social insects and drew from them mutual aid models for human society, culminating in his widely influential 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. These ideas came to permeate his political writings and activism, for which he was imprisoned in Russia and which, upon his escape, sent him into a four-decade exile in England, Switzerland, and France (where he was also imprisoned).
In a prefatory note on his most politically influential and prescient essay, “The Spirit of Revolt,” penned several years after he escaped from prison and posthumously included in the Kropotnik anthology Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings (public library), he writes:
In periods of frenzied haste toward wealth, of feverish speculation and of crisis, of the sudden downfall of great industries and the ephemeral expansion of other branches of production, of scandalous fortunes amassed in a few years and dissipated as quickly, it becomes evident that the economic institutions which control production and exchange are far from giving to society the prosperity which they are supposed to guarantee; they produce precisely the opposite result. Instead of order they bring forth chaos; instead of prosperity, poverty and insecurity; instead of reconciled interests, war; a perpetual war of the exploiter against the worker, of exploiters and of workers among themselves. Human society is seen to be splitting more and more into two hostile camps, and at the same time to be subdividing into thousands of small groups waging merciless war against each other. Weary of these wars, weary of the miseries which they cause, society rushes to seek a new organization; it clamors loudly for a complete remodeling of the system of property ownership, of production, of exchange and all economic relations which spring from it.
Action, the continuous action, ceaselessly renewed, of minorities brings about this transformation. Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic.
This action, Kropotkin believed, must be undertaken most ardently and purposefully by the young, including the young “in heart and mind” — those unbroken by the current system and therefore best poised for the moral leadership needed to revise it.
In his most widely circulated pamphlet, titled “An Appeal to the Young” and also included in the anthology, he addresses “young men and women of the upper classes” — those chance-born into lives of relative power and privilege, graced with access to good education and the opportunity to develop their natural talents — and exhorts them to put their gifts in the service of making life more livable for others. He writes:
I take it for granted that you have a mind free from the superstition which your teachers have sought to force upon you; that you do not fear the devil, and that you do not go to hear parsons and ministers rant. More, that you are not one of the fops, sad products of a society in decay, who display their well-cut trousers and their monkey faces in the park, and who even at their early age have only an insatiable longing for pleasure at any price… I assume on the contrary that you have a warm heart and for this reason I talk to you.
He proceeds to taxonomize the young into several groups — artists, scientists, lawyers, teachers, technologists — each uniquely suited to a particular contribution to social change. A quarter millennium after Galileo made his immortal case for critical thinking and a century before Carl Sagan composed his classic Baloney Detection Kit, Kropotkin reminds young scientists that the work of critical thinking is never complete and tasks them with seeding the spirit of reason into humanity’s bosom:
By working at science you mean to work for humanity, and this is the idea which will guide you in your investigations. A charming illusion!
More than a century has passed since science laid down sound propositions as to the origin of the universe, but how many have mastered them or possess the really scientific spirit of criticism? A few thousands at the outside, who are lost in the midst of hundreds of millions still steeped in prejudices and superstitions worthy of savages, who are consequently ever ready to serve as puppets for religious impostors… Why? Because science today exists only for a handful of privileged persons, because social inequality, which divides society into two classes — the wage-slaves and the grabbers of capital — renders all its teachings as to the conditions of a rational existence only the bitterest irony to nine-tenths of mankind.
In a sentiment Sagan would echo in celebrating science as a tool of democracy, Kropotkin observes that even more important than making new discoveries is incorporating the truths already discovered into the average person’s fundamental grasp of reality in order to eradicate the biases and superstitions that thwart justice:
The most important thing is to spread the truths already acquired, to practice them in daily life, to make of them a common inheritance. We have to order things in such wise that all humanity may be capable of assimilating and applying them, so that science ceasing to be a luxury becomes the basis of everyday life. Justice requires this… The very interests of science require it. Science only makes real progress when its truths find environments ready prepared for their reception.
With an eye to the long arc of dogma-change — “three generations had to go before the ideas of Erasmus Darwin on the variation of species could be favorably received from his grandson and admitted by academic philosophers, and even then not without pressure from public opinion” — he throws a bold gauntlet at the still-prevalent and lamentably backward notion that working scientists who are also elucidators and enchanters popularizing scientific ideas are somehow, despite being so doubly gifted and thus working doubly hard, lesser scientists:
You will understand that it is important above all to bring about a radical change in this state of affairs which today condemns the philosopher to be crammed with scientific truths, and almost the whole of the rest of human beings to remain what they were five or ten centuries ago, — that is to say, in the state of slaves and machines, incapable of mastering established truths. And the day when you are imbued with wide, deep, humane, and profoundly scientific truth, that day will you lose your taste for pure science. You will set to work to find out the means to effect this transformation… You will make an end of sophisms and you will come among us. Weary of working to procure pleasures for this small group, which already has a large share of them, you will place your information and devotion at the service of the oppressed… You will then find powers in yourself of whose existence you never even dreamed… Then you will enjoy science; that pleasure will be a pleasure for all.
Then, a generation before Rilke composed his Letters to a Young Poet, which remains the single finest packet of advice to artists, Kropotkin turns to the artists:
You, young artist, sculptor, painter, poet, musician, do you not observe that the sacred fire which inspired your predecessors is wanting in the men of today; that art is commonplace and mediocrity reigns supreme?
Could it be otherwise? The delight at having rediscovered the ancient world, of having bathed afresh in the springs of nature which created the masterpieces of the Renaissance no longer exists for the art of our time. The revolutionary ideal has left it cold until now, and failing an ideal, our art fancies that it has found one in realism when it painfully photographs in colors the dewdrop on the leaf of a plant, imitates the muscles in the leg of a cow, or describes minutely in prose and in verse the suffocating filth of a sewer…
What makes art meaningful, what makes it necessary, he intimates, is not increasing fidelity to the real but enduring fidelity to the ideal, to the human spirit in its highest possible manifestation, to the need for its elevation and emancipation commonly called justice — or what James Baldwin considered the artist’s responsibility to society.
Kropotkin especially admonishes young artists against falling into the trap of catering rather than creating — that vital difference Thoreau observed between the artisan and the artist, which often lures the talented into commercially lucrative applications of their gift that leave no lasting mark on humanity, serve no buoy for the human condition:
If… the sacred fire that you say you possess is nothing better than a smouldering wick, then you will go on doing as you have done, and your art will speedily degenerate into the trade of decorator of tradesmen’s shops, of a purveyor of libretti to third-rate operettas and tales for Christmas books… But, if your heart really beats in unison with that of humanity, if like a true poet you have an ear for Life, then, gazing out upon this sea of sorrow whose tide sweeps up around you, face to face with these people dying of hunger, in the presence of these corpses piled up in these mines, and these mutilated bodies lying in heaps on the barricades, in full view of this desperate battle which is being fought, amid the cries of pain from the conquered and the orgies of the victors, of heroism in conflict with cowardice, of noble determination face to face with contemptible cunning — you cannot remain neutral. You will come and take the side of the oppressed because you know that the beautiful, the sublime, the spirit of life itself are on the side of those who fight for light, for humanity, for justice!
No matter your particular gift, Kropotkin argues, it is only by such devotion to the higher aims of justice that your life grows animated by “a vast and most enthralling task, a work in which your actions will be in complete harmony with your conscience, an undertaking capable of rousing the noblest and most vigorous natures.”
This, after all, is the secret to a purposeful and gratifying life — that sacred harmonic where your native gift meets the world’s need and begins to sing.
Complement with Whitman’s enduring wisdom on living a vibrant and rewarding life and W.E.B. DuBois’s existential instruction to his young daughter, then revisit Seamus Heaney’s luminous and largehearted advice on life.
Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Apr 2022 | 10:04 am(NZT)
This is the eighth of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the previous installments here.
The “blind intelligence” by which a tree orients to the light in order to survive is a kind of hard-wired sentience, intricate and interconnected and aglow with wonder we are only just beginning to discover. But it is not consciousness as we understand it — that miraculous emergent phenomenon arising somewhere along the spectrum of sentience to endow creatures with the ability not only to be aware of our surroundings, not only to react to them with automated actions, but to respond to them with some measure of foresight, which presupposes some measure of hindsight, which in turn presupposes some measure of self-awareness, which culminates in qualia — the set of subjective experience that is the central fact of consciousness, the fundament of our lives.
For the vast majority of the evolutionary history of our species, we have assumed that humans alone have consciousness. Descartes, who so greatly leapt the scientific method forward by pioneering empiricism, also paralyzed our understanding of the mind with his dogmatic declamation that non-human animals are automata — fleshy robots governed by mechanistic reflexes, insentient and incapable of feeling. It took four centuries for this dogma to be upended after a young primatologist began her paradigm-shifting work in Gombe National Forest in 1960. Despite the tidal wave of dismissal and derision from the scientific establishment, Jane Goodall persisted, revolutionizing our understanding of consciousness and of our place in the family of life.
More than half a century later, some of the world’s leading neuroscientists composed and co-signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, asserting that a vast array of non-human animals are also endowed with consciousness. The list named only one invertebrate species.
The octopus branched from our shared vertebrate lineage some 550 million years ago to evolve into one of this planet’s most alien intelligences, endowed with an astonishing distributed nervous system and capable of recognizing others, of forming social bonds, of navigating mazes. It is the Descartes of the oceans, learning how to live in its environment by trial and error — that is, by basic empiricism.
Meanwhile, in those 550 million years, we evolved into creatures that placed themselves at the center of the universe and atop the evolutionary ladder, only to find ourselves in an ecological furnace of our making and to reluctantly consider that we might not, after all, be the pinnacle of Earthly intelligence.
That is what Marilyn Nelson explores with great playfulness and poignancy in her poem “Octopus Empire,” originally published in the Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day lifeline of a newsletter and now brought to life here, for this seventh installment in the animated Universe in Verse, in a reading by Sy Montgomery (author of the enchantment of a book that is The Soul of an Octopus) with life-filled art by Edwina White, set into motion by her collaborator James Dunlap, and set into soulfulness by Brooklyn-based cellist and composer Topu Lyo.
by Marilyn Nelson
What if the submarine
is praying for a way
it can poison the air,
in which some of them have
leaped for a few seconds,
felt its suffocating
Something floats above their
known world leading a wake
of uncountable death.
What if they organized
into a rebellion?
Now scientists have found
a group of octopuses
who seem to have a sense
of community, who
live in dwellings made of
gathered pebbles and shells,
who cooperate, who
defend an apparent
border. Perhaps they’ll have
a plan for the planet
in a millennium
or two. After we’re gone.
Previously in the series: Chapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers); Chapter 4 (dark matter and the mystery of our mortal stardust, with Patti Smith and Rebecca Elson); Chapter 5 (a singularity-ode to our primeval bond with nature and each other, starring Toshi Reagon and Marissa Davis); Chapter 6 (Emmy Noether, symmetry, and the conservation of energy, with Amanda Palmer and Edna St. Vincent Millay); Chapter 7 (the science of entropy and the art of alternative endings, with Janna Levin and W.H. Auden).
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Apr 2022 | 9:16 am(NZT)
In her 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key, the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer defined music as “a laboratory for feeling and time.” But perhaps it is the opposite, too — music may be the most beautiful experiment conducted in the laboratory of time.
In “the wordless beginning,” spacetime itself was crumpled and compacted into that spitball of everythingness we call the singularity. Even if sound could exist then — it did not, of course, because sound is made of matter — it would have existed all at once. Infinite numbers of every possible note would have been ringing at the same time — the antithesis of music. It is only because this single point of totality was stretched into a line that time was born and, suddenly, there was continuity. Suddenly, one moment became distinguishable from another — the strange gift of entropy, which makes it possible to have melody and rhythm, chords and harmonies.
Music — with all the mysterious power by which it “enters one’s ears and dives straight into one’s soul, one’s emotional center” — is made not of notes of sound but of atoms of time. And if music is made of time, and if time is the substance we ourselves are made of, then in some profound sense, we are made of music.
That — the physics and neuroscience of it, the poetry and unremitting wonder of it — is what the science-enchanted classical violinist Natalie Hodges explores in Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance, and the Science of Time (public library). She writes:
Music sculpts time. Indeed, it is a structuring of time, as a layered arrangement of audible temporal events. Rhythm is at the heart of that arrangement, on every scale: the cycling and patterning of repeated sound or movement and the “measured flow” that that repetition creates. The most fundamental rhythm is the beat itself, the pulse that occurs at regular intervals and thus dictates the tempo, keeps musical time. In music, a beat is no fixed thing — it can quicken into smaller intervals (accelerando) and stretch out into longer ones (decelerando), depending on the character of a given musical moment and the feeling or fancy of the performer — but it does remain periodic, predictable, inexorable. Even at the level of pitch, which is really the speed of a given sound wave’s oscillation, we are really hearing the rhythmic demarcation of time, a tiny heart whirring at a beat of x cycles per second.
Yet in every piece of music there are also higher temporal structures at play. Repetition begets pattern, and pattern engenders form, at every scale; thus musical form itself constitutes a macro-rhythm, a pattern of alternations that move the listener through time.
Our minds structure time through the detection of patterns and the predictive anticipation of recurring elements. But although this cognitive function unfolds unconsciously, it is not mechanistic, not robotic, but a vital pulse-beat of our humanity, vibrating with the neural harmonics of emotion, suffused with feeling — for all anticipation is a form of hope and all hope can be shattered or redeemed, taking our hearts along with it. Ever since Pythagoras revolutionized the mathematical structure of music by composing the world’s first algorithm, musicians have been deliberately breaking the buildup of patterns or triumphantly completing them in order to orchestrate an emotional response — the sorrow of unmet hope, the elated relief of its redemption.
With an eye to the basic chord progression, rooted in a tonic, and the satisfying resolution of a rondo, revolving around a circular theme, Hodges writes:
Such patterns, formal and harmonic, relate their components to one another in time. The ear can sense the harmonies to come based on the relative intensities of those that came before, or when thematic material will return by the buildup of a cadence at the end of a development section or variation. It is through this higher sense of rhythm, then, that a simple phrase or a complex form becomes a temporal object: time molded in order to manipulate emotion, putting you through the changes of the present only to bring you back to the past, locating you in a moment that is simultaneously familiar and wholly new.
In my native Bulgaria, the tonal tradition rests upon a pattern dramatically different from that of Western music and its twelve-tone scale. (This is why a Bulgarian folk song was encoded among the handful of sounds representing Earth on the Golden Record that sailed aboard the Voyager in humanity’s most poetic reach for making contact with the cosmos.) But while these underlying structures differ across cultures and epochs, music’s reliance on such patterns for its emotional effect is universal. Hodges observes:
The music of all cultures, each with its own unique rules to be followed and broken, both weaves and rends the tapestry of audible time. Our experience of musical temporality, like our experience of the day-to-day, consists of patterns of recurrence and, sooner or later, their violation.
Yet musical time differs from the quotidian passage of ordinary time, even as it exists within that passage. Or, at least, it manifests how susceptible time is to our conscious perception, as much as the other way around.
In a sentiment consonant with Virginia Woolf’s insight into the strange elasticity of clock-time, she adds:
Duration is not time — that is something different entirely, something utterly dependent on our perception… The malleability of our perception of time is the stuff of music itself. The concept of passage, the way we generally conceptualize time — seconds elapse into minutes, today becomes tomorrow — is of getting through from one thing to another. In music, time is inseparable from sound itself. A piece of music is a multidimensional entity, a creation molded from time’s clay.
In a passage that affirms anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s wonderfully apt word-choice for how we become who we are — by “composing a life” — Hodges returns to the elemental matter of music:
Time renders most individual moments meaningless, or at least less important than they originally seemed, but it is only through the passage of time that life acquires its meaning. And that meaning itself is constantly in flux; we are always making it up and then revising as we go along, ordering and reordering our understanding of the past in real time.
Form, in music, is inherently temporal. It gives some shape to time, or at least designates the pace and manner at which we move through a particular piece. Where do we fare forward or cycle back; which moments expand, and which contract? Likewise, memory — that most universal and yet individual of temporal structures — lends form and shape to experience in biographical time. We inhabit simultaneous, concentric timescales: the time line of the past coiled within the immediacy of the present moment unfolding. Memory creates a metonymic congruence between them, melding past with present in such a way that our former selves move forward with us in time.
Echoing the touching defiance at the heart of Auden’s classic hymn of resistance to entropy, Hodges writes:
Implicit in time’s asymmetry, then, is the notion of becoming. The universe unspools itself toward a state of higher entropy; its edges fray, its dust is swept into corners, and this process of degradation and erosion is what separates the future from the past. We think of “becoming” as moving toward something final, evolving into a more perfect and more stable state over time. Yet, by proceeding forward in time, that very process must involve itself in the increasing disorder of the universe. When we seek to become something or someone else, to change our lives and leave the past behind, we necessarily abandon ourselves to entropy: We scatter old pieces of ourselves, willfully smudge our edges and make a mess of things, strive to break free of old symmetries that we feel can no longer contain us. Or, perhaps, that very instinct to change ourselves is a kind of preemptive embrace of the chaos we know is to come, a sign that we have already begun to spin out of control, that time is passing and taking us along with it and that soon nothing will be as it once was.
A century after Virginia Woolf was staggered in her garden into her timelessly stunning insight that “behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself” — Hodges considers the elemental truth pulsating beneath our experience of music and of our very lives:
It’s a strange feeling, beautiful but also eerie: not only that you can step into time’s flow, but that you are the flow itself. I suppose at the heart of that feeling, too, lies the real trouble with time: the terrifying prospect that if time is so subjective, then we are necessarily alone in our unique experience of it. But isn’t it because time lives in us that we can shape it, sculpt it into phrases and cadences and giros and ochos; still it if not stop it, bend it if not vanquish it. And share it.
Complement Uncommon Measure — in which Hodges goes on to examine through the lens of music such facets of our temporal experience as grief and creativity — with some symphonic reflections on Bach and the mystery of aliveness, then revisit Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of artificial intelligence and two centuries of beloved writers on the singular power of music.
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Apr 2022 | 8:58 am(NZT)
This is the seventh of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the previous installments here.
In 1865 — a year before the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology, the year Emily Dickinson composed her stunning pre-ecological poem about how life-forms come into being — the German physicist Rudolf Clausius coined the word entropy to describe the undoing of being. The thermodynamic collapse of physical systems into increasing levels of disorder and uncertainty. The dissolution of cohesion along the arrow of time. Inescapable. Irreversible. Perpetually inclining us toward, in poet Mary Ruefle’s perfect phrase, “the end of time, which is also the end of poetry (and wheat and evil and insects and love).” Perpetually ensuring, in poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s perfect phrase, that “lovers and thinkers” become “one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.”
This transformation of order into disorder, of constancy into discontinuity, is how we register change and tell one moment from the next. Without entropy, the universe would be a vast eternal stillness — a frozen fixity in which never and forever are one. Without entropy, there would be no time — at least not for us, creatures of time.
Clausius built on the Greek word for transformation, tropē, because he believed that leaning on ancient languages to name new scientific concepts made them available to all living tongues, belonging to all people for all time. It pleased him, too, that entropy looked like energy — its twin in the making and unmaking of the universe. Energy, the giver of life. Entropy, the taker away. The frayer of every cell that animates our bodies with being. The extinguisher of every star that unlooses its thermal energy into the cold sublime of spacetime as it runs out of fuel, warming up the orbiting planets with its dying breath. We are only alive because our Sun is burning out. Without entropy, there would be no us.
The child of a physicist, W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) had no illusion about the entropic nature of reality — a science-lensed lucidity he wove into his poetic search for truth, for meaning, for a way to live with our human fragility, with our twin capacities for terror and tenderness inside an impartial universe he knew to be impervious to our plans and pleas. The child of two world wars, he had no illusion about how our humanity comes unwoven by its own pull but is also the enchanted loom that makes life worth living.
Just as Auden was reaching the peak of his poetic powers, the world’s deadliest war broke out, brutal and incomprehensible. It may be that art is simply what we call our most constructive coping mechanism for the incomprehension of life and mortality, and so Auden coped through his art. He looked at the stars and saw “ironic points of light” above a world “defenseless under the night”; he looked at himself and saw a creature “composed like them of Eros and of dust, beleaguered by the same negation and despair.”
“September 1, 1939” became a generation’s life-raft for “the waves of anger and fear” subsuming the unexamined certainties of yore, splashing awake the “euphoric dream” of a final and permanent triumph over evil. But the war went on, and in the protracted post-traumatic reckoning with its aftermath — this gasping ellipsis in the narrative of humanity — Auden revised his understanding of the world, of life, of our human imperative, and so he revised his poem.
In what may be the single most poignant one-word alteration in the history of our species, he changed the final line of the penultimate stanza to reflect his war-annealed recognition that entropy dominates all. The original version read: “We must love one another or die” — an impassioned plea for compassion as a moral imperative, the withholding of which assures the destruction of life. But the plea had gone unanswered and eighty million lives had gone unsaved. Auden came to feel that his reach for poetic truth had been rendered “a damned lie,” later lamenting that however our ideals and idealisms may play out, “we must die anyway.”
A decade of disquiet after the end of the war, he changed the line to read: “We must love one another and die.”
But there was a private reckoning beneath the public one — this, after all, is the history of humanity, of our science and our art. Auden was working out the world in the arena where we so often wrestle with the vastest, austerest, most abstract and universal questions about how reality works — the fleshy, feeling concreteness of personal love.
In the summer of 1939, just before the world came unworlded, Auden met the young aspiring poet Chester Kallman and fell in love, fell hard, fell dizzily into the strangeness of spending “the eleven happiest weeks” of his life amid a world haunted by death. Over the next two years, as the war peaked, this passionate love became a lifeline of sanity and survival. But Auden, already well into his thirties, kept longing for a stable and continuous relationship of mutual fidelity — the closest thing to a marriage their epoch allowed — and Kallman, barely twenty, kept wounding him with the scattered and discontinuous affections of self-discovery.
Throughout the cycles of heartache, Auden refused to withdraw his love — a stubborn and devoted love, opposing the forces of dissolution and disorder, outlasting the fraying of passion and the abrasions of romantic disappointment, until it buoyed their bond over to the other side of the tumult, to the stable shore of lifelong friendship.
For the remainder of his life, Auden summered with Kallman in Europe. They spent twenty New York winters as roommates in a second-floor apartment at 77 St. Marks Place in the East Village, later marked with a stone plaque emblazoned with lines from Auden’s ode to the foolish, fierce devotion that had prevailed over the lazy entropy of romantic passion to salvage from its wreckage the lasting friendship, the mutual cherishment and understanding that had bound them together in the first place.
“The More Loving One” — the second verse of which became the epigraph of Figuring, and which appears in Auden’s indispensable Collected Poems (public library) — is a poem both profoundly personal and profoundly universal, radiating a reminder that no matter the heartbreak, no matter the entropic undoing of everything we love and are, we are survivors. It is at once a childish fantasy chalked on the blackboard of consciousness — we do not, after all, survive ourselves — and a blazing manifesto for being, for the measure of maturity, for the only adequate attitude with which to go on living with the incremental loss that is life itself.
In this seventh installment of the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse (which returns as a live show next week), “The More Loving One” comes alive in a reading by astrophysicist, author, and OG Universe in Verse collaborator Janna Levin (who has previous inspirited many a splendid poem), animated by Taiwanese artist and filmmaker Liang-Hsin Huang, and winged with original music by Canadian double bassist, composer, and nature-celebrator Garth Stevenson.
THE MORE LOVING ONE
by W.H. Auden
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
Previously in the series: Chapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers); Chapter 4 (dark matter and the mystery of our mortal stardust, with Patti Smith and Rebecca Elson); Chapter 5 (a singularity-ode to our primeval bond with nature and each other, starring Toshi Reagon and Marissa Davis); Chapter 6 (Emmy Noether, symmetry, and the conservation of energy, with Amanda Palmer and Edna St. Vincent Millay).
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Apr 2022 | 4:36 am(NZT)
“A tree is a little bit of the future,” Wangari Maathai reflected as she set out to plant the million trees that won her the Nobel Peace Prize. But a tree is also an enchanted portal to the past — a fractal reach beyond living memory, beyond our human histories, into the “saeculum” of time.
In a scientific sense, a tree is both a perpetual death and practically immortal. Out of the beautiful paradox, this ever-dying immortality, arises something beyond scientific fact: Some great poetic truth quickens within you as you stand beneath one of the world’s oldest trees — older than your most distant known ancestor, older than your country, older than your country’s religion.
Something awakens in us then — the magnified understanding of our own souls that Whitman saw in trees, the magnified understanding of the kinship between souls that Ursula K. Le Guin saw, the broadened portal to aliveness that Anna Botsford Comstock saw. We see, too, that this majestic and mysterious something is made of the selfsame stardust that makes us, and in that knowledge — in that splendid fact of science, which is the native poetry of reality — we find the plainly hidden treasure of the miraculous.
That is what the poetic botanist Donald Culross Peattie (June 21, 1898–November 16, 1964) — who did for trees what Rachel Carson did for the sea — explores in his mid-century masterpieces on the natural and cultural history of trees, which began (like Carson’s prose poetry of science) on the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, grew into smaller separate books, and were eventually collected many tree-rings later in the single volume A Natural History of North American Trees (public library), illustrated with gorgeous woodcuts by the artist Paul Landacre, born in the final years of the nineteenth century in a long lineage of scientists.
Crowning the Giant Sequoia — Sequoiadendron giganteum, also known as Mammoth-tree and California Bigtree Sierra Redwood — king in the kingdom of plants, Peattie captures its temporal majesty in his lyrical prose:
The calm deposition of the rings (rosy pink spring wood ending in the sudden dark band of summer wood) has gone on millimeter by millimeter for millennium after millennium — advancing ripples in the tide of time.
In that lovely way awe has of giving rise to wonder, then to wonderment, he adds:
Why, out of a world of trees, do these live longest? Why is a Cottonwood decrepit at seventy-five years of age, why does the Oak live three hundred summers? And since it can do so, why does it not endure a thousand? How does the Giant Sequoia go on growing, without signs of senility, until literally blasted from the earth by a bolt from heaven, a consuming fire, a seismic landslide, or a charge of dynamite?
One answer may lie in the very sap, for that of the Bigtrees contains tannic acid, a chemical used in many fire extinguishers. Though fire will destroy the thin-barked young Sequoias, when bark has formed on the old specimens it may be a foot and more thick and practically like asbestos. The only way that fire can penetrate it is when inflammable material becomes piled against the base and, fanned to a blowtorch by the mountain wind, sears its way through to the wood. Even then fire seems never to consume a great old specimen, no matter how it devours its heart. And the high tannin content of the sap has the same healing action that tannic acid has on our flesh when we apply it to a burn. The repair of fire damage by a Bigtree is almost miraculous. It begins at once, and even if the wound is so wide that it would take a thousand years to cover it, the courageous vegetable goes about the business as if time were nothing to it.
So we might say that Bigtree lives long because fire and parasites seldom succeed in storming its well-defended citadel. We might say all this and more, yet there remains some quantum of the inexplicable, and in the end we are forced to admit that Sequoias come of a long-lived race — whatever that means — and so outlast the very races of man.
Peattie considers the humble origins of that incomprehensible grandeur of space and time:
All this semieternal life, all these tons and tons of vegetation, come from a flaky seed so small that it takes three thousand of them to make up 1 ounce. The kernel is but 14 inches long, and inside it lies curled the embryonic monarch. There are commonly from 96 to 304 seeds to a cone, and the cones themselves are almost ridiculously small for so mammoth a tree. They do not mature till the end of the second season, and not until the end of the third, at the earliest, do they open their scales in dry weather and loose the seeds, which drift but a little way from the parent tree. Their method of transport is not only weak, but their viability is low; perhaps only half of the seeds have the vitality to sprout. And long before they do so, they are attacked, in the cone and out of it, by untold multitudes of squirrels and jays. Many do not fall upon suitable ground — mineral soil laid bare — but are lost in the duff of the forest floor. Of a million seeds on a tree in autumn, perhaps only one is destined to sprout when the snow-water and the sun of the late mountain spring touch it with quickening fingers.
From the outset, this tiny sprouting seed must overcome myriad possible destructions — must “oppose the Worm” and “elude the Wind,” to borrow from Emily Dickinson’s timeless ode to the resilience of living things — in order to stake its tender root into the ground, to comb out the gossamer root hairs that draw water from the soil so that it may eventually shoot up its fragile, fierce sprout into the sky. From then on, the gauntlet of survival continues — cutworms below and wood ants above, finches and chipmunks and ever-greedy squirrels by the legion. With the quiet largeness of heart that pulsates through his prose, Peattie writes:
If a seedling survives its first year, it may face the centuries with some confidence.
Up into the light and air grows the princeling. The youthful leaves are soft, glaucous blue green; the bark is still smooth and gray with no hint of red about it. The stocky shape of childhood gives way to a conical outline, and the young tree stands clothed to the base in boughs that droop gracefully at the tip, of wood strong yet supple… In the second century of life, the trees begin to assume a “pole form” — that is, with strong central trunk clear of branches for a long way, and a high peaked crown. Gone now are the drooping limber boughs of youth. In their place great arms begin to appear, leaving the trunk at right angles and then, bending up as if at elbows, lift leafy hands in a gesture of hosanna. The soft blue green foliage is replaced by metallic green. The smooth gray cortex gives way to the richly red bark of maturity. At last it is furrowed thicker than the brow of Zeus, and in the gales its voice begins, these years (and hundreds of years), to take on the deepest tone in the world’s sylva.
The Giant Sequoia’s grandeur is not only one of scale but also one of astonishing fertility. In the centuries-wide prime of its life, a single tree bears hundreds of thousands of cones, each blazing with hundreds of seeds — hundreds of potential majesties, most of which will perish in the gauntlet, giving life to colonies of ants and flocks of birds, giving testament to the elemental fact that all we know of life and all that remains of it are shoreless seeds and stardust.
Complement with Katherine May on how the science of trees illuminates the psychology of self-renewal, Hermann Hesse’s century-old love letter to trees, and Italian artist Bruno Munari’s mid-century existentialist tree-drawing exercise, then revisit the poetic science of chlorophyll.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Apr 2022 | 3:22 am(NZT)
The capacity for hope is not merely a hallmark of human consciousness — it is the supreme umbilical cord between consciousnesses. To place our hope in another person is to instantly entwine destinies, linking self and other in a tender and tenacious recognition of interdependence. All love is a form of hope. All hope is the work of absolute sincerity, which is the emblem of being fully human.
A cynic would hasten to retort that this openhearted expectancy is precisely what makes hope a portal to disappointment — but cynicism is, of course, the terror of sincerity, the cowardly attempt at self-protection from the heartache of unmet hope. If we are serious about the evolution of consciousness — and of our understanding of consciousness — we must place hope at the helm.
It has taken us four centuries to revise the dangerous Cartesian reductionism of “I think, therefore I am” into a version of “I feel, therefore I am” as neuroscience is reaching beyond the brain to illuminate our conscious experience as a full-body phenomenon. The next frontier might be “I hope, therefore we are” — hope is the poetics of conscious interbeing, transforming the other from object to subject, the way poetry subjectifies the universe.
The French philosopher and playwright Gabriel Marcel (December 7, 1889–October 8, 1973) explores this with uncommon intellectual elegance and sensitivity in his 1962 book Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope (public library). Challenging the ordinary understanding of otherness as absolute — as a clear demarcation between person and person — Marcel reframes it as a relative position, oriented by hope:
My relationship to myself is mediated by the presence of the other person, by what he is for me and what I am for him. To love anybody is to expect something from him, something which can neither be defined nor foreseen; it is at the same time in someway to make it possible for him to fulfill this expectation. Yes, paradoxical as it may seem, to expect is in someway to give: but the opposite is none the less true; no longer to expect is to strike with the sterility the being from whom no more is expected. It is then in some way to deprive him or to take from him in advance what is surely a certain possibility of inventing or creating [himself]. Everything looks as though we can only speak of hope where the interaction exists between him who gives and him who receives, where there is that exchange which is the mark of all spiritual life.
This dialogue between giving and receiving, Marcel intimates, is the natural gateway to self-transcendence as giver and receiver enter a kind of disinterested and nonjudgmental love — love beyond demand and neediness, which are problems of self-concern and self-reference, problems not of expectation but of the judgment of expectation. He writes:
It is precisely where such love exists, and only where it exists, that we can speak of hope.
We might say that hope is essentially the availability of a soul which has entered intimately enough into the experience of communion to accomplish in the teeth of will and knowledge the transcendent act.
Viewed as self-transcendence, hope becomes a compassionate exchange not only between two people but between all people — an exercise in “widening our circles of compassion,” to borrow Einstein’s lovely phrase. Marcel honed this insight on the whetstone of wartime terror during the Nazi occupation of France, addressing the question of how one can go on hoping amid a world that so readily compels to despair, and whether to hope or not to hope is even a personal choice at all in such a world. (Meanwhile, his compatriot Albert Camus was polishing his impassioned conviction that “there is no love of life without despair of life.”) To those who feel imprisoned by despair, for whom to hope appears utterly beyond their power, Marcel answers with the ultimate, most lucid and luminous antidote to cynicism, which is at bottom a form of alienation from life and each other:
The simple fact that you ask me the question already constitutes a sort of first breach in your prison. In reality it is not simply a question you ask me; it is an appeal you address to me, and to which I can only respond by urging you not only to depend on me but also not to give up, not to let go, and, if only very humbly and feebly, to act as if this Hope lived in you… What is important to understand thoroughly is that if it is shifted to the level of intersubjectivity, the problem changes its nature: the despairing person ceases to be an object about which one asks [and] is re-established in his condition as a subject, and at the same time, he is integrated into a living relation with the world of men, from which he had cut himself off.
The year Gabriel Marcel died, as entire nations were cutting themselves off from each other in the Cold War’s atmosphere of mutual terror, E.B. White considered the question of hope amid pervasive despair in his lovely letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity. Half a century later, Nick Cave took up the subject in answering a young father’s question about how not to taint his small son with his own loss of hope and faith in humanity, his growing cynicism, his despair. Cave writes:
Cynicism is not a neutral position — and although it asks almost nothing of us, it is highly infectious and unbelievably destructive. In my view, it is the most common and easy of evils.
I know this because much of my early life was spent holding the world and the people in it in contempt. It was a position both seductive and indulgent. The truth is, I was young and had no idea what was coming down the line. I lacked the knowledge, the foresight, the self-awareness. I just didn’t know.
With an eye to his own life-recalibrating collision with loss, Cave adds:
It took a devastation to teach me the preciousness of life and the essential goodness of people. It took a devastation to reveal the precariousness of the world, of its very soul, to understand that it was crying out for help. It took a devastation to understand the idea of mortal value, and it took a devastation to find hope.
An epoch of devastations and triumphs after Leonard Bernstein made his largehearted, life-tested case against the cowardice of cynicism and Maya Angelou observed that “there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” Cave pits cynicism against hope:
Unlike cynicism, hopefulness is hard-earned, makes demands upon us, and can often feel like the most indefensible and lonely place on Earth. Hopefulness is not a neutral position either. It is adversarial. It is the warrior emotion that can lay waste to cynicism. Each redemptive or loving act, as small as you like… keeps the devil down in the hole. It says the world and its inhabitants have value and are worth defending. It says the world is worth believing in. In time, we come to find that it is so.
Complement with Jane Goodall on the deepest wellspring of hope, Rebecca Solnit’s classic manifesto for lucid hope in dark times, and Hermann Hesse’s response to a young man who had lost hope after World War I, then revisit Nick Cave on the paradox of creativity and poet May Sarton on the cure for despair.
Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Apr 2022 | 12:44 pm(NZT)
“What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller wrote in her short, stunning poem about what gives meaning to our mortal lives.
To become precious — that is the work of love, the task of love, the great reward of love. The recompense of death. The human miracle that makes the transience of life not only bearable but beautiful.
It is heartbreaking enough that we do lose everything that exists, everything and everyone we love, until we lose life itself — for we are a function of a universe in which it cannot be otherwise. But it is our singular human-made heartbreak that we often cope with our terror of loss — that deepest awareness of our own mortality — by losing sight of just how precious we are to each other, squandering in less-than-love the chance-miracle of our time alive together, only to recover our vision when entropy has taken its toll, when it is too late. We write poems and pop songs about our self-made tragedy — “The art of losing isn’t hard to master“; “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” — and we go on living it.
Eight centuries before Mueller lived and died, an impassioned invitation to transcend our self-made tragedy took shape in another short, stunning poem by another poet of uncommon contact with the deepest strata of life-truth: Rumi (September 30, 1207–December 17, 1273), who believed that you must “gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being.” Rumi, ancient and eternal. Magnetic in his eloquent devotion and his soulful intelligence. Majestic in his whirling silk robe and his defiant disdain for his culture’s worship of status. Volcanic with poetry.
In his sixty-six years, Rumi composed nearly sixty-six thousand verses, animated by an ecstatic devotion to living more fully and loving more deeply. Having mastered the mathematical musicality of the quatrain, he became a virtuoso of the ghazal with its series of couplets, each invoking a different poetic image, each crowned with the same refrain — a kind of kinetic sculpture of surprise, rapturous with rhythm.
Reflecting on the creative challenge of invoking the poetic truth of one epoch and culture into another, she writes:
The languages of Farsi and English possess quite different poetic resources and habits. In English, it is impossible to reproduce the rich interplay of sound and rhyme (internal as well as terminal) and the wordplay that characterize and even drive Rumi’s poems. Meanwhile, the tropes, abstractions, and hyperbole that are so abundant in Persian poetry contrast with the spareness and concreteness characteristic of poetry in English, especially in the modern tradition. I have sought to honor the demands of contemporary American poetry and conjure its music while, I hope, carrying over the whirling movement and leaping progression of thought and imagery in Rumi’s poetry… I have chosen poems that seem to me beautiful, meaningful, and central to Rumi’s vision, poems that I felt I could successfully translate and that speak to our times.
What emerges is a testament to the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lovely notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”
Here is Haleh Liza Gafori reading for us her translation of Rumi’s lens-clearing invitation to step beyond our self-made tragedy and into the deepest, perhaps the only, truth of life:
LET’S LOVE EACH OTHER
by Rumi (translated by Haleh Liza Gafori)
Let’s love each other,
let’s cherish each other, my friend,
before we lose each other.
You’ll long for me when I’m gone.
You’ll make a truce with me.
So why put me on trial while I’m alive?
Why adore the dead but battle the living?
You’ll kiss the headstone of my grave.
Look, I’m lying here still as a corpse,
dead as a stone. Kiss my face instead!
Complement this fragment of Gold with James Baldwin on how separation illuminates the power of love and Thich Nhat Hanh on the art of deep listening — a practice also central to Rumi’s life — as the root of loving relationship, then revisit poet Jane Hirshfield’s timeless hymn to love and loss.
Source: Brain Pickings | 3 Apr 2022 | 4:39 am(NZT)
When Nietzsche weighed our human notion of truth, he regarded it as “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished.” This is true of truth in the human world, and this is where science and society differ. The disparity is the reason why the scientific perspective can offer such gladsome calibration and consolation for our human struggles.
In the world of science, we endeavor to uncover fundamental laws and elemental truths indifferent to our opinions of them — those selfsame truths and laws that made us and govern the electrical impulses coursing through our cortices at 100 meters per second to forge the thought-patterns of opinion. But in the human world where we live, we swirl in the movable host of human relations and rationalizations, vaguely aware that there is no universal truth and therefore no universal good, because every utopia is built on someone else’s back. We devise frameworks for righting our relations, which we call morality, but in our helpless confusion about what goodness is, we too readily mistake certainty for truth and self-righteousness for truth, then lash one another with our certitudes and rightneousnesses, mistaking the lashing for the light of morality.
When our species was younger and more frightened of reality, myths and religions have provided the comfort of easy causalities and easy moralities to salve the confusions of complexity. But as the epoch of scientific discovery began disproving some of those sacred certainties — first ejecting us from the placid plane of the flat Earth, then from our self-soothing centrality in the Solar System, then from our grandiose exceptionalism in the order of living things, then from our galactic exceptionalism — the moral certitudes about goodness also came unloosed, for they too were built upon the same self-righteous foundation as the old delusions about the geometry of the universe and the immutability of life-forms.
The dazzling-minded Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) took up these questions in her play Above the Gods — one of two Platonic dialogues she wrote in the 1980s, later included in the posthumous Murdoch anthology Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library), which remains one of the finest works of writing and thinking I have encountered.
Set in Athens in the late fifth century B.C. and structured as a conversation between a sixty-something Socrates, a twenty-something Plato, and four fictional Greek youths, the dialogue tussles with the question of whether the age of science has knelled the death toll of religion and, if so, where this leaves our search for truth and our longing for goodness — that elemental hunger for the ultimate meaning of reality, for our responsibility to reality.
When Murdoch’s Socrates observes that a distinction between religion and morality is yet to be made, without which the central question of reality and truth cannot be answered, an impassioned Plato responds:
Religion isn’t just a feeling, it isn’t just a hypothesis, it’s not like something we happen not to know, a God who might perhaps be there isn’t a God, it’s got to be necessary, it’s got to be certain, it’s got to be proved by the whole of life, it’s got to be the magnetic centre of everything.
And yet this more-than-feeling aims at something beyond religion, beyond even explicit knowledge, at the center of which is the idea — the existence — of goodness:
In a way, goodness and truth seem to come out of the depths of the soul, and when we really know something we feel we’ve always known it. Yet also it’s terribly distant, farther than any star… beyond the world, not in the clouds or in heaven, but a light that shows the world, this world, as it really is… In spite of all wickedness, and in all misery, we are certain that there really is goodness and that it matters absolutely.
Goodness, in Murdoch’s lovely conception, emerges as both object and background, both knower and known. This renders moot the objectifying question, voiced by one of Plato’s sparring partners — a young Sophist — of where goodness resides in relation to reality: either outside us, existing in something like a god, or within us, as an internal image we refer to. Observing that it is both inside and outside, Murdoch’s Plato responds:
Of course Good doesn’t exist like chairs and tables, it’s not… either outside or inside. It’s in our whole way of living, it’s fundamental like truth. If we have the idea of value we necessarily have the idea of perfection as something real… People know that good is real and absolute, not optional and relative, all their life proves it. And when they choose false goods they really know they’re false. We can think everything else away out of life, but not value, that’s in the very ground of things.
The question of goodness permeates Murdoch’s entire body of work, but she plumbs this particular aspect of it — its bearing on truth and morality, lensed through Plato — in greater depth in an essay titled On “God” and “Good,” also included in Existentialists and Mystics. With an eye to the relationship between the good and “the real which is the proper object of love, and of knowledge which is freedom,” she considers what it takes for us to purify our attention in order to take in reality on its own terms, unalloyed with our attachments and ideas.
What it takes, she suggests, is “something analogous to prayer, though it is something difficult to describe, and which the higher subtleties of the self can often falsify” — not some “quasi-religious meditative technique,” but “something which belongs to the moral life of the ordinary person.” Half a century after the existentialist and mystic Simone Weil liberated this raw mindfulness from the strict captivity of religion with her lovely observation that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” for it “presupposes faith and love,” Murdoch writes:
The idea of contemplation is hard to understand and maintain in a world increasingly without sacraments and ritual and in which philosophy has (in many respects rightly) destroyed the old substantial conception of the self. A sacrament provides an external visible place for an internal invisible act of the spirit.
Beholding beauty in nature and in art, Murdoch argues, can serve as a sort of sacrament for the spirit — the experience provides (in one of her loveliest phrases, and one of the loveliest concepts ever committed to words) “an occasion for unselfing.” But this experience, she cautions, is not easily extended into matters of people and actions — the matters morality aims to negotiate — “since clarity of thought and purity of attention become harder and more ambiguous when the object of attention is something moral. With an eye to Plato and his conception of beauty as the visible dimension of goodness, which is inherently invisible, she writes:
It is here that it seems to me to be important to retain the idea of Good as a central point of reflection, and here too we may see the significance of its indefinable and non-representable character. Good, not will, is transcendent. Will is the natural energy of the psyche which is sometimes employable for a worthy purpose. Good is the focus of attention when an intent to be virtuous co-exists (as perhaps it almost always does) with some unclarity of vision.
She invokes Plato’s famous allegory of the cave — humanity’s first great thought experiment about the nature of consciousness and its blind spots, in which the prisoners of unreality mistake the flickering shadows cast by the fire on the cave wall for the light of reality; but then, once set free by goodness and knowledge (and here is another exquisite formulation of Murdoch’s) “the moral pilgrim emerges from the cave and begins to see the real world in the light of the sun, and last of all is able to look at the sun itself.”
Shining the sunbeam of her own intellect on Plato’s blind spot to reveal the deepest meaning of morality, she writes:
Plato pictured the good man as eventually able to look at the sun. I have never been sure what to make of this part of the myth. While it seems proper to represent the Good as a centre or focus of attention, yet it cannot quite be thought of as a “visible” one in that it cannot be experienced or represented or defined. We can certainly know more or less where the sun is; it is not so easy to imagine what it would be like to look at it. Perhaps indeed only the good man knows what this is like; or perhaps to look at the sun is to be gloriously dazzled and to see nothing. What does seem to make perfect sense in the Platonic myth is the idea of the Good as the source of light which reveals to us all things as they really are. All just vision, even in the strictest problems of the intellect, and a fortiori when suffering or wickedness have to be perceived, is a moral matter.
In consonance with her famous assertion that “love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real” — a realization that is both the basis of morality and the motive force of science — she adds:
The same virtues, in the end the same virtue (love), are required throughout, and fantasy (self) can prevent us from seeing a blade of grass just as it can prevent us from seeing another person. An increasing awareness of “goods” and the attempt (usually only partially successful) to attend to them purely, without self, brings with it an increasing awareness of the unity and interdependence of the moral world. One-seeking intelligence is the image of ‘faith’. Consider what it is like to increase one’s understanding of a great work of art.
Complement these fragments from the wholly indispensable Existentialists and Mystics — which also gave us Murdoch on what love really means, art as a force of resistance, and the key to great storytelling — with philosopher Martha Nussbaum (who, is in many ways, Murdoch’s intellectual heir) on what it means to be a good human being and physicist Alan Lightman on our search for the meaning beyond reality’s truths.
Source: Brain Pickings | 31 Mar 2022 | 10:00 am(NZT)
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote as he contemplated the meaning of life in one of humanity’s greatest works of philosophy disguised as a children’s book.
The challenge, of course, is that what is essential — about the totality of life, as about every littlest thing in it — is not easily visible, largely because nothing is actually reducible, or should be reduced, to an essence: to a single point of truth, a particular attribute or quality that makes it what it is.
And yet we have betrayed the complexity of life with our longing for the shorthand of essences at least since Ancient Greece. The crucible of democracy was also the crucible of its antipode in essentialism — the idea that everything has an innate potentiality, which predetermines (and therefore limits) its possible development, and that, no matter what external forces are exerted on it, this innate essence remains immutable.
Even the deep-fathoming, far-seeing Aristotle fell under the spell of essentialism and, bamboozled by its dangerous implications, came to believe that women belonged lower on the social ladder than men because their essential nature was to be subordinate and slaves were enslaved because their essential nature was lacking a certain faculty of reason necessary for freedom.
All prejudice is at bottom essentialism: Some animals are more equal than others because it is their essential nature to be oppressor or oppressed; all entitlement is at bottom essentialism: I am owed something just by virtue of being me.
Essentialism is the human animal’s faulty coping mechanism for the fact that the world and everything in it is multifaceted and mutable, often dizzyingly so — something Chinua Achebe captured in his astute observation that “there is no one way to anything,” because nothing is one thing only, to be grasped by only one dimension and to serve only one possible purpose.
While Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince was making his otherworldly way into our mutable and multifarious world, Margaret Wise Brown (May 23, 1910–November 13, 1952) was taking up the question of what is essential from a very different angle in The Important Book (public library) — a minimalist, subversively conceptual, maximally delightful inquiry into the essence of a thing.
Published two years after Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon and illustrated by the prolific Leonard Weisgard (December 13, 1916–January 14, 2000) — who had reimagined Alice in Wonderland that same year and who would go on to illustrate Brown’s final books before her untimely death a couple of years later — the book unfolds as a spare, poetic catalogue of everyday things (spoons and daisies, the rain and the snow, the grass and the sky), each occupying a single spread, each following the same conceptual formula:
The important thing about X is Y.
X is also A, B, and C.
But the important thing about it is Y.
Brown — a woman of uncommon genius and nonconformity — begins with things that seem obvious, even banal. But her singular sensibility quickly becomes apparent: In telling us that the most important thing about the grass is its greenness, she lists among its other attributes the uncommon perception, stated as a common fact, that the grass is “tender,” imbuing so indifferent a life-form with so essentially human a quality. Instantly your mind bursts with scenes of lovers kissing in the grass and children playing in the grass — a single word-choice, and suddenly a universe of feeling.
About the snow — which is, most importantly, white — she observes with the same matter-of-factly nonchalance the poetic truth that it has “the shape of tiny stars.”
She moves through the most essential things about other common objects and phenomena: a spoon, an apple, the wind. But as the book progresses, there arises the strange and lovely awareness that you are being guided through the ordinary world by an extraordinary mind who sees the commonest things in uncommon ways.
By the time Brown arrives at the sky, she chooses as its most important attribute not the standard attributes — its blueness, its airy expanse — but that “it is always there.”
It must have been a comfort to her, to write these words in 1949, as her longtime lover Blanche — a poet and playwright, who wrote under the masculine pen name Michael Strange — was dying of leukemia.
Brown ends the book with the ultimate question of essences, which has puzzled philosophers since the ship of Theseus in Aristotle’s day: what makes you you — a constellation of atoms made of the selfsame stardust as every other person, yet singular, irreducible, unrepeated in any past configuration of matter and unrepeatable in any future.
Whatever changes you might undergo in your growth and becoming, Brown intimates, the important thing about you remains the same:
But to me (being the particular person I am) the loveliest and most important thing about The Important Book, radiating the essence of Brown’s personhood, is what appears on the back flap in place of the standard author and artist “about” text:
The important thing about
THE IMPORTANT BOOK
is that you let your child
tell you what is important
about the sun and the moon
and the wind and the rain
and a bug and a bee
and a chair and a table
and a pencil and a bear
and a rainbow and a cat
(if he wants to)
For the important thing about
THE IMPORTANT BOOK
is that the book goes on
long after it is closed.
Source: Brain Pickings | 28 Mar 2022 | 1:00 pm(NZT)