When the twenty-two-year-old Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) wrote to her mother one bleak January day, both women were wading through a darkness of the soul. Science was only just beginning to hone the tools with which to begin dissecting the elemental mystery of what makes us who we are: how much of our psychology and what we experience as our personhood — whether we call it self or soul or spirit — is a product of our physical constitution, of the particular biochemical processes coursing through our particular infrastructure of matter that we experience as our body. Neuroscience was then an infant science — it still is — and the helix of heredity had just been discovered, hinting at the promise of new clarity on the ancient puzzlement of nature versus nurture, new insight into how much of our psychology is a biological inheritance and how much an ongoing composition continually revised by the confluence of chance and choice we call experience.
Several years earlier, the teenage Plath had begun contouring her consciousness and mapping its psychological promontories, its luminous surfaces and its dark edges, rhapsodizing about the joy of living, thinking deeply about free will and what make us who we are, and composing her first tragic poem in response to a minor domestic accident. Two years before she shaded in what was becoming an all-consuming darkness in “The Disquieting Muses,” she wrote to her mother in a letter included in the posthumously collected Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library):
I don’t know whether it is an hereditary characteristic, but our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these last days I’ve been fighting an enormous battle with myself.
But then, with the presence of mind and the triumph of spirit that allowed to live through the remaining years of her life — years she filled with some of the most timelessly exquisite poetry ever written — she adds:
But beyond a point, fighting only wears one out and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy… Your present life is the important thing.
There is a dangerous fallacy — a biological falsehood, a feebleness of empathy, an ethical failing — in the view that people who die by suicide after living with mental illness have somehow failed at life. It is one thing to feel deeply the tragedy of that loss, to rue the help not available to them in their time of struggle; it is quite another to fault the faulty instrument itself. It is impossible for any one consciousness to truly know what living inside another is like in the first place — we make art and poems and songs to try to show each other what it is like to be alive in this body-mind. But it is especially unfathomable for a mind coursing with fairly ordinary biochemistry, housed in a brain with fairy ordinary neurophysiology, to grasp what it might be like to live with a mind inflamed by ceaselessly misfiring neurotransmitters or a mind housed in a brain with a large tumor pressing against the amygdala at every moment of every hour. To survive even a single day with such a mind is no small feat. To have not only survived thirty-one years, as Sylvia Plath did, but to have filled those years with works of staggering beauty, with poems that irradiate generations of lives — that is a rare triumph of the spirit.
Complement with May Sarton on the cure for despair and Lorraine Hansberry — another visionary artist of Plath’s generation, who also lived and made in the darkest depths — on the most reliable antidote to depression, then hear Meryl Streep read Plath’s stunning “Morning Song” and savor a rare glimpse of the poet’s inner world through her little-known paintings.
For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. 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 life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 May 2021 | 3:59 am(NZT)
“Words are events, they do things, change things… transform both speaker and hearer… feed energy back and forth and amplify it… feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her superb meditation on the magic of human communication. But words have limits, for they are the currency of concepts, yet so much of what we try to communicate to one another — so much of our emotional reality — lies in the realm of immediate experience beyond concept. Bach’s Goldberg Variations or a Rothko painting can color our consciousness with a feeling-tone that reaches beyond words to touch us, to transform us, to feed energy back and forth in ineffable ways. At its best, even poetry, though rendered in words, paints images that speak directly to our senses, sings in feeling-tones that harmonize our innermost experience. Poetry, after all, began with music, and music remains the most powerful instrument we have devised for conveying raw emotional reality — something the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay readily and memorably acknowledged when she proclaimed that she would rather die than live without music and exclaimed, “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is”; the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks found echoes of her sentiment in the science, observing music’s “unique power to express inner states or feelings [and] pierce the heart directly.”
Great picture-books achieve the same thing — which is why Maurice Sendak, perhaps the most poetic picture-book maker of all time, so ardently insisted on musicality as the key to great storytelling. Among the rarest triumphs of the genre is the wordless 2009 masterpiece The Tree House (public library) by Dutch father-daughter artist duo Ronald Tolman, a sculptor, painter, and graphic artist, and Marije Tolman, a graphic designer and children’s book illustrator.
The silent, symphonic story begins with a polar bear swimming gladsomely toward a solitary tree rising from the Arctic waters — a tree already signaling magical realism with its habitational improbability, its magic magnified by the wondrous treehouse poking through its branches.
As the bear settles blissfully onto the platform at the foot of the treehouse, it watches another bear, brown and friendly, approach in a boat.
With smiling curiosity about their new home, the two bears explore the treehouse together, then settle into a quiet companionship.
Absorbed in their books, they don’t notice the flamboyance of flamingos rushing toward the treehouse in a tidal wave of pink.
Soon, other creatures follow — the pandas and the peacock and the storks and the hippo. The rhino first rams into the tree trunk, testing the sturdiness of the structure before sprawling contentedly on the treehouse platform as the pandas play in the branches and the polar bear tenderly cradles a baby owl on its paw.
Like a great poem, this pictorial lyric lends itself to multiple conceptual readings. I watch my own interpretation branch off from the other central themes — solitude, camaraderie, loneliness, change — into the ecological: Trees are growing in the melted Arctic and vulnerable creatures are seeking refuge in the ramshackle safehouse of humanity, turning to us who have put them in peril to save them from perishing.
But humans are also the only creatures absent from the story — the treehouse seems like it was built a long time, abandoned, the cracks in it gaping unrepaired.
In the warm wordless silence of the story, I read a subtle admonition — unless we make wiser and more generous choices in our regard for the rest of nature, a posthuman future is the only possible future for an ecologically harmonious planet.
On the final spread, with all the other creatures vanished — back to their homes, or back to the stardust of nonsurvival — the two bears are left sitting side by side atop the empty treehouse, staring solemnly at the Moon, radiating the tender ecological counterpart to that wonderful line from artist Louise Bourgeois’s diary: “You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love.”
It occurs to me that an ecological ethic is itself a matter of filling our creaturely coexistence — which is always bounded by the finitude of our creaturely existence — with enough trust and love to make the precious improbability of life as gladsome as possible for all beings sharing this miraculous island of spacetime.
It is a pity that a mere decade after its birth, a book as uncommonly soulful as The Tree House can fall out of print in the world’s most ecologically impactful industrial nation — dead of negligence, dead by the commodification of culture that saturates the atmosphere of our epoch. Perhaps one day, some American publisher of sufficient moral courage and a creative ear for the unscreaming masterpieces of thought and feeling will bring it back from extinction. Meanwhile, a U.K. edition is available online from an independent English publisher and a couple of lovely prints from it are available on Marije Tolman’s website.
For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. 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 life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 May 2021 | 11:43 am(NZT)
To understand anything — another person’s experience of reality, another fundamental law of physics — is to restructure our existing knowledge, shifting and broadening our prior frames of reference to accommodate a new awareness. And yet we have a habit of confusing our knowledge — which is always limited and incomplete: a model of the cathedral of reality, built from primary-colored blocks of fact — with the actuality of things; we have a habit of mistaking the model for the thing itself, mistaking our partial awareness for a totality of understanding. Thoreau recognized this when he contemplated our blinding preconceptions and lamented that “we hear and apprehend only what we already half know.”
Generations after Thoreau and generations before neuroscience began illuminating the blind spots of consciousness, Aldous Huxley (July, 26 1894–November 22, 1963) explored this eternal confusion of concepts in “Knowledge and Understanding” — one of the twenty-six uncommonly insightful essays collected in The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment (public library).
Knowledge is acquired when we succeed in fitting a new experience into the system of concepts based upon our old experiences. Understanding comes when we liberate ourselves from the old and so make possible a direct, unmediated contact with the new, the mystery, moment by moment, of our existence.
Because the units of knowledge are concepts, and concepts can be conveyed and transmitted in words and symbols, knowledge itself can be passed between persons. Understanding, on the other hand, is intimate and subjective, not a conceptual container but an aura of immediacy cast upon an experience — which means it cannot be transmitted and transacted like knowledge. Our forebears devised ways of transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next — in words and symbols, in stories and equations — which ensured the survival of our species by preserving and passing down the results of experience. But knowing the results of an experience is not the same as understanding the experience itself. Complicating the matter is the added subtlety that we may understand the words and symbols by which we tell each other about our experience, but still miss the immediacy of the reality those concepts are intended to convey. Huxley writes:
Understanding is not conceptual, and therefore cannot be passed on. It is an immediate experience, and immediate experience can only be talked about (very inadequately), never shared. Nobody can actually feel another’s pain or grief, another’s love or joy or hunger. And similarly nobody can experience another’s understanding of a given event or situation… We must always remember that knowledge of understanding is not the same thing as the understanding, which is the raw material of that knowledge. It is as different from understanding as the doctor’s prescription for penicillin is different from penicillin.
Understanding is not inherited, nor can it be laboriously acquired. It is something which, when circumstances are favorable, comes to us, so to say, of its own accord. All of us are knowers, all the time; it is only occasionally and in spite of ourselves that we understand the mystery of given reality.
A century before Huxley, William James listed ineffability as the first of the four features of mystical experiences. But in some sense, all experience is ultimately mystical, for experience can only be understood in its immediacy and not known as a concept. (Half a century after Huxley’s generation swung open the doors of perception beyond concept with their psychedelic inquiries into the mysteries and mechanics of consciousness — and swung shut the scientific establishment’s openness to serious clinical research into the field with their unprotocoled playhouse of recreational neurochemistry — science is finally documenting the ineffable contact with raw reality as the primary payoff, both clinical and existential, of psychoactive substances.)
At the heart of Huxley’s essay is the observation that a great deal of human suffering stems from our tendency to mistake conceptual knowledge for understanding, “homemade concepts for given reality.” Such suffering can therefore be allayed by replacing the confusion with clarity — with a total awareness of reality, unfiltered by the “meaningless pseudoknowledge” that arises from our reflexive and all too human habits of “over-simplification, over-generalization, and over-abstraction.”
Such total awareness, Huxley observes, can produce an initial wave of panic at the two elemental facts it reveals: that we are “profoundly ignorant” — that is, forever lacking complete knowledge of reality; and that we are “impotent to the point of helplessness” — that is, what we are (which we call personality) and what we do (which we call choice) are merely the life of the universe living itself through us. (Anyone able to think calmly, deeply, and undefensively about free will will readily recognize this.)
And yet beyond the initial wave of panic lies a profound and fathomless sea of serenity — a buoyant peacefulness and gladsome accord with the universe, available upon surrender to this total awareness, upon the release of the narrative enterprise, the identity-intoxication, the conditioned reflex we call a self.
This discovery may seem at first rather humiliating and even depressing. But if I wholeheartedly accept them, the facts become a source of peace, a reason for serenity and cheerfulness.
In my ignorance I am sure that I am eternally I. This conviction is rooted in emotionally charged memory. Only when, in the words of St. John of the Cross, the memory has been emptied, can I escape from the sense of my watertight separateness and so prepare myself for the understanding, moment by moment, of reality on all its levels. But the memory cannot be emptied by an act of will, or by systematic discipline or by concentration — even by concentration on the idea of emptiness. It can be emptied only by total awareness. Thus, if I am aware of my distractions — which are mostly emotionally charged memories or fantasies based upon such memories — the mental whirligig will automatically come to a stop and the memory will be emptied, at least for a moment or two. Again, if I become totally aware of my envy, my resentment, my uncharitableness, these feelings will be replaced, during the time of my awareness, by a more realistic reaction to the events taking place around me. My awareness, of course, must be uncontaminated by approval or condemnation. Value judgments are conditioned, verbalized reactions to primary reactions. Total awareness is a primary, choiceless, impartial response to the present situation as a whole.
Huxley notes that all of the world’s great spiritual traditions and all the celebrated mystics have attempted to articulate this total awareness, to transmit it to other consciousnesses in the vessel of concepts — concepts destined to enter other consciousnesses via the primary portal of common sense, and destined therefore to be reflexively rejected. In consonance with Carl Sagan’s admonition that common sense blinds us to the reality of the universe and Vladimir Nabokov’s admonition that it blunts our sense of wonder, Huxley writes:
Common sense is not based on total awareness; it is a product of convention, or organized memories of other people’s words, of personal experiences limited by passion and value judgments, of hallowed notions and naked self-interest. Total awareness opens the way to understanding, and when any given situation is understood, the nature of all reality is made manifest, and the nonsensical utterances of the mystics are seen to be true, or at least as nearly true as it is possible for a verbal expression of the ineffable to be. One in all and all in One; samsara and nirvana are the same; multiplicity is unity, and unity is not so much one as not-two; all things are void, and yet all things are the Dharma — Body of the Buddha — and so on. So far as conceptual knowledge is concerned, such phrases are completely meaningless. It is only when there is understanding that they make sense. For when there is understanding, there is an experienced fusion of the End with the Means, of the Wisdom, which is the timeless realization of Suchness, with the Compassion which is Wisdom in action.
In a sentiment the great Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would come to echo half a century later in his life-broadening teaching that “understanding is love’s other name,” Huxley concludes:
Of all the worn, smudged, dog-eared words in our vocabulary, “love” is surely the grubbiest, smelliest, slimiest. Bawled from a million pulpits, lasciviously crooned through hundreds of millions of loudspeakers, it has become an outrage to good taste and decent feeling, an obscenity which one hesitates to pronounce. And yet it has to be pronounced; for, after all, Love is the last word.
Complement this fragment of Huxley’s wholly illuminating and illuminated The Divine Within — which also gave us his meditation on mind-body integration and how to get out of your own shadow — with his contemporary Erich Fromm on the six steps to unselfish understanding and the pioneering nineteenth-century psychiatrist Maurice Bucke, whose work greatly influenced Huxley, on the six steps to cosmic consciousness, then dive into what modern neuroscience is revealing about the central mystery of consciousness.
For 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. 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 life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with donation.
Source: Brain Pickings | 12 May 2021 | 1:53 pm(NZT)
Frida Kahlo painted a hummingbird into her fiercest self-portrait. Technology historian Steven Johnson drew on hummingbirds as the perfect metaphor for revolutionary innovation. Walt Whitman found great joy and solace in watching a hummingbird “coming and going, daintily balancing and shimmering about,” as he was learning anew how to balance a body coming and going in the world after his paralytic stroke. For poet and gardener Ross Gay, “the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia,” is indispensable to the “exercise in supreme attentiveness” that gardening offers.
Essential as pollinators and essential as muses to poets, hummingbirds animate every indigenous spiritual mythology of their native habitats and are sold as wearable trinkets on Etsy, to be worn as symbols — of joy, of levity, of magic — by modern secular humans across every imaginable habitat on our improbable planet.
There is, indeed, something almost magical to the creaturely reality of the hummingbird — something not supernatural but supranatural, hovering above the ordinary limits of what biology and physics conspire to render possible.
As if the evolution of ordinary bird flight weren’t miracle enough — scales transfigured into feathers, jaws transfigured into beaks, arms transfigured into wings — the hummingbird, like no other bird among the thousands of known avian species, can fly backward and upside-down, and can hover. It is hovering that most defiantly subverts the standard physics of bird flight: head practically still as the tiny turbine of feather and bone suspends the body mid-air — not by flapping up and down, as wings do in ordinary bird flight, but by swiveling rapidly along the invisible curvature of an infinity symbol. Millions of living, breathing gravity-defying space stations, right here on Earth, capable of slicing through the atmosphere at 385 body-lengths per second — faster than a falcon, faster than the Space Shuttle itself.
That supranatural marvel of nature is what Sy Montgomery — the naturalist who so memorably celebrated the otherworldly marvel of the octopus — celebrates in The Hummingbirds’ Gift: Wonder, Beauty, and Renewal on Wings (public library). She writes:
Alone among the world’s ten thousand avian species, only those in the hummingbird family, Trochilidae, can hover in midair. For centuries, nobody knew how they did it. They were considered pure magic.
Even the scientists succumbed to hummingbirds’ intoxicating mysteries: they classified them in an order called Apodiformes, which means “without feet” — for it was believed (incorrectly) for many years that a hummingbird had no need for feet. It was thought that no hummingbird ever perched, accounting in part for its sun-washed brilliance: as the comte de Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, wrote in his 1775 Histoire naturelle, “The emerald, the ruby, and the topaz glitter in its garb, which is never soiled with the dust of the earth.”
Science, being the supreme human implement of self-correction, eventually caught up to the reality of the hummingbird’s wispy feet, then unpeeled a thousand subtler and more astonishing realities about the extraordinary feats of which this flying jewel is capable. Montgomery writes:
Hummingbirds are the lightest birds in the sky. Of their roughly 240 species, all confined to the Western Hemisphere, the largest, an Andean “giant,” is only eight inches long; the smallest, the bee hummingbird of Cuba, is just over two inches long and weighs a single gram.
Delicacy is the trade-off that hummingbirds have made for their unrivaled powers of flight. Alone among birds, they can hover, fly backward, even fly upside down. For such small birds their speed is astonishing: in his courtship display to impress a female, a male Allen’s hummingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky reaching sixty-one miles per hour, plunging from fifty feet at a rate of more than sixty feet per second — and pulling out of his plunge, he experiences more than nine times the force of gravity. Adjusted for body length, the Allen’s is the fastest bird in the world.
Since what we call magic is the eternal instinct of the human mind to mistake the boundaries of its understanding for the boundaries of reality, it is hardly a surprise that hummingbird flight was seen as magic for centuries; since science is the best tool we have for expanding the boundaries of our understanding, it wasn’t until the invention of photography and the invention of the stroboscope in the 1830s that the blur of the hummingbird hover was revealed to be wings beating at sixty times per second. The camera captured what was far too rapid for the human eye to register, liberating the human mind to probe the physics beneath the phantasm. Montgomery observes:
Hummingbirds are less flesh than fairies. They are little more than bubbles fringed with iridescent feathers — air wrapped in light. No wonder even experts who are experienced with other birds are intimidated by this fragility.
This fragility is why tender armies of humans have taken it upon themselves to help hummingbirds survive the gauntlet of an increasingly perilous world. The book is as much a love letter to these uncommon feathered creatures — by a human who learned everything she knows about how to be a good creature from a lifetime of working with non-human animals — as it is a love letter to the uncommon human animals toiling as hummingbird rehabilitators in kitchens and backyards, each “a Mother Teresa, a Saint George, a little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike — desperately trying to fend off the hordes of monstrous perils facing these tiniest of all birds.” Montgomery quotes one such hero — a Pennsylvanian named Mary Birney:
Their feet are like thread… Touching them damages their feathers. Yes, they are made of air — air and a humongous heart. That’s all they are. It floors me I’m able to work with them.
And yet for all their fragility, hummingbirds are endowed with strength that, when adjusted for bodyweight, would render its human analogue superhuman. Montgomery details the physiology and physics of their infinity-symbol hover wingbeat:
The upstroke as well as downstroke require enormous strength; every stroke is a power stroke. Like insects and helicopters, hummingbirds can fly backward by slanting the angle of the wings; they can fly upside down by spreading the tail to lead the body into a backward somersault. Hovering becomes so natural to a hummingbird that a mother who wants to turn in her nest does it by lifting straight up into the air, twirling, then coming back down. A hummer can stay suspended in the air for up to an hour.
Hummingbirds are specially equipped to perform these feats. In most birds, 15 to 25 percent of the body is given over to flying muscles. In a hummingbird’s body, flight muscles account for 35 percent. An enormous heart constitutes up to 2.5 percent of its body weight — the largest per body weight of all vertebrates. At rest, the hummingbird pumps blood at a rate fifteen times as fast as that of a resting ostrich, and that blood is exceptionally rich in oxygen-carrying hemoglobin.
Churning beneath these feats of vigor is a Herculean metabolism that demands a greater volume of food per bodyweight than any other vertebrate. If a human were to sustain the activity level of a hummingbird, they would have to consume 155,000 calories per day — nearly 80 times what the United States government recommends for an average adult — and would ultimately self-combust as their body temperature rises to 370 degrees Celsius, or around 700 Fahrenheit. Montgomery furthers the marvelous mathematics of equivalency:
To fuel the furious pace of its life — even resting, it breathes 250 times a minute, and its heart pounds at five hundred beats per minute — a hummer must daily visit fifteen hundred flowers and eat six hundred to seven hundred insects. If the nectar alone were converted to its human equivalent, that would be fifteen gallons a day.
At its large heart, this slender book — like all of Montgomery’s books, composed in the tradition of Rachel Carson — is as much a love letter to a particular creature as a clarion call to our entire ecological conscience: Hummingbirds occupy that singularly ominous Venn diagram between the pollinators whose populations are collapsing by the minute and the 2.8 billion birds that have vanished from the North American sky since the founding of Earth Day half a century ago. With her spare poetics, Montgomery offers an admonition radiating an invitation:
Today, perhaps more than ever before, we thirst for community; we hanker for transformation; we long to reconnect with the incandescence of life. We need to make those inner journeys. But what if there are no bees or butterflies or hummingbirds to accompany us? It’s a growing possibility.
Meanwhile, we have The Hummingbirds’ Gift to widen us with wonder at the seeming impossibility of these fragile, fierce marvels of nature — and to render us wondersmitten with the hope that if individual humans are capable of bringing individual hummingbirds back to life from the brink of death, then perhaps our entire species is capable of rehabilitating an entire planet; perhaps we are capable of a great deal more care and tenderness than we realize toward the myriad marvelous creatures with whom we share the ultimate cosmic miracle of life, this staggering improbability that is — somehow, somehow — possible.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 May 2021 | 2:45 pm(NZT)
“Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world,” artist Egon Schiele wrote in contemplating why visionaries tend to come from the minority. Artists are so often those whom society paints as other by some hue of identity and belonging, and yet they are also the ones who, in seeing how and what most people don’t see, teach us what it takes to be ourselves, what it feels like to be someone other than ourselves, and what it means to be a human being.
Iris Murdoch found in this the ultimate evidence of why art is essential for democracy; in it, James Baldwin recognized the titanic dual task of the artist as society’s essential destabilizing force and its “emotional or spiritual historian,” whose job it is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”
We make art with everything we are, the doom and the glory of it. We make art to know ourselves, to locate ourselves in the web of being, to make ourselves more alive. We make art that, at its best, helps other people locate themselves and live.
All artists know this and feel this, consciously or not, but few have contemplated that knowledge more deeply and articulated it more beautifully than Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990), whose largehearted art has touched countless lives and helped generations of humans — this one included — live.
Haring explores this question with uncommon thoughtfulness and tenderness throughout his diary, posthumously published as Keith Haring Journals (public library) — the wondrous cathedral of creative vitality rising at the intersection of the intimate and the universal that gave us Haring’s impassioned insistence on the love of life even in the face of death.
In the early autumn of 1978, having just left Pittsburgh to begin his brave new life as an artist in New York City, the twenty-year-old Haring finds himself sitting in Washington Square Park — a microcosm of the city’s vibrant polyphony of life. He takes out his journal and begins composing a long stream-of-consciousness meditation on art and life, at the heart of which is the sentiment that would come to define his creative ethos:
No two human beings ever experience two sensations, experiences, feelings, or thoughts identically.
I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman trying to bring ideas together.
Haring would devote the remainder of his short life to using art as a celebration of difference and an empathic bridge for coming as close as we can ever come to the way a consciousness other than our own is experiencing reality.
In an entry penned years later, not yet knowing his own consciousness is soon to meet its untimely end, he revisits the question of the ultimate function of art in human life — life inextricable from the larger web of life, the destructive unweaving of which had colored Haring’s childhood as the modern environmental movement was coming awake:
“Art”… is at the very basis of human existence. The need to separate ourselves and connect ourselves to our environment (world) is a primary need of all human beings.
Art becomes the way we define our existence as human beings. This has a perverse air to it, I admit. The very idea that we are so different from other beings (animals) and things (rocks, trees, air, water) is, I think, a great misconception, but if understood is not necessarily evil. We know that “humans” determine the future of this planet. We have the power to destroy and create. We, after all is said and done, are the perpetrators of the destruction of the Earth we inhabit. No matter how slowly this destruction is occurring, no matter how “natural” this de-composition is, we are the harborers of this change.
And yet even against this backdrop, Haring defies the easy defeatism of painting our species and our civilization as purely evil, of classing human nature as an antagonist of nature rather than its function and functionary, just as replete with the capacity for destruction as with the capacity for beauty — like nature itself. What dignifies us, what redeems us, what saves us from ourselves, is the animating impulse of art. He writes:
We are human and we “understand” beauty.
Complement with Virginia Woolf’s exquisite epiphany about what it means to be an artist and the childhood encounter in which Pablo Neruda found the ultimate metaphor for why we make art, then revisit Drawing on Walls — poet Matthew Burgess and muralist Josh Cochran’s picture-book biography of Haring, inspired by his altogether ravishing journals.
Source: Brain Pickings | 5 May 2021 | 7:22 am(NZT)
On May 3, 1921, John J. Fitz Gerald — a sports journalist for the New York Morning Telegraph reporting on the horse-racing circuit — suddenly began referring to results from New York City as news from “the big apple.” He soon titled his entire column “Around the Big Apple,” extolling the Big Apple as “the dream of every lad that had ever thrown a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen.” Eventually, people began wondering why he had so nicknamed their city.
Five years after he first began using the term, Fitz Gerald half-answered.
Several years earlier, traveling to New Orleans for a race, he had overheard two African American stable hands discussing the horses in their respective care and where they were headed next. One of the young men told the other, in a “bright and snappy” quip, that the horse was going to “the big apple.” Fitz Gerald, knowing that the horse was in fact headed to New York City, seized on the term without asking where it came from — something about it just felt like the right poetic image for the grandeur and lushness of life in his hometown.
He died without ever saying anything else about it, having seeded into the urban dictionary the single most powerful and recognizable botanical metaphor in popular culture.
A century after the inception of the term, while curating and hosting an apple-tree planting ceremony at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, I found myself wondering what the metaphor was actually for.
Immersed in the world of apples — apples as botany, apples as poetry, apples as cultural symbology — my historical voracity and scholarly stubbornness grew restless with the unsolved mystery of why the two men in New Orleans had referred to the city that way in the first place. It is a term now familiar the world over, yet opaque even to New Yorkers, most of whom either know nothing about the origin at all or know one of the several circulated origin myths since debunked. The scholar Barry Popik has done most of this debunking, but his considerable work on the history of the moniker focuses more on how the term bloomed into popular culture after Fitz Gerald popularized it. I was interested in the roots, predating Fitz Gerald and predating even the young men from whom he had heard it.
After extensive trawling of archival newspapers, out-of-print books, and oral histories, I emerged with a working theory.
In the early nineteenth century, as newspapers became the first truly mass medium, they quickly bent under the same market forces that warp today’s online journalism and social media — forces they themselves engineered with the formative model of trading an audience for advertising revenue, with attention as the currency. Tempted to grow their audience, newspapers increasingly sacrificed substance and integrity at the altar of scale, inventing what we now call “clickbait” — sensational titles designed to grab the reader’s most primal attention, hovering over mediocre stories of moderate entertainment value and no lasting intellectual or emotional reward.
There were then, as there are now, several primary categories of clickbait. Let us call one of them Big Things.
With the Industrial Revolution still perfecting its human-made Big Things, news of the biggest bridge yet and the deepest oil well yet and the tallest building yet made regular headlines. But America was still primarily an agricultural nation — such industrial feats so scintillated precisely because they were few and far between, isolated to the major cities. Throughout the vast sweep of farmland that was the rest of the country, farmers could not compete with bridges and buildings. But they could make their own claims to the Big Things category with human-assisted feats of nature, taking especial pride in fruits, vegetables, and animals that grew to staggering size under their care. (The notion of genetics, and therefore of mutation, was still foreign — size was seen less as a chance-stroke of nature than as a metric of farming acumen.)
Of those, exceptionally big apples were the most popular news item.
By the 1850s, a new term had emerged: “to wager a big apple,” or “to bet a big apple” — which meant to risk your best, the measure of your skill and character, taking a chance on something promising but uncertain.
In an era before Abraham Lincoln wagered his own biggest apple on the Emancipation Proclamation, it was an act of tremendous courage for a black person in the South to travel North in pursuit of their freedom and their basic human rights. To do this, people risked everything they had. Many lost everything they had — including their lives. New York City, with its lively liberal culture and its political umbilical cord to somewhat more egalitarian Europe still uncut, appeared as a particularly fertile garden for personal liberation and self-actualization — not only for fugitive slaves, but for anyone who came from very little and dared dream of very much: immigrants, entrepreneurs, women interested in soaring beyond the domestic sphere, dissenters against dogma and convention along every axis of identity and equality. It is where Frederick Douglass journeyed to begin his free life — a life that reshaped his country’s political conscience — and where Margaret Fuller journeyed to lay the foundation of modern feminism.
It is where Kahlil Gibran journeyed to find his voice as a poet, painter, and philosopher, trading his native Lebanon for this strange and wondrous city where one is bound to “gaze with a thousand eyes and listen with a thousand ears all through the day,” the place that a generation later staggered Italo Calvino as “the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day,” the place in which another generation later Zadie Smith located the testing ground of the American dream.
In the generations since the term was coined, for those of us coming from other countries and cultures, with identities that are in any way other, escaping dictatorships or poverty or violent homes, or simply leaving behind lives too small for our dreams, beginning a new life in New York City has remained a wager of the biggest existential apple.
For a broader diameter of the cultural Venn diagram of New York and apples, savor some poetry, storytelling, and music from the planting ceremony for artist Sam Van Aken’s symphonic living sculpture Tree of 40 Fruit: New York Apples, freely available to any body in any city on Pioneer Works’ culturally lush online journal The Broadcast.
Source: Brain Pickings | 3 May 2021 | 1:38 pm(NZT)
Poetry interrupts the momentum of story, unweaves the narrative thread with which we cocoon our inner worlds. A single poetic image can lift us from the plane of our storied worldview toward the gasp of a whole new vista, where in the spacious silence of the unimagined we imagine ourselves afresh.
For Adrienne Rich, poetry was a tool to “break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire”; for Audre Lorde, a lens for focusing “the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives”; for Shelley, a tonic that “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being”; for Elizabeth Alexander, a fulcrum for raising the fundamental human question that so easily falls by distraction, indifference, and confusion: “And are we not of interest to each other?”
Sometimes — not often — prose can do that, prose that carries the spirit of poetry, the spirit that opens up rather than pins down the concepts language conveys.
Among the rare travelers between these twin worlds is the Irish-English poet and philosopher David Whyte.
Drawing on his superb collection of short semantic-lyrical essays, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library), he has created a series of poetry-driven guided broadenings of perspective for neuroscientist Sam Harris’s mighty contemplative toolkit Waking Up.
In his short introductory conversation with Sam, David reflects:
The object in meditation and all of our contemplative disciplines is silence. But… that silence is in order for you to perceive something other than yourself — what you’ve arranged as yourself to actually perceive this frontier between what you call your self and what you call other than your self, whether that’s a person or a landscape.
Echoing Susan Sontag’s observation that silence is a form of spirituality and a form of speech, he considers poetry as a channel for contemplative silence:
One of the greatest arts of poetry is actually to create silence through attentive speech — speech that says something in such a way that it appears as a third frontier between you and the world, and invites you into a deeper and more generous sense of your own identity and the identity of the world… Poetry is the verbal art-form by which we can actually create silence.
His essay on silence in Consolations harmonizes this sentiment:
Silence is frightening, an intimation of the end, the graveyard of fixed identities. Real silence puts any present understanding to shame; orphans us from certainty; leads us beyond the well-known and accepted reality and confronts us with the unknown and previously unacceptable conversation about to break in upon our lives.
And yet, echoing poet-philosopher Wendell Berry’s lovely insistence that in silence and solitude “one’s inner voices become audible [so that] one responds more clearly to other lives,” he adds:
In silence, essence speaks to us of essence itself and asks for a kind of unilateral disarmament, our own essential nature slowly emerging as the defended periphery atomizes and falls apart. As the busy edge dissolves we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.
Reality met on its own terms demands absolute presence, and absolute giving away, an ability to live on equal terms with the fleeting and the eternal, the hardly touchable and the fully possible, a full bodily appearance and disappearance, a rested giving in and giving up; another identity braver, more generous and more here than the one looking hungrily for the easy, unearned answer.
Consolations touched me deeply when I first read it several years ago and remains my regular companion through life, as does Waking Up, which has been nothing less than a lifeline this past life-syphoning year.
Complement this strand of contemplation with The Sound of Silence — a lovely Japanese-inspired illustrated serenade to the art of listening to the inner voice amid the noise of modern life — and Kahlil Gibran on silence, solitude, and the courage to know yourself, and then revisit David Whyte’s stunning lyric meditation on walking into the questions of our becoming.
Source: Brain Pickings | 1 May 2021 | 7:25 am(NZT)
It is 1928 and you are walking in Central Park, saxophone and wren song in the April air, when you spot her beneath the colossal leafing elm with her binoculars. You mistake her for another pearled Upper East Side lady who has taken to birding in the privileged boredom of her middle age. And who could blame you? In some obvious ways — polished and traveled, born into a wealthy New York family to a British father whose first cousin was Charles Dickens — she bears the markings. In some invisible ways — in the strata of personhood that our unchosen surfaces and accidents of birth are apt to conceal and shortchange — she is anything but.
Within a quarter century — a span in which she would change the course of culture and the vitality of nature for centuries to come — she would be celebrated on the pages of the nation’s most esteemed cultural journal as “the only honest, unselfish, indomitable hellcat in the history of conservation.” Those whom she held uncomfortably accountable would deride her as “a very hot potato” and a “common scold” — but that accountability would revolutionize policies and mindsets. She would become things the words for which — words all of us now live with, for things many of us are living — did not yet exist in the popular lexicon: dissident, activist, citizen scientist.
Rosalie Edge (November 3, 1877–November 30, 1962) was well into her fifties when she became invested in the plight of birds after reading about the slaughter of 70,000 bald eagles in Alaska. She would later write:
Thousands of people who had within them a yearning toward nature, a deep-seated need to preserve its beauty, had been in very truth asleep. I know, for I was one of them.
Until that point, her fierce wakefulness to justice had been channeled toward the plight of half of her own species, which culminated with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. But the multigenerational triumph left Edge — who had spent years composing pamphlets, delivering speeches, and serving as secretary-treasurer of the New York State chapter of the Woman Suffrage Party — with the postpartum hollowing of spirit that follows the completion of any project into which one has poured all of oneself.
But a person of passion and brilliance is never bored for long.
One night while traveling in Europe with her family, Edge found herself reading and rereading a sixteen-page pamphlet — the era’s primary whistleblowing medium — titled “A Crisis in Conservation.” It exposed the ties the nation’s network of Audubon Societies had to gun and ammunition makers and the consequent withholding of protection from species hunters considered pests or targets — including the bird, which this very nation had taken for its symbol and spirit animal: the North American bald eagle.
Edge’s family summoned her for dinner, but she kept pacing the room in fiery disbelief, later recalling:
For what to me were dinner and the boulevards of Paris when my mind was filled with the tragedy of beautiful birds, disappearing through the neglect and indifference of those who had at their disposal wealth beyond avarice with which these creatures might be saved?
As soon as she returned to America, still thinking about the eagles, Edge turned her wakeful intellect and indomitable passion for justice toward the broader fate of feathered beings in the hands of the thumbed.
On the eve of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Rosalie Edge, in her dress and her greying bun, walked across Central Park to the twenty-fifth annual gathering of the National Association of Audubon Societies. There, she calmly rose from the back to hold its leaders accountable for the practices revealed by the pamphlet. After a stunned silence, various men in power took turns with defensive stabs at her credibility, then derided the rhetorical style of the pamphlet without addressing its substance.
To Edge, this was only evidence that something was amiss, that she must persist until it is righted.
And so she did. Over the years that followed, Rosalie Edge “stood up very often,” as she later recalled. After seeing a photograph of hundreds of dead hawks neatly lined up on the Appalachian forest floor, she traveled to Eastern Pennsylvania to witness the barbaric tradition that had occasioned the horror: recreational hunters gathering every autumn to shoot thousands of migrating hawks, having stalked out the perfect summit from which to intercept the migration path and perform the mass slaughter.
Realizing that cruelty of such scale and such tradition required a solution just as grand, Edge had no qualms about using her privilege as an instrument of justice: She set out to buy the mountain.
In 1934, she borrowed $500 from Willard Gibbs Van Name (not that Willard Gibbs; the American Museum of Natural History zoologist who had first awakened her passion for conservation and with whom she had founded the Emergency Conservation Committee two years earlier), signed a two-year lease with the option of eventually buying the 1,400-acre wilderness for $3,000, and hired two wardens — an ornithologically ardent couple from New England — to keep hunters away. And so Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was born. Rosalie Edge was fifty-seven.
Within a single migration cycle, hawk populations improved dramatically. The sanctuary became a pioneering model of conservation, replicated by other conservationists in other habitats to protect other species. Nearly a century later, it is the world’s most active site of raptor conservation and observation.
For the remaining two decades of her life, Rosalie Edge went on to become one of the most vocal, visible, and effective champions of conservation, inspiring the founding of The Nature Conservancy, The Environmental Defense Fund, and The Wilderness Society; inspiring generations of ordinary citizens with her ethos that the protection of nature is not something to be awaited from above but a basic civic duty for each of us, echoing her contemporary and kindred spirit Eleanor Roosevelt’s insistence on the power of personal responsibility in social change.
The New York Times never honored the city’s most ecologically impactful daughter with an obituary, not even in their wonderfully redemptive and honorable series of post-posthumous obituaries of brilliant overlooked women. In Rosalie Edge’s lifetime, the paper’s sole headline containing her name — printed the year Olympic National Park was created largely thanks to the nationwide grassroots campaign Edge had spearheaded — hovers over a two-sentence report of a shoulder fracture that Edge, “known for establishing a mountain sanctuary for predatory birds,” had suffered upon slipping at a dance party. But she is redeemed at long last as one of the conservation heroes profiled and celebrated in Michelle Nijhuis’s altogether magnificent book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction (public library), in which Edge figures as an exquisite specimen of the species of visionaries Nijhuis interleaves into the broader story of conservation:
Each person profiled here stood, or stands, at a turning point in the story of modern species conservation — a story which, for better and sometimes worse, still guides the international movement to protect life on earth… Though they often used pragmatic arguments to convert others to their cause, their personal motivations ran deeper, for many had started keeping company with members of other species to escape their own troubles. Some were painfully shy, or burdened with mental or physical illness. Some were separated from spouses at a time when divorce was a scandal, or drawn to their own gender when homosexuality was taboo. Most of them knew something about suffering, and they found consolation in the sights and sounds of other forms of life.
With an eye to Edge and her legacy in particular, Nijhuis writes:
When Edge and Van Name founded the Emergency Conservation Committee, the language of ecology was still unfamiliar, even within the conservation movement. The concept of the food chain, sometimes called the food web, had been proposed only three years earlier by the British ecologist Charles Elton. The word “ecosystem,” commonly used in ecology and conservation to describe an assemblage of interacting species and their physical surroundings, would not be coined until 1935. Many scientists — and most of the general public — continued to think of the living world as an assembly of relatively independent parts, not an interconnected whole.
Edge’s understanding of ecological relationship… set her apart from most conservationists of her time. Her concern for all species and her opposition to most hunting were shared by animal welfare activists, including many of the women who opposed the plume trade. But while Edge hated cruelty to individual animals, she devoted most of her energy to preventing the extinction of species.
She quotes Edge herself, who observed two generations after Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology:
The birds and animals must be protected not merely because this species or another is interesting to some group of biologists, but because each is a link in a living chain.
I first came within the aura of Edge’s influence during my long immersion in Rachel Carson world in the research for Figuring: Edge — who died months after Silent Spring raised its epoch-making voice of ecological conscience, and who never lived to see it inspire the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency — had been an early voice of dissent and admonition against the heedless use of pesticides. She had furnished Carson, who visited Hawk Mountain two decades earlier, with key DDT data about the pesticide’s savaging impact on birds.
While Rosalie Edge did not have Rachel Carson’s poetic gift, her fierce devotion to hawks inspired it: Carson, who would soon popularize the esoteric word ecology, composed one of her most breathtaking essays about the interconnectedness of nature upon returning from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in 1945:
They came by like brown leaves drifting on the wind. Sometimes a lone bird rode the air currents; sometimes several at a time, sweeping upward until they were only specks against the clouds or dropping down again toward the valley floor below us; sometimes a great burst of them milling and tossing, like the flurry of leaves when a sudden gust of wind shakes loose a new batch from the forest trees.
On the horizon to the north, formed by a series of seven peaks running almost at right angles to the ridge on which we sit, an indistinct blur takes form against the sky. Second by second the outlines sharpen. Soon the unmistakable silhouette of a hawk is etched on the gray.
Here on the mountain top we are in the sweep of all the winds out of a great emptiness of sky, and the cold seeps through to the very marrow of my bones. But cold, windy weather is hawk weather, and so I am glad, although I shiver and my nose reddens, and I look speculatively at my thermos of hot coffee… Mists are drifting over the valley. A grayness overhangs all the sky and the clouds seem heavy with unshed rain. It is an elemental landscape — a great rockpile atop a mountain, nearby a few trees that have been stripped and twisted by the mountain winds, a vast, pale, arching sky.
Perhaps it is not strange that I, who greatly love the sea, should find much in the mountains to remind me of it. I cannot watch the headlong descent of the hill streams without remembering that, though their journey be long, its end is in the sea. And always in these Appalachian highlands there are reminders of those ancient seas that more than once lay over all this land. Halfway up the steep path to the lookout is a cliff formed of sandstone; long ago it was laid down under shallow marine waters where strange and unfamiliar fishes swam; then the seas receded, the mountains were uplifted, and now wind and rain are crumbling the cliff away to the sandy particles that first composed it. And these whitened limestone rocks on which I am sitting — these, too, were formed under that Paleozoic ocean, of the myriad tiny skeletons of creatures that drifted in its water. Now I lie back with half closed eyes and try to realize that I am at the bottom of another ocean — an ocean of air on which the hawks are sailing.
Source: Brain Pickings | 30 Apr 2021 | 10:09 am(NZT)
It is dazzling enough to live with the knowledge that everything around us — the fiery cardinal that evolved from the T-rex, the blooming daffodil that traded its sallow brown-green for blazing yellow to attract the primordial pollinators, the human eye millennia in the lensing, the eye that now beholds these wonders and inhales them into a consciousness endowed with the triumphal capacity for being wonder-smitten — is a living record of manifest possibility 13.8 billion years in the making.
Now consider living with the knowledge that all of it is not only the change log of the past, but also the pre-composed code of the future.
I consider this one April afternoon, sitting in a Brooklyn garden just coming alive with bud and bee, as I listen to a physicist-saxophonist friend electric with enthusiasm about his research exploring the radical mathematical implication that the universe might be autodidactic — that the fundamental forces, rather than abiding by the static and predictable laws we have so far discerned, might be the evolving self-perpetuating algorithms of the ultimate learning machine, algorithms that began as simple principles and went on to continually revise and elaborate on themselves, not unlike biological evolution is continually revising and elaborating on life. The fundamental poem, composing itself.
In detailing the physics behind this model, Stephon skips no beat honoring one of his great heroes, on whose shoulders this theory stands: Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), whose Nobel-winning work on quantum electrodynamics laid the foundation of quantum computing and its promise of enlisting phenomena like entanglement and superposition in computing the previously incomputable.
Feynman — physicist, philosopher, painter, bongo-drummer and safe-cracker — belonged to that rare species of scientist who reverenced the elemental poetics of reality in lyrical prose, who composed what may be the world’s most poetic footnote and loved as deeply as he thought and saw the poetic I of his human self as “a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.” His science and his spirit come alive afresh in a stunning prose poem titled “Richard P. Feynman Lecture: Intro to Symmetry” from the slender and splendid Quantum Lyrics (public library) by A. Van Jordan — a rare poet who reverences the elemental science of reality.
Love begins in the streets with vibration and ends behind closed doors in jealousy. Creation and destruction. What do we pray for but the equation that helps us make sense of what happens in our daily lives? What do we believe in if not that which tells us we’re alive? Sex, laughter, sweat, and equations elegant enough to figure on our fingers. Math is spirit and spirit is faith in numbers; both take us to the edge but no further than we can imagine. You don’t believe in math? Try to figure the velocity of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to land a man on the Moon without it. You don’t believe in God? Try to use math to calculate what the eye does every second of any given moment. If Big Blue tried to work that differential equation in our lifetime, it couldn’t. Mysteries inside mysteries in our own bodies of which we can’t make sense, another world waiting for a religion or calculus to explain. Look into any mirror; it’s like sitting in a theater watching a silent movie, but you’re the one pantomiming your story. You think you have this world figured out, but you can’t tell which hand you’re using and using and using. And why do we try?
We try, of course, because curiosity is the true triumph of consciousness; because what Einstein called “the passion for comprehension” is the hallmark of our species. We comprehend by parsing the world into categories and classes, constantly computing the distances and differences between them. This, it bears repeating, is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth — but it is also a limiting one, a dangerous one, nowhere more so than in the artificial binaries we create in trying to orient ourselves by differentiation.
With an eye to the limiting binaries of our Cartesian inheritance, and perhaps with an eye to his own experience of love — which every artist cannot but factor into their cosmogony — Jordan writes:
You cannot solve for the use of one side of the body over the other, so there is no single voice that emits from it. You cannot solve for the harmonics of a dual body, facing each other, both inquisitive. You cannot solve for the marriage of opposites, their fit, their match, their endlessness. You cannot solve for the morning stretch that calls to both sides, first this one, then that one, aligning the day. You cannot solve for the bass of one hand and the treble of the other, both keeping rhythm hostage under the skin of the bongo. You cannot solve for the balance of a locked door and a safe cracker’s ear against it and the move X number of clicks to the
leftand Y number of clicks back to the rightand back past and back past till the latch clicks open in your mind.
Complement this fragment of Jordan’s thoroughly wonderful Quantum Lyrics — which imagines the inner lives and animating forces of Einstein, Schrödinger, and other titanic scientific minds who have revolutionized our understanding of external reality — with Feynman on why uncertainty is essential for morality and his touching effort to reconcile what he knows about science with what he knows of love after the death of his young wife, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the complementarity of poetry and science.
Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Apr 2021 | 8:07 am(NZT)
“The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… Here is the Amen beyond the prayer,” Derek Jarman wrote as he grieved his dying friends, faced his own death, and contemplated art, mortality, and resistance while planting a garden between an old lighthouse and a new nuclear plant on a barren shingled shore.
Jarman is one of the artists whom Olivia Laing profiles and celebrates in Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (public library) — her superb collection of meditations 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 others.
Laing’s Jarman-fomented essay, titled “Paradise,” begins with the question of whether gardening is a form of art and ends with the question of 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.
To bridge Laing’s two questions, one must somehow reconcile these two temporal models: linear time, which the Greek called chronos and along which we plot the vector of progress, and cyclical time, or kairos, which is the time of gardens and, Laing intimates, the time of societies. We long for the assurance of steady progression, yet all around us the rest of nature churns in cycles. How do the cicadas know when to awake from their seventeen-year slumbers and rise up by the billions to make new life that will in turn repeat the cycle? And the migratory birds, “how can they know that it’s time to go?,” as Nina Simone asked in her serenade to time — Nina Simone, who also chose to cover Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” and who gave all she had to a movement the central concerns of which have returned a life-season later with redoubled urgency, its fruits only just beginning to ripen in our lifetime.
Therein lies the paradox — how do we practice resistance if time is the substance we are made of, as Borges so timelessly observed, and yet we live suspended between these two parallel versions of time as we try to build paradise?
“Resistance” has always been a funny word to me — one without direct translation in my native Bulgarian, in this particular context of constructive social change. It contours something necessary but not sufficient — while ennobling and empowering in its implication of defying wrongness, it limits its own power by ending at what is to be eradicated, without indication of what is to be grown in its place and how. In this respect, the resistance approach to human nature (and the consensual collective byproduct of human natures we call society) is like the pesticide approach to nature.
“Resistance” is a word especially limited by the elemental fact that there are certain things simply beyond the reach of resistance, impervious to our passions and protestations — spacetime, gravity, the fundamental laws that gave rise to our existence and will eventually return us to the stardust of which we are made. Your face will sag and your spine will bend under the twin assault of gravity and time, and so will mine, until our atoms disband altogether to become food for the worm and fertilizer for the mycelial wonderland from which bluebells will rise some future spring.
None of this we can resist.
But maybe — and that is what redeems and consecrates our finite human lives and our limited powers — within those parameters, there is space enough and spirit enough to resist what is poisonous to the ideological soil we call culture and persist in planting, for as long as we have to live and with as much generosity as we have to give, something lush and beautiful. That we might never live to see it bloom might just be okay. To have planted the seeds is satisfaction enough worth living for.
Laing lands in a kindred place. A century and a half after Thoreau contemplated the long cycles of social change and an increment after Zadie Smith reminded us that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Laing writes after a pilgrimage to Derek Jarman’s grave:
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.
The arc of the moral universe might not be so different from that of the stem bent with bluebells tolling their vernal reminder that change comes in cycles. Every arc, after all, is but a segment of a circle. What it takes to draw our share of it with a steady hand as we try “widening our circles of compassion” without the assurance of immediate results — that is the question we each answer with our lives.
Poet and gardener Ross Gay comes closest to my own answer in his life-tested conviction that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” As I roll in my palm six large seedpods of sea kale — a neglected flowering wonder I discovered on the pages of Derek Jarman’s journal — and thumb them into the moist Brooklyn soil where they may or may not sprout, I find more and more that attention is the elemental unit of time. Each moment we are fully paying attention is an atom of eternity. The quality of our attention measures the quantity of our aliveness — our sole generator of resistance and persistence.
This I know to be true: What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.
Source: Brain Pickings | 24 Apr 2021 | 1:49 pm(NZT)
“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Rachel Carson wrote as she reflected on science and our spiritual bond with nature a decade before she interleaved her training as a scientist and her poetic reverence of nature, nowhere deeper than in her tender love of birds, to compose Silent Spring — the epoch-making book that catalyzed the modern environmental movement and inspired the creation of Earth Day.
Two generations later, ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham — another scientist with a poet’s soul and the courage to fully inhabit both worlds — explores the abiding relationship between knowledge and mystery, between scientific truth and human meaning, throughout The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (public library).
Lanham — a self-described “man in love with nature,” “a seeker and a noticer,” “a wildling, born of forests and fields” who worships every bird he sees — was raised in large part by his grandmother, a woman of ample wisdom and ample superstition, whose ravishing love of nature inspired Lanham’s own and whose sometimes comical, sometimes concerning antiscientific beliefs inspirited him to get closer to the truth of things through science. His love of nature never left him but, in a testament to Richard Feynman’s timeless Ode to a Flower, was only magnified by the lucidity of his scientific training.
In consonance with poet Diane Ackerman’s lovely notion of living as an “Earth ecstatic” where others might subscribe to a particular religion, Lanham writes:
Evolution, gravity, change, and the dynamic transformation of field into forest move me. A warbler migrating over hundreds of miles of land and ocean to sing in the same tree once again is as miraculous to me as any dividing sea.
A century after quantum theory originator and Nobel laureate Max Planck argued that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve” — a sentiment Carl Sagan would later echo in his own singular poetics — Lanham adds:
For all those years of running from anything resembling religion and all the scientific training that tells me to doubt anything outside of the prescribed confidence limits, I find myself defined these days more by what I cannot see than by what I can. As I wander into the predawn dark of an autumn wood, I feel the presence of things beyond flesh, bone, and blood. My being expands to fit the limitlessness of the wild world. My senses flush to full and my heartbeat quickens with the knowledge that I am not alone.
One of the wonders of being human is that as much as we may be creatures among creatures, never alone in the web of life, there lives within each of us a parallel wilderness of presences and possible identities comprising the ecology of being we call personhood. Walt Whitman — a poet with a scientist’s soul — knew this when he described himself as a “kosmos” containing a multitude of identities and inheritances, creaturely, cosmic, and cultural. Lanham knows this in taxonomizing the Linnaean poetics of his own personhood:
My being finds its foundation in open places.
I’m a man of color — African American by politically correct convention — mostly black by virtue of ancestors who trod ground in central and west Africa before being brought to foreign shores. In me there’s additionally an inkling of Irish, a bit of Brit, a smidgen of Scandinavian, and some American Indian, Asian, and Neanderthal tossed in, too. But that’s only a part of the whole: There is also the red of miry clay, plowed up and planted to pass a legacy forward. There is the brown of spring floods rushing over a Savannah River shoal. There is the gold of ripening tobacco drying in the heat of summer’s last breath. There are endless rows of cotton’s cloudy white. My plumage is a kaleidoscopic rainbow of an eternal hope and the deepest blue of despair and darkness. All of these hues are me; I am, in the deepest sense, colored.
I am as much a scientist as I am a black man; my skin defines me no more than my heart does.
This integrated view of his interior ecology informs his integrated view of human society and our relationship with nature:
To save wildlife and wild places the traction has to come not from the regurgitation of bad-news data but from the poets, prophets, preachers, professors, and presidents who have always dared to inspire. Heart and mind cannot be exclusive of one another in the fight to save anything.
Complement with Thoreau on nature as prayer, his modern-day counterpart Sy Montgomery on what a lifetime of working with nonhuman animals taught her about the living holiness of nature, and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then savor this marvelous illustrating rewilding of the human spirit.
Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Apr 2021 | 3:30 pm(NZT)
“They should have sent a poet,” gasps Jodie Foster’s character in the film based on Carl Sagan’s novel Contact as another galaxy emerges before her eyes outside the spaceship window, redeeming with the wonder of possibility her lifelong dream of finding intelligent life beyond our solar system.
Sagan, who wrote the novel in 1985 and returned his stardust to the universe months before the film’s premiere in 1997, modeled Foster’s character — a scientist persisting in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence against the tidal force of resistance from the limited imagination of mainstream science — on the heroic longtime director of the SETI Institute: astronomer Jill Tarter.
In the spring of 2020, as our one and only world was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day while coming unworlded by a deadly pandemic, Dr. Tarter joined the human chorus serenading our cosmic belonging in The Universe in Verse — my annual charitable celebration of science and the natural world through poetry — to read a poem that could have been composed by her or for her or about her: “The Ball” by the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), who received her Nobel Prize with a stunning reflection on how our certitudes keep us small and whose poignant lesser-known prose has explored the paradoxes and opportunities of our cosmic solitude.
by Wisława Szymborska
As long as nothing can be known for sure,
(no signals have been picked up yet),
As long as earth is still unlike
The nearer and more distant planets,
As long as there’s neither hide nor hair
Of other grasses graced by other winds
Or other treetops bearing other crowns,
Other animals as well grounded as our own,
As long as the local echo
Has been known to speak in syllables
As long as there’s no word
Of better or worse mozarts,
platos, edisons out there,
as long as our inhuman crimes
are still committed only between humans,
as long as our kindness
is still incomparable,
peerless even in its imperfection,
as long our heads packed with illusions
still pass for the only heads so packed,
as long as the roofs of our mouths alone
still raise voices to high heavens —
let’s act like very special guests of honour
at the district fireman’s ball,
dance to the beat of the local oompah band,
and pretend that it’s the ball
to end all balls.
I can’t speak for others —
for me this
misery and happiness enough:
just this sleepy backwater
where even the stars have time to burn
while winking at us
“The Ball,” translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, appears in Szymborska’s indispensable Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library), which also gave us her ode to the number pi and her lovely “Possibilities.”
For more about Dr. Tarter, her inspiring story, and her poetic credo that “it takes a cosmos to make us human,” savor her On Being conversation with Krista Tippett. (Krista was also a part of The Universe in Verse in 2020 with a lovely reading of and reflection on Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” and in 2019 with Howard Nemerov’s ode to the interconnectedness of the universe.)
For more lush lyrical interleavings of our hunger for elemental truth and our search for human meaning, delve into the Universe in Verse archive, spanning several years and dozens of diversely inspiring humans reading perspective-broadening poems, including astronomer Natalie Batalha reading and reflecting on Dylan Thomas’s cosmic serenade to trees and the wonder of being human, musician Meshell Ndegeocello performing Whitman’s ode to the entwined mutuality of life, physicist Brian Greene reading and reflecting on Rilke and the nature of time, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her spare and poignant invocation of Einstein’s mother, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to Earth’s forests, and Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s poetic premonition of particle physics.
Source: Brain Pickings | 22 Apr 2021 | 6:31 am(NZT)
Walt Whitman, who considered trees the profoundest teachers in how to best be human, remembered the woman he loved and respected above all others as that rare person who was “entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”
At the outset of what was to become the most challenging year of my life, and the most challenging for the totality of the world in our shared lifetime, I resolved to face it like a tree — a resolution blind to that unfathomable future, as all resolutions and all futures tend to be, but one that made it infinitely more survivable. I was not the only one. Humans, after all, have a long history of learning resilience from trees and fathoming our own nature through theirs: Hesse saw in them the paragon of self-actualization, Thoreau reverenced them as cathedrals that consecrate our lives, Dylan Thomas entrusted them with humbling us into the essence of our humanity, ancient mythology placed them at its spiritual center, and science used them as an organizing principle for knowledge.
Artist and author Corinna Luyken draws on this intimate connection between the sylvan and the human in The Tree in Me (public library) — a lyrical meditation on the root of creativity, strength, and connection, with a spirit and sensibility kindred to her earlier emotional intelligence primer in the form of a painted poem.
Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s timeless and transformative mindfulness teachings, which she first encountered long ago in the character-kiln of adolescence and which profoundly influenced her worldview as she matured, Luyken considers the book “a seedling off the tree” from the great Zen teacher’s classic tangerine meditation — the fruition of her longtime desire to make something beautiful and tender that invites the young (and not only the young) to look more deeply into the nature of the world, into their own nature and its magnificent interconnectedness to all of nature. After years of incubation, after many trials that landed far from her vision, a spare poem came to her. Paintings grew out of the words. A book blossomed.
The tree in me
is seed and blossom,
bark and stump…
and part sun.
The singsong verses follow the protagonist — an everychild of ambiguous age, gender, and ethnicity — along a joyful journey of self-discovery, self-understanding, and self-appreciation through warm identification with various aspects of a tree: its irrepressible lushness, the effortless grace with which it bends without breaking, how it is constantly negotiating darkness and light, how it exists in exquisite interdependence with the rest of the living world.
There is a lovely visual nod to one of the most revelatory and paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries in our lifetime — the astonishing mycelial web by which trees communicate with each other underground, a discovery that may be nature’s loveliest metaphor for the secret of love.
As the child looks up to face a young woman — who could be a mother or a sister or a first love or the school janitor or the Vice President — the book ends with a subtle affirmation of William Blake’s timeless tree-tinted insistence that we see not what we look at but what we are.
Because there is
and a sky,
and a sun
I can see
that there is also
Couple The Tree in Me with The Day I Became a Bird — a kindred illustrated meditation on learning to let ourselves be seen — then revisit D.H. Lawrence on trees, solitude, and how we root ourselves when relationships collapse and Mary Oliver’s short, shimmering poem “When I Am Among the Trees.”
Illustrations by Corinna Luyken; book photographs by Maria Popova
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Apr 2021 | 2:19 pm(NZT)
Who could fault us, really? Who could fault us — exquisite miracles of evolution with a wilderness of consciousness compacted into a modest mammalian skull with a limited cognitive capacity — for being so staggered and stupefied by the knowledge that everything we have ever known and loved and warred over, every axon of every neuron of every mind doing the knowing, along with the mosquito and the moons of Saturn, the neutrino and Andromeda, all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego?
If we are lucky enough, if we are humble and awake enough, we might carve our confusion into an ode to “the singularity we once were.” Mostly, we blink in half-comprehending astonishment at the edge of terror — a consciousness as symphonic as ours cannot contemplate the beginning of time without a haunting awareness of the end of time, for we know that every beginning presupposes an end. We know with a mute creaturely knowledge, and we spend our complex lives hedging against it with all of our arts and antagonisms, that everything eventually ends — each love, each life, the universe itself. The succulent dream of eternity is kerneled with the hard fact that in a mere four billion years, the Sun — this common star whose modest yellow light kissed us into being amid the rude blankness of pure spacetime — will spin into its final collapse and take with it every mitochondrion and every trace of Beethoven. Who could fault us, then, for shuddering at the knowledge that all of it — all that glorious everythingness risen from the nothingness — will eventually vanish back into the void.
Against this backdrop of awareness, the task and triumph of life is to find our own answer, private and pliant, to the bellowing question of what confers meaning and beauty upon our ephemeral existence — which is what Vermont poet laureate Mary Ruefle offers with uncommon splendor of sentiment and image in her poem “Kiss of the Sun,” found in her altogether ravishing Selected Poems (public library).
Poetry entered my life fairly late along its finite trajectory, via my dear friend Emily Levine, who has since returned to the void. It has remained a friendship commons, a place to gather with humans I love and parse the meaning of why we are here, for as long as we share this improbable gift of aliveness. None has been more present or more kindred in this poetic adventure than Amanda Palmer. We began reading and reflecting on poems together in public between songs at Amanda’s shows nearly a decade ago. As our lives shape-shifted, as the world shape-shifted, we never stopped: poetry, a metronome of friendship; poems, atoms of time and atoms of trust. And so I have entrusted Amanda with breathing voice into Mary Ruefle’s gorgeous existential exhale of a poem.
KISS OF THE SUN
by Mary Ruefle
If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something
among people, then let this be prearranged now,
between us, while we are still peoples: that
at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry
(and wheat and evil and insects and love),
when the entire human race gathers in the flesh,
reconstituted down to the infant’s tiniest fold
and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge
of that fathomless crowd with an orange for you,
reconstituted down to its innermost seed protected
by white thread, in case you are thirsty, which
does not at this time seem like such a wild guess,
and though there will be no poetry between us then,
at the end of time, the geese all gone with the seas,
I hope you will take it, and remember on earth
I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw,
and if by chance there is no edge to the crowd
or anything else so that I am of it,
I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can.
Complement with Ruefle on why we read and her stunning color spectrum of sadness, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time” and physicist Brian Greene’s Rilkean reflection on filling our finitude with meaning.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Apr 2021 | 6:31 am(NZT)
The vast majority of our mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering comes from the violent collision between our expectations and reality. As we dust ourselves off amid the rubble, bruised and indignant, we further pain ourselves with the exertion of staggering emotional energy on outrage at how reality dared defy what we demanded of it.
The remedy, of course, is not to bend the reality of an impartial universe to our will. The remedy is to calibrate our expectations — a remedy that might feel far too pragmatic to be within reach in the heat of the collision-moment, but also one with profound poetic undertones once put into practice.
Walt Whitman understood this when, felled by a paralytic stroke, he considered what makes life worth living and instructed himself: “Tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.” He spared himself the additional self-inflicted suffering of outrage at how his body failed him — perhaps because, having proclaimed himself the poet of the Body and the poet of the Soul, he understood the two to be one. He squandered no emotional energy on the expectation that his suddenly disabled body perform a counterpossible feat against reality to let him enjoy his beloved tree workouts and daily excursions to the river. He simply edited his expectations to accord with his new reality and sought to find his joy there, within these new parameters of being.
What is true of the poetics of our own body-soul is as true of the poetics of relationship, that beautiful and terrifying interchange between separate body-souls. Little syphons the joy of life more surely than the wasted energy of indignation at how others have failed to behave in accordance with what we expected of them.
Two millennia before the outrage culture of the Internet, the lovesick queer teenager turned Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) addressed this curious self-mauling tendency of the human mind with his characteristic precision of insight and unsentimental problem-solving in the notebooks that became his Meditations (public library) — a timeless book, newly translated and annotated by the British classics scholar Robin Waterfield, which Marcus Aurelius wrote largely for and to himself, like Tolstoy wrote his Calendar of Wisdom and Bruce Lee calibrated his core values, yet a book that went on to stake the pillars of the philosophical system of Stoicism, equipping countless generations with tools for navigating the elemental existential challenges of being human and inspiring others to fill the gaps of its unaddressed questions with exquisite answers of their own.
Epochs before the birth of probability theory, Marcus Aurelius begins with a probabilistic-statistical consolation:
Whenever a person’s lack of shame offends you, you should immediately ask yourself, “So is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?” It isn’t, and you should therefore stop demanding the impossible. He’s just one of those shameless people who must necessarily exist in the world. You should keep the same thought readily available for when you’re faced with devious and untrustworthy people, and people who are flawed in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible for such people not to exist, you’ll be kinder to each and every one of them. It’s also helpful immediately to consider what virtue nature has granted us human beings to deal with any given offense — gentleness, for instance, to counter discourteous people…
Millennia before William James lit the dawn of modern psychology with the radical assertion that our experience is what we “agree to attend to,” millennia before neuroscience came to locate the seat of consciousness in the qualia of subjective experience, Marcus Aurelius serves that classic Stoic cocktail of simply worded obvious truths that are difficult truths to live up to, earned by a thousand complexities of conduct to be practiced daily:
The things of the world cannot affect the soul; they lie inert outside it, and only internal beliefs disturb it.
From this follows a curious, infuriating fundament of our humanity: that no matter what another person does — to us or at us or near the self-membraned bubble of our being — our inner response to it lives in the realm of feeling, that sovereign source of light over which we alone have agency and dominion. Even more infuriatingly, Marcus Aurelius reminds us, our outrage at some entirely predictable misbehavior by a person known to misbehave is a failure not of the other but of our own powers of reason:
You’ll find that none of the people who make you lose your temper has done anything that might affect your mind for the worse; and outside of the mind there’s nothing that is truly detrimental or harmful for you… After all, you even had the resources, in the form of your ability to think rationally, to appreciate that he was likely to commit that fault, yet you forgot it and are now surprised that he did exactly that.
Observing that to explode with rage at the offender would make no positive difference to their conduct and would only further perturb your own soul, he instead offers a two-step process for dealing with the situation, telescoping into the broad existential perspective and then microscoping into your own innermost values:
First, don’t be upset. Nothing happens that isn’t in accord with universal nature, and before long you won’t exist at all, just like [your heroes]… Second, fix your gaze on the matter at hand and see it for what it is, and then, keeping in your mind your obligation to be a good man and the demands of your humanity, go right ahead and do it, in the way that seems to you to be most just. But do it with kindness and modesty, and without dissembling.
This is but one manifestation of the central preoccupation of the Meditations — the lifelong project of learning to see clearly as the greatest self-defense against mental anguish. So much of our disappointment and rage, after all, stem from the clash between our misperceptions of things and the reality of things — they are the pain of disillusionment, inflamed in those moments when the veil of illusion is lifted or violently pierced to let us, finally, see reality.
Reaching across space and time, across cultures and civilizations, Marcus Aurelius prescribes the antidote:
Always define or describe to yourself every impression that occurs to your mind, so that you can clearly see what the thing is like in its entirety, stripped to its essence, and tell yourself its proper name and the names of the elements of which it consists and into which it will be resolved. Nothing is more conducive to objectivity than the ability methodically and honestly to test everything that you come across in life, and always to look at things in such a way that you consider what kind of part each of them plays in what kind of universe, and what value it has for the universe as a whole.
Clarity of vision, he reminds us, is the basis of rightful action, and while our own rightful action may not be a guarantee of our contentment — or what the Romans shorthanded as “the good life” — it is our only assurance toward it:
If you carry out every present task by following right reason assiduously, resolutely, and with kindness; if rather than getting distracted by irrelevancies, you keep your guardian spirit unspoiled and steady, as though you had to surrender it at any moment; if you engage with the task not with expectations or evasions, but satisfied if your current performance is in accord with nature and if what you say and express is spoken with true Roman honesty, you’ll be living the good life. And there’s no one who can stop you doing so!
Complement with Seneca, another apostle of Stoicism, on the antidote to anxiety and Marcus Aurelius himself, in a different translation of his Meditations, on the key to living with presence, the most potent motivation for work, and how to begin each day, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent more-than-translation of another ancient classic from the wisdom tradition of a different civilization, the Tao Te Ching. (One thing that has always troubled me about modern translations of ancient classics is that they present an opportunity to calibrate the inclusiveness of these teachings to our present hard-earned sphere of dignity without changing their message — an opportunity very few translators take, for it requires a formidably delicate balance between the rigors of scholarship and the responsibilities of a social conscience. Count on Le Guin, whose meditation on being “a man” remains the finest thing I have ever read on the history of gender in language, to leap at that opportunity and make something soaring.)
Source: Brain Pickings | 14 Apr 2021 | 7:08 am(NZT)
A century after the self-taught German naturalist and artist Maria Merian laid the foundation of entomology with her art, and a century before the Australian teenage sisters Harriet and Helena Scott fomented one of the greatest triumphs of conservation with their stunning butterfly drawings, John Abbot (1751–1841) became the first artist and naturalist to document pictorially the wing-borne beauty of the New World.
John was still a teenager when the Old World’s most venerated scientific institution, The Royal Society of his native London, took notice of his consummate entomological illustrations. While his trailblazing compatriot Sarah Stone was drawing the exotic animals of Australia and New Zealand, he was encouraged to leave for North America to help shed light on the insect corner of the continent’s largely unexplored living landscape.
And so, in the summer of his twenty-third year, John Abbot made the arduous Atlantic crossing, heading for the capital settlement of the first British colony in North America: Jamestown, Virginia.
From the moment he set foot on American soil, throughout those difficult early years as a young immigrant, throughout the scientific disenchantment with a habitat far less biodiverse than he had expected, he persisted in collecting and rearing insects, studying and drawing them to send his painstaking artwork back to London.
His first two shipments were lost at sea. Still, he persisted.
As the air grew flammable with the spirit of revolution, he considered returning to London, considered following in Merian’s footsteps and voyaging to the butterfly paradise of Surinam, but ultimately decided not to give up on America just yet.
In the harsh winter of 1775, he traveled to Georgia to stay with a family he had befriended during the transatlantic crossing — the Goodalls (possible kin of Jane Goodall). Living in a log cabin 100 miles outside Augusta, Abbot immersed himself in the world of insects and birds, studying and painting the dazzling diversity of winged life.
As the months unspooled into years, he went on drawing. He served in the British army during the Revolutionary War and went on drawing, got married, had a son, and went on drawing, lost his wife and went on drawing, with a particular passion for the rarest and most neglected of species.
By the end of his long life, more than double the era’s life expectancy, he had produced thousands upon thousands of illustrations of insects, including the native plants they live on and pollinate into life, and several sets of birds. Today, his work is celebrated as some of the finest pictorial scholarship in the history of science and some of the finest scientific illustration in the history of art, held and exhibited in natural history and art museums all over the world. The best of it is collected in Abbot’s magnum opus. The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (public library), originally published in 1797.
My favorite of his drawings, both aesthetically and scientifically, are the several species of hawk-moth, Sphingidae — the unsung heroes of the pollinator world.
They are the hummingbirds of the insect universe, with majestic bodies up to eightfold the weight of the average half-gram butterfly and a mighty flight-motor reaching up to 60 wingbeats per second. With tongues up to three times the length of their bodies, they pollinate some of Earth’s most fragrant blooming plants — jasmine, gardenia, honeysuckle, wild rose, evening primrose.
Complement with Stephen Jay Gould on what Nabokov’s butterfly studies reveal about the nature of human creativity and the fascinating natural history of how early pollinators gave Earth its colors, then revisit other stunning art from the golden age of natural history illustration: stunning snails from the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of mollusks, psychedelic fishes from the world’s first marine life encyclopedia in color, the vibrant life-forms of the Great Barrier Reef from the first study of one of Earth’s most delicate ecosystems, and the otherworldly beauty of jellyfish rendered by the artist-scientist who coined the word ecology.
Source: Brain Pickings | 11 Apr 2021 | 1:47 am(NZT)
My poet friend Marie Howe gives the students in her ecopoetry class a lovely assignment: At the outset of the semester, each young poet is asked to name the animal they find most repulsive, then to learn everything they can about it — scientifically, historically, culturally. By the conclusion of the course, they have to write a poem about it.
Inevitably, the creatures previously regarded as remote and abstract othernesses, caricatured by a few loathsome features, are gradually rendered interesting by the thousand small details of their being, complex and concrete. Because interest is the crucible of intimacy and intimacy the crucible of connection, because the light of attention cast upon the creatures renders them luminous golden threads indivisible from the tapestry of aliveness that makes our rocky planet an enchanted loom of a world, the poems inevitably become love poems.
So it is that any totality of love is born of the specifics — those footholds of understanding by which we ascend the ladder of appreciation and admiration to arrive at a particular and attentive love that subjectifies what it loves rather than objectifying it, the way Ursula K. Le Guin believed poetry subjectifies the universe.
Attention, after all, is the native poetry of consciousness and the most elemental form of love.
A quarter millennium after William Blake saw “a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower” and a century after William James laid the foundation of modern psychology with the then-radical assertion that your experience is what you agree to attend to, the great Vietnamese peace activist and Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh developed a simple, powerful instrument for refining attention, kindred to Marie’s poetic assignment, further miniaturized into a portable everyday aid for living with greater aliveness.
In a section of his 1992 classic Peace Is Every Step (public library) titled “Tangerine Meditation,” he observes that if you are offered a freshly picked tangerine, the magnitude of your enjoyment will depend on the level of your mindfulness:
If you are free of worries and anxiety, you will enjoy [the tangerine] more. If you are possessed by anger or fear, the tangerine may not be very real to you.
He goes on to share a reality-regrounding mindfulness practice from his work with children that is, like a great children’s book, a miniature masterpiece of philosophy and a psychological salve for any stage of life:
One day, I offered a number of children a basket filled with tangerines. The basket was passed around, and each child took one tangerine and put it in his or her palm. We each looked at our tangerine, and the children were invited to meditate on its origins. They saw not only their tangerine, but also its mother, the tangerine tree. With some guidance, they began to visualize the blossoms in the sunshine and in the rain. They saw petals falling down and the tiny fruit appear. The sunshine and the rain continued, and the tiny tangerine grew. Now someone has picked it, and the tangerine is here. After seeing this, each child was invited to peel the tangerine slowly, noticing the mist and the fragrance of the tangerine, and then bring it up to his or her mouth and have a mindful bite, in full awareness of the texture and taste of the fruit and the juice coming out. We ate slowly like that.
Echoing John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Thich Nhat Hanh adds:
Each time you look at a tangerine, you can see deeply into it. You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine. When you peel it and smell it, it’s wonderful. You can take your time eating a tangerine and be very happy.
For a different and equally potent take on how attention magnifies joy, drawing on a different orange fruit, savor Diane Ackerman’s sensual poem “The Consolation of Apricots,” then revisit Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle and powerful wisdom on mastering the art of “interbeing” we call love, the four Buddhist mantras for turning fear into love, and his wonderful hugging meditation — which might just be the loveliest way for this world to stretch itself alive after the long contact-famished stupor of a global pandemic.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Apr 2021 | 7:10 am(NZT)
“In forty years of medical practice,” the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients…: music and gardens.”
Virginia Woolf, savaged by depression throughout and out of her life, arrived at her buoyant epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking in her garden.
“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process.
“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her scientific-poetic serenade to gardening.
But if modern gardening has a patron saint, it must be the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994).
In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, Jarman 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.
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.
It is a different garden of Eden he is building on these windblown shores, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, too bedeviled by millennia of religion-fomented homophobia. Gardening becomes not only his salvation, but his act of resistance:
Before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.
Acutely aware that he could finish any moment, that he could be the next to go, Jarman turns his garden into processing ground for grief — a personal grief, a cultural grief, a civilizational grief:
The wind calls my name, Prophesy!
Time is scattered, the past and the future, the future past and present. Whole lives are erased from the book by the great dictator, the screech of the pen across the page, your name, Prophesy, your name!
But the ultimate gift of gardening is the way it concentrates and consecrates time, grounding the gardener in a present both conscious of and undistracted by the ongoing cycles of seasonality stretching across all past and all future.
In the first week of March, Jarman arrives at what may be the greatest reward of gardening, evocative of poet Ross Gay’s lovely sentiment that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” He writes:
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.
I am reminded of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s insight about film, Jarman’s primary creative medium — that its raw material and its gift to the viewer is time: “time lost or spent or not yet had.” I am reminded, too, of Seneca, writing two millennia earlier about mastering the existential math of time spent, saved, and wasted — I have found few that better clarify the difference between the three than the quiet lessons of gardening.
In the garden, Jarman discovers — or rather befriends — the most disquieting byproduct of time: boredom. Half a century after his Nobel-winning compatriot Bertrand Russell placed a capacity for boredom and “fruitful monotony” at the heart of human flourishing, Jarman contemplates his new cottage life away from London’s familiar “traps of notoriety and expectation, of collaboration and commerce, of fame and fortune,” and writes:
I have re-discovered my boredom here… where I can fight “what next” with nothing.
His boredom, like all of our boredom, becomes a laboratory for presence — a nursery in which to grow the capacity for paying attention, a studio in which to master the vital art of noticing, out of which our contact with beauty and gladness arises — the wellspring of all that makes life livable. In an entry from the last day of March, Jarman shines the beam of his garden-honed attention directly at the poetics of reality:
Sun a pure white globe in a chalky sky, mist blowing across the Ness in milky veils, silent pussy willow woods the palest pastel yellow luminous in the silvery light.
He finds again and again that the attention of presence and the attention of remembrance are one:
My garden is a memorial, each circular bed a dial and a true lover’s knot — planted with lavender, helichryssum and santolina.
And so this living temple of the present becomes a memorial of the future past and a monument to conservation. In one of the short poems punctuating his journal, penned as he records news of a government summit on global warming, Jarman addresses a visitor from the barely recognizable future:
to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
no longer remembered as earth
may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
perform an archeology of soul
on these precious fragments
all that remains of our vanished days
here — at the sea’s edge
I have planted a stony garden
dragon tooth dolmen spring up
to defend the porch
Complement Modern Nature — which I discovered through Olivia Laing’s magnificent essays on art, artists, and the human spirit — with Debbie Millman’s illustrated love letter to gardening and poet-gardener Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in willful gladness.
Source: Brain Pickings | 5 Apr 2021 | 1:55 pm(NZT)
To be human is to live suspended between the scale of snails and the scale of stars, confined by our creaturely limitations but not doomed by them — we have, after all, transcended them to compose the Benedictus and eradicate smallpox and land a mechanical prosthesis of our curiosity on Mars.
Our most pernicious creaturely challenge is not one of the imagination, which soars so readily when given half a chance, but one of perspective, so easily contracted by the fleeting urgencies of the present. On the scale of our individual lives and on the collective scale of the human future, there are few more gladsome correctives for our limitations than learning to take the telescopic perspective of time — which is why, for the past few years, I have poured my heart and every resource into the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory as a democratic dome of perspective and possibility for generations to come, and why I inscribed into its mission statement an aspiration irradiated by Whitman’s words: to make this cosmic calibration of perspective available to “all souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different… all nations, colors… all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe.”
But it was Whitman’s contemporary Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — America’s first professional female astronomer and a key figure in Figuring (from which this story is adapted) — who furnished the foundational inspiration for the endeavor: her quiet intellect, her indomitable spirit, her discomposing experience while visiting the most venerable observatories of the Old World — an experience that no human being should have along the vector of their talent and their dreams — and the way she emerged from that experience with the absolute determination to eradicate it from the world’s repertoire of exclusion.
Already an international scientific celebrity after the world-renowned comet discovery she had made while still in her twenties, Mitchell had spent a working as the first woman employed by the American federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe — all the while saving up for trip to visit the astronomical bastions of Europe and meet the scientists and poets who were her living heroes. In the summer of 1857, after the hardest winter of her life, she rounded up her savings for a transatlantic ticket, made the arduous journey from her native Nantucket Island to Manhattan, and boarded a steamer to Liverpool. Having narrowly avoided a collision with another ship during the ten-day crossing, it arrived in England on her thirty-ninth birthday.
With a prized letter of introduction from Sir John Herschel — the era’s most esteemed astronomer, who had played a key role in the birth of photography a quarter century earlier and had applauded Mitchell’s comet discovery — she hastened to meet her greatest scientific hero: the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist had been coined two decades earlier and whose amiable genius left Mitchell feeling that “no one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her.”
From England, with the help of Nathaniel Hawthorne — who had taken the post as American consul after his ill-fated almost-romance with Herman Melville — Mitchell set out to visit some of Europe’s intellectual luminaries, including her favorite poet, and to look through humanity’s finest telescopes. In Italy, she headed for the Observatory of Rome, mecca of the latest research on spectroscopy, but was jarred to learn that the observatory was closed to women. Somerville, by then revered as Europe’s most learned woman, had been denied entrance. Even Herschel had failed to arrange entry for his scientifically inclined daughter.
Mitchell recorded wryly in her diary:
I was ignorant enough of the ways of papal institutions, and, indeed, of all Italy, to ask if I might visit the Roman Observatory. I remembered that the days of Galileo were days of two centuries since. I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, — that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.
Mitchell was eventually allowed to enter with special permission from the Pope, obtained after American diplomats pressed on her behalf. An hour and a half before sunset, she was led through the church into the observatory, where she marveled at the expensive instruments the papal government employed in studying the very motions for which they had tried Galileo two centuries earlier. She had hoped to see nebulae through the observatory’s powerful telescope, but she was informed that her permission did not extend past nightfall and was hastily sent away. A woman of uncommon clarity about the art of knowing what to do with one’s life, she must have resolved, as soon as the back door spat her out into the narrow alley behind Collegio Romano, that when she built her own observatory, it would welcome any and all who hungered to commune with the cosmos.
Upon returning from Europe, Mitchell was greeted by an extraordinary gift — a five-inch refractor telescope, on a par with the instruments of the world’s greatest observatories, purchased through what may have been the world’s first crowdfunding campaign for science.
Elizabeth Peabody — who had coined the word Transcendentalism, revolutionized education, and introduced America to Eastern philosophy with her translations of Buddhist texts — had envisioned the project and spent years raising the $3,000 for the telescope through a subscription paper, rallying the women of New England to contribute: Kickstarter and Patreon rolled into one, a century and a half before either existed. Just as Mitchell was departing for her European journey, Emerson — the emperor of American intellectual life, whose unexpected praise had just lifted the struggling young Whitman out of despairing obscurity — had lent his voice to the crowdfunding effort on the pages of his popular magazine:
In Europe, Maria Mitchell would command the interest and receive the homage of the learned and polite, while in America so little prestige is attached to genius or learning that she is relatively unknown. This is a great fault in our social aspect, one which excites the animadversion of foreigners at once. “Where are your distinguished women — where your learned men?” they ask, as they are invited into our ostentatiously furnished houses to find a group of giggling girls and boys, or commonplace men and women, who do nothing but dance, or yawn about till supper is announced. We need a reform here, most especially if we would not see American society utterly contemptible.
While touring Europe’s iconic astronomical institutions, Mitchell had been dreaming up an observatory of her own. The crowdfunded telescope came as a wondrous surprise after a particularly difficult stretch for her, marked by the death of her great love, Ida, and her once-brilliant mother’s terrifying descent into dementia. The instrument became the first physical building block of her dream. Behind the school resembling a Greek temple where her father had once served as founding schoolmaster, she erected a simple eleven-foot dome that rotated on a mechanism made of cannonballs. A month before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, her observatory opened its doors and Mitchell began welcoming boys and girls. The crowdfunded telescope is still housed at the more recently built observatory across the street from Mitchell’s humble childhood home in Nantucket.
But beyond its material impact, crowdfunding bequeaths upon its beneficiary something even more powerful — a tangible token of solidarity and faith by a vast number of fellow humans, solidarity and faith that made all the difference to Mitchell as she endeavored to blaze a brand new path. Within a decade of the gift, she became the only woman on the faculty of the newly established Vassar College. She immersed her all-female students in an unexampled curriculum marrying mathematical physics with observational astronomy — something the all-male Harvard, which had dropped its mathematics requirement altogether in 1851, would later replicate. Mitchell’s students became not only the world’s first class of professional women astronomers but the first generation of Americans trained in what we now call astrophysics. Some of them went on to join the ranks of the famed “Harvard computers,” who revolutionized our understanding of the universe long before they could vote.
Occasionally, Mitchell punctuated her astrophysically ambitious lectures with glimpses of her life-tested credo, which must have sculpted her students’ spirits as much as her mathematical-astrophysical rigor sculpted their minds:
I am far from thinking that every woman should be an astronomer or a mathematician or an artist, but I do think that every woman should strive for perfection in everything she undertakes.
If it be art, literature or science, let her work be incessant, continuous, life-long. If she be gifted above the average, by just so much is the demand upon her for higher labor, by just that amount is the pressure of duty increased… Think of the steady effort, the continuous labor of those whom the world calls “geniuses.” Believe me, the poet who is “born and not made” works hard for what you consider his birthright. Newton said his whole power lay in “patient thought,” and patient thought, patient labor, and firmness of purpose are almost omnipotent.
Complement with more excerpts from Figuring, exploring the little-known humanity beneath celebrated legacies that have shaped our lives, then revisit Mitchell on how friendship transforms us and consider lending a friendly hand in the endeavor to honor her legacy by building New York’s first public observatory.
Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Apr 2021 | 5:52 am(NZT)
“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Leo Tolstoy — a man of colossal compassion and colossal blind spots — wrote while reckoning with his life as it neared its end.
“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac half-resolved, half-instructed an epoch later in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend.
Of course, even the best-intentioned of us are not capable of perpetual kindness, not capable of being our most elevated selves all day with everybody. If you have not watched yourself, helpless and horrified, transform into an ill-tempered child with a loved one or the unsuspecting man blocking the produce aisle with his basket of bok choy, you have not lived. Discontinuous and self-contradictory even under the safest and sanest of circumstances, human beings are not wired for constancy of feeling, of conduct, of selfhood. When the world grows unsafe, when life charges at us with its stresses and its sorrows, our devotion to kindness can short-circuit with alarming ease. And yet, paradoxically, it is often in the laboratory of loss and uncertainty that we calibrate and supercharge our capacity for kindness. And it is always, as Kerouac intuited, a practice.
In 1978, drawing on a jarring real-life experience, Naomi Shihab Nye captured this difficult, beautiful, redemptive transmutation of fear into kindness in a poem of uncommon soulfulness and empathic wingspan that has since become a classic — a classic now part of Edward Hirsch’s finely curated anthology 100 Poems to Break Your Heart (public library); a classic reimagined in a lovely short film by illustrator Ana Pérez López and my friends at the On Being Project:
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Complement with a fascinating cultural history of how kindness became our forbidden pleasure, Jacqueline Woodson’s letter to children about how we learn kindness, and George Sand’s only children’s book — a poignant parable about choosing kindness and generosity over cynicism and fear — then revisit other soul-broadening animated poems: “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “Murmuration” by Linda France, and “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.
Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Apr 2021 | 2:10 pm(NZT)