Autumn is the season of ambivalence and reconciliation, soft-carpeted training ground for the dissolution that awaits us all, low-lit chamber for hearing more intimately the syncopation of grief and gladness that scores our improbable and finite lives — each yellow burst in the canopy a reminder that everything beautiful is perishable, each falling leaf at once a requiem for our own mortality and a rhapsody for the unbidden gift of having lived at all. That dual awareness, after all, betokens the luckiness of death.
But autumn is also the season of revelation, for the seeming loss unveils a larger reality: Chlorophyll is a life-force but it is also a cloak, and when trees shed it from their leaves, nature’s true colors are revealed.
Photosynthesis is nature’s way of making life from light. Chlorophyll allows a tree to capture photons, extracting a portion of their energy to make the sugars that make it a tree — the raw material for leaves and bark and roots and branches — then releasing the photons at lower wavelengths back into the atmosphere. A tree is a light-catcher that grows life from air.
Although the human mind has puzzled over why leaves fall and change color at least as far back as Aristotle, chlorophyll — which shares chemical kinship with the hemoglobin in our blood — was only discovered and named in 1817, by the French pharmacist-chemist duo Joseph Bienaimé Caventou and Pierre Joseph Pelletier. In a lovely touch of humility that distinguishes, always, the scientist from the explorer — the explorer, so eager to name the lands and landmarks he has “discovered” after himself — they wrote in their landmark paper:
We have no right to name a substance long-known, and to the story of which we have added only a few facts; however, we will propose, without granting it any importance, the name chlorophyll, from chloros, color, and φυλλον, leaf: a name that would indicate the role it plays in nature.
But chlorophyll, which is yet to be fully understood, is not the only pigment in trees. Throughout a leaf’s life, four primary pigments course through its cells: the green of chlorophyll, but also the yellow of xanthophyll, the orange of carotenoids, and the reds and purples of anthocyanins. In spring and summer, when the day grow long and bright, chlorophyll saturates leaves as the tree busies itself converting photons into the sweetness of new growth. As daylight begins fading in autumn and the air cools, deciduous trees prepare for wintering and stop making food — an energy expenditure too metabolically expensive in the dearth of sunlight. Enzymes begin breaking down the decommissioned chlorophyll, allowing the other pigments that had been there invisibly all along to come aflame. And because we humans so readily see in trees metaphors for our emotional lives, how can this not be a living reminder that every loss reveals what we are made of — an affirmation of the value of a breakdown?
A similar process take place as fruit ripen from green to varying shades of red, purple, orange, or yellow. Two centuries after the discovery of chlorophyll, a new generation of scientists armed with a new arsenal of tools unimaginable in 1817, in that abiding way science has of only revealing new layers of reality when it lets go of its assumptions, placed bananas in various stages of ripeness under UV light and discovered that as the world’s favorite yellow fruit ripens and its chlorophyll breaks down, it not only reveals the xanthophyll of yellow, but produces the chlorophyll catabolite hmFCC — a previously unknown blue fluorescent compound.
Subsequent research has found signs of this blue pigment in devil’s ivy — the evergreen golden pothos thriving in the corner of my library in Brooklyn at this very moment — rendering the mystery of chlorophyll ongoing and filling the human heart with exhilaration. How thrilling to think that something we discovered two centuries ago, something nature created more than a billion years ago when the first green plants evolved from prokaryotes, can still shimmer with mystery — a molecular microcosm of the ultimate thrill: the knowledge that however much we might uncover, nature will never cease to be filled with surprise ripe for the reaping. And how humbling to think that we too are animals doing their best to make sense of the world with their creaturely limitations — animals whose vision evolved to peak in so narrow a band of the spectrum, in the tiny wavelength range between red and violet, blind to everything between radio and cosmic rays, blind to ultraviolet light. But if we were butterflies or reindeer, bees or sockeye salmon, bananas might be blue.
The poetic astronomer Maria Mitchell captured this best in her rueful and rapturous observation that “we have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” and yet “we reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”
Complement with the late, great nature writer Ellen Meloy on the conscience of color from chemistry to culture, then revisit this fascinating read on Turing, trees, and the science of how alive you really are.
For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.
Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Oct 2021 | 11:06 am(NZT)
“Now I will do nothing but listen,” the young Walt Whitman resolved as he pressed his ear against the eternal song of being a century before Aldous Huxley found in the transcendent power of music a portal into the “blessedness lying at the heart of things.”
“Blessedness is within us all,” Patti Smith wrote in yet another century as she contemplated life, death, and love. (Which might, in the end, be one.)
Even for the unchurched among us, who worship at the altar of reality, blessedness can be a beautiful concept unbaggaged from religion. For me, blessedness is a feeling-tone of grateful wonder. That feeling-tone can come as symphonic as a total solar eclipse or as quiet as the rising tide. It can bless with the surprising cymbal of a robin’s egg out of time and out of place or with the murmuration of a moonlit tree. It can bless with Bach.
That feeling-tone of grateful wonder is what poet and philosopher David Whyte celebrates the “Blessings & Prayers” suite of poems found in his altogether vivifying collection The Bell and the Blackbird (public library).
Two of these poems — “Blessing for Sound” and “Blessing for the Light” — come alive as a ravishment of Irish landscape and music in Whyte’s collaboration with filmmaker Andrew Hinton and composer Owen Ó Súilleabháin for Emergence Magazine.
BLESSING FOR SOUND
from The Bell and the Blackbird by David Whyte
I thank you,
for the smallest sound,
for the way my ears open
even before my eyes,
as if to remember
the way everything began
with an original, vibrant, note,
and I thank you for this
everyday original music,
always being rehearsed,
always being played,
always being remembered
as something new
and arriving, a tram line
below in the city street,
gull cries, or a ship’s horn
in the distant harbour,
so that in waking I hear voices
even where there is no voice
and invitations where
there is no invitation
so that I can wake with you
by the ocean, in summer
or in the deepest seemingly
and be with you
so that I can hear you
even with my eyes closed,
even with my heart closed,
even before I fully wake.
BLESSING FOR THE LIGHT
from The Bell and the Blackbird by David Whyte
I thank you, light, again,
for helping me to find
the outline of my daughter’s face,
I thank you light,
for the subtle way
your merest touch gives shape
to such things I could
only learn to love
through your delicate instruction,
and I thank you, this morning
most intimately and secretly
for your visible invisibility,
the way you make me look
at the face of the world
so that everything, becomes
an eye to everything else
and so that strangely,
I also see myself being seen,
so that I can be born again
in that sight, so that
I can have this one other way
along with every other way,
to know that I am here.
Complement with Whyte on courage, anger and forgiveness, and his soul-slaking poem about the pathway to true love, then revisit Ronald Johnson’s transcendent prose poem about sound, science, and the soul and filmmaker Andrew Dawson’s tree-inspired visual poem based on Whyte’s lyric reflection on the meaning of closeness.
For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.
Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Oct 2021 | 8:33 am(NZT)
“Everything that is possible is real,” Bach scribbled in the margins of a symphony three centuries ago, when the existence of other galaxies was unimaginable and hummingbirds were considered magic, when the fact of the atom was yet to trouble the young Emily Dickinson and the fact that it is mutable was yet to splinter the foundation of reality as we understood it.
“What will they think of my music on the star of Urania?” the young Beethoven wondered in his marginalia upon hearing of the discovery of Uranus, daring to imagine the unimaginable. In two centuries, his Fifth Symphony would sail past the seventh planet on a golden disc aboard a spacecraft launched into the unknown on the wings of laws discovered by a college student watching an apple fall on his illiterate mother’s orchard during a plague quarantine and a sickly brokenhearted mathematician defending his mother in a witchcraft trial.
The great gift of science is that it continually reveals to us what is real, unpeeling the wallpaper of our knowledge to reveal newer and newer layers of nature, deeper and deeper substrata of reality. The great peril of science — this eternal impulse of human nature — is that the human mind continually limits what is possible, erecting walls of assumption between itself and the reality of nature. And yet the entire fact of life — your individual life, and mine, and life itself as a feature of the universe — is a matter of probable impossibilities.
This interplay, and how to liberate our search for truth from our craving for certainty, is what Italian physicist Chiara Marletto explores in The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey through the Land of Counterfactuals (public library) — part field guide to her particular realm of study, part manifesto for the countercultural courage to keep unmasoning the walls of the imaginable and bending the mind beyond the accepted horizons of the possible. What emerges is an impassioned, scrumptiously reasoned insistence that all breakthroughs in science require “as much imagination and perceptiveness as you need to write a good story or a profound poem.”
Counterfactuals — explanations about what could or could not be caused to happen in the physical universe, as distinct from the standard scientific theories about what is bound to happen based on what has happened in the past — are one such thrilling mode of rotating in the palm of the mind the unsolved mysteries of nature in order to examine them from revelatory new perspectives, perspectives blind-spotted by our present assumptions. Counterfactuals are the science of otherwise — the physics counterpart to Jane Kenyon’s excellent poem — shimmering with new ways of understanding everything from information to time to free will.
In the foreword, Marletto’s collaborator David Deutsch observes that the rate of scientific discovery over the past few centuries has been increasing exponentially, but the discovery of new fundamental truths about nature has stalled and an indolence about attempting new modes of explanation has set in. He writes:
There has never been a time when there have been more blatant contradictions, gaps, and unresolved vagueness in our deepest understanding of nature, or more exciting prospects to explore them. Sometimes this will require us to adopt radically different modes of explanation.
Illustrating the validity of counterfactuals as a mode of understanding, he gives the example of a computer, which could record and process nothing new if every change to the contents of its memory were pre-set in the factory — a computer “can hold information only if its state could have been otherwise.”
Marletto places at the heart of her case for counterfactuals the notion of resilience — not resilience in the creaturely sense, to which we aspire and which trees so perfectly embody, but a deeper kind of resilience, existing on the fundamental level of information yet giving rise to all the physical reality that makes the creaturely kind possible — resilience as the dazzling, rare feature of our universe, even within the no-design fundamental laws of which a system can continue existing in an ever-changing environment. With an eye to genes — those recipes for keeping a species in existence, peppered with mutation — she writes:
What distinguishes helpful changes in the recipe from unhelpful ones? It is a particular kind of information: information that is capable of keeping itself instantiated in physical systems. It is resilient information.
“Knowledge” merely denotes a particular kind of information, which has the capacity to perpetuate itself and stay embodied in physical systems — in this case by encoding some facts about the environment… Knowledge is the key to resilience… In fact, knowledge is the most resilient stuff that can exist in our universe.
Leaning on Karl Popper’s famous pillar of sensemaking — “Knowledge consists in the search for truth… It is not the search for certainty.” — she adds:
There are no absolute sources of certain truth: any good solution to a problem may also contain some errors. This principle is based on fallibilism, a pillar of Popper’s explanation of rational thinking. Fallibilism makes progress feasible because it allows for further criticism to occur in the future, even when at present we seem to be content with whatever solution we have found. It leaves space for creating ever-improving theories, stories, works of art, and music; it also tells us that errors are extremely interesting things to look for. Whenever we try to make progress, we should hope to find more of them, as fast as possible.
She turns to the two ways in which nature and human nature generate new knowledge, the generative process we call creativity — “by conjecture and criticism, in the mind; by variation and natural selection, in the wild” — and considers the crucial difference between the two:
Natural selection, unlike conjecture and criticism, cannot perform jumps: each of the recipes that leads to a new resilient recipe must itself be resilient — i.e., it must code for a successful variant of a trait of the particular animal in question that permits the animal’s survival for long enough to allow replication of that recipe, via reproduction. But there may be viable, resilient recipes coding for useful traits that can never be realised because they would require a sequence of nonresilient recipes to be realised first, which is impossible, as those recipes produce animals that cannot survive and cannot pass on their genes.
The thinking process, in contrast, can perform jumps… The sequence of ideas leading to a good idea need not consist entirely of good, viable ideas. Nonetheless, knowledge creation in the mind, too, can enter stagnation and stop progressing. We must be wary of not entering such states both as individuals and as societies. Particularly detrimental to knowledge creation are the immutable limitations imposed by dogmas, as they restrain the ability to conjecture and criticise.
Woven into Marletto’s case for counterfactuals is her love letter to science and the art of explanation:
Physics is a dazzling firework display; it is profound, beautiful, and illuminating; a source of never-ending delight. Physics is about solving problems in our understanding of reality by formulating explanations that fill gaps in our previous understanding. The point of physics is not the particular calculation about the fall of an apple. It is the explanation behind it, which unifies all motions—that of the apple with that of a planet in the solar system, and beyond. The dazzling stuff consists of explanations: for they surprise us by revealing things that were previously unknown and very distant from our intuition, with the aim of solving a particular problem.
The appearance of the dark sky at night… can be explained in terms of unexpected underlying phenomena involving things like photons, the remarkable fact that the universe is expanding, and so on. None of those elements is apparent in the sky itself, but they are all part of the explanation for why it looks as it does, in terms of what is really out there. Explanations are accounts of what is seen in terms of mostly unseen elements.
“What we see, we see / and seeing is changing,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her ode to astrophysics. It is changing, however, only when we change the way we look, change our tools for looking, be they physical instruments — the microscope and the telescope, revealing unseen layers of reality — or the instrument of the mind, which devises the microscope and the telescope and the theory. I hear Thoreau bellowing his admonition down the hallway of time as he puzzled over what it takes to see reality unblinded by our preconceptions: “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Marletto writes:
The traditional conception of physics cannot possibly capture counterfactual properties, because it insists on expressing everything in terms of predictions about what happens in the universe given the initial conditions and the laws of motion only — in terms of trajectories of apples or electrons, forgetting the other levels of explanation. But these other levels of explanation are essential sometimes to grasp the whole of physical reality.
Drawing on the example of Neptune and the neutrino — both discovered not by direct observation of the previously unseen planet or particle but by observing curious contradictions in the surrounding system and deducing from them that something in the set of assumptions about what the system is and how it works must be revised. She writes:
As always happens with contradictions, something in the assumptions has to give.
Declaring something impossible leads to more things being possible.
In one of the book’s many charming touches defying the segregation of science from its sensemaking twin — art — she gives an exquisite example of counterfactuals at work in one of humanity’s most abiding masterworks of storytelling and sensemaking: the Ancient Greek myth of Theseus (which also inspired the greatest thought experiment about the nature of the self and what makes you you).
Theseus, son of Aegeus, king of Athens, went to Crete to kill the Minotaur. Theseus made an agreement with his aged father that if he defeated the Minotaur, on their return his crew would raise white sails on the ship; if he perished, they would raise black sails. So off went Theseus, and he defeated the Minotaur. But on his way back, distracted by all sorts of things (including, possibly, the presence of his fiancée, Ariadne, on the ship!), he forgot to tell the crew about the sails. The crew left the black sails on, and Aegeus, who from the highest tower of Athens could see the ship approaching, thought his son was dead. So he threw himself into the sea and drowned. This tragic story is why the sea is now called the Aegean.
Now suppose we asked our master storyteller to tell that story with the constraint that he can formulate statements only about what happens — that is, he must report the full story without ever referring to counterfactual properties. In particular, he cannot refer to properties that have to do with what could or could not be done to physical systems.
This task turns out to be impossible: for the story to make sense, and to convey fully its meaning, two attributes of the ship are essential: one, that it can be used to send a signal, by assuming one of two states — white sail showing or black sail showing; the other, that the state of having black or white sails can be copied onto other physical systems — such as Aegeus’s eyes and brain. The copiability property tells us that the flag contains information.
Without these two counterfactual properties, the myth would be robbed of sense and could not possibly produce in the mind of the reader the tragic feeling, the shift in understanding, that gives rise to its millennia-wide moral. The myth of Theseus — a sensical story of tangible things like continents and oceans, a story of profoundly human things like ships and sons — helps grasp the analogous counterfactuals at work in more abstract things. A bit — that unit of information powering our digital universe — may seem like an abstract thing, but it is essentially a Thesian ship’s sail: there are the two binary states that can switch from one to the other, there is the ability to be copied. Any system endowed with these two counterfactual properties is an information medium — a conduit of knowledge.
Adopting counterfactuals brings entities that look superficially like immaterial abstractions into the domain of physics. Information and knowledge, for example, have been traditionally considered as mere abstractions — as things that do not belong to the physical world. However, by considering the counterfactual properties of physical systems that enable information and knowledge, one refutes this idea: because whether or not a physical system has those properties is set precisely by the laws of physics.
The ultimate promise of counterfactuals as portals to possibility comes most vibrantly abloom in one of the several short genre-bending vignettes Marletto composes to illustrate the scientific concepts — a story-upon-story set in the crucible of materialism, Ancient Greece. She imagines the childhood of the legendary conqueror Alexander the Great — who by his death at thirty-two would have created one of the vastest empires in the history of our species — and his time as an uncommonly broad-minded pupil of Aristotle: a boy asking the vastest unasked questions, hungry to fathom his own mind. In one of their conversations, Alexander wonders what it is in him that endows him with the capacity for wonder — with the ability to savor poetry and philosophy and the abstract art of mathematics — if he is made of the same material as concrete things like rocks and grass. Marletto’s Aristotle answers:
What’s clear is that the mind has characteristic properties that make it capable of relating to things that are abstract. I suspect that it obeys the same laws as rocks and grass, though we have yet to find these laws and understand how to apply them to the mind.
Complement The Science of Can and Can’t with physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic meditation on what makes our improbable lives worth living between the bookends of possibility, then revisit the story of Alan Turing, the world’s first digital music, and the poetry of the possible.
For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.
Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Oct 2021 | 11:58 am(NZT)
We are born without choosing to, to parents we haven’t chosen, into bodies and borders we haven’t chosen, to exist in a region of spacetime we haven’t chosen for a duration we don’t choose. As physicists know, we don’t choose the particular atoms that constellate our particular selves or the neural configurations that fire our consciousness. In consequence, as James Baldwin knew, we don’t even choose whom we love.
But amid our slender repertoire of agency are the labels we choose for our labors of love — the works of thought and tenderness we make with the whole of who we are.
A challenge arises when we make something over a long period of time. As we evolve — as we add experiences, impressions, memories, deepening knowledge and self-knowledge to the combinatorial pool from which all creative work springs — what we make evolves accordingly; it must, if we are living widely and wisely enough. Eventually, the name we once chose for it begins to feel not like a choice but like a constraint, an ill-fitting corset ribbed with the ossified sensibility of a former self. Joan Didion may be right that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” but we are also well advised to welcome with a largehearted embrace the blooming possibilities within us — the people we are in the ongoing course of becoming, the people we will have been when our atoms give way to our afterglow.
Brain Pickings was born on October 23, 2006 as an improbable idea in a young mind only just becoming literate in the language of life. Fifteen years hence, it is reborn as The Marginalian — reborn as what it has always been beneath the ill-fitting name chosen by a twenty-two-year-old immigrant in whose ear the tired puns and idioms of a non-native language rang fresh and full of wonder: an evolving record and ongoing celebration of my readings and my loves, of all that makes me feel most alive.
Over the years, I grew up and grew on these pages — more than six million of them, if one were to paginate and print everything I have published on the site over the years, dwarfing the 600 pages of Figuring and microscopizing the The Snail with the Right Heart. I filled this infinite scroll with my reflections on what I was reckoning with — my marginalia on life and the most important things I was learning about it along the way, often through reading, often from people and ideas marginalized by culture, erased by the collective selective memory we call history, because they were in some way too other, too ahead of their time or apart from its mores, saw too clearly through the willful blindnesses of their era or bent their vision too far past its horizons of possibility.
In the margins of books, in the margins of life as commonly conceived by our culture’s inherited parameters of permission and possibility, I have worked out and continue working out who I am and who I wish to be — a private inquiry irradiated by the ultimate question, the great quickening of thought, feeling, and wonder that binds us all: What is all this?
More and more, the curatorial aspect — the “picking” part of Brain Pickings — subsided, as did the purely cerebral aspect — the “brain” part — giving way to the editorial, the contemplative, the full integration of thought and feeling that pulsates beneath all things creative and alive. And so there is no change in course beneath the change in name — nothing about the site or its weekly email summary will alter, other than my daily despair at living with a name that neither fits nor foments the private well of wonder from which it all springs. It remains freely offered and supported by donations, as it always has been. (It is not always easy to make a life and a labor of love in the margins of possibility — if you have lent a helping hand over the years, I appreciate you.) It remains an exercise in marginalia on readings and reckonings, a discourse with these works of wonderment.
This is always, at bottom, a discourse with oneself: me with myself, in writing it; you with yourself, in reading it. We bring to anything — a book, a love — the whole of what we are, projecting onto it every experience we have ever had and every unanswered question reverberating through the deepest chambers of our being. If it is worthy — the book, as the love — and if we are lucky, it reflects us back to ourselves magnified yet transformed, luminous with a larger self-image of possibility, more alive, more awake. Better able to see how our temporal, marginal lives shimmer with meaning. Better able to see ourselves as the makers of it, whether we call it love or art.
Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Oct 2021 | 3:52 pm(NZT)
I have been thinking a great deal about growth — what it means, what it asks of us, how it feels when unforced but organic. I have been thinking about growth and decay, the interplay between the two, the way all growth requires regeneration, which in turn requires a shedding, a composting, a reconstituting of old material. We don’t always know what needs to be shed, or what the optimal direction of growth is. This is where the “blind optimism” of a tree is helpful — there is consolation in trusting the quiet workings of chemistry and the primal instinct for orienting to the light.
I have been thinking about growth and decay while walking long bundled hours in an old-growth forest.
The forest, with its ceaseless syncopation of generation and decomposition that composes the pulse-beat of total aliveness.
The forest, this place of constant change that feels somehow atemporal, an everlasting Yes! to life echoed by an ungrudging and vibrant Yes! to death — a place where one feels most intimately the elemental yet counterintuitive fact that death is not the assailant of life but the ultimate consecration of its lucky possibility.
Walt Whitman saw in them models for the highest measure of authenticity and why he, in consequence, celebrated the friend he most loved as “true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free… [she] is a tree.”
Whitman, who two centuries ago declared himself to “know the amplitude of time” and “laugh at what you call dissolution.”
Whitman, whose atoms now belong to some mycelial wonder pushing up the leaves of cemetery grass and nourishing the roots of the two towering trees that stand sentinel on either side of his tomb, trees that were saplings when he laughed out of life.
While thinking about life and death and poetry in an old-growth forest, I thought of this immortal line: “The word for world is forest” — the title of a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018). I thought of the short, stunning tree-poem she wrote at the end of her life, originally published on the pages of Orion Magazine and recently included, fittingly, in Old Growth — their splendid anthology of sylvan literature from the magazine’s decades-deep archive. Here it is, brought tenderly to life by my tree-loving, poetry-loving, life-and-death-loving friend and kindred spirit Amanda Palmer, to which I have added the perfect sonic companionship of an old recording of Bach’s Organ Concerto in D Minor.
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Very slowly burning, the big forest tree
stands in the slight hollow of the snow
melted around it by the mild, long
heat of its being and its will to be
root, trunk, branch, leaf, and know
earth dark, sun light, wind touch, bird song.
Rootless and restless and warmblooded, we
blaze in the flare that blinds us to that slow,
tall, fraternal fire of life as strong
now as in the seedling two centuries ago.
Complement with Amanda reading “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver and poet Jane Hirshfield reading “Today, Another Universe” — her kindred take on the life and death of a single tree — then revisit Le Guin on anger, the magic of real human conversation, the meaning of loyalty, getting to the other side of suffering, and her timeless “Hymn to Time.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Oct 2021 | 2:47 pm(NZT)
While it is true, as generations of psychologists have found, that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love” — a process known as limbic revision — it is also true, as generations of self-aware humans have found, that whom we love depends in large part on who we already are. Our original wounds, our formative attachments, our patterned longings all shape how we engage with those we have chosen to love, to the extent that we are choosing them at all. “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents,” James Baldwin astutely observed in contemplating the paradox of freedom. “Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”
The great difficulty, too, is how easily those life-expanding Yeses that can open larger vistas of possibility come fear-concealed as Nos, or how those life-preserving Nos that keep us from entering into experiences too damaging or too small for us bear the momentum of pre-conditioned Yeses. And so we project who we are and what we need onto those we love, and find in them reflections of who we long to be or fear we might be, swarming them and swarming ourselves in all the blooming buzzing confusion of our unmet needs.
This is not to demean and diminish love as a mere process of projection — Stendhal’s seven-stage delusion of crystallization and decrystallization — or a mere process of reflection — Ortega’s insightful but limited and limiting theory of what our lovers reveal about us — but to honor the elemental fact that each relationship is not between two people, but between three: the two partners, each with their pre-existing patterns of love and loss, and the third presence of the relationship itself — an intersubjective co-creation that becomes the third partner, endowed with the power to deepen those patters, or to change them.
The great peril and great possibility of every love is that this third partner can be a rewounder masquerading as a healer, and equally a healer in disguise, masked beyond recognition by our own patterned way of seeing. So much of our suffering springs from this confusion and so much of our sanity is redeemed when at last we shed our own blinding masks and come to kneel at the fount of clarity.
That is what George Saunders explores in his immensely insightful and sensitive annotated reading of Chekhov’s short story “The Darling” — one of the seven classic Russian short stories he examines as “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world” in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (public library), using each as a portable laboratory for the key to great storytelling.
After a beautiful translation of “The Darling” — a story about a woman who loves four very different people the same patterned way, the only way she knows how, which has entirely to do with her learned understanding of love and nothing to do with its objects, and so she suffers greatly when each of these loves leaves her in the same lonely place; a story the essence of which Saunders captures perfectly as being “about a tendency, present in all of us, to misunderstand love as ‘complete absorption in,’ rather than ‘in full communication with'” — he pauses to marvel at Chekhov’s subtlety in challenging our reflex toward lazy binaries, his mastery in training our muscle of ambiguity, uncertainty, and nuance — which is, of course, the only we grasp and savor the full Yes of life. Saunders writes:
We see Olenka’s mode of loving, from one angle, as a beautiful thing: in that mode, the self disappears and all that remains is affectionate, altruistic regard for the beloved. From another angle, we see it as a terrible thing, the undiscriminating application of her one-note form of love robbing love of its particularity: Olenka, love dullard, vampirically feeding upon whomever she designates as her beloved.
We see this mode of loving as powerful, single-pointed, pure, answering all questions with its unwavering generosity. We see it as weak: her true, autonomous self is nowhere to be found as she molds herself into the image of whatever male happens to be near her (unless he’s a cat).
This puts us in an interesting state of mind. We don’t exactly know what to think of Olenka. Or, feeling so multiply about her, we don’t know how to judge her.
The story seems to be asking, “Is this trait of hers good or bad?”
Chekhov answers: “Yes.”
The story, like every great work of fiction, becomes a mirror for reflection on the most intimate realities of life. Saunders writes:
We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable and somewhat repetitive in its habits. Would your current partner ever call his or her new partner by the same pet name he/she uses for you, once you are dead and buried? Well, why not? There are only so many pet names. Why should that bother you? Well, because you believe it is you, in particular, who is loved (that is why dear Ed calls you “honey-bunny”), but no: love just is, and you happened to be in the path of it. When, dead and hovering above Ed, you hear him call that rat Beth, your former friend, “honey-bunny,” as she absentmindedly puts her traitorous finger into his belt loop, you, in spirit form, are going to think somewhat less of Ed, and of Beth, and maybe of love itself. Or will you?
Maybe you won’t.
Because don’t we all do some version of this, when in love? When your lover dies or leaves you, there you are, still yourself, with your particular way of loving. And there is the world, still full of people to love.
Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Oct 2021 | 7:49 am(NZT)
“Children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end,” Dylan Thomas wrote in his spare, stunning poem about trees, truth, and the human animal’s most self-savaging loss of perspective.
“The trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars… the poets have been right in these centuries,” Lorraine Hansberry wrote as she reached for the surest salve from the pit of her depression.
We are born wonder-stricken by the glory of nature — it can only be so, for we ourselves are living wonders, sentient somethings against the staggering odds of nothingness — and yet we so readily relinquish this natural bond at the altar of a culture that tells us what it means to grow up. This loss might be our great primal wound.
When the early twentieth century clawed at the wound with its increasingly industrialized model of education, preparing children for lives of conspicuous consumption and nursing them on the illusion of nature as a parallel worlds, the artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930) set out to provide an antidote in her wonderful Handbook of Nature Study (public library | public domain).
A generation after astronomer Maria Mitchell swung open the portal of possibility in higher education for women, Anna entered Cornell University to study zoology, botany, and other natural sciences. She took an entomology course with John Henry Comstock, whose work laid the foundation for the modern classification of butterflies, moths, and scale insects. To both of their surprise and mutual delight, they fell in love. Three years later, without graduating, she married him. In another three years, she returned to Cornell to finish her studies, emerging with a degree in natural history. She went on collaborating with John on joint entomological studies and illustrating his works.
Anna had no formal training as an artist, but she had long dwelled in nature’s beauty, having entered it through the twin doorways of science and literature — Emerson, Wordsworth, and Thoreau in particular. Having so magnetized her attention to the delicate details that consecrate life with aliveness, she began observing insects under the microscope, taught herself to illustrate what she saw, and eventually enrolled in Cooper Union to refine her draughtsmanship as a wood engraver. She went on to engrave more than 600 plates of insects, some of which were exhibited in the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and became one of the first women admitted to Sigma Xi — the Scientific Research Honor Society that has included more than 200 Nobel laureates, Einstein, Watson, and Crick among them.
In 1911, she condensed her lifelong animating ethos in Handbook of Nature Study.
A century before the Oxford Children’s Dictionary dropped fifty nature-words as irrelevant to modern children’s lexicon and imagination, a century before young people rose up by the millions to undo the past’s disregard for nature that imperils their future, Comstock insisted that “it is a great asset to the conservation of our natural resources to have the children of our land be interested in the wild life in such a chummy and intimate manner.” Half a century before Rachel Carson awakened the modern ecological conscience with her scientific-poetic ethos that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Comstock highlighted our kinship with microbe and mammoth, with dolphin and dandelion, believing that an understanding of this interdependence would awaken in us “a sensible altruism and humanness” to bring into our relationship with nature — which is, at bottom, our relationship with ourselves and each other.
She saw children as children, pure-hearted and large-eyed with wonder. She saw them as emissaries of the forgotten parts of ourselves and as “future citizens.” And so everything she wrote that references the child can be read as addressing each one of us — for, as Wild Things creator Maurice Sendak knew, the most difficult and rewarding triumph of adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.” (This elemental truth is why I cherish “children’s” books as incomparable existential handbooks to self-knowledge and reality-knowledge — training ground for attentive intimacy with nature and its expression in human nature — and why I occasionally write some.)
In Handbook of Nature Study, Comstock observes that beyond the “practical and helpful knowledge” of the forces and phenomena that animate this world — knowledge that equips us with singular self-reliance — intimacy with nature confers upon us, child and grown child alike, larger and more abstract powers of mind, trining in us that vital balance of reason and imagination:
Nature-study cultivates the child’s imagination, since there are so many wonderful and true stories that he may read with his own eyes, which affect his imagination as much as does fairy lore; at the same time nature-study cultivates in him a perception and a regard for what is true, and the power to express it. All things seem possible in nature; yet this seeming is always guarded by the eager quest of what is true. Perhaps half the falsehood in the world is due to lack of power to detect the truth and to express it. Nature-study aids both in discernment and in expression of things as they are.
Beyond cultivating our “love of the beautiful,” beyond refining our sense of “color, form, and music,” immersion in and understanding of nature attunes us to our larger belonging:
Paths that lead to the seeing and comprehending of what [the child] may find beneath his feet or above his head… whether they lead among the lowliest plants, or whether to the stars, finally converge and bring the wanderer to that serene peace and hopeful faith that is the sure inheritance of all those who realize fully that they are working units of this wonderful universe.
Writing in an era still haunted by extreme and antiscientific religiosity denying the entropic reality of life and death with the lulling mythos of immortality, Comstock makes a bold, simple point about how observing the rest of nature inures us to the elemental fact of our own mortality, even as children — a kind of mental hygiene, an antidote to cowering behind dogma and delusion:
Perhaps the most valuable practical lesson the child gets from nature-study is a personal knowledge that nature’s laws are not to be evaded. Wherever he looks, he discovers that attempts at such evasion result in suffering and death. A knowledge thus naturally attained of the immutability of nature’s “must” and “shall not” is in itself a moral education. The realization that the fool as well as the transgressor fares ill in breaking natural laws makes for wisdom in morals as well as in hygiene… It is not only during childhood that this is true, for love of nature counts much for sanity in later life.
For decades, Comstock met with hundreds of New York State public school teachers and administrators, trying to persuade them to include a course in “nature-study” into their curricula. She was met with indifference and was told that children had to be taught more valuable skills — skills that would make them better equipped for the workforce, that savage engine of production and consumption. (A century hence, we are watching young people rise from the engine’s miasma, frightened and ferocious for change, to face the ethical and ecological cost of that indifference — because the cost of all indifference is always the loss of something worth loving.)
But Comstock persisted. When she became Cornell’s first female professor, she piloted an experimental nature-study course, which was soon approved and implemented statewide. Handbook of Nature Study — the culmination of her life’s work — has accomplished the rare triumph of remaining in print for more than a century, attesting to the timelessness of its ethos and its need. Coursing through it is Comstock’s largehearted, infectious love of the living world. A century after Blake reverenced the common fly in his short existentialist poem, she offers an affectionate exculpation of this creature we indict as a disease-carrying menace, rapturously detailing its delicate anatomy — from the crowning curio of its head, “two great, brown spheres… composed of thousands of tiny six-sided eyes that give information of what is coming in any direction,” to the tiny tender claws with which the fly “walks on its tiptoes” — concluding:
Perhaps if a fly were less wonderfully made, it would be a less convenient vehicle for microbes.
Above all, the book is an antidote to desensitization, an act of resistance to the culture-conditioned ways we have of taking for granted that which grants us life. In its final pages, devoted to astronomy, Comstock writes:
If, only once in a century, there came to us from our great sun light and heat bringing the power to awaken dormant life, to lift the plant from the seed and clothe the earth with verdure, then it would indeed be a miracle. But the sun by shining every day cheapens its miracles in the eyes of the thoughtless.
That, indeed, is the book’s great gift — a lovely reminder that to move through the world unstaggered by life is the only death.
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Oct 2021 | 9:36 am(NZT)
“Give me solitude,” Whitman demanded in his ode to the eternal tension between city and soul, “give me again O Nature your primal sanities!” In those primal sanities, we come to discover that “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” as May Sarton wrote in her stunning 1938 ode to solitude — her hard-earned testimony to solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery, for it is in that intimate place that we see most clearly what our animating spirit is made of. Solitude, Kahlil Gibran knew, summons of us the courage to know ourselves. Elizabeth Bishop believed — a belief I can attest to with my own life — that everyone must experience at least one long period of solitude in life in order to know what we are made of and what we can make of our gifts. “There is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear,” Rilke wrote in contemplating the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, “but… we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”
The visionary poets knew — as do the visionaries of scientist, as do all persons engaged in lives of creativity or contemplation, which are often one life — how this solitary self-discovery becomes the wellspring of all the meaning-making that makes life worth living, whether we call it art or love. From solitude’s promontory, we peer out into the expanse of existence and train our eyes to look with wide-eyed wonder at the improbable fact of it all. Solitude, so conceived, is not merely the state of being alone but the art of becoming fully ourselves — an art acquired, like every art, by apprenticeship and painstaking devotion to dwelling in the often lonesome inner light of our singular and sovereign being.
Its mastery, delicate and difficult, is what the Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor explores in The Art of Solitude (public library). Celebrating solitude — not the escapist privilege of it but the practice of it against the real world’s pressures — as “a site of autonomy, wonder, contemplation, imagination, inspiration, and care,” he writes:
True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it. When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.
Nearly forty years after he first began bridging Western phenomenology and existentialism with Buddhist precepts in his 1983 book Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, Batchelor draws on a lifetime of solitude-mastery — directly, through his own contemplative practice and multiple silent retreats, and indirectly, through his immersion in the lives and works of centuries of solitude-virtuosi ranging from Montaigne to Nietzsche to Ingmar Bergman — to formulate the essence of the inquiry, at once elemental and embodied, at the heart of the art of solitude:
Don’t expect anything to happen. Just wait. This waiting is a deep acceptance of the moment as such. Nietzsche called it amor fati — unquestioning love of whatever has fated you to be here. You reach a point where you’re just sitting there, asking, “What is this?” — but with no interest in an answer. The longing for an answer compromises the potency of the question. Can you be satisfied to rest in this puzzlement, this perplexity, in a deeply focused and embodied way? Just waiting without any expectations?
Ask “What is this?,” then open yourself completely to what you “hear” in the silence that follows. Be open to this question in the same way as you would listen to a piece of music. Pay total attention to the polyphony of the birds and wind outside, the occasional plane that flies overhead, the patter of rain on a window. Listen carefully, and notice how listening is not just an opening of the mind but an opening of the heart, a vital concern or care for the world, the source of what we call compassion or love.
Echoing Rachel Carson’s trust in the loneliness of creative work — a byproduct of the solitude necessary for creative work, natural and needed, often terrifying and always clarifying — Batchelor adds:
To be alone at your desk or in your studio is not enough. You have to free yourself from the phantoms and inner critics who pursue you wherever you go. “When you start working,” said the composer John Cage, “everybody is in your studio — the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas — all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”
Having shut the door, you find yourself alone before a canvas, a sheet of paper, a lump of clay, a computer screen. Other tools and materials lie around, close at hand, waiting to be used. You resume your silent conversation with the work. This is a two-way process: you create the work and then you respond to it. The work can inspire, surprise, and shock you… The solitary act of making art involves intense, wordless dialogue.
Drawing a link between the Buddhist notion of nirvana and Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — that spacious willingness to negate the pull of attachments, reactivities, and fixities, to live with mystery and embrace uncertainty — Batchelor observes that contemplative practice trains the ability to see each moment as a chance to start anew, to savor life as ongoing, unfixed, ever-changing and ever capable of being changed. He considers the essential building blocks and ultimate rewards of contemplative practice:
To integrate contemplative practice into life requires more than becoming proficient in techniques of meditation. It entails the cultivation and refinement of a sensibility about the totality of your existence—from intimate moments of personal anguish to the endless suffering of the world. This sensibility encompasses a range of skills: mindfulness, curiosity, understanding, collectedness, compassion, equanimity, care. Each of these can be cultivated and refined in solitude but has little value if it cannot survive the fraught encounter with others. Never be complacent about contemplative practice; it is always a work in progress. The world is here to surprise us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the cushion, not on it.
In consonance with poet and philosopher Wendell Berry’s life-tested belief that “true solitude is found in the wild places,” where one is without human obligation,” where “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Batchelor adds:
By withdrawing from the world into solitude, you separate yourself from others. By isolating yourself, you can see more clearly what distinguishes you from other people. Standing out in this way serves to affirm your existence (ex-[out] + sistere [stand]). Liberated from social pressures and constraints, solitude can help you understand better what kind of person you are and what your life is for. In this way you become independent of others. You find your own path, your own voice.
Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back. Sustained aloneness brings you to a tipping point where the pendulum of life returns you to others.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Oct 2021 | 3:39 am(NZT)
The moment we begin to see that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, we cease being captive to the myth of normalcy — the cultural tyranny that tells us there are a handful of valid ways to be human and demands of us to contort into these accepted forms of being. But the great hoax is that they are Platonic forms — the real reduced beyond recognition into the ideal, an ideal too narrow and symmetry-bound to account for the spacious, uneven, gloriously shambolic reality of being what we are.
With his characteristic eloquence and sensitivity, Alain de Botton offers a mighty antidote to that mythos in a portion of The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the book companion to his wonderful global academy for skillful living, which also gave us De Botton on what emotional intelligence really means and how to move through rejection. He writes:
Any idea of the normal currently in circulation is not an accurate map of what is customary for a human to be. We are — each one of us — far more compulsive, anxious, sexual, tender, mean, generous, playful, thoughtful, dazed, and at sea than we are encouraged to accept.
Given how opaque we are to ourselves most of the time, how encased our rawest emotional reasons are in elaborate cathedrals of rationalization, we struggle to imagine that anyone else could possibly see, understand, and accept the dazzling complexity with which we live inside. “Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” the young Van Gogh wrote to his brother. “Someone has a great fire in his soul… and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” Meanwhile, we move among other chimneys — all the taller built by the artful self-masonry of social media — from which we intuitively infer, even if we rationally understand this to be an illusion, that the fires burning in others are far tamer than those roiling in us; that they live with far lesser levels of confusion and complexity; that we are, in other words, not normal by comparison. De Botton writes:
We simply cannot trust that sides of our deep selves will have counterparts in those we meet, and so remain silent and shy, struggling to believe that the imposing, competent strangers we encounter can have any of the vulnerabilities, perversions, and idiocies we’re so intimately familiar with inside our own characters.
A healthy culture, he suggests, calibrates this mismatch of perception and reality by inviting us into the inner worlds of others, worlds just as shambolic as ours — worlds into which literature uniquely invites us.
In those moments when our culture fails to calibrate our insecurities and instead assails us with its mythos of normalcy, in those moments when we lack the psychological skills and emotional resources to face our elemental vulnerabilities with equanimity, tenderness, and patience, we might experience a breakdown. With his singular talent for consolatory perspective-pivoting, De Botton suggests that a breakdown is not a failure of our growth-process but assuring evidence of our ongoing search for better understanding and tending to ourselves:
A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction; it is a very real — albeit very inarticulate — bid for health and self-knowledge. It is an attempt by one part of our mind to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development that it has hitherto refused to undertake. If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt to jump-start a process of getting well — properly well — through a stage of falling very ill.
In the midst of a breakdown, we often wonder whether we have gone mad. We have not. We’re behaving oddly, no doubt, but beneath the agitation we are on a hidden yet logical search for health. We haven’t become ill; we were ill already. Our crisis, if we can get through it, is an attempt to dislodge us from a toxic status quo and constitutes an insistent call to rebuild our lives on a more authentic and sincere basis. It belongs, in the most acute and panicked way, to the search for self-knowledge.
The School of Life: An Emotional Education is a salve in its entirety. Complement this fragment with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on why vulnerability is the key to our sanity and resilience, then revisit Alain de Botton on breaking the psychological Möbius strip that keeps us in painful relationships, the meaning of emotional generosity, and what makes a good communicator.
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Oct 2021 | 8:00 pm(NZT)
“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp,” the poetic marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote with her mind perched on the water’s edge, contemplating the ocean and the meaning of life in an era when the boundary between land and water marked the shoreline between knowledge and mystery, between the mapped terrestrial world and a world still more mysterious than the Moon.
A century earlier, the poetic English marine biologist and naturalist Philip Henry Gosse (April 6, 1810‐August 23, 1888), inventor of the seawater aquarium, extended a tender and trailblazing invitation into the wonders of the water world in his 1853 treasure A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast (public library | public domain) — an uncommon marriage of scientific investigation and poetic presence.
Published the year Gosse created and populated the world’s first public aquarium at the London Zoo — a decade after Anna Atkins walked those selfsame shores to collect the seaweed she rendered in stunning cyanotypes that made her the first person to illustrate a book with photographic images, a decade before the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology and left Darwin wonder-smitten with his exquisite paintings of jellyfish, and exactly 100 years after Carl Linnaeus created the modern nomenclature of nature — Gosse’s lyrical guide to the life of the shore features twenty-eight exquisitely painted plates of marine creatures, labeled with their Linnaean names, “all drawn from living nature, with the greatest attention to accuracy,” comprising “about two hundred and forty figures of animals and their component parts, in many instances drawn with the aid of the microscope.”
Urging the reader not to expect “a book of systematic zoology; nor a book of mere zoology of any sort,” Gosse instead offers an invitation to contemplative companionship in lively curiosity about and amid the living world:
I ask you to listen with me to the carol of the lark, and the hum of the wild bee; I ask you to stand with me at the edge of the precipice and mark the glories of the setting sun; to watch with me the mantling tide as it rolls inward, and roars among the hollow caves; I ask you to share with me the delightful emotions which the contemplation of unbounded beauty and beneficence ever calls up in the cultivated mind.
Gosse made what he made — his visual art and the art of understanding we call science — in the spirit in which all genuine creators make what they make:
The following pages I have endeavoured, as far as possible, to make a mirror of the thoughts and feelings that have occupied my own mind during a nine months’ residence on the charming shores of North and South Devon. There I have been pursuing an occupation which always possesses for me new delight, — the study of the curious forms, and still more curious instincts, of animated beings… Having conveyed pleasure and interest to myself, I thought might entertain and please my reader.
To the then-common, still-common, unconsidered objection that to bridge science and beauty is “to degrade science below its proper dignity,” Gosse counter-objects with a sentiment of lyrical lucidity:
That the increase of knowledge is in itself a pleasure to a healthy mind is surely true; but is there not in our hearts a chord that thrills in response to the beautiful, the joyous, the perfect, in Nature?
In this poetic spirit, leaning on Wordsworth’s timeless pronouncement that “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge [and] the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” Gosse plunges into raptures about particularly dazzling facets of these overlooked animals, many of them wholly novel to human eyes. He kneels on the rocks to peer into the “exceedingly charming” “natural vivarium” of the tide pool with its colorful underwater forest of seaweed, exults in discovering the valved mechanics of how Pecten opercularis — the queen scallop — climbs and leaps with its “delicate little foot,” marvels at its frilly microscopic gills, delights in its diamond eyes, “possessing all the brilliancy of precious stones.”
Each of the animals he describes — the mollusk and the medusa, the shrimp and the sea lemon, the dinoflagellate and the dead man’s fingers coral — he describes with absolute reverence for its beauty and microscopic magnificence, all the more enchanting for being so overlooked.
Although, throughout his life, Gosse struggled to reconcile science and religion, through this portal of creaturely awe he touched the elemental truth to which his culturally conditioned mind blinded him — the unbroken link between these exquisite primitive creatures and ourselves. Six years before Darwin exposed the science beneath the kinship of life-forms in On the Origin of Species and a century before Lucille Clifton celebrated the poetics of “the bond of live things everywhere,” Gosse exulted:
These objects are, it is true, among the humblest of creatures that are endowed with organic life. They stand at the very confines, so to speak, of the vital world, at the lowest step of the animate ladder that reaches up to Man; aye, and beyond him… Here we catch the first kindling of that spark, which glows into so noble a flame in the Aristotles, the Newtons, and the Miltons of our heaven-gazing race.
Complement with Gosse’s compatriot William Saville Kent’s kaleidoscopic illustrations from the world’s first pictorial glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef and the living wonders rendered in Cephalopod Atlas — the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures, drawn from the epoch-making Valdiva expedition and published a decade after Gosse’s death, upending the longtime belief that the ocean is lifeless below 300 fathoms: a testament to the frequency with which every time we have let our self-referential imagination limit the complexity, diversity, and resilience of life, we have limited the wonder of possibility and we have been wrong.
Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Oct 2021 | 8:00 pm(NZT)
One fact that never fails to astound me: Despite the immense cultural changes and leaps in knowledge over the epochs, the human brain — that crucible of consciousness, roiling with the psychologies that govern the behaviors we call human nature — has remained virtually unchanged for the past hundred thousand years. How humbling to consider that what is cognitively true of our ancestors — who, lacking a knowledge of astronomy as the correct frame of reference for planetary motion, explained eclipses as acts of god and comets as omens of ill fortune — is as true of us.
The explanatory contexts in which this tendency manifests today may be different, but it manifests just the same — especially in our interpersonal relationships, where so much of the correct frame of reference that is the other person’s inner reality is invisible to us. It helps to remember that between our feelings and anything in the external world that causes the ripples of consciousness we call feelings — any difficult situation, any painful event, any hurtful action of another — there lie myriad possible causal explanations.
One fact I have learned about life through the empiricism of living: When we are hurt in a relationship, when we are spinning in the blooming buzzing confusion of sensemaking, the explanation we elect as correct usually has more to do with our own fears and vulnerabilities than it does with the reality of the situation; almost always, that explanation is wrong; almost always, the true explanation has more to do with the fears and vulnerabilities roiling in the other person invisibly to us.
And so, sensemaking and storytelling creatures that we are, we move through the real world in a self-generated dream, responding not to reality but to the stories we tell ourselves about what is true — stories at best incomplete and at worst injuriously incorrect, stories about what we do and don’t deserve, stories the cost of which is connection, trust, love. This is why without charity of interpretation and without candor — the vulnerability of it, the courage of it, the kindness of it — all relationships become a ricochet of unspoken resentments based mostly on misapprehended motives, and crumble.
The great Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh offers a three-step remedy for this elemental human tendency in a portion of his slender, potent book Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm (public library), which also gave us his warm wisdom on the four Buddhist mantras for turning fear into love.
Much of our suffering comes from wrong perceptions. To remove that hurt, we have to remove our wrong perception.
Whenever we see another person take an action, he notes, we must remain aware that there could be a number of invisible motive forces behind it and we must be willing to listen in order to better understand them — not only out of the vain self-referential transactionalism masquerading as the Golden Rule, in the hope that others would be just as willing not to misunderstand our own motives by their perception and interpretation of our actions, but because correcting our wrong perceptions is a basic and vital form of caring for ourselves:
When you make the effort to listen and hear the other side of the story, your understanding increases and your hurt diminishes.
Half a century after the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm detailed the six rules of listening and unselfish understanding, Hanh offers a three-step process for correcting wrong perception in relationship conflict and emerging victorious with deeper love:
The first thing we can do in these situations is to acknowledge internally that the pictures we have in our head, what we think happened, may not be accurate. Our practice is to breathe and walk until we are more calm and relaxed.
The second thing we can do, when we are ready, is to tell the people who we think have hurt us that we are suffering and that we know our suffering may have come from our own wrong perception. Instead of coming to the other person or people with an accusation, we can come to them for help and ask them to explain, to help us understand why they have said or done those things.
There is a third thing we need to do, if we can. The third thing is very hard, perhaps the hardest. We need to listen very carefully to the other person’s response to truly understand and try to correct our perception. With this, we may find that we have been the victim of our wrong perceptions. Most likely the other person has also been a victim of wrong perceptions.
Part of why this is so challenging to the Western mind, with its individualistic ideal of self-reliance that too readily metastasizes into self-righteousness, is that we grow incredibly insecure at the prospect of being wrong and feel incredibly unmoored by the fact of having been wrong. In a culture conflating who we are with what we know and what we stand for, the Eastern contemplative traditions can be so salutary with their gentle, steady practice of releasing the clutch of selfing and unclenching the fist of righteousness into an open palm of receptivity.
Drawing on two powerful Buddhist practices that effect this release — deep listening and loving speech — Hanh writes:
If we are sincere in wanting to learn the truth, and if we know how to use gentle speech and deep listening, we are much more likely to be able to hear others’ honest perceptions and feelings. In that process, we may discover that they too have wrong perceptions. After listening to them fully, we have an opportunity to help them correct their wrong perceptions. If we approach our hurts that way, we have the chance to turn our fear and anger into opportunities for deeper, more honest relationships.
This, he observes, applies to romantic relationships, to politics, to family and workplace dynamics — in other words, to all possible configurations of one consciousness embarking on the touching, terrifying endeavor of being known and understood by another.
With an eye to the ultimate aim of this process, he adds:
The intention of deep listening and loving speech is to restore communication, because once communication is restored, everything is possible, including peace and reconciliation.
We are all capable of recognizing that we’re not the only ones who suffer when there is a hard situation. The other person in that situation suffers as well, and we are partly responsible for his or her suffering. When we realize this, we can look at the other person with the eyes of compassion and let understanding bloom. With the arrival of understanding, the situation changes and communication is possible.
Any real peace process has to begin with ourselves… We have to practice peace to help the other side make peace.
Shortly after he wrote Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Hanh placed this insight at the center of his now-classic teachings about how to love — an insight that also animates Alain de Botton’s soulful wisdom on what makes a good communicator. Perhaps Walt Whitman, writing with ecstatic immediacy, best captured this in his intimation that the secret of Being is “to do nothing but listen,” so that the song of life — which is the song of love — may be heard.
Source: Brain Pickings | 11 Oct 2021 | 7:38 am(NZT)
“When you realize you are mortal,” the polymathic poet, painter, journalist, novelist, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925) wrote in her sixtieth year while wresting wisdom from the mountain, “you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.”
These questions of space, time, morality, and transcendence, which continue to permeate Adnan’s century-wide body of work and wonder, had come into formative focus two decades earlier, in one of her most original and unexampled works: a hybrid of poetry and painting — a new form Adnan christened leporello, after the Italian bookbinding term for concertina-folded leaflets — reflecting on a triumphal and tragic moment in the history of our species.
In 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human animal — of all the hundred-some billion of us who ever lived and died — to leave the planet on which we had evolved several million years earlier. It was an era of terror and wonder — science had swung open new portals of possibility for knowing the miracle of life more intimately, and politics had hijacked science to build new weapons for destroying that miracle.
When Gagarin perished in a plane crash seven years later under mysterious circumstances, Adnan composed an eleven-part epic poem in ink and watercolor, titled Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut — at once a memorial for the new Icarus and new scripture for the human mythos of space, painted into an accordion book, exploring the largest questions of existence: life, death, loneliness, longing, creation, destruction, the relationship between the ephemeral and the eternal, our relationship to the cosmos and to each other.
you were searching through the hands of the monkey tree
that pipeline to the sky
a light incoherent like a wave
was moving behind the clouds
and you went swimming into that distant
pool you went to be suspended there
cool as the western side of palm leaves
under the break of noon
there are potholes in the skyes
familiar to the wanderers of the sierras
moving icebergs which taste like
antimatter when physics go wild
Gagarin Scott Gherman Titov McDivitt
Komarov the new hierarchy of archangels
bringing messages from outer space
decoding the protons and moving under
a shower of travelling electrons.
seven sunsets for a single evening
and the uninterrupted moon
growing into their eyes with the look
of mothers looking back on us from the other
side of our deaths
Seven sunrises for a cosmonaut!
Born in Beirut and educated in Paris, Adnan was then living at the foot of Mount Tamalpais in California, teaching philosophy at a local university, painting and writing poetry — the polyphonous calling through which she soon met the Lebanese-American artist Simone Fattal, now her partner of half a century, who has made the most astute observation about Adnan’s paintings of rising and setting celestial bodies, horizons perched on infinity, and mountains rising toward eternity: that they do for us what icons used to do for believers, conferring upon our everyday lives a certain supranatural energy, an aura of awe at the sheer miracle of existence.
Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut is an elegy for humanity in the classic sense, a hybrid of celebration and lamentation — an elegy for us creatures forever “eating and remaining hungry,” “kissing and remaining lonely,” “speaking and remaining doomed”; creatures who bomb and imprison each other, but who also never cease to “struggle towards freedom, struggle toward meaning” with the fury of a song. In this respect, it is kindred to Maya Angelou’s staggering poem “A Brave and Startling Truth,” which voyaged into the cosmos aboard the Orion spacecraft a generation later.
In 2019, having just turned 94 and living in Paris with her partner, Adnan collaborated with the German composer and sound artist Ulrike Haage on adapting Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut into an experimental radio requiem — a kind of spacetime sound installation, beautiful and haunting, fusing musical elements from the classical tradition of Gagarin’s native Russia and the ancient Middle Eastern tradition of Adnan’s native Beirut, embodying the opening verse of the poem’s third sequence:
In the beginning was the white page
In the beginning was the Sufi in orbit
In the beginning was the sword
In the beginning was the rocket
In the beginning was the dancer
In the beginning was color
In the beginning was music
Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut is the first artwork greeting the wonder-smitten visitor to Light’s New Measure — the Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective of Adnan’s work, launched midway through her ninety-seventh year, titled after a line from her 2012 poetry collection Sea and Fog:
The heart is a stranger to patterns of matter or their distribution. In darkness, light’s new measure.
Complement with Umberto Eco’s semiotic children’s book The Three Astronauts, written and painted in the same era, then revisit astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to Earth and poet Sarah Kay performing her ode to awe, “Astronaut.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Oct 2021 | 1:48 pm(NZT)
“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic,” Maya Angelou observed in her finest interview, “because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”
A decade earlier, in his 1967 Massey Lectures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) examined the forces that dispirit the young into cynicism — that most puerile form of impatience — by mapping the three primary regions of reaction and resistance in the landscape of social change.
Launched in 1961 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and named after Vincent Massey — the first Canadian-born person to serve as governor general of Canada, who had spearheaded a royal commission for Canadian arts, letters, and sciences, producing the landmark Massey Report that led to the establishment of the National Library of Canada — the annual Massey Lectures invited a prominent scholar to deliver five half-hour talks along the vector of their passion and purpose, which were then broadcast on public radio each Thursday evening. Eventually, the CBC began publishing the lectures in book form. But some of the earliest ones, including the five Dr. King delivered in the final months of his life, remained unprinted for decades, until they were finally released in 2007 as The Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from Five Great Thinkers (public library).
In his third lecture, titled “Youth and Social Action,” Dr. King presents a taxonomy of the three types of people into which the era’s youth had been “splintered” — his own superb word-choice — by the era’s social forces.
More than half a century hence, it is a useful exercise, temporally sobering and culturally calibrating, to consider what the equivalents of these archetypes might be in our present time, in our present language. Our language might have changed dramatically — Dr. King was writing in the epoch before the invention of women, when “man” denoted all of humanity; an epoch when the acronym BIPOC would have drawn a blank stare at best and “Negro” was his term of choice — but we are still living with the underlying complexities which language always seeks to clarify and contain. The social forces splintering the present generation of youth have changed, and they have not changed — an eternal echo of Zadie Smith’s observation that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
With the caveat that the three principal groups sometimes overlap, Dr. King describes the first:
The largest group of young people is struggling to adapt itself to the prevailing values of society. Without much enthusiasm, they accept the system of government, the economic relations, the property system, and the social stratifications both engender. But even so, they are a profoundly troubled group, and are harsh critics of the status quo.
It is easy to picture the young of our own time, roiling with the same restless ambivalence, the same resentful submission to the system, perched on their standing desks across the glassy campuses of Google and Facebook, drinking corporate kombucha on tap while composing impassioned tweets against police brutality, homophobia, and climate change, tender with the terror of being a person in the world, a budding person in a world that feels too immense and immovable. Dr. King captures this ambivalence with his characteristic compassionate curiosity:
In this largest group, social attitudes are not congealed or determined; they are fluid and searching.
He contrasts the first group with the second — those in outright and outspoken rejection of the status quo:
The radicals… range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather than in men or in faulty operation. These are a new breed of radicals.
This claim of novelty is somewhat ahistorical, or perhaps too narrowly American, for Dr. King’s perceptive description of that generation’s spirit is an equally apt description of the spirit of the generation that fueled the French Revolution two centuries earlier, an ocean apart. He sketches the radicals of the 1960s:
Very few adhere to any established ideology; some borrow from old doctrines of revolution; but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of a new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. They are not repeating previous revolutionary doctrines; most of them have not even read the revolutionary classics. Ironically, their rebelliousness comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality, and met tenacious and vivacious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam War, and experienced futility. So they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order.
In a sentiment that fully captures today’s social media — that ever-protruding, ever-teetering platform for standing against rather than for things, a place increasingly unsatisfying and increasingly evocative of Bertrand Russell’s century-old observation that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it” — Dr. King adds of these so-called radicals:
It is fair to say, though, that at present they know what they don’t want rather than what they do want.
Identifying the third group as the era’s “hippies” — a group the contemporary equivalent of which is especially interesting to identify and locate in our present generational landscape — he writes:
The hippies are not only colorful but complex; and in many respects their extreme conduct illuminates the negative effect of society’s evils on sensitive young people. While there are variations, those who identify with this group have a common philosophy.
They are struggling to disengage from society as their expression of their rejection of it. They disavow responsibility to organized society. Unlike the radicals, they are not seeking change, but flight. When occasionally they merge with a peace demonstration, it is not to better the political world, but to give expression to their own world. The hard-core hippy is a remarkable contradiction. He uses drugs to turn inward, away from reality, to find peace and security. Yet he advocates love as the highest human value — love, which can exist only in communication between people, and not in the total isolation of the individual.
In an especially insightful comment that applies to so many fleeting but vital and vitalizing movements across the sweep of history, he adds:
The importance of the hippies is not in their unconventional behavior, but in the fact that some hundreds of thousands of young people, in turning to a flight form reality, are expressing a profoundly discrediting judgment on the society they emerge from.
He proffers a prediction substantiated by history, contouring the possible future of some of our own social movements when they have become another era’s past:
It seems to me that hippies will not last long as a mass group. They cannot survive because there is no solution in escape. Some of them may persist by solidifying into a secular religious sect: their movement already has many such characteristics. We might see some of them establish utopian colonies, like the 17th and 18th century communities established by sects that profoundly opposed the existing order and its values. Those communities did not survive. But they were important to their contemporaries because their dream of social justice and human value continues as a dream of mankind.
The most interesting challenge of applying Dr. King’s taxonomy to our own time is that of seeing beyond the surface expressions that shimmer with the illusion of contrast, peering into the deeper similitudes between the attitudes of the past and those of the present. Escapism doesn’t always look like escapism — escapism can masquerade as pseudo-engagement. A generation’s drug of choice might be a psychoactive molecule, or it might be an intoxicating self-righteousness masquerading as wakefulness to difference. Technology might give the illusion of participatory action in democracy while effecting alienation at the deepest stratum of the soul — something especially true of the vast majority of pseudo-political uses of our so-called social media. Dr. King writes:
Nothing in our glittering technology can raise man to new heights, because material grown has been made an end in itself, and, in the absence of moral purpose, man himself becomes smaller as the works of man become bigger.
Another distortion of the technological revolution is that instead of strengthening democracy… it has helped to eviscerate it. Gargantuan industry and government, woven into an intricate computerized mechanism, leaves the person outside… When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation — perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society… Alienation should be foreign to the young. Growth requires connection and trust. Alienation is a form of living death. It is the acid of despair that dissolves society.
In consonance with the animating spirit of this here labor of love, he insists upon the importance of mining the collective record of experience we call history “for positive ingredients which have been there, but in relative obscurity.” Echoing Whitman’s gentle long-ago exhortation that “the past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them,” Dr. King adds:
Against the exaltation of technology, there has always been a force struggling to respect higher values. None of the current evils rose without resistance, nor have they persisted without opposition.
Complement with Seamus Heaney’s vivifying advice to the young, Kierkegaard on nonconformity and the power of the minority, and Richard Powers’s antidote to cynicisms, then revisit Dr. King on the six pillars of resistance to the status quo.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Oct 2021 | 8:09 am(NZT)
In 1634, Rembrandt painted his wife, Saskia, as Flora — the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. One large bloom droops over her left ear from the wreath crowning her head, dwarfing the other blossoms in scale and splendor — a single tulip, its silken petals aflame with stripes of red and white.
These tulips no longer exist. Today, their closest kin are known as Rembrandts. In the painter’s day, these living canvases of expressionist color transfixed the human imagination across cultures, casting a singular enchantment with their sudden and mysterious eruptions of contrasting color. Lay gardeners and professional horticulturalists all over Holland, France, and the Ottoman Empire planted tulip bulbs by the hundreds, by the thousands, hoping some would bloom in this inexplicable pattern of painterly stripes. On those rare and unbidden occasions when it happened, the tulip was said to “break.”
Gardeners went to extraordinary lengths to force tulips to break, their techniques still insentient to the newborn scientific method, still resonant with the echoes of alchemy haunting the atmosphere of their time: They would plant beds of white tulips, then sprinkle over the soil pigment powders of the hue they wished to see stripe the white petals, hoping rainwater would wash the bulb with pigment and somehow imprint the flower-to-be.
Because the history of our species is the history of humans longing for control of their fortunes and other humans exploiting this longing in the absence of knowledge and critical thought — from religions imbuing with mystical meaning yet-unexplained astronomical phenomena like comets and eclipses, to internet scammers — a new trade of charlatans emerged, promising surefire recipes (some involving pigeon droppings, others powdered plaster from the walls of old houses) to make the tulips break.
But what was really at play was something no one suspected, because no one had the reference-point nodes of understanding we call knowledge. What was really at play was an epochal intersection of science and culture, the story of which Michael Pollan tells with his signature enchanting erudition in The Botany of Desire (public library). He writes:
One crucial element of the beauty of the tulip that intoxicated the Dutch, the Turks, the French, and the English has been lost to us. To them the tulip was a magic flower because it was prone to spontaneous and brilliant eruptions of color. In a planting of a hundred tulips, one of them might be so possessed, opening to reveal the white or yellow ground of its petals painted, as if by the finest brush and steadiest hand, with intricate feathers or flames of a vividly contrasting hue… If a tulip broke in a particularly striking manner — if the flames of the applied color reached clear to the petal’s lip, say, and its pigment was brilliant and pure and its pattern symmetrical — the owner of that bulb had won the lottery. For the offsets of that bulb would inherit its pattern and hues and command a fantastic price. The fact that broken tulips for some unknown reason produced fewer and smaller offsets than ordinary tulips drove their prices still higher.
In an epoch when the microscope was still a novelty known to the very few and owned by the very privileged, when the discovery of submicroscopic non-bacterial pathogens was a quarter millennium away and the word ecology was two centuries from being coined, what the ardent gardeners and the ardent bulb-buyers and Rembrandt did not know was that a virus brought by another species was responsible for the rapturous breaking of the tulip; a virus the discovery of which vanquished the broken tulips and broke the spell their beauty had cast upon this ever-living, ever-dying world. Pollan explains the biomechanics behind the beauty:
The color of a tulip actually consists of two pigments working in concert — a base color that is always yellow or white and a second, laid-on color called an anthocyanin; the mix of these two hues determines the unitary color we see. The virus works by partially and irregularly suppressing the anthocyanin, thereby allowing a portion of the underlying color to show through. It wasn’t until the 1920s, after the invention of the electron microscope, that scientists discovered the virus was being spread from tulip to tulip by Myzus persicae, the peach potato aphid. Peach trees were a common feature of seventeenth-century gardens.
By the 1920s the Dutch regarded their tulips as commodities to trade rather than jewels to display, and since the virus weakened the bulbs it infected (the reason the offsets of broken tulips were so small and few in number), Dutch growers set about ridding their fields of the infection. Color breaks, when they did occur, were promptly destroyed, and a certain peculiar manifestation of natural beauty abruptly lost its claim on human affection.
Every time I think of the story of the broken tulip, I think of Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower.
Couple this fragment of Pollan’s altogether enchanting The Botany of Desire with Emily Dickinson and the nonbinary botany of flowers, then revisit Sylvia Plath’s almost unbearably beautiful poem “Tulips.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Oct 2021 | 6:44 am(NZT)
We move through a storied world as living stories. Every human life is an autogenerated tale of meaning — we string the chance-events of our lives into a sensical and coherent narrative of who and what we are, then make that narrative the psychological pillar of our identity. Every civilization is a macrocosm of the narrative — we string together our collective selective memory into what we call history, using storytelling as a survival mechanism for its injustices. Along the way, we hum a handful of impressions — a tiny fraction of all knowable truth, sieved by the merciless discriminator of our attention and warped by our personal and cultural histories — into a melody of comprehension that we mistake for the symphony of reality.
Great storytelling plays with this elemental human tendency without preying on it. Paradoxically, great storytelling makes us better able not to mistake our compositions for reality, better able to inhabit the silent uncertain spaces between the low notes of knowledge and the shrill tones of opinion, better able to feel, which is always infinitely more difficult and infinitely more rewarding than to know.
That is what George Saunders explores throughout A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (public library) — his wondrous investigation of what makes a good story (which is, by virtue of Saunders being helplessly himself, a wondrous investigation of what makes a good life) through a close and contemplative reading of seven classic Russian short stories, examined as “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art — namely, to ask the big questions.” Questions like what truth is and why we love. Questions like how to live and how to make meaning inside the solitary confinement of our mortality. Questions like:
How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seems to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?
Noting that “all coherent intellectual work begins with a genuine reaction,” Saunders frames the central question of his investigation: what we feel and when we feel it, in a story or in the macrocosm of a story that is a life — a framing that calls to mind philosopher Susanne Langer’s notion of music as “a laboratory for feeling in time,” for all great storytelling, as Maurice Sendak observed, is a work of musicality, and all that fills the brief interlude between birth and death is, in anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s lovely phrasing, the work of “composing a life.” In this sense, a story is instrument for feeling — something Saunders places at the heart of his creative theorem:
What a story is “about” is to be found in the curiosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring.
Considering this consonance between storytelling and life, these parallels between how we move through the fictional world of a story and how we move through the real world, Saunders writes:
To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time… The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.
With an eye to how a story makes its meaning — small structural pulses appearing in sequence, at speed, to give rise to a set of expectations and resolutions — he writes:
A story is a linear-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time.
We might think of a story as a system for the transfer of energy. Energy, hopefully, gets made in the early pages and the trick, in the later pages, is to use that energy.
The true beauty of a story is not in its apparent conclusion but in the alteration in the mind of the reader that has occurred along the way.
This transfer of energy, this transmutation of understanding, is, of course, the mystique and mechanism by which all art moves us — a story, a song, a poem, a painting. Learning to be present with it, to notice the pulses that move the mind into thought and feeling, refines our ability to attend not only to art but to the world — for, as neuroscientist Christof Koch readily reminds us, “consciousness is the central fact of your life.” Saunders writes:
A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were… We watch the way the deep, honest part of our mind reacts to it. And that part of the mind is the one that reading and writing refine into sharpness.
A story is able to reach that honest part of the mind and move it only by dignifying the reading mind as such. A generation before Saunders, E.B. White — one of the most singular and splendid storytellers of all time, and one of the most beloved children’s book authors — insisted that in order to write well for any reader, but especially for that most alert and honest-minded of readers, the child, “you have to write up, not down.” (This I consider also the key to great science-storytelling, and especially to the rare intersection of the two.) Defining a story as “an ongoing communication between two minds,” Saunders observes:
A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals. We keep reading because we continue to feel respected by the writer.
Performing an artistic anatomy of Chekhov’s spare and stunning story “The Darling,” Saunders examines how a writer makes this conversation compelling and offers his most direct instruction for storytelling:
Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation. A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating.
What is escalation, anyway? How does a story produce the illusion of escalation? … One answer: refuse to repeat beats. Once a story has moved forward, through some fundamental change in the character’s condition, we don’t get to enact that change again. And we don’t get to stay there elaborating on that state.
Escalation is also what gives a story the undertone of causality — that satisfying feeling of things making sense, because a thing has been caused by some prior thing. All causality provides an answer, pacifying and stimulating, to the most primal question of every child, the child still living in each of us: But why?
Examining the art of escalation through the lens of his definition of a story as “a process for the transfer of energy,” Saunders returns to the rhythmic dynamism driving all great storytelling:
In a good story, the writer makes energy in a beat, then transfers this energy cleanly to the next one (the energy is “conserved”). She does this by being aware of the nature of the energy she’s made. In a bad story (or an early draft), the writer doesn’t fully understand the nature of the energy she’s made, and ignores or misuses it, and it dissipates.
The preferred, most efficient, highest-order form of energy transfer (the premier way for a scene to advance the story in a non-trivial way) is for a beat to cause the next beat, especially if that next beat is felt as essential, i.e., as an escalation: a meaningful alteration in the terms of the story.
Coupling the importance of causality with his credo that the storytelling process is a matter of “intuition plus iteration,” Saunders echoes James Baldwin’s bellowing admonition to writers that “beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance,” and reflects:
I’ve worked with so many wildly talented young writers over the years that I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.
First, a willingness to revise.
Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.
Making causality doesn’t seem sexy or particularly literary. It’s a workmanlike thing, to make A cause B, the stuff of vaudeville, of Hollywood. But it’s the hardest thing to learn. It doesn’t come naturally, not to most of us. But that’s really all a story is: a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality. For most of us, the problem is not in making things happen (“A dog barked,” “The house exploded,” “Darren kicked the tire of his car” are all easy enough to type) but in making one thing seem to cause the next.
This is important, because causation is what creates the appearance of meaning.
Causality is to the writer what melody is to the songwriter: a superpower that the audience feels as the crux of the matter; the thing the audience actually shows up for; the hardest thing to do; that which distinguishes the competent practitioner from the extraordinary one.
Read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, read the seven Russian treasures of storytelling in it and Saunders’s sensitive disassembly of their machinery of magic, then revisit Chekhov’s six rules for a compelling story, Susan Sontag on storytelling and how to be a good human being, and the pioneering cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story.
Source: Brain Pickings | 1 Oct 2021 | 9:47 am(NZT)
“All truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Margaret Fuller wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she was changing the fabric of the time. Exactly one hundred years after her untimely death, another tragic hero of another century, whose mind would shape the epochs to come, united these twin truths in a single, rapturous force-field of possibility on the pages of a programming manual containing the first instructions for how to compose music on a computer — a foundational marriage of technos and tenderness.
While the world saw early computers as oversized calculators, Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954) was asking whether a computer could make you fall in love with it. Only those rare artists of the possible can look at something on the cusp of becoming and see what it can be, not as an incremental evolution of the extant and the familiar but as a leap toward the unexampled and the unimagined.
Out of Turing’s uncommon orientation to possibility arose one his most profound and undersung contributions to the modern world: the birth of digital music. Envisioning the computer’s potential as a musical instrument, Turing became the first to compose a computer program for playing notes — the greatest contribution to the universal language since Pythagoras first radicalized music with mathematics.
After the end of the war — the war he helped end by cracking the Nazis’ Enigma machine and saving inestimable lives by terminating what might have been an interminable war — Turing had moved to Manchester to begin programming his colossal computer, affectionately known as Baby. From the start, he conceived of it not as a calculating device but as a universal machine capable, with sufficient imagination encoded in its native language, of approximating the capabilities of the human mind.
In 1951, if you were to walk into Turing’s Manchester Mark I computer — for it was a room-sized poem of metal and mind, stacked on post office racks — you would find a loudspeaker hooked to the colossus, emitting a shrill electronic beep whenever the machine ran aground and needed attention. Turing realized that with some imaginative code, this “hooter” could be programmed to sound notes on the musical scale, then become music.
The computer’s ‘hoot instruction’ (which he named/V, pronounced ‘slash vee’) worked like this. There was an electronic clock in the computer that synchronized all the operations. This clock beat steadily, like a silent metronome, at a rate of over 4,000 noiseless ticks per second. Executing the hoot instruction a single time made one of these ticks come alive with sound (emitted at the loudspeaker), but the sound lasted only for as long as the tick, a tiny fraction of a second. Turing described the sound as ‘something between a tap, a click, and a thump’. Executing the hoot instruction over and over again resulted in this brief sound being produced repeatedly, on every fourth tick: tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, and so on.
The magic by which these ticks became music was a function not of the capabilities of Turing’s machine but of the incapacities of the human mind — the mind that is both instrument and computer; the mind that, for all of its astonishing complexity, still has processing limits.
The perceptual limitation of the eye-brain processor makes us perceive a hummingbird’s wings as an infinity-shaped blur of motion — a misperception that rendered the hummingbird’s flight a thing of magic for millennia, until the invention of the camera and the stroboscope in the 1830s revealed tiny wings moving at sixty distinct beats per second. So too the perceptual limitation of the ear-brain processor blurs the clicks of the hoot command, when repeated rapidly thousands of times per second, into the illusion of a continuous note.
There is poetry in Turing’s insight, poetry and cultural defiance, evocative of the protestation Ada Lovelace had issued a century earlier as she composed the world’s first computer program: “Invert the order!” she had demanded of the cultural hierarchy that ranked, and still ranks, science below poetry and philosophy in poetic and philosophic potential. But it was another young man of countercultural vision who took Turing’s insight and turned it into actual music.
Christopher Strachey (November 16, 1916–May 18, 1975) was thirty-five when he walked into Turing’s Manchester lab. A passionate pianist trained as a mathematician and physicist, he had grown up in Bloomsbury, surrounded by visionaries like Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes, and had gone to King’s College, where he met Turing before the war. Like Turing, Strachey was a young gay man living in a culture of condoned bigotry and criminalized love — a culture still haunted by the ghost of Oscar Wilde, who a mere generation earlier had died for loving whom he loved. In this atmosphere of persecution, Strachey had suffered a severe mental breakdown during his third year at King’s College and had barely graduated. He must have found consolation in code, with its dual gift of programmable predictability and absolute freedom of imagination, for he devoured Turing’s programming manual as soon as it was published, then showed up at his lab, invigorated by the potential of turning binary code into the fluid splendor of music.
Turing, in turn, was intrigued by Strachey’s passionate enthusiasm and by the twenty pages of code he had brought with him — fortyfold the longest program to have run on a computer by that point. Turing sat the code-composer down at the colossal machine one evening and left. When he returned in the morning, Strachey’s program was already running and blasted, out of the bewildered blue, a tinny rendition of “God Save the King” — Britain’s national anthem.
Turing, ecstatic and laconic, pronounced: “Good show.”
When the BBC heard of the pioneering creation, they dispatched a broadcast unit equipped with a portable acetate disc cutter to record the music and stream it into the world’s ear. Turing and Strachey played three pieces for them — “God Save the King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”
Sixty-five years later, audio archivists performed a feat of digital detective virtuosity to restore this landmark recording of the world’s first computer music, pitch-warped beyond recognition by time and acetate erosion:
It is a travesty of history that while “God Save the King” was unspooling from the national airwaves in 1951, the King was authorizing orders to criminally prosecute Alan Turing for the natural octave of his love — that elemental symphony of aliveness. A year after the recording was made, after being subjected to chemical castration by the government, this hero of state died vilified by church and country.
Sixty years later, on the other side of the digital epoch Turing had sparked, he would receive posthumous pardon from that King’s daughter, coronated in the final year of Turing’s life; the British government would issue a formal apology for the unpardonable murder of one of humanity’s most visionary and sensitive-souled minds, upon whose ashes the modern world is built.
There is no god to save the Queen, to save the kweens, to save any of us and all of us from ourselves — only love and truth, be they manifested in music or in mathematics. Auden, who had escaped the same persecution by little more than luck, knew this when he wrote that “we must love one another or die,” before making making his disillusion postwar revision to “we must love one another and die”; Virginia Woolf knew this when she wrote, while Turing was saving humanity from itself at Bletchley Park, that “there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Sep 2021 | 6:05 am(NZT)
Love and death come to us on common terms — unbidden and total, impervious to protest, naked of pretension. They also come to us entwined: Every love is a franchise of grief, for to love anything is to accept its loss — by a dissipation of ardor or of atoms, the atoms constellating the beloved or the atoms constellating us and the consciousness that does the loving, certain to one day go the way of every other consciousness and every other love that ever was and ever will be.
In some deep sense, this inevitability of loss is precisely what makes love so ecstatic — a concentrated experience of aliveness consecrated by its own perishability.
Walt Whitman touched on this with his tender, unflinching hand when he asked, “What indeed is beautiful, except Death and Love?”; when he observed that “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” He meant, I think, the luckiness of having lived at all, for death is only possible where life, improbable against the austere odds of the universe, once existed.
That inescapable interplay is what poet Mark Doty explores throughout his incandescent book What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life (public library) — part biography, part memoir, part lyric meditation on life, love, and their consanguinity with death.
Noting how deeply Whitman — the self-anointed poet of the body and poet of the soul — “understood that the particular is always perishing, and therefore all the more to be cherished,” Doty considers the body as an instrument of temporality and cherishment, through which the song of life sings itself and binds us to the chorus of all other bodies:
Begin with the body: water, vapor, air. You’re the shore on which an ocean of air is constantly breaking, in waves of breath. “Inside” and “outside” of lungs, permeable boundary of skin, eyes, ears, nose, holes in the body for substance passing in and out, no stable and fixed entity that is you, but a moving set of points through which pass water, air, light, food, parts of the bodies of others: their breath, tongues, genitals, hands.
The world enters us and departs, just as language and image and idea are imprinted upon our consciousness, considered, forgotten, passed on, released.
This perishable, permeable body, with its ceaseless entropic flow, lies at the heart of the paradox of desire — that electric impulse felt in the Body and felt in the Soul, furnishing our most palpable evidence that the two are one. “Behold,” Whitman wrote, “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul.” And so desire becomes a sacrament to the interleaving of love and death, temporal by definition and necessity, its temporality the wellspring of its delirium.
Awake to this fundament of feeling, Doty challenges the damaging Romantic ideal of interminable desire within any given love — a concept by nature self-negating, dishonoring the very thing that gives desire its electric charge:
Even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death; otherwise the endlessness, the lack of limit or of boundary, finally drains things of their tension, removes all edges… The same body that strains toward freedom and escape also has outer edges, also exists in time, and it’s that doubling that makes the body the sexy and troubling thing it is. O taste and see. Isn’t the flesh a way to drink of the fountain of otherhood, a way to taste the not-I, a way to blur the edges and thus feel the fact of them?
The longing of the ephemeral body is the Borgesian mirror in which the eternal longing of the soul is endlessly reflected and reflected back, flickering with the bittersweet beauty of our mortal destiny, with the transcendent urgency of life and love. Doty writes:
You need to both remember where love leads and love anyway; you can both see the end of desire and be consumed by it all at once. The ecstatic body’s a place to feel timelessness and to hear, ear held close to the chest of another, the wind that blows in there, hurrying us ahead and away, and to understand that this awareness does not put an end to longing but lends to it a shadow that is, in the late hour, beautiful.
With an eye to Whitman’s central credo, staked on the poet’s ethos that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” and that we are therefore not separate selves but contiguous territories of aliveness made all the more alive and more contiguous by love, Doty writes:
When the Self dissolves into a world of separate selves and death becomes real, love becomes a pact with grief; what is gained then is the inescapably poignant fact of individuality. There will never be another you, and I love the stubborn particularity of you because you will disappear.
Complement these fragments of Doty’s irreducibly splendid What Is the Grass with Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss and Elizabeth Gilbert on love, loss, and the consecrating power of grief, then revisit Whitman himself on what makes life worth living.
Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Sep 2021 | 8:05 am(NZT)
“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her lyrical love letter to her native Highlands, echoing an ancient intuition about how our formative physical landscapes shape our landscapes of thought and feeling. The word “genius” in the modern sense, after all, originates in the Latin phrase genius loci — “the spirit of a place.”
I find myself thinking about Shepherd as I return to the Bulgarian mountains of my own childhood, trekking the same paths with my mother that I once trudged with tiny feet beside her, astonished at the flood of long-ago feelings rushing in with each step, astonished too at how effortlessly I navigate these routes I have not walked in decades.
The psychological, neurocognitive, and geophysical underpinnings of these astonishments are what M.R. O’Connor explores in Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World (public library) — a layered inquiry into the science and cultural poetics of how we orient in space and selfhood, illuminating the stunning interpenetration of the two.
In a passage evocative of Rebecca Solnit’s memorable observation that “never to get lost is not to live,” O’Connor takes the telescopic perspective of evolutionary time to consider the cognitive handicap beneath this existential gift:
Life on earth has created millions of Ulyssean species undertaking epic journeys at scales both large and small. Getting lost is a uniquely human problem. Many animals are incredible navigators, capable of undertaking journeys that far eclipse our individual abilities. The greatest migration on earth belongs to the Arctic tern, a four-ounce argonaut that travels each year from Greenland to Antarctica and back again, a distance of some forty-four thousand miles. Flying with the wind, the tern’s return itinerary is a globe-trotter’s fantasy, circumnavigating Africa and South America.
One of the devices that an animal needs to navigate is a “clock” — an internal mechanism for measuring or keeping time. The daily mass migration of zooplankton in the world’s oceans requires them to know when dawn and dusk are approaching. It would seem this is a simple response to light stimuli, but deep-sea zooplankton, which live at depths below where light penetrates, also migrate in accordance with the length of day at different latitudes. Even slightly more complex migrations can demand multiple clocks.
Perhaps the most astonishing internal clock belongs to the bioluminescent Bermuda fireworm, which swarms the tropical waters precisely fifty-seven minutes after sunset on each third evening after the full Moon in the summer. Such a feat suggests that this tiny marine organism, with a fraction of a fraction of the cognitive capacity of a human, is internally equipped with three different timekeeping devises: a regular twenty-four-hour diurnal clock, a lunar clock with a 27.3-day cycle, and an interval timer to tick out the exact minutes past sunset.
O’Connor marvels at the staggering evolutionary array of timekeeping devices that allows migratory species to keep partaking of the dance of life:
Animals that complete annual migrations or multiyear migrations have to possess a yearly clock, one that is finely attuned to the lengths of days and nights and their changes across each season. In all, evolution seems to have produced annual clocks, lunar clocks, tidal clocks, circadian clocks, and, perhaps for those that migrate under cover of darkness, a sidereal clock — which measures the time it takes a star to appear to travel around the earth.
Besides their intricate internal timekeeping mechanisms, many nonhuman animals are endowed with equally intricate space-mapping mechanisms. Each migration season, humpback whales travel more than ten thousand miles far from land to return to the precise place where they were born. There are bird species — European pied flycatchers, blackcaps, and indigo buntings among them — that appear to orient by the pole star in their nocturnal flight; there are insect species — ants and bees among them — that perform triumphs of trigonometry with their light-sensitive photoreceptors, calculating spatial distances by polarized light to find the most direct route home after a winding pathway of foraging. With their mere milligram-brains of one million neurons — a grain of sand to the Mont Blanc of our eighty-six billion — and 20/2000 vision that renders them blind by human standards, honeybees make hundreds of foraging trips per day, meandering many miles from home, then compute the “beeline” back. African ball-rolling dung beetles, Namibian desert spiders, and southern cricket frogs use the stars of the Milky Way as their compass, just like some of the most courageous members of our own species once used the constellations to find their way to freedom from the moral cowardice of tyranny: To ensure they were moving northward, migrants on the Underground Railroad were instructed to keep the river on one side and “follow The Drinking Gourd” — an African name for Ursa Major, or The Big Dipper.
Like all reality-radicalizing discoveries that defy the limiting creaturely intuitions we call common sense, the notion that animals might use magnetism for navigation was long derided as something more akin to spiritualism than to science. Humphry Davy — the greatest chemist of the Golden Age of chemistry, charismatic pioneer of the scientific lecture as popular entertainment — was keenly interested in the mystery of animal magnetism. A century after him, Nikola Tesla — a dazzling mind epochs ahead of his time in myriad ways, whose legacy shapes so much of our daily lives and whose name is now the measuring unit of magnetic fields — stood a chance of cracking the mystery, given with his twin passions for pigeons and magnetism, but the opprobrium of the scientific establishment was too impenetrable and the technology was not yet there. It wasn’t until 1958 that a young German graduate student — Wolfgang Wiltschko — was tasked with disproving animal magnetic navigation once and for all. Instead, he ended up proving it: In the then-dubious experiment he was asked to replicate, the birds he let loose in a space with no light source could, just like in the original experiment performed by a fellow student, still orient effortlessly.
The notion that animals have a bio-compass that can “read” the earth’s geomagnetic field has now emerged as the most promising explanation of animal navigation. In addition to those marathon migratory species, nearly every animal that has been tested thus far demonstrates a capacity to orient to the geomagnetic field. Carp floating in tubs at fish markets in Prague spontaneously align themselves in a north-south axis. So do newts at rest, and dogs when they crouch to relieve themselves. Horses, cattle, and deer orient their bodies north-south while grazing, but not if they are under power lines, which disrupt the magnetic field. Red foxes almost always pounce on mice from the northeast. These organisms must all have some kind of organelle that functions as a magneto-receptor, the same way an ear receives sound and an eye receives space.
We human animals navigate the world not only by orienting in space, but by orienting in time. Mental time travel — the ability to rememeber and reflect, to imagine and plan for the future — is what made us human. It is also the pillar of our personal identity — the narrative string that links our childhood selves to our present selves to make us, across a lifetime of physical and psychological changes, one person.
That string is known as autonoeic consciousness, from the Greek noéō: “I perceive,” “I fathom” — our capacity for mental self-representation as entities in time that can reflect on our own lives as continuous and coherent phenomena of being. In the blink of evolutionary time since the dawn of neuroscience in the 1930s, one area of the brain has emerged as the crucible of both our autoneoic consciousness and our spatial navigation: the hippocampus. O’Connor writes:
The hippocampus has sometimes been described as the human GPS, but this metaphor is reductive compared to what this remarkable, plastic part of our minds accomplishes. While a GPS identifies fixed positions or coordinates in space that never change, neuroscientists think what the hippocampus does is unique to us as individuals — it builds representations of places based on our point of view, experiences, memories, goals, and desires. It provides the infrastructure for our selfhood.
Because a self is a pattern of experiences, memories, and impressions, constellated according to an organizing principle, and because sleep is when the hippocampus consolidates memories to draw from them those organizing patterns, sleep is essential to our sense of self. O’Connor quotes MIT neuroscientist Matt Wilson:
During sleep you try to make sense of things you already learned… You go into a vast database of experience and try to figure out new connections and then build a model to explain new experiences. Wisdom is the rules, based on experience, that allows us to make good decisions in novel situations in the future.
The hippocampus is a hard-won glory of evolution, but it is not singular to us — rudiments of it and variations on it are found in some of our fellow animals across the rungs of neural complexity:
Even birds, which last shared an ancestor with humans 250 million years ago, as well as amphibians, lungfish, and reptiles, have what is called a medial pallium. Similar to the mammalian hippocampal formation in vertebrates, the medial pallium is also involved in spatial tasks in these species, raising the possibility that certain properties of spatial cognition were conserved as organisms diversified and split, while other properties adapted to particular ecologies or selective forces. But despite the profound evolutionary commonalities between humans and other vertebrates and the way the hippocampus relates to cognitive functions of memory and navigation, the question remains: why did we make such a leap in terms of hippocampi’s size and role in our lives? Or as psychologist Daniel Casasanto puts it, “How did foragers become physicists in the eye blink of evolutionary time?”
Part of the answer might lie in the remarkable plasticity of the hippocampus. After the now-iconic 2000 study of the brains of London taxi drivers — which found that their elaborate qualification exam, requiring the memorization of thousands of city landmarks and 25,000 streets, resulted in significant increase in synapses and gray matter in the hippocampus — scientists have been studying what we can do to protect and even bolster our primary instrument for navigating space and selfhood.
O’Connor points to the work of McGill University neuroscientist Véronique Bohbot, who has devised a hippocampal health regimen of recollection and navigation exercises of incrementally increasing difficulty that deliver marked structural growth of gray matter. VeboLife — the neurocognitive fitness training program she has devised — teaches people to navigate the familiar environment in deliberately novel ways, challenging trainees to reconfigure their default routes by taking new paths that require them to attend to new details and make new mental maps in the process.
Optimal hippocampal health appears to be — like the optimal experience of life itself — a matter of paying active and mindful attention, interrupting the “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” our brain has evolved to be, savoring the specifics of each unrepeatable moment.
With an eye to how our hippocampal acuity determines the quality of our lives, O’Connor wonders:
Maybe wayfinding is an activity that confronts us with the marvelous fact of being in the world, requiring us to look up and take notice, to cognitively and emotionally interact with our surroundings whether we are in the wilderness or a city, even calling us to renew our species’ love affair with freedom, exploration, and place.
And yet as much as we throb with wanderlust, we are animated by an intense connection to the landscapes and topographies of our formative years. An emotion known as topophilia, which I experienced while revisiting those mountain trails of my childhood, furnishes this affective-spatial memory that renders childhood as much a time as a place.
Often the places we grow up in have outsized influence on us. They influence how we perceive and conceptualize the world, give us metaphors to live by, and shape the purpose that drives us — they are our source of subjectivity as well as a commonality by which we can relate to and identify with others. Maybe it’s because of the vividness of their sensory impressions, their genius for establishing deep relationships to their early environments, that children have a strong capacity for the human emotion called topophilia.
Across cultures, navigation is influenced by particular environmental conditions — snow, sand, water, wind — and topographies — mountain, valley, river, ocean, and desert. But in all of them, it is also a means by which individuals develop a sense of attachment and feeling for places. Navigating becomes a way of knowing, familiarity, and fondness. It is how you can fall in love with a mountain or a forest. Wayfinding is how we accumulate treasure maps of exquisite memories.
In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating Wayfinding, O’Connor maps the most thrilling shorelines of our evolving territories of understanding: astounding findings indicating that people from migratory populations have measurably longer alleles of the dopamine receptor gene associated with exploratory behavior than people from sedentary communities; ancient feats of navigation passed down the generations in native cultures to challenge the Western social theory of culture; music as a metaphor for the relationship between organisms and their environment. For a lyrical counterpart, complement it with Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost.
Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Sep 2021 | 6:50 am(NZT)
When autumn comes with its ecstasy of sweetness in the orchard and its symphony of color in the forest, it staggers us with something difficult to name, some bewildering harmonic of the transcendent and the transient — each ripening apple an aria of delight, each bright falling leaf a sigh, a homily, a dirge without music.
Looking back on her life in its final year, the great French writer, actor, and mime Colette celebrated autumn and the autumn of life as a beginning, not a decline — the season of “those who have nothing more to lose and so excel at giving.” Two generations later, while navigating a season of bereavements, Pico Iyer discovered in autumn existential training ground for finding beauty in impermanence and light in loss. We call it “fall,” but something swells in us as the days grow shorter and the trees more skeletal — the quiet uprising of resilience that readies us for the self-renewal of wintering.
In The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (public library) — his love letter to the spirituality of science and the wonder of the wilderness — the poetic ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham considers the singular and sensual enchantment of autumn:
Fall is the time when nature speaks most clearly to me. In autumn one is treated to an orgy of sights, sounds, and smells that can be wonderfully overwhelming. The stifling late-summer heat is mercifully cleared by cooler air overnight. Breathing is suddenly easier and the soaking sweat evaporates. You want to inhale deeply enough to take in every molecule wafting on the wind. The tired sameness of September’s deep green fades then flames into October’s vermilion sumacs and scarlet maples, lemon-yellow poplars and golden hickories. In those days of crispness I want to linger long enough to hear every sound and look far enough to see into forever.
Reflecting on the natural restlessness the season seems to stir in us and other animals, he writes:
The Germans have a fine word for it: zugunruhe. A compound derived from the roots zug (migration) and unruhe (anxiety), it describes the seasonal migration of birds and other animals. In this wanderlust I want to go somewhere far away, to fly to some place I think I need to be. Nature is on the move, too, migrating, storing, and dying. Everything is either accelerating or slowing down. Some things are rushing about to put in seed for the next generation. A monarch butterfly in a field full of goldenrod is urgent on tissue-thin wings of black and orange to gather the surging sweetness before the frost locks it away. Apple trees and tangles of muscadines hang heavy. The fruit-dense orchards offer a final call to the wildlings. Foxes, deer, coons, possum, and wild turkeys fatten in the feasting. The air is spiced with the scent of dying leaves. The perfume of decay gathers as berries ripen into wild wine. Even the sun sits differently in an autumnal sky, sending a mellower light in somber slants that foretell the coming change.
The droning katydids, tired from their months-long work of filling the hot wet nights with song, hang on into October. But soon choirs of thousands dwindle to hundreds, and then just one or two. A persistent cricket tries hard to fiddle in time but the first freeze throws a wrench into his rhythm. The rustling riot of turning, falling leaves and the mysterious moonlit chirps of migrant songbirds winging their way to faraway places make my heart race… When the moon glows in a mid-November sky like a pallid sun, I, too, am so soaked in wanting and wood’s lust that I might as well wander like a warbler in the joyous urgency of it all.
Complement with Henry Beston — a father-figure for generations of such lyrical nature writers — on harvest and the human spirit, then revisit poet Diane Ackerman’s wonderful notion of living as an “Earth ecstatic” and a breathtaking animated poem about our connection to nature and each other, inspired by the seasonal migration of starlings.
Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Sep 2021 | 8:20 pm(NZT)
Most people live with a great deal more suffering than is visible to even the most proximate and sensitive onlooker. Many have survived things both unimaginable and invisible to the outside world. This has been the case since the dawn of our species, for human nature has hardly changed beneath the continually repainted façade of our social sanctions — human beings have always been capable of inflicting tremendous pain on each other and capable of triumphal healing.
There is, however, a peculiar modern phenomenon that might best be described as a culture of competitive trauma. In recent times, the touching human longing for sympathy, that impulse to have our suffering recognized and validated, has grown distorted by a troubling compulsion for broadcast-suffering and comparative validity. Personhoods are staked on the cards dealt and not the hands played, as if we evolved the opposable thumbs of our agency for nothing. In memoirs and reality shows, across infinite Alexandrian scrolls of social media feeds, the unlucky events of life have become the currency of attention and identification.
There is a way, with moderate moral imagination and considerable countercultural courage, to subvert this tendency without turning away from the reality and magnitude of suffering that we do live with — a way to esteem in attention and admiration not the unluckiness of what has happened to us but the luckiness that, despite it, we have become the people we are and have the lives we have by the sheer unwillingness to stay in that small dark place, which is at heart a willingness to be larger than our hurt selves.
It is not a new way of reframing personal narrative (which, after all, is the neuropsychological pillar of identity). It is a very old way, common to many of the world’s ancient traditions but most clearly and creatively articulated by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180).
Because the modern mind calculates validity of vantage point by estimating the comparative value of suffering, it must be observed that, later in life, Marcus Aurelius had it easier than most of his contemporaries, being Emperor; it must also be observed that, earlier in life, he had it harder than most, being a fatherless child and a queer teenager in Roman antiquity, epochs before the notion of LGBTQ rights, or for that matter most human rights. It is hardly surprising that he turned to Stoicism for succor and training in living with the uncertainty of events and the certainty of loss.
His timeless Meditations (public library), newly translated and annotated by the British classics scholar Robin Waterfield, were the original self-help — Marcus wrote these notebooks primarily as notes to himself while learning how to live: how to live with more agency, equanimity, and even joy in a world violently unpredictable at all times and especially so in his time.
In one of those self-counsels, Marcus Aurelius considers the key to regarding one’s own life, and living it, with positive realism:
Be like a headland: the waves beat against it continuously, but it stands fast and around it the boiling water dies down. “It’s my rotten luck that this has happened to me.” On the contrary, “It’s my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I still feel no distress, since I’m unbruised by the present and unconcerned about the future.” What happened could have happened to anyone, but not everyone could have carried on without letting it distress him. So why regard the incident as a piece of bad luck rather than seeing your avoidance of distress as a piece of good luck? Do you generally describe a person as unlucky when his nature worked well? Or do you count it as a malfunction of a person’s nature when it succeeds in securing the outcome it wanted?
With an eye to “what human nature wants” — what life ultimately demands as it lives itself through us, and what our highest answer is — he concludes:
Can what happened to you stop you from being fair, high-minded, moderate, conscientious, unhasty, honest, moral, self-reliant, and so on — from possessing all the qualities that, when present, enable a man’s* nature to be fulfilled? So then, whenever something happens that might cause you distress, remember to rely on this principle: this is not bad luck, but bearing it valiantly is good luck.
Complement with an equally counterintuitive and perspective-broadening modern case for the luckiness of death and Alan Watts on the ambiguity of good and bad luck, then revisit other highlights from the indispensable Meditations: Marcus Aurelius on how to handle disappointing people, the key to living with presence, the most potent motivation for work, and how to begin each day for maximum serenity of mind.
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Sep 2021 | 9:12 pm(NZT)