Brain Pickings

How a Smile Saved Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Life: A Soul-Stirring Meditation on the Shared Humanity of Our Universal Language

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“Care granted to the sick, welcome offered to the banished, forgiveness itself are worth nothing without a smile enlightening the deed.”

Though researchers since Darwin may have spent considerable effort on the science of smiles, at the heart of that simple human expression remains a metaphysical art — one captured nowhere more beautifully and grippingly than in a short account by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, found in Letter to a Hostage (public library) — the same exquisite short memoir he began writing in December of 1940, a little more than two years before he created The Little Prince on American soil, which also gave us his poignant reflection on what the Sahara desert teaches us about the meaning of life.

In a creative sandbox for what would become Saint-Exupéry’s most famous line in The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — he writes:

How does life construct those lines of force which make us alive?

[…]

Real miracles make little noise! Essential events are so simple!

One such essential event in Saint-Exupéry’s life had to do with the mundane miracle of a simple smile, a gift he so poetically describes as “a certain miracle of the sun, which had taken so much trouble, for so many million years, to achieve, through ourselves, that quality of a smile which was pure success.” He once again channels the spirit of his famous Little Prince line and writes:

The essential, most often, has no weight. The essential there, was apparently nothing but a smile. A smile is often the essential. One is paid with a smile. One is rewarded by a smile. And the quality of a smile might make one die.

Indeed, in a subsequent chapter, Saint-Exupéry recounts an incident that rendered a smile very much the difference between life and death — his life and death. One night during his time in Spain as a journalist reporting on the Civil War, he found himself with several revolver barrels pressed tightly into his stomach — the militia of the rebel forces had snuck up on him under the veil of the dark and captured him in “solemn silence,” staring at his tie — “such a luxury was not fashionable in an anarchist area” — rather than his face. He recounts:

My skin tightened. I waited for the shot, for this was the time of quick trials. But there was no shot. After a complete blank of a few seconds, during which the shifts at work appeared to dance in another universe — a kind of dream ballet — my anarchists, slightly nodding their heads, bid me precede them, and we set off, without hurry, across the lines of junction. The capture had been done in perfect silence, with an extraordinary economy of movement. It was like a game of creatures of the ocean bed.

I soon descended to a basement transformed into a guard post. Badly lit by a poor oil lamp, some other militia were dozing, their guns between their legs. They exchanged a few words, in a neutral voice, with the men of my patrol. One of them searched me.

Saint-Exupéry didn’t speak Spanish, but understood enough Catalan to gather that his identity documents were being requested. He tried to communicate to his captors that he had left them at the hotel, that he was journalist, but they merely passed around his camera, yawning and expressionless. The atmosphere, to his surprise, wasn’t what one would expect of an anarchist militia camp:

The dominant impression was that of boredom. Boredom and sleep. The power of concentration of these men seemed exhausted. I almost wished for a sign of hostility, as a human contact. But … they gazed at me without any reaction, as if they were looking at a Chinese fish in an aquarium.

(One has to wonder whether that desire for contact, whatever its nature or cost, might be a universality of the human condition — the same impulse that drives trolls to spew the venom of hostility as a desperate antidote to their own apathy and existential boredom. Aggression is, perhaps, the only form of contact of which they are capable, and yet it is contact they crave so compulsively.)

After a tortuous period of observing his captors wait for nothing in particular, Saint-Exupéry grew increasingly exasperated with a longing for contact, for the mere acknowledgement of his existence. He paints the backdrop of the miracle that would take place:

In order to load myself with the weight of real presence, I felt a strange need to cry out something about myself, which would impose upon them the truth of my existence — my age for instance! That is impressive, the age of a man! That summarizes all his life. This maturity of his has taken a long time to achieve. It was grown through so many obstacles conquered, so many serious illnesses cured, so many griefs appeased, so many despairs overcome, so many dangers unconsciously passed. It has grown through so many desires, so many hopes, so many regrets, so many lapses, so much love. The age of a man, that represents a good load of experience and memories. In spite of decoys, jolts, and ruts, you have continued to plod like a horse drawing a cart.

Saint-Exupéry was thirty-seven at the time.

But what happened next had nothing to do with the achievement of age, or the gravitas of maturity, or any other willful self-assertion. Instead, it was driven by the simplest, most profound form of shared humanity:

Then the miracle happened. Oh! a very discreet miracle. I had no cigarette. As one of my guards was smoking, I asked him, by gesture, showing the vestige of a smile, if he would give me one. The man first stretched himself, slowly passed his hand across his brow, raised his eyes, no longer to my tie but to my face, and, to my great astonishment, he also attempted a smile. It was like the dawning of the day.

This miracle did not conclude the tragedy, it removed it altogether, as light does shadow. There had been no tragedy. This miracle altered nothing visible. The feeble oil lamp, the table scattered with papers, the men propped against the wall, the colors, the smell, everything remained unchanged. Yet everything was transformed in its very substance. That smile saved me. It was a sign just as final, as obvious in its future consequences, as unchangeable as the rising of the sun. It marked the beginning of a new era. Nothing had changed, everything was changed. The table scattered with papers became alive. The oil lamp became alive. The walls were alive. The boredom dripping from every lifeless thing in that cellar grew lighter as if by magic. It seemed that an invisible stream of blood had started flowing again, connecting all things in the same body, and restoring to them their significance.

The men had not moved either, but, though a minute earlier they had seemed to be farther away from me than an antediluvian species, now they grew into contemporary life. I had an extraordinary feeling of presence. That is it: of presence. And I was aware of a connection.

The boy who had smiled at me, and who, until a few minutes before, had been nothing but a function, a tool, a kind of monstrous insect, appeared now rather awkward, almost shy, of a wonderful shyness — that terrorist! He was no less a brute than any other. But the revelation of the man in him shed such a light upon his vulnerable side! We men assume haughty airs, but within the depth of our hearts, we know hesitation, doubt, grief.

Nothing had yet been said. Yet everything was resolved.

Original watercolor for The Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry. Click image for more.

Saint-Exupéry ends with a reflection on the sacred universality and life-giving force of that one simple gesture, the human smile:

Care granted to the sick, welcome offered to the banished, forgiveness itself are worth nothing without a smile enlightening the deed. We communicate in a smile beyond languages, classes, and parties. We are faithful members of the same church, you with your customs, I with mine.

Four years after he wrote Letter to a Hostage, which is a sublime read in its totality, Saint-Exupéry disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. Popular legend has it that Horst Rippert, the German fighter pilot who shot down the author’s plane, broke down and wept upon hearing the news — Saint-Exupéry had been his favorite author. What a tragic form of contact, war.

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Fictitious Dishes: Elegant and Imaginative Photographs of Meals from Famous Literature

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From James Joyce to Maurice Sendak, by way of weep-worthy jelly and gifted chickens.

Food and literature have a long and arduous relationship, from the Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook to Jane Austen reimagined in recipes to Alice B. Toklas’s literary memoir disguised as a cookbook to those delicious dishes inspired by Alice in Wonderland. But nowhere does that relationship come alive more vividly and enchantingly than in Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals (public library) — an ingenious project by designer and writer Dinah Fried, who cooks, art-directs, and photographs meals from nearly two centuries of famous fiction. Each photograph is accompanied by the particular passage in which the recipe appeared, as well as a few quick and curious factlets about the respective author, novel, or food.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 1963

'Then I tackled the avocado and crabmeat salad...Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear hidden at the bottom of his briefcase under six soiled shirts and the Sunday comic.'

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, 1951

'When I’m out somewhere, I generally just eat a Swiss cheese sandwich and a malted milk. It isn’t much, but you get quite a lot of vitamins in the malted milk. H. V. Caulfield. Holden Vitamin Caulfield.'

The project began as a modest design exercise while Fried was attending the Rhode Island School of Design a couple of years ago, but the concept quickly gripped her with greater allure that transcended her original short-term deadline. As she continued to read and cook, a different sort of self-transcendence took place (after all, isn’t that the greatest gift of literature?): A near-vegetarian, she found herself wrestling with pig kidney for Ulysses and cooking bananas eleven ways for Gravity’s Rainbow.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

'Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea.'

On the Road by Jack Kerouac, 1957

'But I had to get going and stop moaning, so I picked up my bag, said so long to the old hotelkeeper sitting by his spittoon, and went to eat. I ate apple pie and ice cream — it was getting better as I got deeper into Iowa, the pie bigger, the ice cream richer.'

The book begins with a beautiful quote from Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451:

I ate them like salad, books were my sandwich for lunch, my tiffin and dinner and midnight munch. I tore out the pages, ate them with salt, doused them with relish, gnawed on the bindings, turned the chapters with my tongue! Books by the dozen, the score and the billion. I carried so many home I was hunchbacked for years. Philosophy, art history, politics, social science, the poem, the essay, the grandiose play, you name ’em, I ate ’em.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

'On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.'

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1910-1911

'Roasted eggs were a previously unknown luxury and very hot potatoes with salt and fresh butter in them were fit for a woodland king—besides being deliciously satisfying.'

Fried, whom I had the pleasure of advising briefly during her graduate thesis at RISD, reflects on her long-term love affair with the culinary details of famous fiction, which possess a unique multi-sensory capacity to transport the reader into a specific world and thus grant the singular gift of exceptionally vivid memories:

Many of my most vivid memories from books are of the meals the characters eat. I read Heidi more than twenty years ago, but I can still taste the golden, cheesy toast that her grandfather serves her, and I can still feel the anticipation and comfort she experiences as she watches him prepare it over the open fire. I remember some meals for the moment they signify within a story: the minty cupcakes that Melissa gives to Chip in The Corrections — a marker of their love affair, which causes Chip’s professional downfall and general unraveling. Other meals have stayed with me for the atmosphere they help convey. Recently, a friend told me that after reading Lolita, he began to drink gin and pineapple juice, a favorite combination of the novel’s narrator, Humbert Humbert. I read Lolita when I was barely older than Lolita herself and was amazed that my friend’s description of the cocktail catapulted me back to the distinct world that Nabokov had created: a sticky New England summer when an intoxicated, lust-lorn Humbert Humbert mows the unruly lawn in the hot sun, pining for Dolores, who is away at camp. Likewise, Melville’s description of steaming chowder in Moby-Dick evokes a vision of Ishmael’s seafaring life: salty, damp ocean air on a dark evening; finding solace in a cozy, warmly lit inn with a toasty dining room filled with good cheer and the rich smell of fresh seafood.

All of Fried’s photographs are immensely thoughtful (Ishmael’s austere dinner from Moby-Dick is not only a nautically appropriate serving of clam chowder, but also appears lit by candlelight), and some bear a distinct undertone of cultural meta-satire (representing A Confederacy of Dunces is the ultimate edible Americana, a hot dog on a classic All-American diner tablecloth).

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, 1980

'Stopping before the narrow garage, he sniffed the fumes from Paradise with great sensory pleasure, the protruding hairs in his nostrils analyzing, cataloging, categorizing, and classifying the distinct odors of the hot dog, mustard, and lubricant.'

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, 1851

'Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition…'

In a sentiment reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s parallel between food and intellectual consumption, Fried writes:

Reading and eating are natural companions, and they’ve got a lot in common. Reading is consumption. Eating is consumption. Both are comforting, nourishing, restorative, relaxing, and mostly enjoyable. They can energize you or put you to sleep. Heavy books and heavy meals both require a period of intense digestion. Just as reading great novels can transport you to another time and place, meals — good and bad ones alike — can conjure scenes very far away from your kitchen table. Some of my favorite meals convey stories of origin and tradition; as a voracious reader, I devour my favorite books.

Heidi by Joanna Spyri, 1880

'The kettle soon began to boil, and meanwhile the old man held a large piece of cheese on a long iron fork over the fire, turning it round and round till it was toasted a nice golden yellow color on each side. Heidi watched all that was going on with eager curiosity.'

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, 1915

'There were old, half-rotten vegetables; bones from the evening meal, covered in white sauce that had gone hard; a few raisins and almonds; some cheese that Gregor had declared inedible two days before; a dry roll and some bread spread with butter and salt….'

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, 1971

''You goddamn honkies are all the same.’ By this time he’d opened a new bottle of tequila and was quaffing it down….He sliced the grapefruit into quarters...then into eighths...then sixteenths...then he began slashing aimlessly at the residue.'

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, 1837

'Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’'

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960

''Gracious alive, Cal, what’s all this?’ He was staring at his breakfast plate. Calpurnia said, ‘Tom Robinson’s daddy sent you along this chicken this morning. I fixed it.’ ‘You tell him I’m proud to get it — bet they don’t have chicken for breakfast at the White House.’'

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 2005

'She improvised bandages and covered the wound with a makeshift compress. Then she poured the coffee and handed him a sandwich. ‘I’m really not hungry,’ he said. ‘I don’t give a damn if you’re hungry. Just eat,’ Salander commanded, taking a big bite of her own cheese sandwich.'

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, 1913

'One day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, suggested that, contrary to my habit, I have a little tea. I refused at first and then, I do not know why, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called petites madeleines…'

But as a hopeless admirer of Maurice Sendak, this is my indisputable favorite:

'Chicken Soup with Rice' by Maurice Sendak, 1962

The final pages of Fictitious Dishes, which is an absolute delight in its entirety, also feature one of the loveliest dedications I’ve ever laid heart on:

Thank you and love to my father, for teaching me to read carefully, and to my mother, for teaching me to look closely.

For a side order of literary deliciousness, see Alexandre Dumas’s rules of dining etiquette and some scrumptious recipes inspired by Jane Austen’s novels.

All photographs courtesy of Dinah Fried

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The Oldest Living Things in the World: A Decade-Long Photographic Masterpiece at the Intersection of Art, Science, and Philosophy

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What a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree reveals about the meaning of human life.

“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not,” philosopher Stephen Cave observed in his poignant meditation on our mortality paradox And yet we continue to long for the secrets of that ever-elusive eternity.

For nearly a decade, Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe to discover and document its oldest organisms — living things over 2,000 years of age. Her breathtaking photographs and illuminating essays are now collected in The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — beautiful and powerful work at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy, spanning seven continents and exploring issues of deep time, permanence and impermanence, and the interconnectedness of life.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

Baby llareta

With an artist’s gift for “aesthetic force” and a scientist’s rigorous respect for truth, Sussman straddles a multitude of worlds as she travels across space and time to unearth Earth’s greatest stories of resilience, stories of tragedy and triumph, past and future, but above all stories that humble our human lives, which seem like the blink of a cosmic eye against the timescales of these ancient organisms — organisms that have unflinchingly witnessed all of our own tragedies and triumphs, our wars and our revolutions, our holocausts and our renaissances, and have remained anchored to existence more firmly than we can ever hope to be. And yet a great many of these species are on the verge of extinction, in no small part due to human activity, raising the question of how our seemingly ephemeral presence in the ecosystem can have such deep and long-term impact on organisms far older and far more naturally resilient than us.

Pando (quick aspen)

80,000 years | Fish Lake, Utah, USA

Alerce (Patagonian cypress)

2,200 years | Patagonia, Chile

Above all, however, the project raises questions that aren’t so much scientific or artistic as profoundly human: What is the meaning of human life if it comes and goes before a patch of moss has reached the end of infancy? How do our petty daily stresses measure up against a struggle for survival stretching back millennia? Who would we be if we relinquished our arrogant conviction that we are Earth’s biological crown jewel?

Sussman offers no answers but invites us, instead, to contemplate, consider, and explore on our own — not as creatures hopelessly different from and dwarfed by the organisms she profiles, but as fellow beings in an intricately entwined mesh of life. What emerges is a beautiful breakage of our illusion of separateness and a deep appreciation for the binds that pull us and these remarkable organisms in an eternal dance — our only real gateway to immortality.

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

Indeed, it is this capacity for questioning that makes Sussman’s perspective particularly powerful. She herself, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art, considers it the supreme responsibility of the artist:

The role as an artist [is] to answer some questions, but to ask many more.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Bristlecone pine detail

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Sussman writes in the preface:

What does it mean when the organic goes head-to-head with the geologic? We start talking about deep time and the quotidian in the same breath, along with all the strata in between. All of these organisms are living palimpsests: they contain myriad layers of their own histories within themselves, along with records of natural and human events; new chapters written over the old, year after year, millennium after millennium. When we look at them in the frame of deep time, a bigger picture emerges, and we start to see how all of the individuals have stories, and that all of those stories are in turn interconnected — and in turn, inextricably connected to us all.

[…]

The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future.

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

Baobab

2,000 years | Limpopo, South Africa

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

To be sure, the project has resonance far deeper and wider than a purely artistic pursuit. In a culture where 40% of people don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old — a kind of faith-washing known as Young Earth Creationism — Sussman’s work brings to light tangible, irrefutable, gloriously alive evidence of the scientific reality. After all, when beholding a majestic 13,000-year-old Eucalyptus tree, how can human arrogance dare deny its reality under the blindness of dogma?

Indeed, the exploration of deep time is one of the most powerful elements in Sussman’s work — certainly a scientific concept, in terms of being concerned with biology, geology, and astrophysics, but also very much a philosophical one raising enormously important, if unsettling, existential questions: Why are we here? How can we matter if we’re gone in the blink of a cosmic eye, the metaphorical minute of a Bristlecone Pine’s day? And, most importantly, what gives us the arrogance to consider ourselves atop the hierarchy of living organisms? We extol our intelligence as the uniquely human faculty that sets us apart from other animals, but even our definitions of intelligence are narrowly anthropocentric and based on things we humans happen to be good at. Surely there’s a special kind of biological and existential intelligence in an organism capable of such remarkable resilience — an organism that can outlive us by millennia and witness all of our fleeting struggles while it remains unflinchingly rooted in its particular corner of the ecosystem.

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria

400,000-600,000 years | Kolyma Lowlands, Siberia

Chestnut of 100 Horses with fresh lava

3,000 years | Sant'Alfio, Sicily

Because of its unique cross-disciplinary slant and dimensional scope, the book comes with two introductory essays — an art one by art-world legend and curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist and a science one by Carl Zimmer, one of the finest and most respected science writers working today.

Obrist elegantly applies the late and great philosopher Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of “the protest against forgetting” to Sussman’s work and celebrates it as a living archive of remembrance. He writes:

The oldest living things may well not be a clear category science-wise, but it is a category that is defined by curiosity, humane character, a fascination with deep time, and the courage of an explorer.

In the science essay, Zimmer explores how lives become long and why the remarkable timescale of these organisms’ lifespans matters — not just scientifically, but also culturally:

The durable mystery of longevity makes the species in this book all the more precious, and all the more worthy of being preserved. Looking at an organism that has endured for thousands of years is an awesome experience, because it makes us feel like mere gastrotrichs. But it is an even more awesome experience to recognize the bond we share with a 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak tree, and to wonder how we evolved such different lifetimes on this Earth.

Lower slope leading to Palmer's Oak

13,000 years | Riverside, California, USA

Box Huckleberry (Bibleberry) branches stripped by deer

8,000 to 13,000 years | Perry County, Pennsylvania, USA

Stromatolites

2,000-3,000 years | Carbla Station, Western Australia

Even more fascinating than how much we know, however, is how much we don’t — many of these organisms stand as a testament to the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science. In a book chapter exploring the 2,000-year-old Stromatolites of Western Australia — a species composed of bound cyanobacteria that formed about 3 billion years ago and undertook the Herculean task of oxygenating our then-oxygen-poor planet — Sussman observes:

It’s remarkable that we know so little about the origins of life on our planet. We know more about surfaces of other planets than we do about the beginnings of life on our own.

The Senator (bald cypress)

3,500 years | Seminole County, Florida

One of the most moving stories in the book is that of the Senator tree in Florida, one of the oldest Cypress trees in the world, which Sussman originally wrote for Brain Pickings a few years ago. She had photographed the Senator in 2007, but upon developing the film — Sussman shoots with a medium-format film camera for her high-quality fine art prints — she found herself unhappy with the result and resolved to return to the tree down the line. Since it was one of the most easily accessible organisms in her stable — what’s a sunny flight to Florida next to a harrowing weeklong voyage to Antarctica’s icy cliffs? — and since the tree had been around for 3,500 years, she figured it could wait.

Then, in January of 2012, news broke that a mysterious fire had burned the Senator to the ground. Unsettled and full of unease, Sussman immediately got on a plane to shoot the charred remains of the mighty tree, the only sign of its former brush with Forever. She poignantly observes:

Extreme longevity can lull us into a false sense of permanence. We fall into a quotidian reality devoid of long-term thinking, certain that things which have been here “forever” will remain, unchanging. But being old is not the same as being immortal. Even second chances have expiration dates. The comparative ease of access and the seeming lack of urgency bred a complacency in my return to the Senator.

The charred remains of the Senator Tree, February 8, 2012

The most devastating part? It was later discovered that the cause of the fire was a group of twenty-somethings who had broken into the park after dark, high on meth, climbed inside the tree, and lit matches or a lighter to “see the drugs better,” setting the Senator ablaze and erasing thousands of years of natural wisdom under the influence of synthetic senility.

But this story, too, is one of optimism. Sussman writes:

For the Senator, there is a chance at a second life: clippings from the tree were taken years ago and successfully propagated in a nursery. In February 2013, after a careful root-stabilization process, a forty-foot grafted tree was successfully transplanted back into the Senator’s original spot and has already sprouted fresh growth and gained in height. Four artisans and several institutions were selected to make works honoring the Senator’s legacy. The stump has been incorporated into the playground area.

In this beautiful short trailer by filmmaker Jonathan Minnard offers glimpse of Sussman’s extraordinary world:

Interwoven with Sussman’s photographs and essays, brimming with equal parts passion and precision, are the stories of her adventures — and misadventures — as she trekked the world in search of her ancient subjects. From a broken arm in remote Sri Lanka to a heart-wrenching breakup to a well-timed sip of whisky at polar explorer Shackleton’s grave, her personal stories imbue the universality of the deeper issues she explores with an inviting dose of humanity — a gentle reminder that life, for us as much as for those ancient organisms, is often about withstanding the uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unwelcome curveballs the universe throws our way, and that resilience comes from the dignity and humility of that withstanding.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

The Oldest Living Things in the World is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true masterpiece of compassionate curiosity and cross-disciplinary brilliance. A limited collectors’ edition is also available, housed in a gorgeous handcrafted, cloth-encased box, including a signed print of the Spruce image on the cover.

For more, see Sussman’s 2010 TED talk:

All photographs © Rachel Sussman published exclusively with the artist’s permission

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Mr. Bliss: Tolkien’s Little-Known Children’s Book for His Own Kids, Lovingly Handwritten and Illustrated by the Author Himself

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“‘What color?’ said Mr. Binks. ‘Bright yellow,’ said Mr. Bliss, ‘inside and out.’”

J.R.R. Tolkien firmly believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and yet, unbeknownst to most, he joined the ranks of famous authors of literature for grown-ups who wrote little-known children’s books — including Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein — and actually penned a book specifically for kids. He wrote Mr. Bliss (public library) for his own two children when they were small — much like the fairy tales E.E. Cummings wrote for his only daughter, Sylvia Plath’s verses for her kids, and the controversial story Faulkner penned for the daughter of the woman he’d later marry. Though it is unclear precisely when Tolkien created Mr. Bliss, the tale was inspired by his first car, which he purchased in 1932. It was published posthumously exactly fifty years later. Tolkien went on to use two of the character names from the book, Gaffer Gamgee and Boffin, in The Lord of the Rings.

The book, affectionately handwritten and illustrated by Tolkien himself — who, also unbeknownst to many, was a dedicated artist — tells the story of Mr. Bliss, a lovable eccentric known for his exceptionally tall hats and his “girabbits,” the giraffe-headed, rabbit-bodied creatures that live in his backyard. One day, Mr. Bliss decides to buy his very first motor car (and to my personal delight, as someone strongly partial to yellow, he proclaims to the salesman that he wants it to be “bright yellow, inside and out.”) But his first drive en route to a friend’s house soon turns into a Rube Goldberg machine of disaster as he collides with nearly everything imaginable, then gets kidnapped by three bears.

The ending, of course, is equal parts joyful and quirky.

As far as lesser-known children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature go, Mr. Bliss is a winner. Complement it with Tolkien’s gorgeous art, then revisit some more fairly obscure children’s books by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

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Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit

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A beautiful illustrated celebration of women’s journey toward creative freedom and mobility.

Amid a children’s book ecosystem marked by a lamentable lack of ethnic diversity and gobsmacking presence of female protagonists in only 31% of books, here comes Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit (public library) — a heartening antidote from the young artist-storyteller Amrita Das and Tara Books, the remarkable Indian independent publisher who for the past two decades has been giving voice to marginalized storytelling through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautiful books based on Indian folk traditions.

Das’s story is both semi-autobiographical and universal, a celebration of the “sliver of chance” that came her way and catapulted her into a life of creative independence, the same serendipitous happenstance that every so often makes life so strange and wonderful for each of us.

A young girl leaves her tiny village and goes to the town of Chennai to learn art. On the train, she meets another girl from a poor family and in her eyes she sees not only her own story, but the wider story of what it means for a girl to blossom into a woman’s life, free to make her own choices and speak for herself in a culture where women are routinely spoken for.

Das’s gorgeous artwork is based on the Mithila tradition — the same folk art style that gave us the superb Waterlife — but subverts it to unusual ends for a result that is both radical and respectful of its cultural heritage. Sometimes symbolic, sometimes humorous, sometimes imbued with metaphoric commentary on culture, her drawings become succinct visual epiphanies that explore the boundary between the known and the unknown, the given and the earned.

From the tangle of train tracks to the commuter chaos of the city street, Das’s drawings extend beautiful and poignant visual metaphors for the plight of mobility amid social conventions designed to keep women static.

The poor do have pride. They don’t ask, and they have nothing to offer in return.

In an inquiry pursued more directly in the wonderful Drawing from the City, Das also explores what it means to be a young, independent woman in the city. And though the specificity of the narrative weds it to the context of Indian culture, implicit to it is the broader question of what it means to be a member of a marginalized group — any marginalized group — in a mainstream society designed to limit your options and oppress your opportunities for self-actualization.

A girl’s life is hard, especially if you’re cursed to be poor. It’s gone even before you start on it. There’s all the work, but even more than being tied to these endless tasks, it’s the mean and hurtful way people speak to you.

If you dream for a moment, you’re asked why you’re twiddling your thumbs.

You’re not supposed to want anything, let alone allow your heart or your self to travel. No one lets you forget that you’re born a girl, not a boy.

Freedom. What does that word mean to us?

Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit is impossibly wonderful from cover to cover, both as an aesthetic experience and an emotional journey. For more of Tara’s treasures, see The Night Life of Trees, a breathtaking handmade homage to Indian mythology, Waterlife, a collection of exquisite illustrations of marine creatures inspired by Indian folklore, and I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, a Victorian “trick-poem” illustrated with stunning die-cut Indian art.

Images courtesy of Tara Books

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