Brain Pickings

In Praise of Missing Out: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the Paradoxical Value of Our Unlived Lives

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“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

“In the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation,” Alain de Botton wrote in his meditation on Nietzsche and why a fulfilling life requires difficulty. “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion wrote in contemplating the value of keeping a notebook. But we are just as well advised, it turns out, to keep on nodding terms with the people we could’ve been, the people we never were, the people who perished in the abyss between our ideal selves and our real selves. So argues psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (public library) — a fascinating read, acutely relevant to our culture so plagued by the fear of missing out that we’ve shorthanded it to “FOMO.”

Phillips — whom I’ve long considered the Carl Jung of our time, and who has written beautifully about such transfixing psychosocial complexities as how kindness became our forbidden pleasure, balance and the requisite excesses of life, and the necessity of boredom — examines the paradoxical relationship between frustration and satisfaction, exploring how our unlived lives illuminate the priorities, values, and desires undergirding the lives we do live.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Parker Palmer’s magnificent commencement address on the wholehearted life“If the unexamined life is not worth living,” he counseled graduates, “it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining.” — Phillips writes:

The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives — even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available — because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us. Indeed, we have to survive our appetites by making people cooperate with our wanting. We pressurize the world to be there for our benefit. And yet we quickly notice as children — it is, perhaps, the first thing we do notice — that our needs, like our wishes, are always potentially unmet. Because we are always shadowed by the possibility of not getting what we want, we learn, at best, to ironize our wishes — that is, to call our wants wishes: a wish is only a wish until, as we say, it comes true — and, at worst, to hate our needs. But we also learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.

[…]

We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in how we think of loves that never were — “the one that got away” implies that the getting away was merely a product of probability and had the odds turned out differently, the person who “got away” would have been The One. But Phillips argues this is a larger problem that affects how we think about every aspect of our lives, perhaps most palpably when we peer back on the road not taken from the fixed vantage point of our present destination:

We are always haunted by the myth of our potential, of what we might have it in ourselves to be or do… We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.

[…]

Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken. The myth of our potential can make of our lives a perpetual falling-short, a continual and continuing loss, a sustained and sometimes sustaining rage.

Phillips argues that these unlived lives reveal themselves most obviously in our envy of others, the psychology of which Kierkegaard keenly observed a century and a half earlier, and in the demands we place on our children — an idea that furthers the parallel between Phillips with Jung, for it was the great Swiss psychiatrist who famously asserted that what most shapes children’s developing psychological reality are “the unlived lives of the parents.” But where Jung believed that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being,” Phillips suggests that it’s equally important to kindle a light in the darkness of non-being, of never-having-been:

We have an abiding sense, however obscure and obscured, that the lives we do lead are informed by the lives that escape us.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

It is precisely by recognizing our existential incompleteness and our inherent insufficiency, by embracing the fact that we are a cosmic accident, that we can begin to feel the fullness of life — but this is hard to do, Phillips points out, in a culture predicated on inflating the specialness of the self as a singular unit aimed at optimizing and making maximally productive the lived life:

Because we are nothing special — on a par with ants and daffodils — it is the work of culture to make us feel special; just as parents need to make their children feel special to help them bear and bear with — and hopefully enjoy — their insignificance in the larger scheme of things. In this sense growing up is always an undoing of what needed to be done: first, ideally, we are made to feel special; then we are expected to enjoy a world in which we are not… When people realize how accidental they are, they are tempted to think of themselves as chosen. We certainly tend to be more special, if only to ourselves, in our (imaginary) unlived lives.

So it is worth wondering what the need to be special prevents us seeing about ourselves — other, that is, than the unfailing transience of our lives; what the need to be special stops us from being. This, essentially, is the question psychoanalysis was invented to address: what kind of pleasures can sustain a creature that is nothing special? Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life — the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life — the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legitimated by nothing more than the desire to live it. For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full. We become obsessed, in a new way, by what is missing in our lives; and by what sabotages the pleasures that we seek.

To mitigate the wistful vestiges this existential neverland lodges in our psyche, Phillips argues, we create and hold on to various possible selves and possible lives — pockets of possibility that exist no matter how remote the probability of realizing them might be. These improbable possibles, Phillips asserts, come to both reveal and shape who we really are:

We make our lives pleasurable, and therefore bearable, by picturing them as they might be; it is less obvious, though, what these compelling fantasy lives — lives of, as it were, a more complete satisfaction — are a self-cure for. Our solutions tell us what our problems are; our fantasy lives are not — or not necessarily — alternatives to, or refuges from, those real lives but an essential part of them… There is nothing more obscure than the relationship between the lived and the unlived life. (Each member of a couple, for example, is always having a relationship, wittingly or unwittingly, with their partner’s unlived lives; their initial and initiating relationship is between what they assume are their potential selves.) So we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.

With an eye to the philosophy of Albert Camus, Phillips writes:

There is a gap between what we want and what we can have, and that gap … is our link, our connection, to the world… This discord, this supposed mismatch, is the origin of our experience of missing out.

And yet, just like “our solutions tell us what our problems are,” the most ideal of these missed-out-on experiences reveal a great deal about the realest aspects of our lives. In one of many poignant parenthetical asides — one that calls to mind Umberto Eco on why imaginary places captivate us so — Phillips writes:

Our utopias tell us more about our lived lives, and their privations, than about our wished-for lives.

1516 map of Thomas More's island of Utopia, discussed in 'Legendary Lands' by Umberto Eco. Click image for more.

The paradox — and the most important point — is that it is through the privation of not getting what we want, as Nietzsche memorably argued more than a century earlier, that we arrive at the promise of satisfaction:

In our unlived lives we are always more satisfied, far less frustrated versions of ourselves… Our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration; if we can’t let ourselves feel our frustration — and, surprisingly, this is a surprisingly difficult thing to do — we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us pleasure… That frustration is where we start from; the child’s dawning awareness of himself is an awareness of something necessary not being there. The child becomes present to himself in the absence of something he needs.

But it is through our frustrations that we come to know our wants, against the light of which the contour of our personhood is shaded in:

The more we frustrate ourselves in wanting something, the more we value our desire for it… Waiting too long poisons desire, but waiting too little pre-empts it; the imagining is in the waiting… Wanting takes time; partly because it takes some time to get over the resistances to wanting, and partly because we are often unconscious of what it is that we do want. But the worst thing we can be frustrated of is frustration itself; to be deprived of frustration is to be deprived of the possibilities of satisfaction.

Missing Out is an unmissable read in its totality, exploring how the osmosis of frustration and satisfaction illuminates our romantic relationships, our experience of success and failure, and much more. Complement it with Dr. Seuss’s recently revealed parable of FOMO and Meghan Daum on how we become who we are, then revisit Phillips on kindness, balance, and the essential capacity for “fertile solitude.”

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Micromegas: Voltaire’s Trailblazing Sci-Fi Philosophical Homage to Newton and the Human Condition, in a Rare Vintage Children’s Book

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“Perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”

When the great French Enlightenment philosopher and satirist Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) was traveling in England as a young man, he met Catherine Barton, Isaac Newton’s niece, who enchanted him with the story of how the trailblazing scientist had discovered gravity. So began Voltaire’s lifelong love affair with Newton’s work.

A few years later, when he met the Marquise du Châtelet — the remarkable woman mathematician with whom he fell in love — he wrote of her: “That lady whom I look upon as a great man … understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.” With help from his beloved, who had translated Newton’s Principia from Latin herself, Voltaire penned Elements of the Philosophy of Newton in 1738 — the first major work bringing Newton’s theories to a popular audience.

But his most unusual and wonderful celebration of Newton’s legacy came more than a decade later. In 1752, he penned Micromégas — a short story notable not only for being a seminal work of science fiction, but for addressing with astonishing prescience an equally astonishing array of issues enormously timely today: He envisions space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life two centuries before the word “astronaut” was coined; he champions animal consciousness a quarter millennium before we came to acknowledge it and study its complexities; above all, he speaks to the redemptive power of humility and critical thinking.

Voltaire tells the story of Micromegas, a brilliant giant from a distant planet, modeled after Newton and quite possibly a play on the great scientist’s famous proclamation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Micromegas voyages across the universe with his slightly less gigantic friend and eventually ends up on Earth, at first unable to see its tiny human inhabitants, then skeptical of their intelligence, and at last amused by their incongruous self-importance. At the heart of the story is a poignant reminder that greatness is always relative and arrogance always misplaced, for however great we are, there is always someone greater out there; and that however much we may wish to outsource the ultimate task of existence, we must discern the meaning of life for ourselves.

In 1967, more than two centuries after Voltaire penned his clever and imaginative allegory, writer Elizabeth Hall adapted it for young readers in Voltaire’s Micromegas (public library) — a marvelous vintage “children’s” book relaying Voltaire’s timeless message for all ages, with breathtaking illustrations by artist Don Freeman.

On one of those planets which revolve around the star named Sirius, there was a very clever young man. He was called Micromegas, a name which suits all big men, for, though they may be huge in their own land, there is always another land where they will find themselves small.

So huge is Micromegas that he stands eight leagues tall, his head twenty miles away from his feet and his intellect commensurate with his size. By the time he reaches adolescence at the age of about 500, he begins conducting scientific experiments that challenge the dogma of the land. Once he publishes his theories, the great ruler of Sirius is so displeased — much like Isaac Newton’s theories had displeased the religious leaders of his day — that he banishes Micromegas from the court for eight hundred years.

Micromegas was only slightly upset at being banished from court. Instead of grieving, he began to travel from planet to planet in order to develop his mind and heart.

On Saturn, he meets the local “dwarves” — only a mile tall — and becomes fast friends with the Secretary of the Academy of Saturn, who joins him on the cosmic voyage. Together, they visit the other planets in the Solar System until they come across an aurora borealis that carries them to Earth and drops them on the northern coast of the Baltic Sea.

After snacking on two snow-capped mountains for breakfast, they set about exploring this tiny world, which they traverse in a matter of hours, looking for signs of life.

They see “the puddle called the Mediterranean” and “that other little pond which is known as the Atlantic Ocean,” but their enormous eyes remain blind to the tiny creatures inhabiting the planet — and so the dwarf concludes that there must be no life on this jagged, irregular piece of rock with its strange rivers, none of which flow in a straight line, and its odd-shaped lakes, neither round nor square. But Micromegas is unconvinced.

“What makes me guess there is no life here is that it seems to me that sensible people would not want to live here,” [said the dwarf].

“Well,” said Micromegas, “perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”

Agitated over their argument, Micromegas accidentally breaks the string of his diamond necklace and discovers — another nod to Newton here — that because of how they are cut, the diamonds make excellent microscope lenses. With that makeshift microscope, the dwarf suddenly sees something moving under the water in the sea — a whale.

He lifted it up very skillfully with his little finger. He put it on his thumbnail. He showed it to the Sirian who began to laugh at the extreme smallness of the inhabitants of our globe.

The Saturnian, now certain that our world was inhabited, immediately imagined it was inhabited only by whales. Since he was a great reasoner, he wanted to guess from where so tiny a speck drew its movement and whether it had a mind and a will.

This upset Micromegas. He examined the animal very patiently. The result of the examination was that there were no reasons for believing that a soul inhabited the tiny whale. The two travelers therefore believed there was no intelligence on our earth.

But just as they’re drawing their conclusion, the two cosmic travelers spot something bigger than the whale floating on the Baltic Sea.

It is known that at this same time a flock of philosophers were returning from the Arctic Circle where they had been making observations. No one had noticed their expedition until that moment. The newspapers later said that their ship ran aground off the coast of Bothnia and that they had great difficulty in escaping.

Intrigued by this supposed new animal, Micromegas picks up the ship ever so gently, greatly alarming the ship’s still-invisible passengers. The commotion registers as a tickle — just enough for Micromegas to sense something moving. But his microscope, barely powerful enough to detect the whale, struggles to reveal these tiny human mites to his eye. Still, he stares intently until he begins to notice these tiny specks, not only moving but seemingly communicating with each other.

Inventive like Newton himself, Micromegas pulls out a pair of scissors — for who would travel the cosmos without one? — and clips off a piece of his nail, which he curls into a funnel to create a huge megaphone. Pointing it to his ear, he can suddenly hear the tiny creatures. Afraid that his great big voice would deafen them, he sticks a toothpick in his mouth to keep a safe distance from the ship, kneels, and lowers his voice to speak to the passengers softly.

After telling the earthlings how sorry he was that they were so tiny, he asked them if they had always been in such a wretched state, so near to not existing at all. The dwarf then asked them what they did on a world which belonged to whales, if they were happy, if they had souls, and a hundred other questions.

One reasoner in the crowd, more daring than the others, was shocked that the dwarf doubted he had a soul. Using his quadrant, he looked at the dwarf several times and said, “You believe, sir, because your head stretches a mile from your feet that you are a…”

The dwarf interrupts in astonishment. Impressed that the tiny human has been able to estimate his height, he concludes that they must surely have both a mind and a soul. Nearly two centuries before the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, in which some of Earth’s real-life leading scientists asserted that nonhuman animals have consciousness, Micromegas declares:

More than ever I see that we must not judge anything by size. If it is possible that there are being smaller than these tiny specks, it is also possible that they have minds superior to those splendid animals I have seen in the sky.

The more Micromegas comes to know Earth and its inhabitants, the more impressed he becomes with their merits — and yet he remains blind to their flaws:

Micromegas suggested that the tiny creatures on earth, having such fine minds and small bodies, must spend their lives in perfect happiness.

All the philosophers shook their heads.

One of them, more courageous than the rest, distills for the celestial visitor the absurdity of every war as Voltaire once again exerts his satirical genius of putting in perspective the grandiose pettiness of the human condition:

“For example,” he said, “do you know that as I am speaking to you, there are one hundred thousand fools wearing hats, who are killing one hundred thousand other animals wearing turbans, or in turn are being massacred by them? And that people have acted in this way for as long as man can remember?”

The Sirian shuddered. He asked what the reason could be for such horrible quarrels among such pitiful animals.

“They are fighting,” said the philosopher, “over a few piles of dirt as big as your heel. They slaughter one another, not for a single straw of the dirt piles, but to decide whether they will belong to a man called Sultan or to another called Caesar. Neither Sultan nor Caesar has ever seen the little bits of dirt.”

Appalled, Micromegas inquires how the philosophers, being among the few wise men who don’t kill others for a living, spend their time:

“We dissect flies,” answered the philosopher. “We measure lines. We study numbers. We agree on two or three points which we understand, and we disagree on two or three thousand which we don’t understand.”

But then, as Micromegas begins inquiring about the things on which the earthlings do agree, Voltaire throws his most piercing spear of cultural critique, satirizing the ludicrous religious dogma which Newton had to combat in his day:

Then, unfortunately, one of the puny earthlings said he knew the secret of the universe. He regarded the two celestial inhabitants from head to toe. Throwing back his head, the better to shout and make himself heard, he said that the visitors’ very selves, their worlds, their suns, their stars, all were made solely for man.

At this speech the two travelers fell on each other, choking with laughter. Their shoulders shook. Their bellies shook. In these convulsions, the ship that the Sirian was balancing on his nail tumbled into the pocket of the dwarf’s trousers.

Micromegas and the dwarf, being kindly and conscientious even in the face of such absurd arrogance, recover the ship from the pocket and gently place it back onto the sea. As a parting gift, before leaping onto another aurora borealis to return home, Micromegas offers the earthlings “a fine book of philosophy” to take to the Academy of Sciences in Paris.

But when the Secretary of the Academy — a Voltaire lookalike — opens the tome, he discovers a book of empty pages. Micromegas has delivered his message: Earthlings must learn philosophy — that is, the art of understanding how to live and how to die — for themselves.

How lamentable that a “children’s” book as imaginative and insightful and full of timeless, ageless wisdom as Voltaire’s Micromegas should go out of print — perhaps a publisher with a good heart and a good head on her shoulders would consider bringing it back for today’s young readers, who need Voltaire’s message of humility and critical thinking perhaps more than ever. In the meantime, used copies do exist and are very much worth the used-book hunt or the trip to the library.

Complement it with David the Dreamer, another unusual vintage children’s book illustrated by Freud’s eccentric niece, and The Hole, a contemporary Scandinavian counterpart that enchants young readers with existential questions, then revisit Voltaire on how to write well and stay true to your creative vision and the story of how he fell in love with the brilliant Marquise.

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Vacation and the Art of Presence: Anaïs Nin on How to Truly Unplug and Reconnect with Your Senses

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“As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.”

If leisure is the basis of culture, how can we harness its true rewards given our pathological addiction to productivity? That’s exactly what French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin — an enchantress of love and life, a woman of extraordinary cultural prescience, and one of the most dedicated diarists of all time — explores in a portion of The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5 (public library).

In the winter of 1947, drained by the bustle and constant striving that drives life in New York, Nin took a holiday in Acapulco, Mexico — still a mostly undeveloped patch of wilderness, on which the Hotel El Mirador had been built as twelve rooms on the edge of a cliff just a few years earlier. She was immediately struck by the world of difference between the local way of life and the obsessive living-making of the workaholic culture from which she had taken respite.

Three decades before Susan Sontag lamented the “aesthetic consumerism” of vacation photography, which commodifies the experience by prioritizing its record over its livingness, and more than half a century before we came to compulsively catalog every private moment on the social web, Nin writes:

I am lying on a hammock, on the terrace of my room at the Hotel Mirador, the diary open on my knees, the sun shining on the diary, and I have no desire to write. The sun, the leaves, the shade, the warmth, are so alive that they lull the senses, calm the imagination. This is perfection. There is no need to portray, to preserve. It is eternal, it overwhelms you, it is complete.

Nin had many friends of color in an era when that was rather uncommon for the average white person, and saw white Americans’ and Europeans’ way of life as a rote existence greatly inferior in its sensorial unimaginativeness compared to the cultures from which jazz, the art-form she most admired, sprang. Faced with the radically different disposition of the Mexican locals, she considers what they know about living with presence that the society from which she escaped does not:

The natives have not yet learned from the white man his inventions for traveling away from the present, his scientific capacity for analyzing warmth into a chemical substance, for abstracting human beings into symbols. The white man has invented glasses which make objects too near or too far, cameras, telescopes, spyglasses, objects which put glass between living and vision. It is the image he seeks to possess, not the texture, the living warmth, the human closeness.

Illustration from a rare first edition of Nin's 1944 short-story collection 'Under a Glass Bell.' Click image for more.

Many decades before we became transfixed by the glowing screens of our devices, which came to interfere with the very basics of being a city life, Nin adds:

Here in Mexico they see only the present. This communion of eyes and smiles is elating. In New York people seem intent on not seeing each other. Only children look with such unashamed curiosity. Poor white man, wandering and lost in his proud possession of a dimension in which bodies become invisible to the naked eye, as if staring were an immodest act. Here I feel incarnated and in full possession of my own body.

Four years later, Nin returns to Acapulco and is once again enchanted by the aliveness that its invitation to presence awakens in the spirit:

To me Acapulco is the detoxicating cure for all the evils of the city: ambition, vanity, quest for success in money, the continuous contagious presence of power-driven, obsessed individuals who want to become known, to be in the limelight, noticed, as if life among millions gave you a desperate illness, a need of rising above the crowd, being noticed, existing individually, singled out from a mass of ants and sheep… Here, all this is nonsense. You exist by your smile and your presence. You exist for your joys and your relaxations. You exist in nature. You are part of the glittering sea, and part of the luscious, well-nourished plants, you are wedded to the sun, you are immersed in timelessness, only the present counts, and from the present you extract all the essences which can nourish the senses, and so the nerves are still, the mind is quiet, the nights are lullabies, the days are like gentle ovens in which infinitely wise sculptor’s hands re-form the lost contours, the lost sensations of the body… As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.

Complement The Diary of Anaïs Nin, full of wisdom just as electrifying and alive, with Nin on why emotional excess is essential for creativity, the elusive nature of joy, and what maturity really means, then revisit Josef Pieper, writing around the same time, on how to reclaim our human dignity by mastering leisure.

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Marianne Moore and the Crowning Curio: How a Poem Saved One of the World’s Rarest and Most Majestic Trees

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“It is still leafing; still there. Mortal though.”

That a tree can save a writer’s life is already miraculous enough, but that a writer can save a tree’s life is nothing short of magical.

In 1867, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, once an American Revolution battlefield, opened its gates to a community hungry for a peaceful respite of wilderness amid the urban bustle. So intense was public enthusiasm that local residents began donating a variety of wildlife to fill the 585-acre green expanse, from ducks to deer. But the most unusual and enduring gift turned out to be a tree, donated by a man named A.G. Burgess and planted in 1872.

This was no ordinary tree. Ulmus glabra “Camperdownii,” better-known as Camperdown Elm, is a species unlike regular trees in that it cannot reproduce from a seed. The rare elm carries its irregularity on the outside — its majestic, knobby branches grow almost parallel to the ground, “weeping” down. To ameliorate its reproductive helplessness, the Camperdown Elm requires outside help — a sort of assisted grafting, be it by accident of nature or intentional human hand.

This is how the species originated in the 1830s: The head forester of the Earl of Camperdown discovered a mutant branch of a Scots Elm growing along the ground at Camperdown House in Dundee, Scotland; he decided to graft it onto an ordinary Scots Elm. The result, to which every single Camperdown Elm in the world today can be traced, was an unusual-looking tree — a sort of giant bonsai with “weeping” branches. But this ugly duckling turned out to have a secret superpower — it was immune to the disease that killed all of its cousins, the Dutch Elms, across North America.

Unlike the world’s oldest living trees, which predate our civilization by millennia, the Camperdown Elm is a curious conduit between nature and humanity: Both human-made and gloriously wild, with its barbaric-looking bark and defiant branches, it stands as a poignant metaphor for the interdependence of all beings — nowhere more so than in the story of the Brooklyn tree.

The baby Camperdown Elm shortly after it was planted in Prospect Park on an elevated mound in order to give its branches additional room to clear the ground. (Photograph: New York Public Library archives)

As excitement over the novelty of Prospect Park began dying down, the Camperdown Elm came to suffer years of neglect. Suddenly, it became more than a metaphor for impermanence and mortality — its heavy branches were weeping into the precipice of death, the public deaf to its tears.

But then, in the 1960s, it was saved by a force even more miraculous than that by which its Scottish great-great-grandfather had been born — not by a botanist or a park commissioner or a policymaker, but by a poet fifteen years the tree’s junior.

The poet was Marianne Moore (November 15, 1887–February 5, 1972), who had been elected president of New York’s Greensward Foundation — an advocacy group for public parks — in 1965. This brilliant and eccentric woman, who never married and by all accounts never fell in love, found herself enamored with the old odd-looking tree. Under the auspices of the foundation, she created a citizen group called Friends of Prospect Park, aimed at protecting the Camperdown Elm and other endangered trees in the park.

In 1967, eighty at the time and with a Pulitzer Prize under her belt, Moore penned “The Camperdown Elm” — a beautiful ode to this unusual, dignified, yet surprisingly fragile life-form of which humans are the only bastions. The poem, animated by the same impulse undergirding Hermann Hesse’s sublime meditation on what trees teach us about belonging, was included in Moore’s Complete Poems (public library).

THE CAMPERDOWN ELM

I think, in connection with this weeping elm,
of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge
    overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
conversing with Thomas Cole
in Asher Durand’s painting of them
under the filigree of an elm overhead.

No doubt they had seen other trees — lindens,
maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris
street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine
their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s
massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”
arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.
The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it
and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness
of its torso and there were six small cavities also.

Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;
still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is
    our crowning curio.

A quarter century after a children’s book saved New York’s Little Red Lighthouse, Moore’s poem mobilized the Friends of Prospect Park to envelop the Camperdown Elm in attentive and nurturing care, which ultimately saved it. The group went on to identify and salvage other vulnerable, neglected trees throughout the park. In her will, Moore established a fund to protect Brooklyn’s beloved “crowning curio.”

Today, halfway into its second century, the Camperdown Elm’s majestic canopy is buoyed by the air of poetry and human grace. Complement its heartening story with an uncommonly beautiful Japanese pop-up book celebrating what a tree can teach us about the cycle of life and death.

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