Brain Pickings

The Magic of Moss and What It Teaches Us About the Art of Attentiveness to Life at All Scales

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“Life [exists] only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply.”

“Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver observed in her magnificent memoir of love and loss, “is only a report.” In Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (public library) — an extraordinary celebration of smallness and the grandeur of life, as humble yet surprisingly magical as its subject — botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer extends an uncommon and infectious invitation to drink in the vibrancy of life at all scales and attend to our world with befitting vibrancy of feeling.

One of the world’s foremost bryologists, Kimmerer is a scientist blessed with the rare privilege of belonging to a long lineage of storytellers — her family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi. There is a special commonality between her heritage and her scientific training — a profound respect for all life forms, whatever their size — coupled with a special talent for rendering that respect contagious, which places her prose in the same taxon as Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard and Thoreau. Indeed, if Thoreau was a poet and philosopher who became a de facto naturalist by the sheer force of poetic observation, despite having no formal training in science, Kimmerer is a formally trained scientist whose powers of poetic observation and contemplative reflection render her a de facto poet and philosopher. (So bewitching is her book, in fact, that it inspired Elizabeth Gilbert’s beautiful novel The Signature of All Things, which is how I first became aware of Kimmerer’s mossy masterwork.)

Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart

Mosses, to be sure, are scientifically impressive beyond measure — the amphibians of vegetation, they were the first plants to emerge from the ocean and conquer the land; they number some 22,000 species, whose tremendous range of size parallels the height disparity between a blueberry bush and a redwood; they inhabit nearly every ecosystem on earth and grow in places as diverse as the branch of an oak and the back of a beetle. But beyond their scientific notoriety, mosses possess a kind of lyrical splendor that Kimmerer unravels with enchanting elegance — splendor that has to do with what these tiny organisms teach us about the art of seeing.

She uses the experience of flying — an experience so common we’ve come to take its miraculousness for granted — to illustrate our all too human solipsism:

Between takeoff and landing, we are each in suspended animation, a pause between chapters of our lives. When we stare out the window into the sun’s glare, the landscape is only a flat projection with mountain ranges reduced to wrinkles in the continental skin. Oblivious to our passage overhead, other stories are unfolding beneath us. Blackberries ripen in the August sun; a woman packs a suitcase and hesitates at her doorway; a letter is opened and the most surprising photograph slides from between the pages. But we are moving too fast and we are too far away; all the stories escape us, except our own.

Illustration by Peter Sís from 'The Pilot and the Little Prince.' Click image for details.

We, of course, need not rise to the skies in order to fall into the chronic patterns of our myopia and miss most of what is going on around us — we do this even in the familiar microcosm of a city block. Kimmerer considers how our growing powers of technologically aided observation have contributed to our diminished attentiveness:

We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.

5,500-year-old Antarctic moss. Photograph by Rachel Sussman from 'The Oldest Living Things in the World.' Click image for details.

But the rewards of attentiveness can’t be forced into manifesting — rather, they are surrendered to. In a sentiment that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s spectacular essay on how we find ourselves by getting lost, Kimmerer writes:

A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity an experience both humbling and joyful.

[…]

Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.

[…]

Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.

Echoing Richard Feynman’s iconic monologue on knowledge and mystery, Kimmerer adds:

Knowing the fractal geometry of an individual snowflake makes the winter landscape even more of a marvel. Knowing the mosses enriches our knowing of the world.

Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart

This knowing, at its most intimate, is a function of naming — for words are how we come to know meanings. Kimmerer considers this delicate dialogue between a thing’s essence and its name:

Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.

[…]

Having the words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.

[…]

Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing, when visual acuity is not enough.

The remarkable diversity of moss varieties known and named only adds to the potentiality for intimacy with the world at all scales. But among this vast multiplicity of mosses is one particular species inhabiting the small caves carved by glaciers into the lakeshore, which alone embodies immense wisdom about the mystery and meaning of life. Kimmerer writes:

Schistostega pennata, the Goblins’ Gold, is unlike any other moss. It is a paragon of minimalism, simple in means, rich in ends. So simple you might not recognize it as a moss at all. The more typical mosses on the bank outside spread themselves to meet the sun. Such robust leaves and shoots, though tiny, require a substantial amount of solar energy to build and maintain. They are costly in solar currency. Some mosses need full sun to survive, others favor the diffuse light of clouds, while Schistostega lives on the clouds’ silver lining alone.

Goblins' Gold (Photograph: Matt Goff)

This singular species subsists solely on the light reflections emanating from the lake’s surface, which provide one-tenth of one percent of the solar energy that direct sunlight does. And yet in this unlikely habitat, Schistostega has emerged as a most miraculous jewel of life:

The shimmering presence of Schistostega is created entirely by the weft of nearly invisible threads crisscrossing the surface of the moist soil. It glows in the dark, or rather it glitters in the half light of places which scarcely feel the sun.

Each filament is a strand of individual cells strung together like beads shimmering on a string. The walls of each cell are angled, forming interior facets like a cut diamond. It is these facets which cause Schistostega to sparkle like the tiny lights of a far-away city. These beautifully angled walls capture traces of light and focus it inward, where a single large chloroplast awaits the gathering beam of light. Packed with chlorophyll ad membranes of exquisite complexity, the chloroplast converts the light energy into a stream of flowing electrons. This is the electricity of photosynthesis, turning sun into sugar, spinning straw into gold.

But more than a biological marvel, Schistostega presents a parable of patience and its bountiful rewards — an allegory for meeting the world not with grandiose entitlement but with boundless generosity of spirit; for taking whatever it has to offer and giving back an infinity more. Kimmerer writes:

Rain on the outside, fire on the inside. I feel a kinship with this being whose cold light is so different from my own. It asks very little from the world and yet glitters in response.

[…]

Timing is everything. Just for a moment, in the pause before the earth rotates again into night, the cave is flooded with light. The near-nothingness of Schistostega erupts in a shower of sparkles, like green glitter spilled on the rug at Christmas… And then, within minutes, it’s gone. All its needs are met in an ephemeral moment at the end of the day when the sun aligns with the mouth of the cave… Each shoot is shaped like a feather, flat and delicate. The soft blue green fronds stand up like a glad of translucent ferns, tracking the path of the sun. It is so little. And yet it is enough.

This tiny moss is a master of “the patient gleaming of light” — and what is the greatest feat of the human spirit, the measure of a life well lived, if not a “patient gleaming of light”? Annie Dillard knew this when she wrote: “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” And Carl Jung knew it when we insisted that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” The humble, generous Schistostega illuminates the darkness of mere being into blazing awe at the miracle of life itself — a reminder that our existence on this unremarkable rock orbiting an unremarkable star is a glorious cosmic accident, the acute awareness of which calls to mind poet Mark Strand’s memorable words: “It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”

To pay attention, indeed, is the ultimate celebration of this accidental miracle of life. Kimmerer captures this with exuberant elegance:

The combination of circumstances which allows it to exist at all are so implausible that the Schistostega is rendered much more precious than gold. Goblins’ or otherwise. Not only does its presence depend on the coincidence of the cave’s angle to the sun, but if the hills on the western shore were any higher the sun would set before reaching the cave… Its life and ours exist only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply.

Gathering Moss is a glittering read in its entirety. Complement it with Annie Dillard on the art of seeing and the two ways of looking.

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From Dream to Nightmare: John Steinbeck on the Perils of Publicity and the Dark Side of Success

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“It is so hard to know anything. So impossible to trust oneself. Even to know what there is to trust.”

As much as we may aspire to adopt Thoreau’s luminous definition of success and seek to reap the intrinsic rewards of creative labor rather than its extrinsic material manifestations, we live in an era where creativity and commerce are harder and harder to disentangle. And yet, as Amanda Palmer aptly observed in considering the sticky question of success, “part of the struggle of actually finding happiness as an artist is the daily fight to not define success the way the rest of the world defines success.”

But this is hardly a modern problem.

Wedged in time between Thoreau and Palmer, and a generation before Joni Mitchell bemoaned the dark side of success, another icon of creative culture brushed up against the harsh reality of how personally and creatively trying public and commercial triumph can be. Having just attained significant critical acclaim, financial profit, and public recognition for the 1937 novella Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) found himself in an unfamiliar and surprisingly uncomfortable position.

“I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success,” he wrote in an extraordinary letter of creative courage as he all but destroyed a manuscript that didn’t live up to his standards of style and integrity, setting out to rework it into what became The Grapes of Wrath — the novel that earned Steinbeck a Pulitzer in 1940 and paved the way for his Nobel Prize two decades later. But even as he labored at his masterpiece, the demons of fame, publicity, and commercial success kept beckoning from the sidelines.

Writing in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — his magnificent testament to the power of the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt — Steinbeck laments in an entry from early 1938:

People I liked have changed. Thinking there is money, they want it. And even if they don’t want anything, they watch me and they aren’t natural any more… I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me.

So animated is Steinbeck by this inner tumult that he addresses his pages directly, casting them at once as the sin and the salvation:

You pages — ten of you — you are the dribble cup — you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. Have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.

When Of Mice and Men became a bestseller, Hollywood approached Steinbeck for a film adaptation — but he wasn’t without ambivalence about an offer the payoff of which would have dazzled most. If anything, he viewed it with double disgust, for he felt that the superficiality of such commercial courtship took him away from the deeper problems at the heart of his work: his profound concern with the fate of the destitute migrant workers who inspired The Grapes of Wrath.

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Movie poster for the Hollywood adaptation of 'Of Mice and Men.'

Over and over, Steinbeck makes clear that he sees working for profit as a failure of the imagination on behalf of the artist — a smallness of ambition that distracts from the larger human concerns that creative work ought to address. In the same diary entry, he winces at the gaping disconnect between Hollywood’s motives and his, underpinned by the vulnerable trepidation that engaging with such commercial work might gradually poison his own reasons for creating:

I really don’t care about the moving picture. Really don’t — but those people who are starving — what can be done? And the people with panaceas of all kinds. Will you lend your name to this and to this? What do I care about my name? It is battered and completely out of shape anyway. It hasn’t any meaning and I haven’t any meaning. “Seen about your luck.” I got no luck. “Send one hundred dollars.” Luck! He thinks it is luck. He is poor and he thinks I am rich. And he seen about my luck. In the cheap welter, he seen about my luck. He seen about my destruction only he couldn’t understand that. The Greeks seem to have known about this dark relationship between luck and destruction. It is so hard to know anything. So impossible to trust oneself. Even to know what there is to trust.

Although Steinbeck seems gladdened, however self-consciously, at the perks of fame — “Got the iron gate [in exchange] for an autograph,” he notes in one diary entry — by the fall he observes with contemptuous fascination the effect his public success has on his private life. In an entry from October 11, he writes:

Letter from my cousin Grace — first in 22 years… And the interest is solely because of the publicity. Seems to affect every one. She’ll be denying the relationship before long now. Every one will. To work.

A couple of days later, in an entry that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that “publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist,” Steinbeck resolves with disgruntlement on par with Kierkegaard’s:

The mail this morning — just a mass of requests. Driving me crazy… It becomes increasingly apparent that I must make a stand against joining things as I have against speaking. The mail is full of requests to use my name. Another request to be a clay pigeon. I won’t do any of these public things. Can’t. It isn’t my nature and I won’t be stampeded. And so the stand must be made and I must keep out of politics. Now these two things are constantly working at me.

It’s hard not to think of C.S. Lewis who, in contemplating the ideal daily routine, pointed his warm wit at the issue and observed: “It is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail.” But for Steinbeck this became less a matter of happiness than one of spiritual survival.

In a supreme twist of irony, the very pestilence of publicity requests he so bemoaned as a distraction during the months he spent writing The Grapes of Wrath swelled to towering proportions once the novel was published — it sold feverishly, bringing the author fame and notoriety beyond his wildest expectations. “I don’t think I ever saw so much [money] in one place before,” he wrote to his friend Elizabeth Otis during the initial wave of excitement as he witnessed the fruition of a dream he had dreamt, however warily. But then excitement festered into resentment as the dream darkened into a nightmare.

So Sisyphean was the barrage of requests — invitations to countless committees, speaking offers, strangers asking for money — that it prompted Steinbeck to exclaim in an Associated Press interview a few months after the book’s publication:

Why do they think a writer, just because he can write, will make a good after-dinner speaker, or club committeeman, or even a public speaker? I’m no public speaker and I don’t want to be. I’m not even a finished writer yet, I haven’t learned my craft.

This, perhaps, is what Sontag meant in her admonition — that extraneous engagements of any kind are invariably at the expense of the very craft which rendered the artist desirable for whatever is being requested in the first place; that every yes to such publicity requests ripples into a thousand little no’s to the daily demands of the dogged labor upon which all great art is built. It takes enormous clarity of conviction and creative purpose to recognize that “busy is a decision” and remember that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Steinbeck’s Working Days remains the immensely inspiring record of how an artist of rare genius and integrity chose to spend his days — fighting self-doubt with discipline and finding joy not in extrinsic acclaim but in rewards as intimate as the pleasure of the perfect pen. Complement it with Steinbeck’s equally elevating and idealistic wisdom on falling in love and his meditation on the creative spirit and the meaning of life.

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Wendell Berry on How to Be a Poet and a Complete Human Being

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“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill…”

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his touching tribute to Robert Frost, celebrating poetry as “the means of saving power from itself.” And although poetry itself exerts a singular power over the human spirit, as one of the greatest poets of all time observed, it is hardly a power that comes easily to the poet: “Writing poetry is an unnatural act,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote when she was only twenty-three. So how, then, does one come to master this unnatural power — how does one become a Poet?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) — a man of great wisdom on solitude, love, and our “rugged individualism” — explores in a marvelous poem titled “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself),” found in his New Collected Poems (public library).

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

In this recording from the consistently transcendent On Being, Berry brings his beautifully aged voice to the poem — which is in many ways not only about how to be a poet, but also about how to be an artist of any kind. With its insistence on the vitalizing power of silence and stillness and self-refinement, it is perhaps, above all, about how to be a complete human being.

HOW TO BE A POET
(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

For more of Berry’s enduring wisdom, see his meditations on the two great enemies of creative work and what poetic form reveals about the secret of marriage, then treat yourself to Derek Walcott’s stirring ode to being at home in ourselves and subscribe to On Being here.

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Bright Sky, Starry City: An Illustrated Love Letter to Our Communion with the Cosmos, Celebrating Women Astronomers

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A warm and wonderful ode to the universe for the modern urban astronomer.

When trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell began teaching at Vassar in the 1860s, where she was the only woman on the faculty, the university’s official handbook forbade female students from going outside after dark — a dictum of obvious absurdity in the context of teaching astronomy. Although the rule was overturned and Mitchell went on to pave the way for women in science, a century and a half later a different civilizational absurdity obstructs aspiring astronomers of any gender — light pollution in cities is making it increasingly difficult to peer into the starry sky and take, to paraphrase Ptolemy, our fill of cosmic ambrosia.

In Bright Sky, Starry City (public library), author Uma Krishnaswami and illustrator Aimée Sicuro take on both of these issues — the expanding horizons for women in astronomy, the modern constrictions of light pollution — with great warmth and wonderment for the eternal allure of communing with the cosmos, of feeling our tininess and the enormity of life all at once, by the simple act of looking out into the glimmering grandeur of space.

This is the story of Phoebe, a little girl whose father owns a telescope shop in a bustling city. Enchanted by the planets, Phoebe likes to draw the Solar System on the sidewalk outside her dad’s store. One particularly exciting day, when Saturn and Mars are expected to appear in the sky that night, Phoebe worries that the city lights, which “always turned the night sky gray and dull,” would render her beloved planets invisible.

Just as she closes her eyes and wishes those dreadful urban lights away, another obstacle emerges — a mighty storm sets in, so Phoebe and her dad pack in their telescopes and retreat indoors.

But as they sit in the store and the wind rages outside, Phoebe’s wish is miraculously granted — the storm shuts down the city’s power grid and, if only for a little while, all the lights go out just as the sky clears of clouds.

Above the newly washed city,
with the power still out,
glowing, sparkling, gleaming lights
painted the night — some faint, some brilliant,
some clustered together
and some scattering fiercely
through the inky darkness.

And then, suddenly, they appear — Saturn and Mars, “right where they should be.”

People milled around,
talking, pointing, laughing, looking
all at once, all together
under the stars.

A nonfiction postscript offers a pithy primer on the Solar System, making the story a fine addition to these intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating science.

Bright Sky, Starry City comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have previously celebrated the history of astronomy with the wonderful picture-book biography of Ibn Sina and have given us such thoughtful treasures as a Sidewalk Flowers and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress.

Complement this particular astro-treat with You Are Stardust, which teaches kids about the universe in breathtaking dioramas, then revisit of story of how Galileo’s astronomy influenced Shakespeare.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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