…with a funny and poignant meditation on the personal gravity of gratitude and why being grateful is “one of the most powerful things that any one person can do.”
By Maria Popova
“I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act,” Seneca wrote two millennia ago as he contemplated gratitude and what it means to be a generous human being.
It is only from such a place of gratefulness that we can perform beautiful acts — from a place of absolute, ravishing appreciation for the sheer wonder of being alive at all, each of us an improbable and temporary triumph over the staggering odds of nonbeing and nothingness inking the ledger of spacetime. But because we are human, because we are batted about by the violent immediacies of everyday life, such gratitude eludes us as a continuous state of being. We access it only at moments, only when the trance of busyness lifts and the blackout curtain of daily demands parts to let the radiance in, those delicious moments when we find ourselves awash in nonspecific gladness, grateful not to this person, grateful not for this turn of events, but grateful at life — a diffuse gratitude that irradiates every aspect and atom of the world, however small, however unremarkable, however coated with the dull patina of habit. In those moments, everything sings, everything shimmers. In those moments, we are most alive.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins shines a playful sidewise gleam on this realest and most serious wellspring of gratitude in his 1998 poem “As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse,” found in his poetry collection Nine Horses (public library) and brought to life afresh, with a corona of radiance and a perfectly calibrated performance partway between wink and wonderment, by constant comedian and sometime StarTalk Radio co-host Chuck Nice at the third annual Universe in Verse, prefaced by his funny and poignant meditation on the personal gravity of gratitude and why being grateful is “one of the most powerful things that any one person can do.” Please enjoy:
AS IF TO DEMONSTRATE AN ECLIPSE by Billy Collins
I pick an orange from a wicker basket
and place it on the table
to represent the sun.
Then down at the other end
a blue and white marble
becomes the earth
and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.
I get a glass from a cabinet,
open a bottle of wine,
then I sit in a ladder-back chair,
a benevolent god presiding
over a miniature creation myth,
and I begin to sing
a homemade canticle of thanks
for this perfect little arrangement,
for not making the earth too hot or cold
not making it spin too fast or slow
so that the grove of orange trees
and the owl become possible,
not to mention the rolling wave,
the play of clouds, geese in flight,
and the Z of lightning on a dark lake.
Then I fill my glass again
and give thanks for the trout,
the oak, and the yellow feather,
singing the room full of shadows,
as sun and earth and moon
circle one another in their impeccable orbits
and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.
Perspectival awakenings in the “blue dome, silhouetted city sky-line fringing it, and the gradual appearance of all the stars in the night sky to music.”
By Maria Popova
In the spring of 1919, as the world was shaking off the debris and despair of its first global war, the queer Quaker astronomer Arthur Eddington left England to traverse seas and meridians and blood-stained borders in an ambitious expedition to observe a total solar eclipse in order to prove correct, at the risk of his own reputation, the controversial theory of a ridiculed German Jew. Eddington’s historic observation of totality confirmed his instinct, confirmed relativity, catapulted Einstein into global celebrity, revolutionized our understanding of the universe, and united war-torn humanity under the same sky of elemental, astonishing truth.
But however much the telescopic perspective might lavish us with self-transcendence, it is only a temporary transcendence — the human animal is not marrowed and tendoned to roam the vast vistas of universal truth for too long before growing paralyzed again by its invented parochial partialities.
Within a generation, as the world was being savaged anew by its most bloodthirsty war yet, the artist Joseph Cornell (December 24, 1903–December 29, 1972) leaned on the cosmic perspective for a different kind of coherence, infusing astronomy into his visionary shadow boxes: reliquaries of the mundane washed up on the shoreline between memory and dream, discarded fragments of this world assembled into portals to another — a world of our world, yet more magical, more mystical, more immortal in its obsolescence.
A suggestion of that wonderful feeling of detachment that comes over me every so often — a leisurely kind of feeling that seems to impart to the routine events of the day a certain sense of “festivity.”
Into the city and all the way up to the Museum of the American Indian to find it closed! Compensation in the buoyant feeling aroused by the buildings of the Geographic Society in their quiet uptown setting. An abstract feeling of geography and voyaging I have thought about before of getting into objects, like the Compass Set with map. A reminder of earliest school-book days when the world was divided up into irregular masses of bright colors, with vignettes of the pictorial world scattered, like toy picture-blocks.
To recompense the failed Native American art field trip, Cornell decides to head to the Museum of Natural History and forage for inspiration there. In a burst of spontaneity, after hours of copying Native designs into his sketchbook beneath an old oil painting of “an Indian princess” at the museum library, he decides to make his first visit to the museum’s now-iconic Hayden Planetarium, then just a few years old.
Not yet aware of how that extemporaneous encounter would foment the future of his art — as we rarely are of our most catalytic inspirations the moment we encounter them i the wild — Cornell writes:
The Planetarium was another moving experience, especially on the second floor with its blue dome, silhouetted city sky-line fringing it, and the gradual appearance of all the stars in the night sky to music.
He finds himself tuning out the bland educational lecture — “there is enough reconstruction of the night atmosphere and really so well done, to offset it” — and lets his imagination voyage into the celestial splendor. In a deeply pleasing parenthetical wink, penned long before the world had awakened to Hedy Lamarr’s contribution to science, he adds:
(Yesterday I was trying to fit Hedy Lamarr into Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s pre-Raphaelite garden, without success. She was more at-one today with the night sky of the Planetarium. I wish she could have done the lecturing, with her wonderful detachment.)
Upon returning to Earth, he immediately moors the conceptual quickening of the cosmos to the empirical materiality of his art, already foraging for objects at the museum that would invoke the feeling-tone of the celestial spectacle, already constellating those objects into shadow-boxed poems in his mind’s eye to invite the same transcendent cosmic perspective:
The astronomical paraphernalia: charts, transparencies, broken meteors, and especially compass curios (also armillaries, telescopes, etc.) are intriguing. Arranged in cases in the hall around the circular hall. On the amid floor a particularly fine set of murals of the zodiac, picked out in white on blue. The nicest rendition of the Gemini I’ve seen.
Although the night sky had fascinated Cornell since childhood, it was this visit to the planetarium that made astronomy a centerpiece of his art for the remaining three decades of his life, both as an object-category to for his boxes and as a sensemaking framework for the miniature cosmogonies of meaning nested inside them.
Nearly a century later, in another uncertain present amid another moment of cultural tumult, the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory emerged from the kindred sense that we may never know what child might step into the dome of possibility to become the next Eddington, what young artist might grow bewitched by the science and splendor of the cosmos through the telescope to become the next Cornell, or how many generations of human eyes and minds might look through the telescope to transcend the smallness of perspective that makes us draw imaginary lines of unbelonging beneath this boundless shared sky.
From the owl to the oak, a painted benediction of the wild world.
By Maria Popova
“A leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” the young Walt Whitman sang in one of the finest poems from his Song of Myself — the aria of a self that seemed to him then, as it always seems to the young, infinite and invincible. But when a paralytic stroke felled him decades later, unpeeling his creaturely limits and his temporality, he leaned on the selfsame reverence of nature as he considered what makes life worth living:
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.
In span and in size, our human lives unfold between the scale of leaves and the scale of stars, amid a miraculous world born by myriad chance events any one of which, if ever so slightly different, could have occasioned a lifeless rocky world, or no world at all — no trees and no songbirds, no Whitman and no Nina Simone, no love poems and no love — just an Earth-sized patch of pure spacetime, cold and austere.
The moment one fathoms this, it seems nothing less than an elemental sacrilege not to go through our days — these alms from chance — in a state of perpetual ecstasy over every living thing we encounter, not to reverence every oak and every owl and every leaf of grass as a living benediction.
A century and a half after Whitman, writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris — two poets of nature in the vastest Baldwinian sense — compose one such living benediction in The Lost Spells (public library). A lovely companion to their first collaboration — The Lost Words, an illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature as an inspired act of courage and resistance after the Oxford Children’s Dictionary dropped dozens of words related to the natural world — this lyrical invocation in verse and watercolor summons the spirit of the living things that make this planet a world, the creatures whose lives mark seasons and measure out epochs: the splendid “hooligan gang” of the swifts that have crossed deserts and oceans to fill the sky each spring, the ancient oak “stubbornly holding its ground” year after year, century after century.
A century after the great nature writer Henry Beston insisted that we need “a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” observing how “in a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Macfarlane and Morris bring us the mystery and wisdom of wild things as complementary and consolatory to our tame incompleteness.
I am Red Fox — how do you see me?
A bloom of rust
at your vision’s edge,
The shadow that slips
through a hole in the hedge,
My two green eyes
in your headlights’ rush,
A scatter of feathers,
the tip of a brush.
What emerges from the consummately illustrated pages and rhythmic incantations is a charm against the curse of civilization, of exploitation, of apathy — the curse by which we unwilded beings have come to see the wild world, in the poignant image of the poet Denise Levertov, as a world parallel to our own, separate, a place to sojourn to less and less frequently, even in our imagination. These painted verses sing and shimmer with a magical exuberance that renders the wild world not parallel, not foreign, but proximate, beckoning, native to our own souls.
Out on the hill, old Oak still stands:
stag-headed, fire-struck, bare-crowned,
stubbornly holding its ground.
Poplar is the whispering tree,
Rowan is the sheltering tree,
Willow is the weeping tree —
and Oak is the waiting tree.
Three hundred years to grow,
three hundred more to thrive,
three hundred years to die —
nine hundred years alive.
Born into a humble family and raised under the tutelage of clergymen, Edwards awoke to the wondrous world of natural history art and science as a teenager by an improbable turn of chance. When a wealthy relative of the merchant with whom Edwards was apprenticing died, it was decided that the man’s colossal book collection was to be moved into the apartment where the young man was boarding. Inconvenienced as he was by the spatial assault of tomes, Edwards suddenly had access to the equivalent of a private university library — more knowledge than the vast majority of his peers could touch in a lifetime. Day after day, night after night, he found himself absorbed in these rapturous portals into poetry, astronomy, classical sculpture, and natural history. Suddenly, the life-path he had been set on — the pursuit of wealth through commerce — seemed so small and so impoverished of imagination.
Barely out of his teens, Edwards left England to travel through the Continent, determined to broaden his mind. When he returned a month later, he wandered London for two years, young and unemployed and unemployable in his restive longing for something grander than mere money-work. He left again, not sure where to or what for, but as he wandered the fjords of Norway away from human habitation, watching the seabirds, watching the sky, watching the subtlest seasonal changes of the trees and flowers, something awoke in him, something was answered.
Upon returning to London, he devoted himself to learning everything the era’s science could teach him about the living world, of which nothing enraptured him more than the feathered wonders of the sky. The more he read about the anatomy and natural history of birds, the more he fell under the spell of their science and their splendor. He spent his limited means on the best bird paintings he could find, studied them closely with a savage admiration, then began making drawings of his own. Without formal instruction, he proceeding only on the wings of his enthusiasm and the encouragement of fellow natural history painting enthusiasts.
So began a lifelong devotion to making sense of nature and giving shape to its enchantments. In his late thirties, on the recommendation of the founder of the British Museum, who had been commissioning him as a natural history illustrator for more than a decade, Edwards became librarian of London’s venerable Royal College of Physicians — a post he held until the final years of his long life.
A self-taught artist, a scientist a century before the word scientist was coined, George Edwards would be remembered by his friends as a man “of a middle stature, rather inclined to corpulence, of a liberal disposition and a cheerful conversation,” a man of great politeness but entirely unaffected, “free from all pedantry and pride.” He would be remembered by history as the father of British ornithology and one of the greatest natural history illustrators who ever lived.
Although birds were his greatest passion, he depicted with equally meticulous draughtsmanship and great tenderness creatures as varied as the Indian grey mongoose, the zebra of the African savannahs, and the tiny American mud-tortoise. More than that, like the polymathic mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist was coined a century later, Edwards intuited that a true understanding of nature requires not the conquest of any particular region of knowledge but an integration of the different regions. One of his closest and most erudite friends would recall that this self-educated polymath “seemed to have attained to universal knowledge,” conversing readily and rapturously about “almost every part of science.”
The bookseller who would acquire Edwards’s vast collection and steward his legacy would come to write of his approach to the work:
He never trusted to others what he could perform himself; and often found it fo difficult to give satisfaction to his own mind, that lie frequently made three or four drawings to delineate the object in its most lively character, attitude, and representation.
Upon the completion of this life’s work in 1764, Edwards’s vision — his great instrument of comprehension and celebration — had already begun failing and he grew unable to draw. How it must have gladdened his heart to receive an ardent letter of appreciation from Carl Linnaeus himself, who painstakingly annotated the index of Edwards’s Gleanings with the Linnaean name of each species in the three volumes.
Many of the species are now commonly known by different names, many have grown endangered, and some are entirely unknown to the common reader, for they have gone extinct as our own species has plundered this miraculous planet in the quarter millennium since Edwards’s day, building our entire global economy on a willful blindness to the real wealth of this world: its “soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife.”
Working with material from the wonderful Biodiversity Heritage Library, I have color-corrected and restored (to the best of my ability and the best 260-year-old paper allows) the most wondrous illustrations from Edwards’s Gleanings to make them available as prints and face masks, with proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy’s endeavor to save and steward what remains of our irreplaceable living world.
There is the almost unbearably sweet-looking Al Jerbua, with the pyramids of Egypt seen peeking behind it — the tassel-tailed hopping desert mouse of Arabia, now known as jerboa, which Edwards found remarkable in that while it can running at an impressive 15 miles per hour, “it hops like a Bird, on its hinder Legs, never letting its fore Paws on the ground, but generally hides them in the Furr under his Throat.” There is the cagui monkey, now known as marmoset, with its smiling face haloed by its friendly fan of black-and-white fur, crouching next to a snail so charming one wishes to take it for the marmoset’s playmate, when it is indeed its prey.
There is the strangely humanoid sloth, sitting like a clawed, face-painted Buddha on his meditation mound. There is the “Middle-sized Black Monkey” Edwards met through a friend — a creature never previously described, “about the size of a large Cat, of a gentle nature with respect to hurting anyone,” fond of “playing with Kittens, as most Monkeys do.”
Curiously, the three-volume series opens with the sole plant-only illustration in the entire set — the “apple-service,” which looks “like a yellowish green apple, tinged with red, on the side which is exposed to the Sun” — and with an homage to the remarkable Elizabeth Blackwell, who had depicted the “pear-service” a quarter century earlier in the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants. It is a strange and touching choice for the elderly Edwards to begin his monograph, devoted to the natural history of animals, with an acknowledgement of his debt to the young woman whose work on the natural history of plants had shaped his own artistic development.
When Edwards died in his eightieth year, he bequeathed the fortune he had amassed by his tireless artistic and scientific labors to his two sisters.
But although he was awarded the Copley Medal — the most prestigious scientific honor before the controversial creation of the Nobel Prize — Edwards was, like all of us inevitably are, like even the greatest geniuses inevitably are, still a product of his time and place. His was an era that saw science not as an instrument for magnifying our understanding of reality but as a mirror for affirming the perfection of a religion-invented creator god. In the final years of his life, Edwards composed a striking confession, framing his passion for natural history and science as a guilty vanity distracting him from his religious responsibility:
My petition to God (if petitions to God are not presumptuous) is, that he would remove from me all desire of pursuing Natural History, or any other study; and inspire me with as much knowledge of his divine nature as my imperfect state is capable of; that I may conduct myself, for the remainder of my days, in a manner most agreeable to his will, which will consequently be most happy to myself. What my condition may be in futurity is known only to the wife disposer of all things; yet my present desires are (perhaps vain and inconsistent with the nature of things!) that I may become an intelligent spirit, void of gross matter, gravity and levity, endowed with a voluntary motive power, either to pierce infinitely into boundless etherial space, or into solid bodies; to see and know, how the parts of the great Universe are connected with each other, and by what amazing mechanism they are put and kept in regular, and perpetual motion. But, oh vain and daring presumption of thought! I most humbly submit my future exigence to the supreme will of the one omnipotent!
Dwelling as I do in the lives and letters of long-gone visionaries, I have marveled again and again at how even the farthest seers are simply unable to bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizons of dogma and possibility. And yet the horizons shift with each incremental revolution as the human animal peers outward to take in nature, then turns inward to question its own givens. The most substantive leap our species has made in the epochs since Edwards is not any particular scientific discovery or invention, but our general unblinding to the nature of reality and the reality of nature, to reality as staggering enough in its own right and haloed enough with the holiness of its shimmering complexity not to necessitate the invention of gods, superstitions, and other nursery rhymes for the mind in order for life — this life, this improbable and only and absolutely glorious life we have — to feel like enough, to feel like the living miracle that it is.
As a lover of the history and poetics of marbling, I have also made available the mesmerizing swirls of color gracing the inside cover of the second volume of Gleanings of Natural History.