A lyric reminder that “the word for world is forest” and the feeling of forest is love.
By Maria Popova
I have been thinking a great deal about growth — what it means, what it asks of us, how it feels when unforced but organic. I have been thinking about growth and decay, the interplay between the two, the way all growth requires regeneration, which in turn requires a shedding, a composting, a reconstituting of old material. We don’t always know what needs to be shed, or what the optimal direction of growth is. This is where the “blind optimism” of a tree is helpful — there is consolation in trusting the quiet workings of chemistry and the primal instinct for orienting to the light.
I have been thinking about growth and decay while walking long bundled hours in an old-growth forest.
The forest, with its ceaseless syncopation of generation and decomposition that composes the pulse-beat of total aliveness.
The forest, this place of constant change that feels somehow atemporal, an everlasting Yes! to life echoed by an ungrudging and vibrant Yes! to death — a place where one feels most intimately the elemental yet counterintuitive fact that death is not the assailant of life but the ultimate consecration of its lucky possibility.
Whitman, who two centuries ago declared himself to “know the amplitude of time” and “laugh at what you call dissolution.”
Whitman, whose atoms now belong to some mycelial wonder pushing up the leaves of cemetery grass and nourishing the roots of the two towering trees that stand sentinel on either side of his tomb, trees that were saplings when he laughed out of life.
While thinking about life and death and poetry in an old-growth forest, I thought of this immortal line: “The word for world is forest” — the title of a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018). I thought of the short, stunning tree-poem she wrote at the end of her life, originally published on the pages of Orion Magazine and recently included, fittingly, in Old Growth — their splendid anthology of sylvan literature from the magazine’s decades-deep archive. Here it is, brought tenderly to life by my tree-loving, poetry-loving, life-and-death-loving friend and kindred spirit Amanda Palmer, to which I have added the perfect sonic companionship of an old recording of Bach’s Organ Concerto in D Minor.
KINSHIP by Ursula K. Le Guin
Very slowly burning, the big forest tree
stands in the slight hollow of the snow
melted around it by the mild, long
heat of its being and its will to be
root, trunk, branch, leaf, and know
earth dark, sun light, wind touch, bird song.
Rootless and restless and warmblooded, we
blaze in the flare that blinds us to that slow,
tall, fraternal fire of life as strong
now as in the seedling two centuries ago.
“We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable…”
By Maria Popova
While it is true, as generations of psychologists have found, that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love” — a process known as limbic revision — it is also true, as generations of self-aware humans have found, that whom we love depends in large part on who we already are. Our original wounds, our formative attachments, our patterned longings all shape how we engage with those we have chosen to love, to the extent that we are choosing them at all. “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents,” James Baldwin astutely observed in contemplating the paradox of freedom. “Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”
The great difficulty, too, is how easily those life-expanding Yeses that can open larger vistas of possibility come fear-concealed as Nos, or how those life-preserving Nos that keep us from entering into experiences too damaging or too small for us bear the momentum of pre-conditioned Yeses. And so we project who we are and what we need onto those we love, and find in them reflections of who we long to be or fear we might be, swarming them and swarming ourselves in all the blooming buzzing confusion of our unmet needs.
This is not to demean and diminish love as a mere process of projection — Stendhal’s seven-stage delusion of crystallization and decrystallization — or a mere process of reflection — Ortega’s insightful but limited and limiting theory of what our lovers reveal about us — but to honor the elemental fact that each relationship is not between two people, but between three: the two partners, each with their pre-existing patterns of love and loss, and the third presence of the relationship itself — an intersubjective co-creation that becomes the third partner, endowed with the power to deepen those patters, or to change them.
The great peril and great possibility of every love is that this third partner can be a rewounder masquerading as a healer, and equally a healer in disguise, masked beyond recognition by our own patterned way of seeing. So much of our suffering springs from this confusion and so much of our sanity is redeemed when at last we shed our own blinding masks and come to kneel at the fount of clarity.
After a beautiful translation of “The Darling” — a story about a woman who loves four very different people the same patterned way, the only way she knows how, which has entirely to do with her learned understanding of love and nothing to do with its objects, and so she suffers greatly when each of these loves leaves her in the same lonely place; a story the essence of which Saunders captures perfectly as being “about a tendency, present in all of us, to misunderstand love as ‘complete absorption in,’ rather than ‘in full communication with'” — he pauses to marvel at Chekhov’s subtlety in challenging our reflex toward lazy binaries, his mastery in training our muscle of ambiguity, uncertainty, and nuance — which is, of course, the only we grasp and savor the full Yes of life. Saunders writes:
We see Olenka’s mode of loving, from one angle, as a beautiful thing: in that mode, the self disappears and all that remains is affectionate, altruistic regard for the beloved. From another angle, we see it as a terrible thing, the undiscriminating application of her one-note form of love robbing love of its particularity: Olenka, love dullard, vampirically feeding upon whomever she designates as her beloved.
We see this mode of loving as powerful, single-pointed, pure, answering all questions with its unwavering generosity. We see it as weak: her true, autonomous self is nowhere to be found as she molds herself into the image of whatever male happens to be near her (unless he’s a cat).
This puts us in an interesting state of mind. We don’t exactly know what to think of Olenka. Or, feeling so multiply about her, we don’t know how to judge her.
The story seems to be asking, “Is this trait of hers good or bad?”
Chekhov answers: “Yes.”
The story, like every great work of fiction, becomes a mirror for reflection on the most intimate realities of life. Saunders writes:
We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable and somewhat repetitive in its habits. Would your current partner ever call his or her new partner by the same pet name he/she uses for you, once you are dead and buried? Well, why not? There are only so many pet names. Why should that bother you? Well, because you believe it is you, in particular, who is loved (that is why dear Ed calls you “honey-bunny”), but no: love just is, and you happened to be in the path of it. When, dead and hovering above Ed, you hear him call that rat Beth, your former friend, “honey-bunny,” as she absentmindedly puts her traitorous finger into his belt loop, you, in spirit form, are going to think somewhat less of Ed, and of Beth, and maybe of love itself. Or will you?
Maybe you won’t.
Because don’t we all do some version of this, when in love? When your lover dies or leaves you, there you are, still yourself, with your particular way of loving. And there is the world, still full of people to love.
“All things seem possible in nature; yet this seeming is always guarded by the eager quest of what IS true. Perhaps half the falsehood in the world is due to lack of power to detect the truth and to express it.”
By Maria Popova
“Children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end,” Dylan Thomas wrote in his spare, stunning poem about trees, truth, and the human animal’s most self-savaging loss of perspective.
“The trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars… the poets have been right in these centuries,” Lorraine Hansberry wrote as she reached for the surest salve from the pit of her depression.
We are born wonder-stricken by the glory of nature — it can only be so, for we ourselves are living wonders, sentient somethings against the staggering odds of nothingness — and yet we so readily relinquish this natural bond at the altar of a culture that tells us what it means to grow up. This loss might be our great primal wound.
When the early twentieth century clawed at the wound with its increasingly industrialized model of education, preparing children for lives of conspicuous consumption and nursing them on the illusion of nature as a parallel worlds, the artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930) set out to provide an antidote in her wonderful Handbook of Nature Study (public library | public domain).
A generation after astronomer Maria Mitchell swung open the portal of possibility in higher education for women, Anna entered Cornell University to study zoology, botany, and other natural sciences. She took an entomology course with John Henry Comstock, whose work laid the foundation for the modern classification of butterflies, moths, and scale insects. To both of their surprise and mutual delight, they fell in love. Three years later, without graduating, she married him. In another three years, she returned to Cornell to finish her studies, emerging with a degree in natural history. She went on collaborating with John on joint entomological studies and illustrating his works.
Anna had no formal training as an artist, but she had long dwelled in nature’s beauty, having entered it through the twin doorways of science and literature — Emerson, Wordsworth, and Thoreau in particular. Having so magnetized her attention to the delicate details that consecrate life with aliveness, she began observing insects under the microscope, taught herself to illustrate what she saw, and eventually enrolled in Cooper Union to refine her draughtsmanship as a wood engraver. She went on to engrave more than 600 plates of insects, some of which were exhibited in the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and became one of the first women admitted to Sigma Xi — the Scientific Research Honor Society that has included more than 200 Nobel laureates, Einstein, Watson, and Crick among them.
In 1911, she condensed her lifelong animating ethos in Handbook of Nature Study.
A century before the Oxford Children’s Dictionary dropped fifty nature-words as irrelevant to modern children’s lexicon and imagination, a century before young people rose up by the millions to undo the past’s disregard for nature that imperils their future, Comstock insisted that “it is a great asset to the conservation of our natural resources to have the children of our land be interested in the wild life in such a chummy and intimate manner.” Half a century before Rachel Carson awakened the modern ecological conscience with her scientific-poetic ethos that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Comstock highlighted our kinship with microbe and mammoth, with dolphin and dandelion, believing that an understanding of this interdependence would awaken in us “a sensible altruism and humanness” to bring into our relationship with nature — which is, at bottom, our relationship with ourselves and each other.
She saw children as children, pure-hearted and large-eyed with wonder. She saw them as emissaries of the forgotten parts of ourselves and as “future citizens.” And so everything she wrote that references the child can be read as addressing each one of us — for, as Wild Things creator Maurice Sendak knew, the most difficult and rewarding triumph of adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.” (This elemental truth is why I cherish “children’s” books as incomparable existential handbooks to self-knowledge and reality-knowledge — training ground for attentive intimacy with nature and its expression in human nature — and why I occasionally write some.)
In Handbook of Nature Study, Comstock observes that beyond the “practical and helpful knowledge” of the forces and phenomena that animate this world — knowledge that equips us with singular self-reliance — intimacy with nature confers upon us, child and grown child alike, larger and more abstract powers of mind, trining in us that vital balance of reason and imagination:
Nature-study cultivates the child’s imagination, since there are so many wonderful and true stories that he may read with his own eyes, which affect his imagination as much as does fairy lore; at the same time nature-study cultivates in him a perception and a regard for what is true, and the power to express it. All things seem possible in nature; yet this seeming is always guarded by the eager quest of what is true. Perhaps half the falsehood in the world is due to lack of power to detect the truth and to express it. Nature-study aids both in discernment and in expression of things as they are.
Beyond cultivating our “love of the beautiful,” beyond refining our sense of “color, form, and music,” immersion in and understanding of nature attunes us to our larger belonging:
Paths that lead to the seeing and comprehending of what [the child] may find beneath his feet or above his head… whether they lead among the lowliest plants, or whether to the stars, finally converge and bring the wanderer to that serene peace and hopeful faith that is the sure inheritance of all those who realize fully that they are working units of this wonderful universe.
Writing in an era still haunted by extreme and antiscientific religiosity denying the entropic reality of life and death with the lulling mythos of immortality, Comstock makes a bold, simple point about how observing the rest of nature inures us to the elemental fact of our own mortality, even as children — a kind of mental hygiene, an antidote to cowering behind dogma and delusion:
Perhaps the most valuable practical lesson the child gets from nature-study is a personal knowledge that nature’s laws are not to be evaded. Wherever he looks, he discovers that attempts at such evasion result in suffering and death. A knowledge thus naturally attained of the immutability of nature’s “must” and “shall not” is in itself a moral education. The realization that the fool as well as the transgressor fares ill in breaking natural laws makes for wisdom in morals as well as in hygiene… It is not only during childhood that this is true, for love of nature counts much for sanity in later life.
For decades, Comstock met with hundreds of New York State public school teachers and administrators, trying to persuade them to include a course in “nature-study” into their curricula. She was met with indifference and was told that children had to be taught more valuable skills — skills that would make them better equipped for the workforce, that savage engine of production and consumption. (A century hence, we are watching young people rise from the engine’s miasma, frightened and ferocious for change, to face the ethical and ecological cost of that indifference — because the cost of all indifference is always the loss of something worth loving.)
But Comstock persisted. When she became Cornell’s first female professor, she piloted an experimental nature-study course, which was soon approved and implemented statewide. Handbook of Nature Study — the culmination of her life’s work — has accomplished the rare triumph of remaining in print for more than a century, attesting to the timelessness of its ethos and its need. Coursing through it is Comstock’s largehearted, infectious love of the living world. A century after Blake reverenced the common fly in his short existentialist poem, she offers an affectionate exculpation of this creature we indict as a disease-carrying menace, rapturously detailing its delicate anatomy — from the crowning curio of its head, “two great, brown spheres… composed of thousands of tiny six-sided eyes that give information of what is coming in any direction,” to the tiny tender claws with which the fly “walks on its tiptoes” — concluding:
Perhaps if a fly were less wonderfully made, it would be a less convenient vehicle for microbes.
Above all, the book is an antidote to desensitization, an act of resistance to the culture-conditioned ways we have of taking for granted that which grants us life. In its final pages, devoted to astronomy, Comstock writes:
If, only once in a century, there came to us from our great sun light and heat bringing the power to awaken dormant life, to lift the plant from the seed and clothe the earth with verdure, then it would indeed be a miracle. But the sun by shining every day cheapens its miracles in the eyes of the thoughtless.
That, indeed, is the book’s great gift — a lovely reminder that to move through the world unstaggered by life is the only death.
The visionary poets knew — as do the visionaries of scientist, as do all persons engaged in lives of creativity or contemplation, which are often one life — how this solitary self-discovery becomes the wellspring of all the meaning-making that makes life worth living, whether we call it art or love. From solitude’s promontory, we peer out into the expanse of existence and train our eyes to look with wide-eyed wonder at the improbable fact of it all. Solitude, so conceived, is not merely the state of being alone but the art of becoming fully ourselves — an art acquired, like every art, by apprenticeship and painstaking devotion to dwelling in the often lonesome inner light of our singular and sovereign being.
Its mastery, delicate and difficult, is what the Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor explores in The Art of Solitude (public library). Celebrating solitude — not the escapist privilege of it but the practice of it against the real world’s pressures — as “a site of autonomy, wonder, contemplation, imagination, inspiration, and care,” he writes:
True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it. When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.
Nearly forty years after he first began bridging Western phenomenology and existentialism with Buddhist precepts in his 1983 book Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, Batchelor draws on a lifetime of solitude-mastery — directly, through his own contemplative practice and multiple silent retreats, and indirectly, through his immersion in the lives and works of centuries of solitude-virtuosi ranging from Montaigne to Nietzsche to Ingmar Bergman — to formulate the essence of the inquiry, at once elemental and embodied, at the heart of the art of solitude:
Don’t expect anything to happen. Just wait. This waiting is a deep acceptance of the moment as such. Nietzsche called it amor fati — unquestioning love of whatever has fated you to be here. You reach a point where you’re just sitting there, asking, “What is this?” — but with no interest in an answer. The longing for an answer compromises the potency of the question. Can you be satisfied to rest in this puzzlement, this perplexity, in a deeply focused and embodied way? Just waiting without any expectations?
Ask “What is this?,” then open yourself completely to what you “hear” in the silence that follows. Be open to this question in the same way as you would listen to a piece of music. Pay total attention to the polyphony of the birds and wind outside, the occasional plane that flies overhead, the patter of rain on a window. Listen carefully, and notice how listening is not just an opening of the mind but an opening of the heart, a vital concern or care for the world, the source of what we call compassion or love.
Echoing Rachel Carson’s trust in the loneliness of creative work — a byproduct of the solitude necessary for creative work, natural and needed, often terrifying and always clarifying — Batchelor adds:
To be alone at your desk or in your studio is not enough. You have to free yourself from the phantoms and inner critics who pursue you wherever you go. “When you start working,” said the composer John Cage, “everybody is in your studio — the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas — all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”
Having shut the door, you find yourself alone before a canvas, a sheet of paper, a lump of clay, a computer screen. Other tools and materials lie around, close at hand, waiting to be used. You resume your silent conversation with the work. This is a two-way process: you create the work and then you respond to it. The work can inspire, surprise, and shock you… The solitary act of making art involves intense, wordless dialogue.
Drawing a link between the Buddhist notion of nirvana and Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — that spacious willingness to negate the pull of attachments, reactivities, and fixities, to live with mystery and embrace uncertainty — Batchelor observes that contemplative practice trains the ability to see each moment as a chance to start anew, to savor life as ongoing, unfixed, ever-changing and ever capable of being changed. He considers the essential building blocks and ultimate rewards of contemplative practice:
To integrate contemplative practice into life requires more than becoming proficient in techniques of meditation. It entails the cultivation and refinement of a sensibility about the totality of your existence—from intimate moments of personal anguish to the endless suffering of the world. This sensibility encompasses a range of skills: mindfulness, curiosity, understanding, collectedness, compassion, equanimity, care. Each of these can be cultivated and refined in solitude but has little value if it cannot survive the fraught encounter with others. Never be complacent about contemplative practice; it is always a work in progress. The world is here to surprise us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the cushion, not on it.
In consonance with poet and philosopher Wendell Berry’s life-tested belief that “true solitude is found in the wild places,” where one is without human obligation,” where “one’s inner voices become audible [and,] in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives,” Batchelor adds:
By withdrawing from the world into solitude, you separate yourself from others. By isolating yourself, you can see more clearly what distinguishes you from other people. Standing out in this way serves to affirm your existence (ex-[out] + sistere [stand]). Liberated from social pressures and constraints, solitude can help you understand better what kind of person you are and what your life is for. In this way you become independent of others. You find your own path, your own voice.
Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back. Sustained aloneness brings you to a tipping point where the pendulum of life returns you to others.