How the gaps in gravity contour the next frontiers in the quest to understand the fundaments of what we are.
By Maria Popova
Between the time Hypatia of Alexandria first pointed her pre-telescopic eye to the cosmos millennia before the notion of galaxies and the time Vera Rubin stood at the foot of the world’s most powerful telescope to confirm the existence of dark matter by observing how distant galaxies rotate, and in all the time before, and in all the time since, we have hungered to understand the forces that move the stars and the Moon and the mind. Ever since Galileo leaned on his artistic training in perspective to draw his astronomical observations intimating that the universe might not be what the theologians have claimed it to be, humanity has been on a passionate and disorienting quest to understand the nature of the mystery that made us.
In the centuries since, we have made staggering discoveries of fundamental forces swirling exotic particles into “the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.” Along the way, in our longing for a final theory of everything, we have been staggered by revelation after revelation that things are not what we previously thought them to be and beneath each layer of reality we have unpeeled lies another. The heavens are not a clockwork orrery of perfect orbs revolving around us in perfect circles. The cosmic wilderness is overgrown with a species of mystery we call dark matter and the fabric of spacetime is pocked with black holes the rims of which gape our Munchian scream at the sense that the universe remains a sweeping enigma whose native language we are only just beginning to decipher, naming our particles and composing our equations in the alphabet of a long-gone civilization that believed the Earth was flat and the stars were at its service.
Our yearning for a Theory of Everything has culminated in what we call the Standard Model — a conceptual map of all the known particles and the fundamental forces that govern them to make the universe cohere into everything we know and are. It is the most successful scientific theory in the history of our species. But it is rather a Theory of Everything We Know So Far, at once triumphal and tessellated with incompleteness.
“The more stressful the environment, the more likely you are to see plants working together to ensure mutual survival.”
By Maria Popova
In 1977, a young forestry student tasked with marking an ironwood tree for “release cutting” — the logging or poisoning of particular trees on the dogmatic premise that their demise would release more commercially valuable nearby trees from competition for light and nutrients — suddenly felt uneasy holding the can of orange spray paint, disquieted by the awareness that old-growth forests have thrived for millennia without such amputations, intuiting that something far more complex and mutualistic might be at work beneath the surface story of resource rivalry.
She was told not to question the dogma, not to be “so Clementsian” — an allusion to the visionary work of ecologists Edith and Frederic Clements, a century ahead of their time in the empirically grounded insistence that plants are not rugged individuals in combat for biological capital but a collaborative community of life.
That young forester grew into the biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus. Now swimming in the ever-growing sea of studies that defy the dogma of competition by illuminating how plants succor and sustain each other’s survival, she reflects:
Here is what I love about the scientific method. Though culture seeps into science and sometimes holds its finger on the scale, it cannot stop the restless search for measurable truth. Un-American or not, the math has to work. When fifty years of wall-to-wall research into competition proved inconclusive, researchers went back to the field to find out what else was at play.
Alongside activists, poets, policymakers, and other scientists, Benyus is one of the frontier-women decolonizing climate leadership — visionaries united by a fierce willingness to contend with the big, unanswered, often unasked questions that leaven our possible future and to begin answering them in novel ways worthy of a world that prizes creativity over consumption and pluralism over profiteering. Their voices and visions rise from the pages of All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (public library) — Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson’s altogether inspiriting anthology, composed as “a balm and a guide for the immense emotional complexity of knowing and holding what has been done to the world, while bolstering our resolve never to give up on one another or our collective future,” and titled after the final verse of Adrienne Rich’s immense poem “Natural Resources,” written the year the young Benyus faced the ironwood tree with her uneasy spray can:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
In the second essay from the anthology, titled “Reciprocity,” Benyus recounts her early reckoning with the misguided model of ecological relationships and reflects on the half-century of research into the strategies plants actually use to thrive — research revealing cooperation rather than competition as the animating force of life:
To read these strategies is to discover a manual for how life evolved on a challenging planet and how natural communities heal and overcome adversity — essential reading for a climate-changed world.
The more stressful the environment, the more likely you are to see plants working together to ensure mutual survival.
Drawing on the spirit of biomimicry — the borrowing of processes and principles from nature to make our endeavors in the human world more effective and elegant — Benyus intimates the obvious analogy to the zero-sum fallacy upon which the modern world is built: The scarcity model underpinning capitalism might be just as unrealistic, unsustainable, and damaging as the forestry dogma that until recently brutalized wildernesses with the premise that trees are separate individuals hogging resources for themselves.
Dismantling these fallacies might be especially challenging in America, in whose young mind Emerson’s cry of rugged individualism still reverberates: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” But half a century of quiet, empirically unassailable research into the nature of nature — of which, lest we forget, we are a (frequently reluctant) part — indicates that the symphony orchestra of life is only sonorous when we trust one another.
A generation after one of humanity’s deepest-seeing poets insisted that “anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet,” Benyus illustrates the delicate mutualisms that make our rocky planet a living world with studies of Chilean mountain plants, which huddle together for protection from ultraviolet rays and harsh weather, forming complex relationships of support. A single six-foot cushion plant, or yareta, can house a multitude of wildflowers in its thousand-year-old mound. Farther down the mountain, resilient trees take root on rockfalls to create tear-shaped “tree islands” that shelter seedlings from the wind, carpeted with leaves and needles from nearby trees that decompose into moisture reservoirs for the dry summer days. These tree islands grow as mammals come for shelter and birds come to roost, depositing other seeds with their metabolic output. As the islands drift over the centuries, they carry fertile new soil across the mountainside, leaving new communities of life in their wake. Benyus distills the lesson of this living lee:
Whether it comes in the form of shading, shielding, nourishing, or defending, facilitation allows plants to expand their niches, to thrive where they would normally wither. Landscapers, farmers, and foresters may want to mimic these moves by planting for partnership, including wind blockers, soil holders, water lifters, and nutrient boosters in their mixtures. As plants deal with shifting growing zones, a facilitation partner could make all the difference.
Now we know that it’s not just one plant helping another; mutualisms — complex exchanges of goodness — are playing out above- and belowground in extraordinary ways.
But while the vast majority of terrestrial plants are entwined in such underground mycelial networks of mutualism, these relationships are severed in agricultural fields, where plowing savages the delicate underground network of resource-sharing, while the regular infusions of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers decimate the vital bacterial and fungal members of that microcommunity. Benyus considers the heedless tradeoff between the immediate rewards of seasonal crops and the deep, rich sustainability of ecosystems across the sweep of time:
When communities of vegetation breathe in carbon dioxide, turn it into sugars, and feed it to microbial networks, they can sequester carbon deep in soils for centuries. But to do that, the communities need to be healthy, diverse, and amply partnered. If we’re to encourage wild and working landscapes to recoup the 50 to 70 percent of soil carbon that has been lost to the atmosphere, we’ll want to pause before plowing a field, opening a bag of fertilizer, or marking a sapling for removal. We wouldn’t want to interrupt a vital conversation.
If humans are to help reverse global warming, we will need to step into the flow of the carbon cycle in new ways, stopping our excessive exhale of carbon dioxide and encouraging the winded ecosystems of the planet to take a good long inhale as they heal. It will mean learning to help the helpers, those microbes, plants, and animals that do the daily alchemy of turning carbon into life. This mutualistic role, this practice of reciprocity, will require a more nuanced understanding of how ecosystems actually work. The good news is that we’re finally developing a feeling for the organismic, after years of wandering in the every-plant-for-itself paradigm.
In a passage that strikes me as the ecological counterpart to Chinua Achebe’s lovely notion of art as “collective communal enterprise,” she envisions an alternate possible future and considers what it asks of us:
One of the fallouts of our fifty-year focus on competition is that we came to view all organisms as consumers and competitors first, including ourselves. Now we’re decades into a different understanding. By recognizing, at last, the ubiquity of sharing and chaperoning, by acknowledging the fact that communal traits are quite natural, we get to see ourselves anew. We can return to our role as nurturers, each a helper among helpers in this planetary story of collaborative healing.
There seems little doubt that the application of the principles of ecology to human affairs, whether personal, national or world-wide, would go far in solving the problems that beset us.
Having begun as Frederic’s doctoral student — the first woman awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, then an epicenter of botany and earth science — Edith went on to be his partner in science and life.
Young, passionate, and poor, they headed for the Rocky Mountains to build a research station for controlled study of how various environmental conditions impact plants, their acclimatization, and their relationships.
Nothing like this had been attempted before.
They called it The Dream.
In a stroke of necessity-dictated entrepreneurship, they set out to fund it into reality by coupling their scientific knowledge with Edith’s artistic talent to create an unexampled guide to the wildflowers of the Rockies, which they would then sell to scientific institutions.
Two centuries after the young self-taught botanist and artist Elizabeth Blackwell painted her astonishing encyclopedia of medicinal plants and as a century after the young Emily Dickinson composed her delicate herbarium of native New England wildflowers, the young Edith Clements began collecting, classifying, photographing, and painting 533 plant specimens from the mountains of Colorado for a meticulously annotated herbarium, completed in 1903 and followed by a second volume in 1904. It became the foundation of the book that would so enchanted Willa Cather a decade later.
With the income from the first herbarium, Edith and Frederic purchased a tiny cabin beneath a colossal pine on the side of a Colorado hill and set up the scientific instruments the university had lent.
The Dream became rugged reality and the shack became the first building of their Alpine Laboratory.
Over the years to follow, the single shack grew to a five-room cottage with a glass-enclosed veranda. Graduate students came to study with Edith and Frederic. Scholars visited from Japan, China, India, Australia, England, and continental Europe.
Eventually, the government recognized how invaluable this work would be to the National Parks. Frederic was offered a paid position. Edith was not. They took the assignment anyway, together, and set out to study the reproduction of conifers in forests.
They climbed hills, crossed prairies, trekked into meadows and marshes, Frederic making notes and charts of the vegetation, Edith painting the wildflowers “until swarms of mosquitos made it impossible.”
As they worked, he whistled and she sang.
In quiet, bold contrast to the era’s appetite for impressionistic and abstract flower blossoms — this was the golden age of Georgia O’Keeffe — Edith painted the whole plant in its natural colors, with the correct number of petals and stamens. She called her paintings “portraits,” reflecting her determination to show people what plants are really like, with all the dazzling scientific complexity undergirding the aesthetic splendor.
In 1926, the editor of National Geographic encountered Edith’s plates of flower family trees, depicting the relationships and evolution of different plant families, and found them to be just the sort of thing to make readers “sit up and take notice.” He was right. When thirty-two of Edith’s paintings backboned a 7,000-word magazine feature about plant ecology in May 1927, the issue sold out in record time. Recognizing the allure of the framable flower illustrations, enterprising young people bought extra copies to resell at manyfold the price.
Plant ecology entered the popular imagination for the first time, via the portal of Edith’s botanical art.
Edith and Frederic went on to consult the newly founded Bureau of Soil Erosion, helped the Navajo Indian Reservation of New Mexico rewild a dismally overgrazed pasture, opposed the building of dams along the Missouri River, and were called on by numerous panicked government agencies when poor understanding of ecology in agriculture unleashed the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which devastated the ecosystem of an entire continent, made refugees of thousands of farmers, and inspired Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
The Clementses devised soil conservation methods for leveling Dust Bowl dunes and replanting them with native grasses and corn crops, mechanisms for diverting and conserving flood water, techniques for rewilding fire-denuded slopes.
As Edith and Frederic Clements pioneered the study of plant ecology together, they were celebrated as “the most illustrious husband-wife team since the Curies.” But their work was also seen as quixotic for its countercultural ethos, decades ahead of its time. In an era of world wars, when science was reduced to military technology and coopted as a handmaiden of dueling nationalisms, Edith and Frederic endeavored to advance the conservation of this one indivisible planet by better understanding the role of climate and the relationships between life-forms. Along the way, they raised and began answering such complex and previously unasked questions as what makes a forest a forest — questions that would unravel some of the most astonishing science of our time.
“Art is a matter of enjoyment through the five senses. Unless you can see the beauty all around you everywhere, and enjoy it, you can never comprehend art.”
By Maria Popova
“Her voice is deep, rich, and full of color; she speaks with her whole body, like a singer… Whatever she does is done with every fibre,” a Nebraskan journalist observed on the pages of the Lincoln Star after meeting the brilliant and reclusive Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) while she was working on the novel that would soon win her the Pulitzer Prize, having already written the one that prompted F. Scott Fitzgerald to despair that The Great Gatsby is a failure by comparison.
Perhaps because they conversed while walking in the autumn sunshine — something Cather, who found her greatest happiness in nature, had requested — and perhaps because the interviewer was also a woman in an era when so few women’s words and thoughts and experiences appeared on the printed page, the conversation that unfurled, later published in Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters (public library), remains the most candid and revealing glimpse of Cather’s creative credo, process, and philosophy of art — which is at bottom, always, a philosophy of life.
The longer Miss Cather talks, the more one is filled with the conviction that life is a fascinating business and one’s own experience more fascinating than one had ever suspected it of being. Some persons have this gift of infusing their own abundant vitality into the speaker.
Cather had honed her own love of life — that essential wellspring of creative vitality — in childhood, roaming the wilderness on foot, on horseback, and in her parents’ farm wagon. As a young writer — not privileged, not straight, not resigned to the era’s conventional domestic destiny for a woman — she often worked until the small hours, ate no breakfast to save time and money, and learned to inhabit the world with the full-body presence that would soon give her novels their uncommonly transportive sensorial enchantment.
Contemplating the subject of creativity, Cather laments that nothing is more “fatal to the spirit of art” than the rise of what she aptly terms “superficial culture” — the commodification of art not as an instrument of aliveness but as a status symbol, pursued by rich ladies who “run about from one culture club to another studying Italian art out of a textbook and an encyclopedia and believing that they are learning something about it by memorizing a string of facts.” To her, the young black boy on the porch improvising a Verdi opera on his fiddle by ear — with no formal knowledge of what he is playing and no theoretical rationale for why it is so stirring his soul — “has more real understanding of Italian art than these esthetic creatures with a head and a larynx, and no organs that they get any use of, who reel you off the life of Leonardo da Vinci.”
The creative experience, Cather insists, is a matter of tuning into the inner feeling-tone strummed not by our cerebrations but by our creaturely relishment of the world.
Art is a matter of enjoyment through the five senses. Unless you can see the beauty all around you everywhere, and enjoy it, you can never comprehend art.
A generation before the star teacher of Black Mountain College made her exquisite case for creativity as a way of being, arguing that art is made “with food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, or a wineglass, or a torch,” Cather adds:
Esthetic appreciation begins with the enjoyment of the morning bath. It should include all the activities of life… The farmer’s wife who raises a large family and cooks for them and makes their clothes and keeps house and on the side runs a truck garden and a chicken farm and a canning establishment, and thoroughly enjoys doing it all, and doing it well, contributes more to art than all the culture clubs. Often you find such a woman with all the appreciation of the beautiful bodies of her children, of the order and harmony of her kitchen, of the real creative joy of all her activities, which marks the great artist.
Many people seem to think that art is a luxury to be imported and tacked on to life. Art springs out of the very stuff that life is made of. Most of our young authors start to write a story and make a few observations from nature to add local color. The results are invariably false and hollow. Art must spring out of the fullness and the richness of life.