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Sarah Mapps Douglass’s Flowers: The First Surviving Art Signed by an African-American Woman

A rose is a rose is a revolution.

In his thrice-revised and expanded autobiographies, Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Bailey, recounts changing his surname multiple times to cover his fugitive trail. When the time came to settle on a permanent name, he invited the man in whose home was taking refuge — a free black man devoted to helping fugitive slaves — to choose for him, as a token of gratitude. His host suggested Douglas — the self-possessed Highlander hero of one of the era’s greatest literary blockbusters, Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. In his retelling, Frederick Douglass brushes past the additional s, with the vague intimation that he added it for distinction.

But there is another probable possibility for the peculiar spelling. Here was an orphan with no sense of roots, an aching ambivalence about his parentage, and a longing for communal belonging. And here was the grown man of genius retelling his own story of becoming, aware — like all persons of genius — that a larger mythos of colossal cultural significance hangs upon their private myth. 

Forget me not by Sarah Mapps Douglass

Since the dawn of the abolition movement, women had played an active and ardent role in fundraising, organizing, and public advocacy — women who risked ostracism, or worse, for exercising the agency of stepping outside the narrow confines of the domestic sphere allotted them and into the cosmos of political activism. One of the movement’s leading women was the young Philadelphian Sarah Mapps Douglass (September 9, 1806–September 8, 1882), who at only twenty-five had organized a major fundraising campaign for the primary journalistic instrument of abolition — William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator, on the pages of which Frederick Douglass found and trained his own literary voice.

The daughter of two active abolitionists, Sarah was born into one of America’s most prominent black families and raised in the Quaker tradition — her grandfather, Cyrus, had been a slave to a local Quaker baker who liberated him and taught him the baking trade; Cyrus soon opened his own successful bakery, which allowed him to fund and operate a school for black children from his home, later becoming a founding member of the pioneering Free African Society seventy-five years before Abraham Lincoln staked his credo and his life on the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Rose painting and poem by Sarah Mapps Douglass (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Sarah was nursed on a love of literature and a love of nature, immersed in art and music, and lavished with painting lessons in a bubble of her privilege — provisional and relative, as all privilege is. Growing up amid the intellectual ferment of abolition, she grasped the terrors of slavery only abstractly, as an idea and not a felt reality, not fully imagining how other children who looked like her lived very different lives, how people who looked like her parents died gruesome deaths. Then, as a young woman, she performed one of those rare, triumphal acts that signify true maturity and grandeur of spirit: changing one’s mind as it expands to take in a broader perspective and publicly acknowledging one’s previously limited views.

Unsigned rose and scroll, likely by Sarah Mapps Douglass, from Amy Matilda Cassey’s friendship album. (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)

In 1832, Sarah Mapps Douglass recounted her awakening to the urgency of abolition in a rousing speech at a gathering of the Female Literary Society of Philadelphia, of which she was a leader — the first specialty library for African-American women, literate and illiterate, free and enslaved, devoted to “the cultivation of intellectual powers” as the highest tribute to the sanctity of human nature. She told the women gathered before her:

An English writer has said, ‘We must feel deeply before we can act rightly; from that absorbing, heart-rendering compassion for ourselves springs a deeper sympathy for others, and from a sense of our weakness and our own upbraidings arises a disposition to be indulgent, to forbear, to forgive.’ This is my experience. One short year ago, how different were my feelings on the subject of slavery! It is true, the wail of the captive sometimes came to my ear in the midst of my happiness, and caused my heart to bleed for his wrongs; but, alas! the impression was as evanescent as the early cloud and morning dew. I had formed a little world of my own, and cared not to move beyond its precincts. But how was the scene changed when I beheld the oppressor lurking on the border of my own peaceful home! I saw his iron hand stretched forth to seize me as his prey, and the cause of the slave became my own.

The following year, in a friendship album compiled by her Philadelphian friend and fellow activist Amy Matilda Cassey, Sarah Mapps Douglass fused her twin loves of literature and nature with her artistic acumen in a series of consummate flowers she painted alongside selections from poems she transcribed in her lovely longhand.

Flowers by Sarah Mapps Douglass, with transcribed anonymous poem. (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards.)

No marvel woman should love flowers, they bear
So much of the fanciful similitude
To her own history; like herself repaying
With such sweet interest all the cherishing
That calls their beauty or their sweetness forth;
And like her too — dying beneath neglect.

Cassey would maintain and expand the album, now found in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia, for two decades, drawing contributions — poetry, prose, paintings, sketches — by some of the era’s most prominent abolitionists, including Garrison, Lucy Stone, and Frederick Douglass himself. The flowers Sarah Mapps Douglass painted in it are considered the first surviving artworks signed by an African-American woman.

A token of love, from me, to thee by Sarah Mapps Douglass (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

To a similar album complied by one of her pupils, Mary Anne Dickerson, Sarah Mapps Douglass contributed a single, splendid painting of fuchsia — Fuchsia triphylla, so named in the last years of the 17th century by a French monk and botanist, after a German botanist and herbalist born in the first year of the 16th century — an uncommonly beautiful and fragrant flowering plant uprooted from its native habitat in Central and South America, so that an uncommonly gifted young woman of uprooted roots could tend to it and paint it in her native antebellum Philadelphia — a tender reminder that by whatever ugly and unchosen forces we might come into this world, into the dispensation of chance contouring our lives, there is always the choice to consecrate those lives and this world with the willful brush of beauty.

Fuchsia by Sarah Mapps Douglass (Library Company of Philadelphia. Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Complement with Frederick Douglass on how photography, improbably invented seven years after Sarah painted her flowers, helped the cause of social justice by bridging the real and the ideal, then revisit these stunning 18th-century natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct animals by another trailblazing Sarah of an earlier era and this pictorial encyclopedia of medicinal plants a young Scottish mother illustrated another generation earlier to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison.

BP

Probable Impossibilities: Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living

How our cosmic improbability confers dignity and meaning upon our shared existence.

Probable Impossibilities: Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living

“What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller, who lived to nearly 100, wrote in her gorgeous poem “Immortality” a century and a half after a young artist pointed the world’s largest telescope at the cosmos to capture the first surviving photograph of the Moon and the first-ever photograph of a star: Vega — an emissary of spacetime, reaching its rays across twenty-five lightyears to imprint the photographic plate with a image of the star as it had been twenty-five years earlier, immortalizing a moment already long gone.

And yet in a cosmological sense, what exists is precious not because it will one day be lost but because it has overcome the staggering odds of never having existed at all: Within the fraction of matter in the universe that is not dark matter, a fraction of atoms cohered into the elements necessary to form the complex structures necessary for life, of which a tiny portion cohered into the seething cauldron of complexity we call consciousness — the tiny, improbable fraction of a fraction of a fraction with which we have the perishable privilege of contemplating the universe in our poetry and our physics.

In Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (public library), the poetic physicist Alan Lightman sieves four centuries of scientific breakthroughs, from Kepler’s revolutionary laws of planetary motion to the thousands of habitable exoplanets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission, to estimate that even with habitable planets orbiting one tenth of all stars, the faction of living matter in the universe is about one-billionth of one-billionth: If all the matter in the universe were the Gobi desert, life would be but a single grain of sand.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince

Along the way, Lightman draws delicate lines of figuring from Hindu cosmology to quantum gravity, from Pascal to inflation theory, from Lucretius to Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble — lines contouring the most elemental questions that have always animated humanity, questions that are themselves the answer to what it means to be human.

Building on his lifelong passion for harmonizing our touching human partialities with the fundamental reality of an impartial universe — our hunger for absolutes in a relative world, our yearning for permanence in a universe of constant change — he writes:

As we have struggled through the ages to fathom this strange and wondrous cosmos in which we find ourselves, few ideas have been richer than the concept of nothingness. For to understand anything, as Aristotle argued, we must understand what it is not. To understand matter, said the ancient Greeks, we must understand the “void,” or the absence of matter.

Because we are self-referential creatures — the consequence of being creatures with selves, itself the consequence of consciousness and the ceaseless electrical storm of neural firings that gives rise to our sense of self — no void troubles us more than that of our own mortality: the notion of our absence from the scene of life. It is difficult enough to grasp how somethingness could have arisen from nothingness — how the universe can exist at all. It savages the mind and its animating selfhood to consider that everything — including the subset constituting the particular something of us — could dissolve to nothingness.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

It is a discomposing notion — even for a physicist without delusion about the materiality of life, with a soulful reverence for the poetry of existence. Lightman closes his essay on the science of nothingness with a sentiment of touching, inescapable humanity:

What I feel and I know is that I am here now, at this moment in the grand sweep of time. I am not part of the void. I am not a fluctuation in the quantum vacuum. Even though I understand that someday my atoms will be scattered in soil and in air, that I will no longer exist, I am alive now. I am feeling this moment. I can see my hand on my writing desk. I can feel the warmth of the Sun through the window. And looking out, I can see a pine-needled path that goes down to the sea.

Another essay, titled “Immortality,” explores this irreconcilable dissonance between the creaturely and the cosmic — the dissonance from which we make our most symphonic art as we try to fathom our existence. Lying in his hammock one summer day, Lightman observes:

A hundred years from now, I’ll be gone, but many of these spruce and cedars will still be here. The wind going through them will still sound like a distant waterfall. The curve of the land will be the same as it is now. The paths that I wander may still be here, although probably covered with new vegetation. The rocks and ledges on the shore will be here, including a particular ledge I’m quite fond of, shaped like the knuckled back of a large animal. Sometimes, I sit on that ledge and wonder if it will remember me. Even my house might still be here, or at least the concrete posts of its footing, crumbling in the salt air. But eventually, of course, even this land will shift and change and dissolve. Nothing persists in the material world. All of it changes and passes away.

Robert Fludd’s pioneering 1617 conception of non-space, long before the notion of the vacuum existed in cosmology. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

And yet, in an echo of one of the book’s subtlest yet profoundest undertones, Lightman challenges our binary view of life and death. With an eye to consciousness — “the seemingly strange experience” that furnishes “the most profound and troubling aspect of human existence” — he argues that death is not the life-switch in the off position but the gradual dimming of consciousness, of our experience of aliveness, through the deterioration of its physical infrastructure.

Ever since Cecilia Payne discovered the chemical fingerprint of the universe, we have known that the atoms we are made of — seven thousand trillion trillion atoms in each of us, on average — were forged in the furnace of faraway stars. We know, too, that every cell in our bodies — the tendons that stiffen our fists and the cortices that kindle our tenderness — is made of atoms. Lightman writes:

To an alien intelligence, each of us human beings would appear to be an assemblage of atoms, humming with our various electrical and chemical energies. To be sure, it is a special assemblage. A rock does not behave like a person… When we die, this special assemblage disassembles. The atoms remain, only scattered about.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print.)

That special assemblage is what we call consciousness. A century after Virginia Woolf observed that “one can’t write directly about the soul [for] looked at, it vanishes,” Lightman writes:

The soul, as commonly understood, we cannot discuss scientifically. Not so with consciousness, and the closely related Self. Isn’t the experience of consciousness and Self an illusion caused by those trillions of neuronal connections and electrical and chemical flows? If you don’t like the word illusion, then you can stick with the sensation itself. You can say that what we call the Self is a name we give to the mental sensation of certain electrical and chemical flows in our neurons. That sensation is rooted in the material brain. And I do not mean to diminish the brain in any way by affirming its materiality. The human brain is capable of all of the wondrous feats of imagination and self-reflection and thought that we ascribe to our highest existence. But I do claim that it’s all atoms and molecules. If the alien intelligence examined a human being in detail, he/she/it would see fluids flowing, sodium and potassium gates opening and closing as electricity races through nerve cells, acetylcholine molecules migrating between synapses. But he/she/it would not find a Self. The Self and consciousness, I think, are names we give to the sensations produced by all of those electrical and chemical flows.

If someone began disassembling my brain one neuron at a time, depending on where the process began I might first lose a few motor skills, then some memories, then perhaps the ability to find particular words to make sentences, the ability to recognize faces, the ability to know where I was. During this slow taking apart of my brain, I would become more and more disoriented. Everything I associate with my ego and Self would gradually dissolve away into a bog of confusion and minimal existence. The doctors in their blue and green scrub suits could drop the removed neurons, one by one, into a metal bowl. Each a tiny gray gelatinous blob. Stringy with the axons and dendrites. Soft, so you would not hear the little thuds as each plopped in the bowl.

An understanding of death as “the name that we give to a collection of atoms that once had the special arrangement of a functioning neuronal network and now no longer does so” renders the boundary between life and death more like a shoreline redrawn by the receding tide pool than like a coastal cliff dropping off into the abyss. And yet even as a scientific materialist with no mystical inclinations and no belief in an afterlife, Lightman remains what we all are — fundamentally human in our special assemblage of atoms — and gives voice to that fundamental humanity with uncommon splendor of sentiment:

Despite my belief that I am only a collection of atoms, that my awareness is passing away neuron by neuron, I am content with the illusion of consciousness. I’ll take it. And I find a pleasure in knowing that a hundred years from now, even a thousand years from now, some of my atoms will remain in this place where I now lie in my hammock. Those atoms will not know where they came from, but they will have been mine. Some of them will once have been part of the memory of my mother dancing the bossa nova. Some will once have been part of the memory of the vinegary smell of my first apartment. Some will once have been part of my hand. If I could label each of my atoms at this moment, imprint each with my Social Security number, someone could follow them for the next thousand years as they floated in air, mixed with the soil, became parts of particular plants and trees, dissolved in the ocean and then floated again to the air. Some will undoubtedly become parts of other people, particular people. Some will become parts of other lives, other memories. That might be a kind of immortality.

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750 — the first book to describe the spiral shape of the Milky Way. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

As if it were not staggering enough how tiny a fraction of space life animates, Lightman observes that it also animates a fraction of time — not merely in terms of the transience of any one life, but in terms of all life occupying only a slender slice of the totality of time in the universe, as the discovery of cosmic acceleration has revealed. The cosmic brevity of “the era of life” is bookended on one end by the slow condensation of colossal gas clouds into the first stars that forged the first atoms large enough to form complex structures, after the universe had already existed for about one billion years, and bookended on the other by the eventual death of all stars when they burn out in several thousand billion years, leaving behind a dark lifeless expanse of pure spacetime.

Here we each are, each existence a summer day suspended in the hammock of spacetime.

And yet even in these cold unfeeling cosmic facts, Lightman finds reason to swell the brevity of existence with the warm feeling of kinship that makes life worth living. With an eye to his grain-of-Gobi-sand analogy, he writes:

Life in our universe is a flash in the pan, a few moments in the vast unfolding of time and space in the cosmos… A realization of the scarcity of life makes me feel some ineffable connection to other living things… a kinship in being among those few grains of sand in the desert, or present during the relatively brief era of life in the vast temporal sprawl of the universe.

[…]

We share something in the vast corridors of this cosmos we find ourselves in. What exactly is it we share? Certainly, the mundane attributes of “life”: the ability to separate ourselves from our surroundings, to utilize energy sources, to grow, to reproduce, to evolve. I would argue that we “conscious” beings share something more during our relatively brief moment in the “era of life”: the ability to witness and reflect on the spectacle of existence, a spectacle that is at once mysterious, joyous, tragic, trembling, majestic, confusing, comic, nurturing, unpredictable and predictable, ecstatic, beautiful, cruel, sacred, devastating, exhilarating. The cosmos will grind on for eternity long after we’re gone, cold and unobserved. But for these few powers of ten, we have been. We have seen, we have felt, we have lived.

Light distribution on soap bubble from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Complement these fragments of Lightman’s altogether luminous Probable Impossibilities with physicist Brian Greene’s Rilke-inspired reflection on how to fill our transience with maximal aliveness and Maya Angelou’s Sagan-inspired ode to the cosmic specialness of our humanity, then revisit a Borges-inspired meditation on chance, the universe, and what makes us who we are.

BP

The Mirror of Enigmas: Chance, the Universe, and the Pale Blues of Knowing Who We Are

“There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is.”

The Mirror of Enigmas: Chance, the Universe, and the Pale Blues of Knowing Who We Are

It takes a great sobriety of spirit to know your own depths — and your limits. It takes a special grandeur of spirit to know the limits of your self-knowledge.

A recent brush with those limits reminded me of a short, stunning essay by Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) titled “The Mirror of Enigmas,” found in his Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of stories, essays, and parables that gave us his timeless parable of the divided self and his classic refutation of time.

Titling the essay after St. Paul’s famous cryptic statement Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate — loosely translated as We now see through a mirror, enigmatically — Borges considers the tribe of thinkers who have perched their efforts to reconcile knowledge and mystery, the scientific and the spiritual, on the assumption that “the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — has an incalculable, symbolical value.” With his characteristic poetic precision, he condenses this common and somewhat tired hypothesis:

The outer world — forms, temperatures, the moon — is a language humans have forgotten or which we can scarcely distinguish.

No one, Borges argues, has taken this precarious hypothesis to more surefooted ground than the French novelist, poet, and philosophical pamphleteer Léon Bloy (July 11, 1846–November 3, 1917).

Digging through the surviving fragments of Bloy’s written thought, he surfaces a passage emblematic of Bloy’s uncommon physics of the metaphysical — an 1894 passage fomented by his interest in the teachings of St. Paul. Translated by Borges himself, Bloy writes:

[St. Paul’s statement] would be a skylight through which one might submerge himself in the true Abyss, which is the soul of man. The terrifying immensity of the firmament’s abyss is an illusion, an external reflection of our own abysses, perceived “in a mirror.” We should invert our eyes and practice a sublime astronomy in the infinitude of our heart… If we see the Milky Way, it is because it actually exists in our souls.

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750 — the first book to describe the spiral shape of the Milky Way. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

A century before Milan Kundera considered the eternal challenge of knowing what we really want in his classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bloy shines a sidewise gleam on the elemental self-opacity with and within which we live:

Everything is a symbol, even the most piercing pain. We are dreamers who shout in our sleep. We do not know whether the things afflicting us are the secret beginning of our ulterior happiness or not.

These ideas haunted Bloy, animated his pamphlets, his poems, his novels, then culminated in his 1912 book-length essay The Soul of Napoleon — a philosophical prose poem that sets out, as Borges puts it, “to decipher the symbol Napoleon, considered as the precursor of another hero — man and symbol as well — who is hidden in the future.” Bloy, translated again by Borges, writes in this uncommon work:

Every man* is on earth to symbolize something he is ignorant of and to realize a particle or a mountain of the invisible materials that will serve to build the City of God.

[…]

There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is. No one knows what he has come into this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, his ideas, or what his real name is, his enduring Name in the register of Light… History is an immense liturgical text where the iotas and the dots are worth no less than the entire verses or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable and profoundly hidden.

But as you contemplate these existential immensities, you face the limits of contemplation — the limits of meaning-making in relation to elemental truth.

Borges recognized this, closing the essay with by acknowledging “it is doubtful that the world has a meaning… even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning.”

I recognized this upon sitting down in for morning meditation in my garden after a nightlong storm and watching an almost otherworldly deposit roll onto the cushion: a tiny, perfect robin egg, improbable and sorrowful in its displaced blue beauty.

Singing Only Is by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

I considered climbing the neighbor’s colossal tree to find the storm-shaken nest and reinstate the egg. (Perfectly, the tree is an Ailanthus altissima, known as “tree-of-heaven” in its native China — a migrant now rooted in Brooklyn, like me.)

But then I considered this chance-event as the product of the same impartial forces that deposited the exact spermatozoid of my father’s onto my mother’s ovum at the exact moment to produce the chance-event of my particular configuration of atoms animated by this particular consciousness that just is, the consciousness mourning the robin that will never be. To call one expression of chance good and another bad is mere human hubris — the hubris of narrative and interpretation superimposed on an impartial universe devoid of why, awash in is.

No one knows the meaning of why anything comes to be, or doesn’t. Here is this pale blue orb, dropped from the tree-of-heaven onto a tiny Brooklyn point on the face of this Pale Blue Dot, itself a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” within an immense and impartial universe, conceived in the creation myths and early scientific theories of our meaning-hungry ancestors as a great cosmic egg.

Art from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750, illustrating Thomas Wright’s model of the cosmos as an egg-like structure of nested infinities. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Here I am, and here you are, and here is the robin’s egg in its near-life collision with chance. To ask for its meaning is as meaningless a question as to demand the meaning of a color or the meaning of a bird. On this particular day, at this particular moment — the only locus of aliveness we ever have — the contour of meaning comes in shades of blue, singing only is.

BP

The Ocean and the Meaning of Life

“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp… the ultimate mystery of Life itself.”

This essay is adapted from Figuring.

In June of 1952, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service received a letter of resignation from its most famous marine biologist. On the line requesting the reason for resignation, she had stated plainly: “To devote my time to writing.” But she was also leaving for the freedom to use her public voice as an instrument of change, awakening the world’s ecological conscience with her bold open letters holding the government accountable for its exploitation of nature.

Fifteen years earlier, at age twenty-nine, Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) had gotten her start at the lowest rungs of the government agency as a field aide hired at $6.50 an hour. Wading through tide pools and annual marine census reports as a junior aquatic biologist, she had found her voice as a writer with an uncommon gift for walking the teeming shoreline between the scientific and the poetic. In an unexampled essay that eventually bloomed into The Sea Around Us, which won her the National Book Award, she had invited the human imagination undersea, into a world then more mysterious than the Moon. Now, forty-five and finally free from the day-job by which she had been supporting her mother, her sister, and the young nephew she adopted and raised as her son after her sister’s death, Carson set out to fulfill her childhood dream of living by the ocean.

Rachel Carson

After searching along the New England coast, she fell in love with West Southport — a picturesque island in Maine, nestled among evergreens and oaks in the estuary of the Sheepscot River, where seals frequented the beach and whales billowed by as though torn from the pages of her beloved Melville. With her book royalties, she bought a plot of land on which to build a cottage. In a touching testament to her orientation to the natural world, she felt deeply uncomfortable thinking of herself as its “owner” — a “strange and inappropriate word” — of this “perfectly magnificent piece of Maine shoreline.” There, she would soon meet her soul mate, whose love would bolster Carson’s moral courage in catalyzing the environmental movement; there, she would compose her next book, dedicating it to her beloved Dorothy for having gone down with her “into the low-tide world” and “felt its beauty and its mystery.”

The Edge of the Sea was an ambitious guide to the seashore — the place where Carson found “a sense of the unhurried deliberation of earth processes that move with infinite leisure, with all eternity at their disposal”; the strange and wondrous boundary the ocean-loving Whitman had once extolled as “that suggesting, dividing line, contact, junction… blending the real and ideal, and each made portion of the other.”

The book was also an admonition against what we stand to lose — writing in the early 1950s, Carson noted the systematically documented and “well recognized” fact of global climate change. But was primarily a celebration, for that is always the most effective instrument of admonition — a celebration of what we have and what we are, an ode to “how that marvelous, tough, vital, and adaptable something we know as LIFE has come to occupy one part of the sea world and how it has adjusted itself and survived despite the immense, blind forces acting upon it from every side.”

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

Inevitably, in telling the story of life, the book takes on an existential undertone, rendered symphonic under Carson’s poetic pen. Watching the fog engulf the rocks beneath her study window as the night tide rolls in, she considers the totality of being, which the world’s oceans contour and connect:

Hearing the rising tide, I think how it is pressing also against other shores I know — rising on a southern beach where there is no fog, but a moon edging all the waves with silver and touching the wet sands with lambent sheen, and on a still more distant shore sending its streaming currents against the moonlit pinnacles and the dark caves of the coral rock.

Then in my thoughts these shores, so different in their nature and in the inhabitants they support, are made one by the unifying touch of the sea. For the differences I sense in this particular instant of time that is mine are but the differences of a moment, determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea. Once this rocky coast beneath me was a plain of sand; then the sea rose and found a new shore line. And again in some shadowy future the surf will have ground these rocks to sand and will have returned the coast to its earlier state. And so in my mind’s eye these coastal forms merge and blend in a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality — earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

The year of Carson’s death, as Dorothy scattered her ashes into the rocking bay, James Baldwin would echo these existential undertones in his poetic insistence that “nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever… the sea does not cease to grind down rock.” Carson — still alive, still islanded for a mortal moment in the ocean of ongoingness — adds:

On all these shores there are echoes of past and future: of the flow of time, obliterating yet containing all that has gone before; of the sea’s eternal rhythms — the tides, the beat of surf, the pressing rivers of the currents — shaping, changing, dominating; of the stream of life, flowing as inexorably as any ocean current, from past to unknown future.

[…]

Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp. What is the message signaled by the hordes of diatoms, flashing their microscopic lights in the night sea? What truth is expressed by the legions of the barnacles, whitening the rocks with their habitations, each small creature within finding the necessities of its existence in the sweep of the surf? And what is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is a sea lace, existing for some reason inscrutable to us — a reason that demands its presence by the trillion amid the rocks and weeds of the shore? The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.

Art from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography by Levi Walter Yaggy, 1887. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

As The Edge of the Sea alighted in the world, critical praise and honors came cascading, trailed by invitations for lectures and acceptance speeches. Always uncomfortable with attention and public appearances, Carson became even more selective, prioritizing women’s associations and nonprofit cultural institutions over glamorous commercial stages. When she did speak, her words became almost a consecration, as in a speech she delivered before a convocation of librarians:

When we go down to the lowest of the low tide lines and look down into the shallow waters, there’s all the excitement of discovering a new world. Once you have entered such a world, its fascination grows and somehow you find your mind has gained a new dimension, a new perspective — and always thereafter you find yourself remember[ing] the beauty and strangeness and wonder of that world — a world that is as real, as much a part of the universe, as our own.

Rachel Carson, 1951

Savor more of Carson’s lyrical reverence for the sea and the strange wonder of life in Figuring. Couple this fragment with a stunning illustrated celebration of our water world based on Indian mythology, then revisit Carson’s life-tested wisdom on writing and the loneliness of creative work, the story of how her writing sparked the environmental movement, and Neil Gaiman’s poetic tribute to her legacy.

BP

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