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The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

A subversive Victorian-tinted infusion of romantic realism.

The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

Great loves, like great works of art, live at the crossing point of the improbable and the inevitable. That, at least, has been my experience, both as a scholar of history and as a private participant in the lives of the heart. Such loves come unbidden, without warning or presentiment, and that is their supreme insurance against the projectionist fantasy that so frequently disguises not-love — infatuation, obsession, jealousy, longing — as love. But when they do come, with all the delirium of the improbable, they enter the house of the heart as if they have always lived there, instantly at home; they enter like light bending at a certain angle to reveal, without fuss or fanfare, some corner of the universe for the very first time — but the corner has always been there, dusty and dim, and the light has always been ambient, unlensed and unbent into illumination. For great love, as the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observed in her splendid meditation on its mystery, is “never justified” but is rather “like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves?”

That improbable and inexplicable miracle is what Edward Gorey (February 22, 1925–April 15, 2000) celebrates with his signature faux-terse tenderness and soulful oddness in the vintage gem The Osbick Bird (public library).

Written in 1969 — several years after Gorey created his now-iconic Gashlycrumb Tinies, but well before his work for PBS and his fantastical reimagining of Dracula made him a household name — it was originally published under Gorey’s own Fantod Press, whose author list included such venerated names as Ogdred Weary, Madame Groeda Weyrd, O. Müde, Mrs. Regera Dowdy, Raddory Gewe, Garrod Weedy, and the Oprah-like first-name-only Om — Gorey’s delightful menagerie of pseudonyms.

Edward Gorey by Richard Avedon (Richard Avedon Foundation)

This tiny treasure of a book, itself improbable and inevitable given its subject and its creator’s nature, lay dormant and forgotten for decades, until Pomegranate Press, heroic stewards of Gorey’s legacy, resurrected it twelve years after he became the posthumous author he had always lived as.

In spare lines and spare verses, Gorey tells the singsong story of the osbick bird — a creature of his wild and wondrous imagination — who alights one day to lonely, dignified Emblus Figby’s bowler hat, out of the blue, or rather, out of the sky-implying negative space of Gorey’s minimalist, consummately cross-hatched black-and-white worldscapes.

And then, just like that, Emblus Figby and the osbick bird commence a life together — as if life was always meant to be lived in this particular tandem; as if each of the two was written into being just to complete the other’s rhyme.

This charmingly eccentric shared life unspools in Gorey’s playful verses, evocative of Victorian nursery rhymes, and when the spool runs out, Gorey’s romantic realism takes over — the osbick bird flits out of the frame just like it had flitted into it, by that miraculous consonance of the improbable and the inevitable.

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin had written a century earlier in the final passage of On the Origin of Species — in the view that death is the very mechanism ensuring the unstoppable ongoingness of life, the fulcrum by which ever shifts into after. There is grandeur, too, in Gorey’s subversive ending. There is beauty and bravery in its counterpoint to our incomplete happily-ever-after cultural mythos and its deep-seated denial of death as an integral part of life, and therefore of love; beauty and bravery in the reminder that the measure of a great love — as of a great life — is not in the happy ending, for all endings followed to the ultimate finality are the same, but in all the happy durings.

Complement The Osbick Bird with Shell Silverstein’s tender line-drawn allegory for the simple secret of true love, then revisit Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of its loss and W.H. Auden on what it means to be the more loving one.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust courtesy of Pomegranate Press. Photographs by Maria Popova.

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Thrush Song: A Stunning Harmonic Tribute to Rachel Carson’s Courage by Composer Paola Prestini and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City

“All the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness.”

Thrush Song: A Stunning Harmonic Tribute to Rachel Carson’s Courage by Composer Paola Prestini and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City

In 2019, the New York Philharmonic commissioned composer and force of nature Paola Prestini — co-founder of National Sawdust, that visionary locus of possibility for world-building through music — to compose an original piece for their multi-season Project 19 initiative, celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Inspired by the stories of the remarkable unsung women in Figuring, she reached out to me to write the words. I chose a moment that occurs some 485 pages into the book — a moment small and private, but enormous in its symbolic significance and cultural reverberations.

In January 1962, after a decade of incubation and four years of methodical research, Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) turned in the manuscript for what would become Silent Spring — the epoch-making catalyst of the modern environmental movement, making ecology a household word and invitinig the human imagination to consider how intricately, vulnerably interleaved nature’s ecosystems are. Carson, by then savaged by cancer, knew that speaking such inconvenient truth to power would come at grave personal cost. It did: She was soon assaulted by government and industry, her scientific credibility attacked on the basis of her biology, with the crude weapon of gender. But she moored herself to what she had articulated to the love of her life, Dorothy Freeman, at the outset of her courageous endeavor:

Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

When Carson turned in the manuscript that cold January night, she tucked her newly adopted son Roger into bed, kissed him good night, took her beloved black cat Jeffie into the study, shut the door behind her, and put on her favorite Beethoven violin concerto. “Suddenly,” she recounted the evening to Dorothy the next day, “the tension of four years was broken and I let the tears come.” She told Dorothy:

Last summer… I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could — I had been able to complete it — now it had its own life.

Carson never lived to see its life in the world, but her work inspired the creation of Earth Day and the led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Paola Prestini (Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe)

Paola transfigured this moment into a gorgeous piece for soprano and orchestra, titled “Thrush Song.” After it premiered with the New York Philharmonic, I invited her to adapt it for a chorus of young people as part of the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating 50 years of Earth Day. (Days after David Byrne read a poem at the 2019 edition of The Universe in Verse, I had been awed by the National Sawdust performance of his countercultural hymn of resistance and resilience, accompanied by a coruscating chorus of young people; I was also haunted by Carson’s moving message to the next generations — to the Greta Thunbergs she never lived to meet.)

Paola Prestini’s working sketch for the New York Philharmonic project

Paola reimagined “Thrush Song” as a wondrous harmonic serenade to Carson’s courage, working with a constellation of young women from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, rehearsing and performing remotely in a world stilled and stunned by a global pandemic — a poignant meta-testament to Carson’s legacy: the revelation of how intimately connected we are to one another and to the rest of nature through the intricate, complex, delicate web of biological and ecological relationships weaving the tapestry of being.

The result, which many in the live Universe in Verse audience welcomed as the crowning glory of the nearly four-hour show, is now available for all the world to cherish, with a deep bow of admiration and gratitude to Paola and the remarkable women of the Young People’s Chorus, and special thanks to Debbie Millman for the lovingly hand-lettered lyrics.

Complement with a Carson’s birdsong notation set to music by singer-songwriter Dawn Landes and Neil Gaiman’s poetic tribute to Carson’s courage, written for the 2018 Universe in Verse, then revisit other highlights from the show’s four-year archive: a stunning animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s poem about our cosmic inter-belonging, James Baldwin’s ecological-humanistic wisdom set to song, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, and Neil Gaiman’s subversive feminist celebration of science and the human search for truth, in a tactile animated short film.

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When Did Time Really Begin? The Little Loophole in the Big Bang

A pleasurable warping of the figuring faculty to contemplate what was there before the before.

When Did Time Really Begin? The Little Loophole in the Big Bang

“Time says ‘Let there be,'” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote shortly before her death in her splendid “Hymn to Time,” saluting the invisible dimension that pervades and encompasses the whole of life: “the radiance of each bright galaxy. And eyes beholding radiance. And the gnats’ flickering dance. And the seas’ expanse. And death, and chance.”

But what does time say of the time before there was anything to let be, the time before being?

“The concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe,” Stephen Hawking wrote in his groundbreaking 1988 book A Brief History of Time (public library) — a work of such far-reaching and lasting impact that it awakened the popular imagination to the fundamental physics of reality and, thirty years later, inspired one of the most beautiful and poignant poems of all time.

In the foreword to the final edition of the book published in his lifetime, Hawking quoted Richard Feynman’s exultation at how fortunate we are to live in an age when we are still discovering the fundamental laws of nature. Inevitably, this means we are still understanding the nature of time. As we come closer and closer to accepting that the universe might be not infinite but finite, and that Einstein’s relativity, as revolutionary as it was, has important limitations, the notion that time began at the Big Bang singularity has begun to dissolve into something more complex — and more thrilling: We might say that in the beginning of time, there was no time; but we might equally say that in the beginning of time, there was only time. (Borges touched the poetic truth behind and before the scientific fact in his exquisite refutation of time.)

In this invigorating PBS segment, New York-based Australian astrophysicist Matt O’Dowd delves into the science and splendor of when time actually began and what that illuminates about the nature of a universe which contains everything we know, including the mind that does the knowing, yet one which we are still getting to know:

In this next segment, O’Dowd considers the possibilities, as presently understood, of what might have happened before the Big Bang:

Complement with science historian James Gleick on how our cultural obsession with the scientific impossibility of time travel illuminates the central mystery of consciousness, then treat yourself to Nina Simone’s meditation on time and poet Marie Howe’s stunning ode to Hawking’s singularity.

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Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Gorgeous Letter to Children About Reading, Amazement, and the Exhilaration of Discovering the Undiscovered

A celebration of the delicious enchantment of the very first time.

Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Gorgeous Letter to Children About Reading, Amazement, and the Exhilaration of Discovering the Undiscovered

I remember the feeling of first seeing the Moon through the small handheld telescope my father had smuggled from East Germany — how ancient yet proximate it felt, how alive, as though I could glide my six-year-old finger over its rugged radiance — the feeling of electric astonishment at something so surprising yet so inevitable, something that seemed to have always been waiting there just for me to discover it. I remember next having that feeling nearly a decade later, upon first reading To the Lighthouse, my English still too crude to register every note of nuance, but attuned enough to be staggered by the symphonic might of Virginia Woolf’s prose, to be stirred in some still-dim corner of my own mind by the glowing edges of hers.

It is an unrepeatable feeling — better than a first kiss, for it comes without anticipation or hope; more like a great love that rises from some unseen shore like a great blue heron over the misty lake at dawn, unbidden and improbable and discomposing in its majesty. It is a feeling often found between the covers of a great book, in the stillness between expectations, or as the twist at the end of a great poem dopplers past you in the hallway of the mind, leaving you stunned and transformed.

In some strange and wondrous sense, then, that which is still ahead of you, still waiting to be discovered, still holding its secret astonishment, is the most delicious, delirious of rewards.

Umberto Eco hinted at this in his wonderful notion of the “antilibrary” with its insistence that unread books, by virtue of their yet-unimagined and unsavored nourishment, have more value to our inner lives than those we have already metabolized. A generation later, poet and philosopher David Whyte address this in his gorgeous contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — that labor-of-love collection of 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by poets and physicists, cellists and entrepreneurs, artists and astronauts — some of the most inspiring humans in our world, whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Whyte writes:

Dear Young Friend,

I wish. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish I were in your shoes now, I wish I were standing where you are standing now, I would swap everything I have learned through my reading, I would swap my entire library of a thousand books, every journey and adventure I have taken through their pages, all the insights about the world and myself, all the laughter, the tragedy, the moments of shock and relief, all the books that have amazed me and that have made me reread them again and again, to be at the beginning as you are, so that I could read them all again for the very first time.

I wish, I wish, I wish I were in your place with all the books of the world waiting patiently for me. It would be so astonishing to come across Coleridge as a perfect stranger and hear his voice for the first time; I would love to know nothing about Shakespeare or Jane Austen, to be overwhelmed by the fact that there is a Rosalind, or an Elizabeth Bennett, or later, an Emily Dickinson, in this world, and then, and then to see my hand for the first time attempting to write even a little like they have, to follow them in shyness and trepidation and beautiful frustration, to walk through the incredible territory we call writing and reading and see it all again with new eyes. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish

I were in your shoes, in a beautiful waiting to know, waiting to read, waiting to write, so that I could open the door and walk through all the books I have ever read or written as if I hadn’t. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish I were in your shoes now.

Yours in anticipation,

David Whyte

Savor other testaments to the power and splendor of reading from A Velocity of Being — letters by Rebecca Solnit, Anne Lamott, Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Debbie Millman, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alexander Chee, Kevin Kelly, and Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin — then revisit Whyte on anger and forgiveness, friendship, love, and heartbreak, and resisting the tyranny of labeling the heart’s truth.

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