“The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.”
By Maria Popova
We are born into the certitude of our eventual death. Every once in a while, something — perhaps an encounter with a robin’s egg, perhaps a poem — staggers us with the awful, awe-filled wonder of aliveness, the sheer luck of it against the overwhelming cosmic odds of nonexistence. But alloyed with the awe is always the half-conscious grief that one day the light of consciousness will be extinguished. It is a heavy gift to hold, this doomed delirium of aliveness. It is also a buoyant gladness, if we are limber enough to stretch into the cosmic perspective that does not come naturally to us small, Earth-bound bipeds corticed with tender self-importance.
For each of us, one thing is true: Had any one variable been ever so subtly different — had your parents mated on a different day or at a different altitude, had the early universe cooled a fraction of a second faster after the Big Bang, you would not exist as the particular constellation of atoms configuring the particular consciousness that makes you you. Because chance plays such dice with the universe, and because the die dictates that the vast majority of energy and matter never had the luck of cohering into this doomed delirium of aliveness, it is, in some profound and practical sense, a staggering privilege to die — one that betokens the privilege of having lived. To lament death, then, is to lament our luck, for any negation of the possibility of death is a negation of the improbable miracle of life, a wish for there to be nothing to do the dying — nothing to have partaken of the beautiful, bittersweet temporality of aliveness.
It is easier to bend the intuitive mind into this correct but counterintuitive perspective while walking in a cemetery at the height of summer. Doing this very thing while thinking these very thoughts, I was reminded of a passage from one of the most lucid and lens-clearing books written this side of Darwin — Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (public library) by the visionary and often controversial (which is the social fate of every visionary) British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
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 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 enchant 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.