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The Mesmerizing Microscopy of Trees: Otherworldly Images Revealing the Cellular Structure of Wood Specimens

Stunning images that occupy the lacuna between art and science.

After a recent march in D.C., where I walked Walt Whitman’s love of democracy and his conviction that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” I set out to temper the tumult of the human world with an immersion in Whitman’s other great love — the natural world. Visiting the National Museum of Natural History’s Objects of Wonder exhibition, a splendid embodiment of Whitman’s admiration of the character of trees stopped me up short: a display of slides revealing the cellular structure of trees and shrubs seen under a microscope — stunning images that occupy the lacuna between art and science, resembling ancient tapestries and Klimt paintings and galactic constellations.

Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), radial view
Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), tangential view
Prosopis juliflora (a Mexican mesquite shrub), transverse view

The slides are drawn from the 4,637 specimens amassed by the prolific wood collector Archie F. Wilson (1903–1960) — the largest private collection of arboreal specimens from around the world, donated to the museum’s already formidable wood collection a year after Wilson’s death.

Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), transverse view
Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), tangential view
Picea pungens (Colorado spruce), transverse view

Wilson, who served as a research associate at the Chicago Museum of Natural History and went on to preside over the International Wood Collectors Society, cut his samples into meticulously sanded 7×3-inch blocks. Each slide presents a thin slice from one of the blocks, stained to reveal specific microscopic features of its structure.

Maytenus micrantha, tangential view
Maytenus micrantha, transverse view
Colubrina arborescens (wild coffee), tangential view

Beyond their aesthetic rapture, these specimens have taken on a wonderfully hope-giving new role in advancing science and the law. Half a century after Wilson’s death, they have become part of a vast database documenting the chemical fingerprints of wood, known as the Forensic Spectra of Trees — or, because scientists do delight in acronymic puns, ForeST. Much like artist Ryota Kajita’s stunning photomicroscopy of Alaskan ice formation are being used to understand climate change, scientists are using Wilson’s samples for vital wood identification, not only in advancing botany, but in combatting the worldwide epidemic of illegal logging and timber trafficking, which has swelled to about a third of the world’s wood trade — ecologically exploitive contraband estimated to be costing the global economy up to $152 billion per year, with unfathomed environmental costs as entire ecosystems are being decimated. (Trees, lest we forget, are the relational infrastructure of the living world.)

Picea (spruce), radial view
Cornus kousa (Chinese dogwood), transverse view

In Brazil, nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been savaged by illegal logging in the decades since Wilson’s death — the loss of woodland approximately equivalent to the size of California. In China, rosewood has become the blood diamond of the wood trade — a species protected under the multilateral endangered species treaty CITES, yet ruthlessly logged for the manufacture of expensive Ming and Qing dynasty furniture reproductions. A quarter of Russia’s timber exports come from illegal logging and a devastating 61% of Indonesian wood production is traded illegally.

Tsuga orientalis, tangential view
Mastixia (an evergreen)

Accompanying the ForeST database is an advanced spectrometry instrument that showers the wood sample with heated helium atoms to instantly reveal its chemical profile, enabling customs agents and the various custodians of environmental policy to perform simple, cheap, noninvasive wood analysis that identifies illegally traded species and helps prevent these losses of tree life that take generations to recover.

Ricinodendron heudelotii (West African tropical tree known as “cocoa’s friend”), tangential view
Ampelopsis brevipedunculata (porcelain vine), transverse view
Salix fragilia (brittle willow), transverse view
Quiina negrensis, radial view
Cornus stolonifera (red stem dogwood), transverse view
Capraria biflora (goatweed), transverse view
Cornus controversa (giant dogwood), transverse view
Ailanthus integrifolia (an East Asian rainforest tree), radial view

Complement with French photographer Cedric Pollet’s beautiful photographs of tree bark from around the world and amateur wood collector Romeyn Beck Hough’s remarkable cross-sections of trees from a century ago, then revisit Hermann Hesse’s lyrical love letter to trees and this beautiful illustrated celebration of the forest.

HT Smithsonian Magazine

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Ursula K. Le Guin on Time, the Meaning of Loyalty, and Why Honoring the Continuity of Past and Future Is the Root of Acting Responsibly

“If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Time, the Meaning of Loyalty, and Why Honoring the Continuity of Past and Future Is the Root of Acting Responsibly

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her superb antidote to our ahistorical worldview. So much of our suffering, both personal and political, stems from our inability — or, rather, unwillingness — to take a telescopic perspective of time; to look past the immediacy of symptoms and instead trace the long arc between cause and effect. Only along such an arc can we propel our moral development — again, both personal and political — toward its highest potentiality: justice, dignity, existential fulfillment.

That is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores throughout her 1974 science fiction novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (public library) — an extension of her classic short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, published a year earlier, which remains one of the most powerful and pause-giving thought experiments in literature.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Based on photograph by Benjamin Reed)

Speaking through her protagonist — the mathematician Shevek, modeled on the Nobel-winning physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a friend of her parents’ — Le Guin writes:

Our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just like saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.

Le Guin’s protagonist revisits the subject of time in a passage that stands as the prose counterpart to her splendid “Hymn to Time”:

Fulfillment… is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.

Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.

It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

In a sentiment which Sarah Manguso would echo in her poignant assertion that “perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing,” Le Guin adds:

The thing about working with time, instead of against it, …is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

This tenet applies not only to the sequential record of life we call history, but to life itself, even — or perhaps especially — in its most immediate manifestations. Just as we lose perspective when we fragment history into isolated moments, we lose sight of the whole — of its beauty and of its inherent truth — whenever we fragment any element of life into its constituent parts. Elsewhere in the novel, Le Guin shines a sidewise gleam on this equivalence:

If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives. . . . But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent The Dispossessed with the psychology of temporality and Jorge Luis Borges’s landmark meditation on time, then revisit Le Guin on poetry and science, the power of art to transform and redeem, the art of growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, and her classic unsexing of gender.

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A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of the Wilderness and the Human Role in Nature Not as Conqueror but as Humble Witness

“It is said that the forest has a certain limit if you look straight ahead, but the sides are boundless.”

A Stunning Illustrated Celebration of the Wilderness and the Human Role in Nature Not as Conqueror but as Humble Witness

“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” When Walt Whitman beheld the singular wisdom of trees, he saw in them qualities “almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic.” Philosopher Martin Buber insisted that trees can teach us to see others as they truly are.

Indeed, whatever the splendor, wisdom, and heroism of trees may be, it stems from the individual’s orientation to the whole — not only as an existential metaphor, but as a biological reality as science is uncovering the remarkable communication system via which trees feel and communicate with one another. Biologist David George Haskell recognized this in his poetic expedition to a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees: “The forest is not a collection of entities [but] a place entirely made from strands of relationship.”

That relational, existential mesmerism is what Italian author Riccardo Bozzi explores in The Forest (public library), illustrated by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali, and translated from the Italian by Debbie Bibo. Less a book than a tactile expedition into the existential wilderness, the journey unfolds across time and space, in “an enormous, ancient forest that has not yet been fully explored.”

The illustrations, minimalist yet luscious, peek through die-cuts and stretch across gatefolds, emulating the way one lovely thing becomes another when you look closely at nature with generous attentiveness to life at all scales.

Constructed in the tradition of Japanese binding, the book is wrapped in translucent velum that gives the lush cover illustration the aura of a mist-enveloped forest early in the morning.

The story begins when the forest is young — little more than a grove of small trees. With each page, it grows thicker and thicker, more impenetrable and more fascinating at the same time. We see the silhouettes of the explorers — white shadows cast of negative space against the vibrant forest — trek and kneel “to investigate its beauties and its dangers.”

It is said that the forest has a certain limit if you look straight ahead, but the sides are boundless. Here is where the explorers can venture with enjoyment and curiosity.

As the forest grows, so does the explorer: Rising out of the crisp-white page are the subtly embossed faces of different genders and races, also progressing along the way of life — an infant, an adolescent boy, a young woman, an old man.

The vibrant forest and its creatures peeking through the die-cut eyes of the barely visible faces remind us that the human role in nature is not that of conqueror or king but of humble witness and passing visitor — an awareness that calls to mind the founding ethos of the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act, poetically phrased by the naturalist and conservationist Mardy Murie: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Complement The Forest, which comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, with I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail — a very different die-cut masterpiece, reimagining a 17th-century British poem in Indian tribal art — and Annie Dillard on what mangrove trees can teach us about the human search for meaning, then revisit other Enchanted Lion treasures: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, Bertolt, and Be Still, Life.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Borges on Turning Trauma, Misfortune, and Humiliation into Raw Material for Art

“All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”

Borges on Turning Trauma, Misfortune, and Humiliation into Raw Material for Art

“Forget your personal tragedy,” Ernest Hemingway exhorted his dear friend F. Scott Fitzgerald in a tough-love letter of advice. “Good writers always come back. Always.” It is an insight as true of writers as it is of all artists and of human beings in general, as true of personal tragedy as it is of collective tragedy — something Toni Morrison articulated in her mobilizing manifesto for the writer’s task in troubled times: “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

That is what Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) — born the same year as Hemingway, writing two decades before Morrison — conveys with uncommon splendor of sentiment in Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges: Including a Selection of Poems (public library) — the record of his dialogues with the Argentine journalist and poet Roberto Alifano, conducted in the final years of Borges’s life, by which point he had been blind for almost thirty years.

Jorge Luis Borges

In a passage Susan Sontag would come to quote in her magnificent letter to Borges composed on the tenth anniversary of his death, he reflects:

A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.

Complement with Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, Marina Abramović on turning trauma into fuel for art, and May Sarton on the artist’s task to rise above the tumult of the times, then revisit Borges on writing, the measure of success, collective joy and collective tragedy, the paradox of time, and the illusion of the self.

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