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Nature’s Lessons in Gender Equality, Gender Diversity, and True Love: The Male Pregnancy of the Seahorse and the Fearless Trans Fish of the Coral Seas

What the weird, wondrous, otherworldly animals of this precious planet can teach us about being better creatures ourselves.

Nature’s Lessons in Gender Equality, Gender Diversity, and True Love: The Male Pregnancy of the Seahorse and the Fearless Trans Fish of the Coral Seas

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston insisted nearly a century ago. “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

Over the long sweep of evolution, our fellow creatures have developed wondrous forms and faculties far superior to our own — from the strange splendor of the octopus, endowed with Earth’s most alien consciousness, to the olfactory prowess of the dog, capable of accessing layers of reality wholly hidden from us. (“Never say higher or lower,” Darwin scribbled in the margin of a book. “Say more complicated.”) To fathom the worlds of such creatures requires that we “shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place,” as Rachel Carson wrote in the pioneering 1937 essay that first invited the human imagination to consider this precious shared planet from the perspective of non-human creatures.

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

But in the century since Carson and Beston, some of this world’s most extraordinary animals have been driven to near-extinction, vanishing from the biosphere, vanishing from the dictionary and from children’s imagination. Along with them vanish the voices we shall never hear — voices that can teach us a great deal about being better creatures ourselves.

Welsh illustrator and author Millie Marotta celebrates forty-three of these astounding creatures in A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals (public library) — a collection of short, stunningly illustrated encyclopedic “profiles” of wild and wondrous creatures: miniature dragons of the underworld, desert-dwelling fish, marsupial tree frogs, otters with a hundredfold more hairs in a square inch of fur than you have on your entire head, and the clandestine cousin of the extinct dodo. What emerges is a testament to naturalist Sy Montgomery’s conviction that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

Some of Marotta’s creatures contain in their hard-wired biology subtle allegorical answers to some of our most pressing sociological concerns and aspirations — particularly around gender equality, gender identity, and gender diversity. From the seahorse — one of only three known species, along with the pipefish and the leafy seadragon, in which pregnancy is allotted to the male — we get a lesson in subverting traditional gender roles not only in child-rearing but in child-bearing, as well as a stubborn defense of true love (or what we might have to begin calling, nowadays, monoamory), almost at the price of survival. Marotta writes:

Many species of seahorse remain faithful to their mates throughout the breeding season, greeting each other each day in a courtship dance. Other pairs remain monogamous their entire lives, among them the tiger tail seahorse, so named for its distinctive stripy tail.

When breeding, the female deposits her eggs into the male’s brood pouch, found toward the bottom of his belly. He fertilizes them in his pouch, then keeps them there, safe and nourished, as they develop. After two to three weeks, hundreds of miniature, perfectly formed tiger tail seahorses burst out into the water. The babies, only 1 cm long, are immediately independent of their parents and drift away, at the mercy of the ocean currents.

Seahorses are rather inept at swimming, so when it comes to hunting they rely on stealth and disguise. Anchoring themselves to a piece of coral, and changing color to camouflage themselves from both predators and prey, they wait, toothless snout at the ready, to hoover up tasty brine shrimp as they drift by.

From the corpulent, fearless, luscious-lipped humphead wrasse of the Indo-Pacific coral seas — nature’s Orlando — we receive the ultimate affirmation of the transgender identity as a thoroughly natural mode of being.

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

Marotta writes:

Among the coral reefs of the Red Sea, a young female humphead wrasse leaves her deep — water cave to feed. She hoovers up vast quantities of mollusks, crabs, lobsters, sea cucumbers… but she is also one of a few species that will tuck into the toxic crown-of-thorns starfish. This starfish eats growing corals, so in eating them the humphead wrasse is preserving her own habitat, which is already damaged by fishing methods involving dynamite and cyanide. As she hunts, she must keep an eye out for poachers: As one of the most expensive fish in Southeast Asia, she is vulnerable.

At about seven years old, she is almost ready to mate. By nine she has grown bigger than most females her age, and as she keeps growing her skin changes color, from rusty red orange to a vibrant greenish blue, and she loses her ovaries and develops testes. Incredibly, she changes sex and becomes the dominant male — known as a super male. He is a giant among his species — up to 6 ft long and a colossal 400 lbs in weight. That’s more than two average-sized men. Only the very largest of females have a chance to become super-males and mate — and they will stay male forever.

Complement the lovely Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals with Eve Ensler’s stirring letter to Mother Earth, sparked by the disappearance of 2.9 billion birds, and illustrator Jenni Desmond’s empathic picture-book invitations into the worlds of two other gravely endangered animals — the polar bear and the blue whale — then revisit this lyrical vintage chronicle of a year in the life of the majestic sperm whale and Sy Montgomery on what working with 13 animals taught her about being a good creature.

BP

Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia

Soporific shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Melville.

Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia

Given that it serves as the brain’s built-in therapy mechanism regulating our negative moods, given that it acts as the brain’s janitor sweeping away toxins responsible for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, sleep may be the closest thing we have a superpower — so much so that its importance is encoded into the 13 most important things I’ve learned about life. The clearest evidence of that importance comes from the extreme disruption of our functioning when sleep is taken away — the way we we grow unmoored from our own minds, adrift an arm’s reach from reality, unable to follow the ordinary threads that link one thought to the next, that fetch the right word, the needed memory.

Insomnia, then, is a particularly unforgiving and parasitic malfunction of consciousness that feeds on its host, feeds on our very sense of being. Of the many proposed but ultimately unprovable remedies for insomnia, from the folkloric to the clinical, by far the loveliest I’ve ever encountered comes from Patti Smith in Year of the Monkey (public library) — her unclassifiable and uncommonly poetic masterpiece at the borderline of dream and reality.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

In the disorienting midst of the 2016 election news cycle, when “an insidious insomnia” slowly begins to claim her nights, Smith resorts to an old mental game by which she tricks herself to sleep — a kind of shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Herman Melville and reminiscent of a Zen parable. She writes:

I imagine myself a sailor in the time of the great whaling ships on a lengthy voyage. We are in the center of a violent storm and the captain’s inexperienced son catches his foot in a length of rope and is pulled overboard. Unflinching, the sailor leaps into the storm-tossed seas after him. The men throw down massive lengths of rope and the lad is brought to deck in the arms of the sailor and carried below.

The sailor is summoned to the quarterdeck and led to the captain’s inner sanctum. Wet and shivering, he eyes his surroundings with wonder. The captain, in a rare show of emotion, embraces him. You saved my son’s life, he says. Tell me how I can best serve you. The sailor, embarrassed, asks for a full measure of rum for each of the men. Done, says the captain, but what of you? After some hesitation the sailor answers, I have slept on galley floors, bunks and hammocks since a lad, it has been a long time since I have slept in a proper bed.

The captain, moved by the sailor’s humility, offers his own bed, then retires to the room of his son. The sailor stands before the captain’s empty bed. It has down pillows and a light coverlet. There is a massive leather trunk at its foot. He crosses himself, blows out the candles and succumbs to a rare and wholly enveloping sleep.

This is the game I sometimes play when sleep is elusive, one that evolved from reading Melville, that takes me from the mat on the bathroom floor to my own bed, affording grateful slumber.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree.

Couple this tiny fragment of the wholly resplendent Year of the Monkey with Maurice Sendak’s antidote to insomnia, then revisit Smith on creativity, time, loss, and transformation, and her tribute to William Blake.

BP

Edward Weston on the Most Fruitful Attitude Toward Life, Art, and Other People

“I feel towards persons as I do towards art, — constructively.”

Edward Weston on the Most Fruitful Attitude Toward Life, Art, and Other People

Goethe believed that the only opinion worth voicing about the work and choices of others is one that springs from “a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving interest in the person and the work… All else is vanity.” A particularly corrosive species of vanity is the habit of self-comparison, which — depending on the degrees of narcissism and insecurity in the comparer — results either in self-inflation by diminishing the worth of the other or in despair by hyperfocus on the other’s visible achievements against their invisible struggles (for our deepest struggles are always invisible). At its worst, such vanity — such absence of sympathetic enthusiasm for other people and the world at large — festers into the most uncreative, unconstructive self-contraction of all: cynicism.

A lovely antidote to such vanity comes from the visionary photographer Edward Weston (March 24, 1886–January 1, 1958) in his journal, The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Volume II, California (public library) — the out-of-print 1966 treasure that also gave us Weston on the importance of cross-disciplinary curiosity in creative work.

Edward Weston (© Brett Weston Archive, International Center of Photography)

In 1927, after four creatively fertile years in Mexico, Weston returned to his old studio in California and found himself struggling for survival. In a particularly telling diary entry, he agonizes after his son loses a five-dollar bill — half of Weston’s earnings from a print sale. “Five dollars!” he exclaims in his daybook. “Enough for me to live on a week!” And yet a certain inner buoyancy lifted him up to begin what would become his most influential work — a radiance and generosity of spirit that extended not only to his work but to the world about him, imperfect as a world always is. On the first day of February in 1928, Weston writes:

I feel towards persons as I do towards art, — constructively. Find all the good first. Judge by what has been done, — not by omissions or mistakes. And look well into oneself! A life can well be spent correcting and improving one’s own faults without bothering about others.

In another entry penned on that summer, Weston contemplates what makes a great artist — and a great person — by reflecting on the most admired photographer of his time, Alfred Stieglitz, then writes:

It has come to me of late that comparing one man’s work to another’s, naming one greater or lesser, is a wrong approach.

The important and only vital question is, how much greater, finer, am I than I was yesterday? Have I fulfilled my possibilities, made the most of my potentialities?

What a marvellous world if all would, — could hold this attitude toward life.

Five years earlier, Georgia O’Keeffe — Stieglitz’s muse and lover, soon to be wife, soon to be one of the most visionary artists humanity has produced — had articulated this very sentiment even more poetically in her stunning letter of advice and assurance to Sherwood Anderson, who himself had begun painting after being inspired by O’Keeffe’s work:

Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you.

BP

Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

A prescient admonition against the infinite regress of “except.”

Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

“The North has always tried to establish its identity by cutting other people out and off,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic dialogue about identity, race, and belonging. “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out.” Half a century later, this aspect of the Northern identity has become in a great sense the national identity of the country that calls itself by the name of an entire continent. Its rubric of exclusion has been mirrored across the world, in the various international nationalisms that have cropped up as the reactionary politics of regressive ideologies.

More than a century before Baldwin, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) issued a prescient admonition against this epidemic of divisiveness and exclusionary identity in a short, stirring letter to a friend, cited in These Truths (public library) — Jill Lepore’s masterwork of poetic scholarship, chronicling the complex and conflicted history of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln (Photograph by Abraham Byers)

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted legal freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans — a public triumph of human rights, and a private triumph for a man who had faced the artillery of brutal criticism for his idealism and his determination to make a willfully blind and belligerent nation see slavery for what it was: a “monstrous injustice.” Although his courageous approach to criticism helped him persevere in the public eye, privately he often despaired — never more bleakly than when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, allowing people within the two states to decide for themselves whether they wish to perpetrate slavery. Lincoln saw it as a colossal backward step for progress and a supreme betrayal of the Declaration of Independence — “progress in degeneracy,” a travesty of basic civil liberty, a travesty of basic morality, casting self-interest as the only inalienable right.

“Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men,” he wrote in a note to himself. “Ours began, by affirming those rights.” Devastated, incomprehending of how far his nation had fallen from its founding ideals, Lincoln followed the slippery moral slope of exclusion to its only logical conclusion in a chillingly prescient letter to a friend, penned in the summer of 1855:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Complement with Zadie Smith on the see-saw of optimism and despair in cultural progress and philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity, then revisit Baldwin’s prophetic insight into divisiveness and its only cure.

BP

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