“i waited for you to fall in love with someone else … but you didn’t & now i’m faced with the biggest terror of my life, knowing i am enough even at my worst for you to love me all your life.”
By Maria Popova
In 1970, poet, playwright, and former priest Joseph Pintauro teamed up with artist Norman Laliberté on a marvelous limited-edition boxed set titled The Rainbow Box, containing four children’s books for grownups, each dedicated to a season and full of playful and poignant fragmentary meditations on love, loss, war, peace, loneliness, communion — in other words, the emotional kaleidoscope of life itself. Dedicated to spring was The Rabbit Box (public library) — a most unusual lens on themes both of the time (the dawn of the environmental movement, the anti-war movement) and timeless (love, peace, the meaning of the human experience), equal parts strange and spectacular.
What emerges is a poem, a love letter, an elegy for Mother Earth, an incantation against war, and above all a vibrant invitation to aliveness.
Laliberté’s art and design are as striking as Pintauro’s writing — haunting found photographs of children and lovers and soldiers become visual metaphors for the very polarities Pintauro explores in his breathtaking text, which Laliberté renders in beautiful hand-lettering.
The weirdness and wonderfulness of the story, at first so strange it renders one unable to understand where it is going, converge to remind us of Gertrude Stein’s memorable observation: “If you enjoy it, you understand it.”
The book is divided into several subtle “chapters,” each eulogizing — or perhaps elegizing — a particular object of wistful affection. Pintauro’s luminous lamentation for Mother Earth is especially moving — doubly so today, nearly half a century later, as we’re facing our part in the destruction of a benevolent planet that has given us nothing but unconditional nourishment.
But the most beautiful part of the book explores the transcendent magic of falling and staying in love:
Complement The Rabbit Box, which is long out of print but well worth the hunt, with The Magic Box, the part of the set dedicated to autumn and celebrating the invigorating beauty of the cycle of life and death.
One of the world’s foremost bryologists, Kimmerer is a scientist blessed with the rare privilege of belonging to a long lineage of storytellers — her family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi. There is a special commonality between her heritage and her scientific training — a profound respect for all life forms, whatever their size — coupled with a special talent for rendering that respect contagious, which places her prose in the same taxon as Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard and Thoreau. Indeed, if Thoreau was a poet and philosopher who became a de facto naturalist by the sheer force of poetic observation, despite having no formal training in science, Kimmerer is a formally trained scientist whose powers of poetic observation and contemplative reflection render her a de facto poet and philosopher. (So bewitching is her book, in fact, that it inspired Elizabeth Gilbert’s beautiful novel The Signature of All Things, which is how I first became aware of Kimmerer’s mossy masterwork.)
Mosses, to be sure, are scientifically impressive beyond measure — the amphibians of vegetation, they were among the first plants to emerge from the ocean and conquer the land; they number some 22,000 species, whose tremendous range of size parallels the height disparity between a blueberry bush and a redwood; they inhabit nearly every ecosystem on earth and grow in places as diverse as the branch of an oak and the back of a beetle. But beyond their scientific notoriety, mosses possess a kind of lyrical splendor that Kimmerer unravels with enchanting elegance — splendor that has to do with what these tiny organisms teach us about the art of seeing.
She uses the experience of flying — an experience so common we’ve come to take its miraculousness for granted — to illustrate our all too human solipsism:
Between takeoff and landing, we are each in suspended animation, a pause between chapters of our lives. When we stare out the window into the sun’s glare, the landscape is only a flat projection with mountain ranges reduced to wrinkles in the continental skin. Oblivious to our passage overhead, other stories are unfolding beneath us. Blackberries ripen in the August sun; a woman packs a suitcase and hesitates at her doorway; a letter is opened and the most surprising photograph slides from between the pages. But we are moving too fast and we are too far away; all the stories escape us, except our own.
We, of course, need not rise to the skies in order to fall into the chronic patterns of our myopia and miss most of what is going on around us — we do this even in the familiar microcosm of a city block. Kimmerer considers how our growing powers of technologically aided observation have contributed to our diminished attentiveness:
We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.
But the rewards of attentiveness can’t be forced into manifesting — rather, they are surrendered to. In a sentiment that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s spectacular essay on how we find ourselves by getting lost, Kimmerer writes:
A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity an experience both humbling and joyful.
Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.
Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.
Knowing the fractal geometry of an individual snowflake makes the winter landscape even more of a marvel. Knowing the mosses enriches our knowing of the world.
This knowing, at its most intimate, is a function of naming — for words are how we come to know meanings. Kimmerer considers this delicate dialogue between a thing’s essence and its name:
Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.
Having the words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.
Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing, when visual acuity is not enough.
The remarkable diversity of moss varieties known and named only adds to the potentiality for intimacy with the world at all scales. But among this vast multiplicity of mosses is one particular species inhabiting the small caves carved by glaciers into the lakeshore, which alone embodies immense wisdom about the mystery and meaning of life. Kimmerer writes:
Schistostega pennata, the Goblins’ Gold, is unlike any other moss. It is a paragon of minimalism, simple in means, rich in ends. So simple you might not recognize it as a moss at all. The more typical mosses on the bank outside spread themselves to meet the sun. Such robust leaves and shoots, though tiny, require a substantial amount of solar energy to build and maintain. They are costly in solar currency. Some mosses need full sun to survive, others favor the diffuse light of clouds, while Schistostega lives on the clouds’ silver lining alone.
This singular species subsists solely on the light reflections emanating from the lake’s surface, which provide one-tenth of one percent of the solar energy that direct sunlight does. And yet in this unlikely habitat, Schistostega has emerged as a most miraculous jewel of life:
The shimmering presence of Schistostega is created entirely by the weft of nearly invisible threads crisscrossing the surface of the moist soil. It glows in the dark, or rather it glitters in the half light of places which scarcely feel the sun.
Each filament is a strand of individual cells strung together like beads shimmering on a string. The walls of each cell are angled, forming interior facets like a cut diamond. It is these facets which cause Schistostega to sparkle like the tiny lights of a far-away city. These beautifully angled walls capture traces of light and focus it inward, where a single large chloroplast awaits the gathering beam of light. Packed with chlorophyll ad membranes of exquisite complexity, the chloroplast converts the light energy into a stream of flowing electrons. This is the electricity of photosynthesis, turning sun into sugar, spinning straw into gold.
But more than a biological marvel, Schistostega presents a parable of patience and its bountiful rewards — an allegory for meeting the world not with grandiose entitlement but with boundless generosity of spirit; for taking whatever it has to offer and giving back an infinity more. Kimmerer writes:
Rain on the outside, fire on the inside. I feel a kinship with this being whose cold light is so different from my own. It asks very little from the world and yet glitters in response.
Timing is everything. Just for a moment, in the pause before the earth rotates again into night, the cave is flooded with light. The near-nothingness of Schistostega erupts in a shower of sparkles, like green glitter spilled on the rug at Christmas… And then, within minutes, it’s gone. All its needs are met in an ephemeral moment at the end of the day when the sun aligns with the mouth of the cave… Each shoot is shaped like a feather, flat and delicate. The soft blue green fronds stand up like a glad of translucent ferns, tracking the path of the sun. It is so little. And yet it is enough.
To pay attention, indeed, is the ultimate celebration of this accidental miracle of life. Kimmerer captures this with exuberant elegance:
The combination of circumstances which allows it to exist at all are so implausible that the Schistostega is rendered much more precious than gold. Goblins’ or otherwise. Not only does its presence depend on the coincidence of the cave’s angle to the sun, but if the hills on the western shore were any higher the sun would set before reaching the cave… Its life and ours exist only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply.
A celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet exquisitely human details of life.
By Maria Popova
UPDATE: Dear Data is now a book, for which I had the pleasure of writing the foreword.
We live, they say, in the age of Big Data — algorithms trawl through vast databases of our digital trails seeking to extract insight on the human experience, from how we fall in love to what we read. But aggregating individual human lives into massive data sets and trying to extrapolate insight from the aggregate data that is valid for individual human lives is somewhat like taking an exquisite poem in English and running it through Google Translate to render into Japanese and then back into English. The result may have the vague contours of the original poem’s meaning, but none of its subtle magic and vibrant granular beauty.
But what if we could claim that beautiful granular humanity back from the homogenizing aggregate-grip of Big Data? That’s precisely what Giorgia Lupi, an Italian woman living in New York, and Stefanie Posavec, an American woman living in London, are doing in Dear Data — an extraordinary yearlong correspondence project that puts an imaginative twist on what Virginia Woolf termed “the humane art” through a series of analog self-portraits in data, drawn by hand and mailed on postcards.
Although Lupi and Posavec only met twice in person before the start of the project — both times at the wonderful EyeO Festival — they have a great deal of variables in common: Both are information designers known for working by hand; both have left their respective homeland to move across the Atlantic in pursuit of the creative life; both are only children, and they are the exact same age.
Every week, they each select one aspect of their daily lives — from their complaints to their spending habits to their use of mirrors — and itemize its components in a hand-drawn visualization on the back of a postcard, then mail it to the other. As if composing a Goldberg Variations of data, Lupi and Posavec deliberately use different visual metaphors and visualization techniques for each week’s postcard.
Both the process and the product are intensely human — each postcard takes time to design and time to read; it is simultaneously mundane and magical; it requires, on both ends, the sort of emotional attentiveness invoking Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling is merely a report.”
What emerges is a case for the beauty of small data and its deliberate interpretation, analog visualization, and slow transmission. Obliquely reminiscent of A Year of Mornings and Edward Gorey’s illustrated envelopes, yet wholly original, the project is a celebration of the infinitesimal, incomplete, imperfect, yet exquisitely human details of life.
The result is an immensely pleasurable duet of sensibilities — side by side, Posavec’s signature spatial poetics and Lupi’s mastery of shape and color elevate one another to a higher plane of delight. Amid an the epidemic of infoporn, the project presents a kind of tender data-lovemaking.
New postcards are uploaded to Dear Data every Wednesday in 2015. Publishers, nota bene — this is the kind of project begging to be a beautiful book.
All images courtesy of Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec
Rothman — who also dreamt up the most generous book in the world — embraces the natural world with the same generous attention to its monumental wonders, like volcanos and orcas, and its quietly bewitching details, like snowflakes and butterfly metamorphosis. With great elegance and simplicity, she makes visible and intelligible some of the most complex questions that have occupied humans, both little and big, since our species first laid eyes on the glorious “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” we call home.
What emerges is at once a treasure trove of trivia — who knew that the 1,000 known species of bats, the only mammals capable of flight, constitute 20% of all classified mammals? — profoundly untrivial in its larger message: We are part of this glorious world we share with creatures manyfold more magnificent than us, and to know it is not only to love it, not only to be fully agape with awe, but to hold its future with utmost tenderness of heart and firmness of moral responsibility.
Rothman, the daughter of a science teacher, writes in the introduction:
I grew up on City Island in the Bronx, in New York City, on a block that ends with a beach, as most of the streets on the island do. Collecting and categorizing shells, studying horseshoe crabs’ undersides, and swallowing saltwater were part of my childhood, even though we could see iconic skyscrapers glowing across the water. My sister and I spent summers and camp, hiking in the woods in upstate New York, and sleeping in tents outfitted with lots of bug spray to satisfy my over-protective mother.
I really loved nature as a kid… But as I got older, I became a city girl at heart.
Rothman spent her teenage years as a normal city adolescent — sneaking into nightclubs and being rebellious in all those other predictable teenage ways that every generation believes it is inventing. Now, she lives near Prospect Park. Reflecting on that seemingly small yet miraculous contact with urban wildlife — of which there is far more than most people realize, well beyond parks — Rothman considers the transformative power of her mini “nature walks” in the park and how they shaped this project:
I cherish being surrounded by greenery for just a small period of time each day. It keeps me sane to be able to smell some grass after being squashed like a sardine in a subway car. I really look around the park wanting to know more. What is that tree with the beautiful leaves called? When will those flowers I saw last year show up again? Are those really bats flitting above our heads? How funny to see so many dragonflies attached, making love!
My curiosity continues to grow, and that’s how the idea for this book took shape.
Rothman notes that the book — in which she enlisted the help of friend and nature-expert John Niekrasz — is no more a “nature book” than her walks in the park are true “nature walks,” for there is no way to contain all of the living world between the covers of a single book. And yet it’s her nature book — a visual record of those aspects of our world that most sang to her and tickled her curiosity.
And that, I think, is precisely the point — we miss most of what is going on around us anyway, but it’s the act of looking that creates our reality, which is invariably subjective. Looking at nature in this way reminds us both that we are finite beings limited in the reach of our seeing abilities and that we belong to a world of infinite complexity and beauty — an awareness at once immensely grounding and immensely elevating. It calls to mind the opening of that unforgettable Mary Oliver poem:
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.