Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 3

As an Antidote to Fear of Death, I Eat the Stars: Vintage Science Face Masks

Art and science between the practical and the poetic.

A small, coruscating delight: I have made a series of face masks featuring wondrous centuries-old astronomical art and natural history illustrations I have restored and digitized from various archival sources over the years.

Among them are treasures like the Solar System quilt Ella Harding Baker spent seven years crafting in order to teach women astronomy long before they/we had access to formal education; the gorgeous 18th-century illustrations from the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants that the young Elizabeth Blackwell painted to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison; the astonishing drawings of celestial objects and phenomena the 19th-century French artist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot saw through America’s first world-class scientific instrument, Harvard’s Great Refractor Telescope; the trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s stunning illustrations of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct animals; some graphically spectacular depictions of how nature works from a 19th-century French physics textbook; Ernst Haeckel’s heartbreak-fomented drawings of the otherworldly beauty of jellyfish, and of course his classic radiolaria that so inspired Darwin; William Saville Kent’s pioneering artistic-scientific effort to bring the world’s awareness and awe to the creatures of the Great Barrier Reef; and art from the German marine biologist Carl Chun’s epoch-making Cephalopod Atlas — the world’s first encyclopedia of creatures of the deep, which upended the longtime belief that life could not exist below 300 fathoms. (Because as the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks well knew, “Wherever life can grow, it will. It will sprout out, and do the best it can.”)

I originally made these masks just for myself and a handful of beloved humans, but they turned out so unexpectedly lovely that I decided to make them available to all who would delight in them. The manufacturer (society6, over whose production, pricing, and other practical elements I have no control — mine is only the conceptual element, fitted into their standard template; they print the fabrics, sew the masks, sell and ship them) is donating a portion of their proceeds to World Center Kitchen, helping to feed those most in need at times of crisis, and I am donating to The Nature Conservancy, stewarding the long-term sustenance of this entire improbable, irreplaceable planet, and the endeavor to build New York’s most democratic institution of cosmic perspective, the city’s first public observatory.

Because of the mask’s particular folding pattern, some of the artwork came alive in a wholly new and unexpected way. My personal favorite — the original design I made for myself and my most beloved human — is the total solar eclipse mask, evocative of the opening line of astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s magnificent “Antidotes to Fear of Death”:

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

There is also the charmingly shy, sleepy, fold-nesting octopus; Haeckel’s perfectly positioned jellyfish, reminiscent of a plate from artist Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party project; the insurrectionist chameleon, extending a tongue where we may not; the holy coffee plant, daily deity to so many; the chromatically ecstatic spectra of various substances and the glorious double rainbow from the 1868 French gem Les phénomènes de la physique; the extinct poto-roo, reminding us with its sweet nonexistent face atop ours that creatures do perish and are forever erased; and the jubilant meteor shower, for another serving of life-affirming star-eating.

See them all here, and keep an eye on the collection as I might be adding more designs between reading, writing, partaking of protests, and gardening.

BP

Leibniz’s Blades of Grass: The Philosophy of Plants, Difference as the Wellspring of Identity, and How Diversity Gives Meaning to the World

“The world… flourishes only in and as the variance among the beings that comprise it. Difference is at the origin of the world: it ‘worlds.’”

Leibniz’s Blades of Grass: The Philosophy of Plants, Difference as the Wellspring of Identity, and How Diversity Gives Meaning to the World

Nearly a century before Walt Whitman led us to see that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Immanuel Kant proclaimed that there will never be a Newton for a blade of grass. There may not be a Newton, but there is a Leibniz.

One otherwise ordinary day in 1685, the lavish lawn of Princess Sophia’s palace in Hanover was strewn with the extraordinary sight of frocked, corseted, and coiffed aristocrats bending and kneeling and squinting at the grass, secretly relishing the childlike wonder beneath the grand grownup experiment they were conducting — the quest to find two identical leaves of grass in order to refute one of the seven fundamental ontological principles laid out by the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (July 1, 1646–November 14, 1716): the identity of indescribables, simply known as Leibniz’s Law, stating that there can be no two separate entities that have all their properties in common. A gentleman in the party had taken issue with Leibniz’s principle in the Princess’s presence, upon which she had simply challenged him to refute it by finding two blades of grass exactly alike.

Grass by Maria Popova

Leibniz, who a decade earlier had developed calculus independently from Newton, watched with satisfaction as the gentleman “ran all over the garden for a long time” before finally giving up. This comical collision of empiricism and logic furnished one of the pillars of Western philosophy, fomenting our disquieting sense that however eagerly we may press our minds against physical reality, however eagerly we may lance our fingertips on its blade, we live mostly in a consensual imagined reality of abstractions. A year after the garden experiment, Leibniz himself affirmed this insight in an essay he titled “Primary Truths”:

Never do we find two eggs or two leaves or two blades of grass in a garden that are perfectly similar. And thus, perfect similarity is found only in incomplete and abstract notions.

A decade after philosophers Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman’s excellent inquiry into how we think with animals and a generation after John Berger’s landmark meditation on how looking at animals clarifies us to ourselves, philosopher Michael Marder explores how we clarify our own minds by looking at and thinking with plants in The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (public library). Reaching into the grass to wrest from it Leibniz’s broader “protest against the pretentious universal perspective without perspective that goes under the name of objectivity,” he examines the most elemental questions of individuality, incompleteness, diversity, and difference that color every aspect of our lives:

Only mathematical or geometrical notions differ in magnitude and in no other respect; matter, on the other hand, presupposes a predifferentiation and non-numeric determination well in advance of its concretization in things. At the threshold of the modern era, the garden is converted into the arena of valiant philosophical resistance to the mathematization of the world, where everything can be assigned its corresponding quantitative value on a uniform spatiotemporal grid of coordinates. And plants, despite being historically understood as incomplete or deficient things, are at the forefront of this struggle against the incompleteness of philosophical and mathematical abstractions.

Passionflower from The Moral of Flowers (1833) by poet and painter Rebecca Hey. Available as a print.

Because Leibniz honored the absolute individuality of each blade of grass, and because he recognized that what makes it distinct from every other blade of grass is the particular location and confluence of conditions in which it grew, at the root of his principle is a bold defiance of John Locke’s model of the soul as a blank slate. Marder writes:

Acceptance of the conclusion that “no two individual things could be perfectly alike,” he argues, “puts an end to the blank tablets of the soul, a soul without thought, a substance without action, empty space, atoms, and even to portions of matter which are not actually divided,” among other things. The Leibnizian universe, much like his writing, resembles a Baroque garden or a Baroque painting, wherein space is saturated to the maximum, in an intricate imitation of vegetal excess. Emptiness and nondifferentiation — the mind as a blank slate — have no place there; their true home is the sterile sphere of mathematics and of modernity’s desire to force reality into quantitative molds.

Marder considers the blade of grass as the particular fulcrum for Leibniz’s ideas, its particularity itself significant, and proposes a branch of phenomenology specifically derived from the contemplation of vegetable life: phytophenomenology. In a passage evocative of the late, great physicist Freeman Dyson’s insistence that diversity is the ruling law of the universe, Marder explains:

Phytophenomenology may be encapsulated in the thesis that plants have their own take on life and on the world, their growth and reproduction being the lived and enacted processes of interpretation… Each species has its unique perspective, as does each individual specimen comprising the species and each part of any given plant. The difference between two blades of grass boils down to a divergence, however negligible, between embodied orientations to and lived interpretations of the environment. The world, moreover, is nothing outside of a nonmathematical sum, or a confluence of these differences. Assuming that two blades of grass were completely identical, they would have represented one perspective, one life, one piece of being, one blade of grass… In that case, the world would be poorer — or, better yet, it would not be — since it flourishes only in and as the variance among the beings that comprise it. Difference is at the origin of the world: it “worlds.”

[…]

Even two nearly identical (though not quite!) blades of grass present two faces of the world; they are the actual variations on the theme of a possible blade of grass, which, in and of itself, is abstract and incomplete, lacking in realization. The backbone of Leibniz’s monadology is this wedge of difference, responsible for the separation among perspectives on the world… Each blade of grass has its sufficient reason, elucidating the necessity of its existence just the way it is, despite the inexhaustible array of possibilities for it being otherwise.

Leafing by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Complement The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, an intellectually coruscating and thoroughly original read in its entirety, with The Moral of Flowers — 19th-century poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s illustrated encyclopedia of poetic philosophies from the garden — then revisit the astonishing contemporary science of what trees feel and how they communicate.

BP

A Poem for Peter: A Lyrical Illustrated Tribute to Ezra Jack Keats and the Making of the First Mainstream Children’s Book Starring a Black Child

“Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white. Bright as the day you came onto the page. From the hand of a man whose life and times, and hardships, and heritage, and heroes, and heart, and soul led him to you.”

A Poem for Peter: A Lyrical Illustrated Tribute to Ezra Jack Keats and the Making of the First Mainstream Children’s Book Starring a Black Child

The year was 1962 — the year The Beatles auditioned for the first major record label and were rejected, the year a NASA probe shot for the Moon and missed it by 22,000 miles, the year my mother was born. That year — a decade after the young Ronald McNair fought segregation at the public library, amid stacks of books with no children who looked like him, before becoming the second black human to launch into the cosmos — Ezra Jack Keats (March 11, 1916–May 6, 1983) published The Snowy Day — the first mainstream children’s book featuring a black child as the protagonist: the almost unbearably adorable, red-hooded, buoyant-spirited Peter, savoring the quintessential joy of a child’s first innocent encounter with snow.

Keats, born Jacob Ezra Katz on American soil at the peak of WWI into a family of immigrant Polish Jews, had changed his name during WWII to apply for jobs when many want ads thundered “No Jews Need Apply.” He had grown up in the poorest parts of Brooklyn, had lost his father the day before his high school graduation, and had spent his life making an improbable, barely sustainable, and, for its time and place, rather countercultural living as an artist: he painted for local businesses in the third grade; he made WPA murals in the wake of the Great Depression; he illustrated Marvel Comics backgrounds. In the gloaming hour of his thirties, when he began illustrating children’s books for other authors, Keats was troubled by how the monochrome imagination of mainstream publishing failed to represent the human panoply that colored the Brooklyn of his own childhood.

When he finally earned the opportunity to write and illustrate a book of his own, he pulled down the LIFE Magazine cutout pinned above his drawing table, which had traveled with him from studio to studio for two decades — a sequence of four photographs depicting a sweet black toddler as he receives a blood test, clad in a miniature coat and scarf, his body emanating that half-impish, half-unsteady loveliness of just learning to master gravity, his radiant face a Shakespearean theater of emotional expressions. That little boy became Keats’s Peter. “I can honestly say that Peter came into being because we wanted him,” Keats later reflected.

Original art by Ezra Jack Keats from The Snowy Day. (Courtesy Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.)

In the process of telling this culturally unexampled story, Keats also invented an artistically unexampled technique, blending painting and mixed-media collage, fusing elements of Japanese, Italian, and Scandinavian traditions with a style all his own, just like the America of his childhood had interleaved such variegated cultures into a shared canopy of possibility.

“As an African American child growing up in the 1960s, at a time when I didn’t see others like me in children’s books, I was profoundly affected by the expressiveness of Keats’s illustrations,” recounts Brooklyn-based author Andrea Davis Pinkney, born the year Keats’s trailblazing masterpiece won the Caldecott Medal — that Nobel Prize of children’s literature, which Keats received with the humble hope that Peter would “show in his own way the wisdom of a pure heart.” Half a century after her own childhood, Pinkney teamed up with Bay Area illustrator duo Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson to pay lyrical tribute to Keats’s courage in A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day (public library) — a lovely addition to these picture-book biographies of visionaries, part tribute poem and part conceptual peek-a-boo game in verse, a kind of imaginative shadow-play telling Klein’s story while addressing the “brown-sugar boy” as he emerges, born and blessed into being, from the snowy swaddle of his author’s imagination.

The story follows Ezra’s life from his hardship-haunted childhood in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn which Alfred Kazin captured so soulfully in his memoir of loneliness and the immigrant experience, to his young adulthood in the postwar years haunted by antisemitism, the unholy ghost prompting Hannah Arendt to observe that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” to his eventual entry into the world of children’s literature — the world he soon revolutionized by drawing on his own experience of exclusion to swing open the gates of empathy in the popular imagination and unlatch the bias-bolted human heart into affectionate inclusion.

Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man who saw you for you.

We see Ezra emerge and find himself — his parents, Gussie and Benjamin, alighting to America on an immigrant-crowded ship; Mama Gussie painting in secret but not daring to dream of being be a real fine artist (“she was forced to bite down on her dreams. This made her bitter, a way Ezra never wanted to be”); Papa Benjamin concerned about little Ezra’s artistic bend (“an artist was a strange, impractical thing to be”) but eventually letting his love prevail over his pragmatic concerns and chipping from his meager paycheck to buy tubes of paint for the young artist.

And meanwhile, the world around the family goes on being a world. A generation after the pioneering trans writer Jan Morris extolled New York’s summer heat as the ultimate equalizer of society, Pinkney eulogizes the opposite season’s equalizer — the backdrop of Ezra’s Brooklyn childhood and of Peter’s story:

But when it snowed,
oh, when it snowed!
Nature’s glittery hand
painted the world’s walls a brighter shade.

Snow made opportunity and equality
seem right around the corner.
Because, you see, Snow is nature’s we-all blanket.
When snow spreads her sheet, we all glisten.
When Snow paints the streets, we all see her beauty.

Snow doesn’t know who’s needy or dirty
or greedy or nice.
Snow doesn’t choose where to fall.
Snow doesn’t pick a wealthy man’s doorstep
over a poor lady’s stoop.
That’s Snow’s magic.

That is also the public library’s magic. Like the young Patti Smith, who found fuel for her own talent at the local public library of her impoverished childhood, we see Ezra discover art and science books and himself at the reference room of the Brooklyn Public Library — a lovely living testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s wisdom: “Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”

As Ezra’s life unspools across the tender illustrations and lyrical verses, we begin to feel the sweet ghost of Peter-to-be haunting his creator’s imagination as Pinkney elegantly coaxes the little boy out in a peek-a-boo tease. We see Ezra immerse himself in the delight of making art for children’s books, “but the delight was all white“; we see him calling out for Peter “like a daddy looking for his lost child.” When his chance finally comes to compose and illustrate his own story, the little boy who “had been waiting to be born,” who had been “there all along,” leaps out as “Ezra’s true jubilation.”

Peter emerges in the warm embrace of Pinkney’s verse:

Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man
whose life and times,
and hardships,
and heritage,
and heroes,
and heart,
and soul
led him to you.

Yes, you, little boy,
were now in full view.
Peter!
No longer a glint in Ezra’s eye,
but a curious child on a path
to discovery.

Like a snowflake you fell,
right into our hearts.
You arrived.
A little Snowy Day surprise!
Like a crystal flake form the clouds,
you fluttered down
with your own one-of-a-kind
cutie-beauty.

Yes, you, Peter child, bubbled up
in this man,
now free to discover
the truth of your colors:
The here-I-am Red.
The look-at-me Yellow.
The proud-to-be Brown.

In the rhapsodic final pages, Pinkney turns her loving gaze wholly to Peter, to his “black-button eyes and hot-cocoa nose,” to his playful, dreamsome, snow-crunching “path in knee-deep wonder,” before she turns the same loving gaze back to his creator:

Ezra Jack Keats gave all of us a place.
A face.
A voice.

Ezra Jack Keats gave us eyes to see.
Let us celebrate the making
of what it means to be.

He dared to open a door.
He awakened a wonderland.
He brought a world of white
suddenly alive with color.

Brown-sugar child,
when you and your hue
burst onto the scene,
all of us came out to play.
Together,
flapping our wings,
rejoicing in a we-all blanket of wheeee!

Thanks to Ezra Jack Keats,
we all can be.
As bright as Snow’s everlasting wonder.

Couple A Poem for Peter with Life Doesn’t Frighten Me — Maya Angelou’s courageous verses for kids, illustrated by Basquiat — then find more inspiration and courage for young hearts in the picture-book biographies of other trailblazers: Wangari Maathai, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.

BP

Beloved Writers on Nature as an Antidote to Depression

On the consolations of monarchs and of stars.

Beloved Writers on Nature as an Antidote to Depression

“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his deepest-feeling, furthest-seeing poem. When the dark patches fall on me also, I stand with Whitman in turning to the most reliable wellspring of light — the natural world, or what he so soulfully termed “the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life” — the Moon seen through a telescope, so proximate and unassailable, this radiant orb of primeval scar tissue; the mossy trunk of a centuries-old cedar, ringed with the survival of wars and famines, a silent witness to countless human heartaches; the song of the thrush and the bloom of the magnolia and the lush optimism of that first blade of grass through the frosty soil — these bewilderments of beauty do not dissipate the depression, but they do dissipate the self-involvement with which we humans live through our sorrows, and in so unselfing us, they give us back to ourselves.

The Bearable Lightness of Being by Maria Popova. (Available as a print benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

Here are several beloved writers from the past quarter millennium who have known the dark patches intimately and have written beautifully about this abiding antidote to the inner gloom, beginning, as we must, with the poet laureate of Nature himself.

WALT WHITMAN

Even as he was composing Leaves of Grass — that timeless gift of light — Whitman was wormed by the darkest self-doubt: “Every thing I have done seems to me blank and suspicious,” he anguished in his diary. “I doubt whether my greatest thoughts…. are not shallow — and people will most likely laugh at me.” But on some elemental level, he knew that those capable of reaching “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are equally apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” He believed “that no artist or work of the very first class may be or can be without them.” It is a notion entirely different from the dangerous myth of the suffering artist — rather, it is the bold acknowledgement that in order for one to make works of irrepressible truth and beauty, one ought to feel fully, to draw on the entire spectrum of being without repressing the darkest emotions.

In Whitman’s fifty-third year, life tested his credo — a paralytic stroke left him severely disabled. Under his brother’s care in the woods of New Jersey, he set about the slow, painstaking process of recovery. As he began regaining use of his body, he attributed the small, hard-earned triumphs to being “daily in the open air,” among the trees and under the stars. He eventually recovered almost completely, having turned the woods into an outdoor gym, but the cataclysm left him existentially shaken into considering the most elemental questions: Where does one find meaning amid the precarious uncertainty of being? How does one maximize those little pockets of gladness that make it possible to go on living and making art through acute suffering? What, ultimately, makes life worth living?

His resulting meditations appear in Specimen Days (public library) — the altogether indispensable collection of his prose fragments, letters, and journal entries that also gave us Whitman’s reflections on the spiritual power of music, optimism as a force of political resistance, and how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

A decade after his stroke, Whitman looked back on what saved him — body and soul — and writes:

The trick is, I find, to tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.

[…]

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.

In another entry, he considers the essence of happiness, locating it in absolute presence with nature and unalloyed attention with the rhythms of the Earth:

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)

JOHN KEATS

“Life must be undergone,” John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) wrote to his closest friend, “and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.” Keats’s brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression. In another fragment of his excellent in his Selected Letters (public library), he writes: “I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence.”

Keats found only two remedies for the soul-stifling numbness: the love of his friends (“I could not live without the love of my friends”) and the love of nature. Another letter to his dearest friend stands as a beautiful, bittersweet testament to both:

You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.

LORRAINE HANSBERRY

It is impressive enough that Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — whom James Baldwin adored and described as “a small, shy, determined person… not trying to ‘make it’ [but just] trying to keep the faith” — revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility by becoming the first black playwright performed on Broadway and going on to furnish civil rights with a whole new vocabulary of action. It is triply impressive that she did so while the grey nimbus of depression hung low and heavy over vast swaths of her life. Hansberry kept the faith largely by turning to nature for its irrepressible light.

In a diary entry quoted in Imani Perry’s altogether magnificent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes with dispassionate remove that her unhappiness has taken on the shape of “a steady, calm quiet sort of misery”; sitting in a place she had once adored, now feeling “feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired” there, she turns her weary gaze toward the only salve she knows:

Hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries… even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU

To those superficially acquainted with his life and work, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) might appear as a rosy-lensed optimist drunk on transcendentalist delusion, living in self-elected exile from the darker realities of the world. Such an estimation of his inner world — of anyone’s inner world — is not only impoverished of nuance, but orthogonal to the complex full-spectrum human begin who rises from the pages of The Journal of Henry David Thoreau (public library) — that timeless fount of truth bathing us across the centuries in Thoreau’s wisdom on such varied aspects of aliveness as knowing versus seeing, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.

To be sure, living in such intimate proximity with nature, Thoreau was given to elations that evade the modern civilization-stifled mind. In an entry penned two days after his thirty-third birthday, he exults:

What sweet and tender, the most innocent and divinely encouraging society there is in every natural object, and so in universal nature, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man! There can be no really black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has still his senses.

But his existential radiance was abruptly blackened when his best and at times only friend — his brother John — died of tetanus from a shaving cut when Thoreau was twenty-five. He watched in helpless horror as lockjaw warped his brother’s face and spasms contorted his body before the deadly bacterium claimed his life. He then sank into a deep depression that never fully receded, lapping at him in lifelong waves.

Again and again, Thoreau took solace in nature. In the high summer of 1852, a decade after his brother’s death and a decade before his own, Thoreau draws in the margin of his journal a sketch of the local hill crests, dotted with the tops of trees, then considers this natural vista as a life-saving calibration of perspective for the sorrow-blinded heart:

Even on the low principle that misery loves company and is relieved by the consciousness that it is shared by many, and therefore is not so insignificant and trivial, after all, this blue mountain outline is valuable. In many moods it is cheering to look across hence to that blue rim of the earth, and be reminded of the invisible towns and communities, for the most part also unremembered, which lie in the further and deeper hollows between me and those hills. Towns of sturdy uplandish fame, where some of the morning and primal vigor still lingers… it is cheering to think that it is with such communities that we survive or perish… The melancholy man who had come forth to commit suicide on this hill might be saved by being thus reminded how many brave and contented lives are lived between him and the horizon. Those hills extend our plot of earth; they make our native valley or indentation in the earth so much the larger.

In another entry penned in autumn — which, long before the diagnostic notion of seasonal affective disorder, Thoreau noted as a season when the human spirit tends to take a marked downturn — he draws from a particular creation of nature a living metaphor for how to move through the darkest seasons of the heart:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ’em,” “Give it to ’em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” — these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot!… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

RACHEL CARSON

“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,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy Freeman, of that symphonic moment when she turned in the manuscript of Silent Spring — the courageous exposé that catalyzed the environmental movement, which had taken Carson a decade of incubation and four years of rigorous research to bring to life as she was dying of cancer. Dorothy had been her pillar throughout both of these superhuman parallel journeys — the only person in whom this brilliant, stoical woman confided the complexity of her inner world, her writing process and the loneliness of creative work, her silent battles. (Their tender relationship and how it shored up Carson’s scientific work and far-reaching cultural legacy animate the last two hundred pages of Figuring, from which this miniature essay is adapted.)

In early June 1963, a year after the release of Silent Spring, Carson climbed into the passenger seat of her Oldsmobile and had her assistant take her from her home in Maryland to Capitol Hill — the pain in her back, spine, shoulder, and neck was by now too unbearable for Carson to drive even this short distance herself — to appear before a congressional committee on pesticides, summoned as a consequence of Silent Spring. Under the bright television lights, all traces of physical agony fled from the authoritative presence that took the witness stand in the windowless, wood-paneled Room 102 of the Senate building. 101 years after Abraham Lincoln greeted Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words “This is the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” the presiding Senator greeted Carson: “Miss Carson… we welcome you here. You are the lady who started all this. Will you please proceed.”

Speaking calmly into the press posy of six microphones before her, Carson proceeded to deliver a stunning forty-minute testimony predicated on revealing the delicate interconnectedness of nature and tracing the far-reaching devastation inflicted by poisonous chemicals once they enter an ecosystem. She called for a “strong and unremitting effort” to reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides. While her testimony was strewn with facts, it was palpably poetic in its elegy for ecology. She gave her strong recommendation for establishing an agency tasked with safeguarding nature — a landmark development that would take the government another seven years to institute. Carson would never live to see the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, nor its ban of DDT, both the direct result of her work.

Her congressional testimony, after which she was flooded by letters from citizens thanking her for having spoken inconvenient truth to power, was a crowning moment for the sense of duty that had propelled Carson through the arduous years leading up to Silent Spring. Having executed her responsibility as a citizen, scientist, and steward of life, she was free and restless to return to the sea, to her summer cabin on Southport Island in Maine, to Dorothy.

No record survives of the weeks containing Rachel and Dorothy’s last summer hours together — the absence of letters suggesting that they spent every precious moment in each other’s presence. Tide pool excursions were now a thing of the past — compression fractures in Carson’s spine made it difficult to walk, painful even to stand. Dorothy thought she looked like alabaster. They spent afternoons together in a little clearing in the woods near Carson’s cottage, watching the clouds float across the sky, listening to the avian orchestra in the trees, and reading to each other from their favorite books.

One shimmering day in early September, Dorothy took Rachel to their favorite spot on the tip of the island, where they had once watched meteors blaze ephemeral bridges of light across the riverine haze of the Milky Way. With their arms around each other, they slowly made the short, aching walk to the wooden benches perched atop the shore and sat under the blue late morning skies. Above the crashing waves, under the wind-strummed spruces, Dorothy and Rachel sat in intimate silence and watched a majestic procession of monarch butterflies flit toward the southern horizon on their annual migration — living meteors of black and gold. Half a century later, monarchs would take flight aboard the International Space Station, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, where Carson had begun her career, would call for their inclusion in the protections of the Endangered Species Act — one of several dozen environmental protection laws passed in the 1970s as direct and indirect consequences of Silent Spring.

That afternoon, Rachel sent Dorothy a lyrical “postscript” to their morning. Detailing the splendors that had etched themselves onto her memory — the particular hue of the sky, the particular score of the surf — she wrote:

Most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.

For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.

That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you.

[…]

I want to live on in your memories of happiness. I shall write more of those things. But tonight I’m weary and must put out the light. Meanwhile, there is this word — and my love will always live.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.