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Ecologist and Philosopher David Abram on the Language of Nature and the Secret Wisdom of the More-Than-Human World

“We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”

Ecologist and Philosopher David Abram on the Language of Nature and the Secret Wisdom of the More-Than-Human World

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston wrote in 1928 as he contemplated belonging and the web of life. “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.” The geologist Hans Cloos, a contemporary of Beston’s, complemented the sentiment beautifully in reflecting on our conversations with the planet: “We translate the earth’s language into our own, and enrich the already bright and colorful surface of the present with the knowledge of the inexhaustible abundance of the past.”

As we learn to translate the language of nature, there is more than mere astonishment at what we uncover; at the knowledge — nascent to science, ancient to native cultures the world over — of what trees feel and how they communicate, or of how other animal consciousnesses experience the world. There is magic — the realest, rawest form of magic we can access in an unsuperstitious world grounded in science but willing to soar beyond it, into other, non-materialist modes of perception.

That is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores with equal parts scientific curiosity and reverence for native wisdom in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library).

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane — a visual dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming nature’s language

Abram writes:

Magic… in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives — from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself — is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.

[…]

Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Art available as a print.)

And yet a defining feature of what makes us human — our imagination — is predicated on a recognition of this sensorial interrelation. Two centuries after William Blake wrote in his searing defense of the imagination that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way, [for] as a man is, so he sees,” Abram writes:

That which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.

Echoing naturalist John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” and philosopher Alan Watts’s admonition that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Abram considers the relationship between perception, sensation, and reality beyond our isolated experience:

The “real world” in which we find ourselves, then — the very world our sciences strive to fathom — is not a sheer “object,” not a fixed and finished “datum” from which all subjects and subjective qualities could be pared away, but is rather an intertwined matrix of sensations and perceptions, a collective field of experience lived through from many different angles. The mutual inscription of others in my experience, and (as I must assume) of myself in their experiences, effects the interweaving of our individual phenomenal fields into a single, ever-shifting fabric, a single phenomenal world or “reality.”

And yet, as we know from our everyday experience, the phenomenal world is remarkably stable and solid; we are able to count on it in so many ways, and we take for granted much of its structure and character. This experienced solidity is precisely sustained by the continual encounter with others, with other embodied subjects, other centers of experience. The encounter with other perceivers continually assures me that there is more to any thing, or to the world, than I myself can perceive at any moment. Besides that which I directly see of a particular oak tree or building, I know or intuit that there are also those facets of the oak or building that are visible to the other perceivers that I see. I sense that that tree is much more than what I directly see of it, since it is also what the others whom I see perceive of it; I sense that as a perceivable presence it already existed before I came to look at it, and indeed that it will not dissipate when I turn away from it, since it remains an experience for others — not just for other persons, but… for other sentient organisms, for the birds that nest in its branches and for the insects that move along its bark, and even, finally, for the sensitive cells and tissues of the oak itself, quietly drinking sunlight through its leaves. It is this informing of my perceptions by the evident perceptions and sensations of other bodily entities that establishes, for me, the relative solidity and stability of the world.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

This recognition of the reality of other experiences calls to mind the distinction philosopher Martin Buber drew nearly a century earlier between the I-It and I-Thou orientations toward what is other than oneself. And this recognition, Abram argues, is the key to redeeming our connection to the rest of nature and the more-than-human world, so artificially severed in modern Western culture. “We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov captured this modern hijacking of our essence in her exquisite poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World.” Abram considers what it takes for us to heal the artificial severance into parallels and re-intersect our own experience with the manifold realities of that “other” world:

Direct, prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies. And yet most of us seem, today, very far from such experience. Trees rarely, if ever, speak to us; animals no longer approach us as emissaries from alien zones of intelligence; the sun and the moon no longer draw prayers from us but seem to arc blindly across the sky.

[…]

We may acknowledge, intellectually, our body’s reliance upon those plants and animals that we consume as nourishment, yet the civilized mind still feels itself somehow separate, autonomous, independent of the body and of bodily nature in general. Only as we begin to notice and to experience, once again, our immersion in the invisible air do we start to recall what it is to be fully a part of this world… This breathing landscape is no longer just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds, but a potentized field of intelligence in which our actions participate.

In the remainder of the altogether enchanting The Spell of the Sensuous, Abrams visits with various native cultures to learn from their wisdom and mirror it back through the lens of a more-than-scientific understanding of the world. Complement it with a lovely illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature, then revisit the great marine biologist and poetic science writer Rachel Carson, who awakened the modern ecological conscience, on science and our spiritual bond with nature.

BP

An Openness to Life: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dag Hammarskjöld on Love, Failure, and What It Means to Be Yourself

“Openness to life grants a lightning-swift insight into the life situation of others.”

An Openness to Life: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dag Hammarskjöld on Love, Failure, and What It Means to Be Yourself

Months after his death in a plane crash while traveling to negotiate a ceasefire during the budding civil war in Congo, the Swedish diplomat, economist, and author Dag Hammarskjöld (July 29, 1905–September 18, 1961) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld became one of only two people in history awarded the Nobel posthumously. John F. Kennedy considered him the greatest statesman of the twentieth century.

Hammarskjöld left behind a most unusual manuscript, eventually published as Markings (public library) — a compendium of reflections and poems constellating a luminous record of one person’s struggle for a foothold of meaning, radiating universal human truth. Partway between young Tolstoy’s diaries, Walt Whitman’s prose meditations, and artist Ann Truitt’s journals, these fragments of thought and feeling embody what it means for a person who has devoted their life to moral action to also have a rich inner life of contemplation — the rare, bountiful marriage of via activa and via contemplativa, as W.H. Auden observes in his admiring foreword to the book. Hammarskjöld contemplates love, justice, devotion, morality, and empathy, united by a larger inquiry into the nature of being, which he explores through the relationship between self and other, self and world, self and self-containing consciousness.

Dag Hammarskjöld

Writing at the peak of WWII, as he is still orienting himself in his own sense of purpose, thirty-six-year-old Hammarskjöld examines the interplay of emotion and the intellect in how we relate to ourselves and to others:

Openness to life grants a lightning-swift insight into the life situation of others. What is necessary? — to wrestle with your problem until its emotional discomfort is clearly conceived in an intellectual form — and then act accordingly.

In another entry from the same period, Hammarskjöld considers the dignity in our human capacity for devoting ourselves to the improbable, the unreasonable, that which is bound to break our own hearts:

It makes one’s heart ache when one sees that a man has staked his soul upon some end, the hopeless imperfection and futility of which is immediately obvious to everyone but himself. But isn’t this, after all, merely a matter of degree? Isn’t the pathetic grandeur of human existence in some way bound up with the eternal disproportion in this world, where self-delusion is necessary to life, between the honesty of the striving and the nullity of the result? That we all — every one of us — take ourselves serious is not merely ridiculous.

Four years later, Hammarskjöld echoes young Borges’s insistence on the illusoriness of the self and probes the crux of our self-delusion:

At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one of them is there a congruence of the elector and the elected. Only one — which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.

Nowhere does our overinvestment in the I swell to more self-harming proportions than in our relationship with other I’s to whom we feel bound by the threads of deep and demanding emotion — threads on which we pull greedily, unreasonably, unlatching the inevitable Rube Goldberg machine of unmeetable expectation, disappointment, and heartbreak. More than half a century before Hilton Als considered the art of receptivity at the heart of love, Hammarskjöld reflects:

When you have reached the point where you no longer expect a response, you will at last be able to give in such a way that the other is able to receive, and be grateful. When Love has matured and, through a dissolution of the self into light, become a radiance, then shall the Lover be liberated from dependence upon the Beloved, and the Beloved also be made perfect by being liberated from the Lover.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Hammarskjöld finds that what mitigates this tension of need between self and self is a surrender to the relationship between self and nature. “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on,” Whitman exulted in contemplating what gives life meaning, “[and] 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.” Generations after Whitman, Hammarskjöld writes:

So rests the sky against the earth. The dark still tarn in the lap of the forest. As a husband embraces his wife’s body in faithful tenderness, so the bare ground and trees are embraced by the still, high, light of the morning.

I feel an ache of longing to share in this embrace, to be united and absorbed. A longing like carnal desire, but directed towards earth, water, sky, and returned by whispers of the trees, the fragrance of the oil, the caresses of the wind, the embrace of water and light. Content? No, no, no — but refreshed, rested — while waiting.

In another entry, he considers what it takes to surrender ourselves to Nature’s embrace:

The extrahuman in the experience of the greatness of Nature. This does not allow itself to be reduced to an expression of our human reactions, nor can we share in it by expressing them. Unless we each find a way to chime in as one note in the organic whole, we shall only observe ourselves observing the interplay of its thousand components in a harmony outside our experience of it as harmony.

Landscape: only your immediate experience of the detail can provide the soil in your soul where the beauty of the whole can grow.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Like Whitman, Hammarskjöld saw this harmony between humanity and the natural world as inseparable from, and in some deep sense essential for, the harmony within the human world, between human beings. Two years into his post as Secretary-General of the United Nations, he writes:

Salty and wind-swept, but warm and glittering. Keeping in step with the measure under the fixed stars of the task. How many personal failures are due to a lack of faith in this harmony between human beings, at once strict and gentle.

In his fiftieth year, Hammarskjöld echoes Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel’s poignant lament about the loneliness of leadership and reflects:

For him who has responded to the call of the Way of Possibility, loneliness may be obligatory.

That year, Hammarskjöld records a kind of personal resolution, governed by the humanistic ideals that became the animating ethos of his public life:

To remain a recipient — out of humility. And preserve your flexibility.

To remain a recipient — and be grateful. Grateful for being allowed to listen, to observe, to understand.

Markings is a singular and singularly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Nobel laureate André Gide’s rules of moral conduct and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being.

BP

Annie Dillard on the Winter Solstice and How the Snowy Season Awakens Us to Life

“Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

Annie Dillard on the Winter Solstice and How the Snowy Season Awakens Us to Life

Rilke considered the cold season the time for tending one’s inner garden. “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” Albert Camus wrote a generation later. “If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely,” Adam Gopnik observed after many more revolutions of the Earth around the Sun in his lyrical love letter to winter. But if we are to reap winter’s quiet and invisible spiritual rewards, it seems that special regard must be paid to day of the season’s onset as the time to set such interior intentions.

That’s what Annie Dillard (b. April 30, 1945) invites in a splendid meditation on the winter solstice, originally published in her 1974 masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — which I revisit frequently as a sort of secular scripture — and later included in The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New (public library), one of the 16 finest books of 2016.

anniedillard

Dillard writes:

Today is the winter solstice. The planet tilts just so to its star, lists and holds circling in a fixed tension between veering and longing, spins helpless, exalted, in and out of that fleet blazing touch. Last night Orion vaulted and spread all over the sky, pagan and lunatic, his shoulder and knee on fire, his sword three suns at the ready — for what?

[…]

I stood at the window, the bay window on which in summer a waxy-looking grasshopper had breathed puff puff, and thought, I won’t see this year again, not again so innocent, and longing wrapped round my throat like a scarf… Is this mystery or coyness? A cast-iron bell hung from the arch of my rib cage; when I stirred it rang, or it tolled, a long syllable pulsing ripples up my lungs and down the gritty sap inside my bones, and I couldn’t make it out; I felt the voiced vowel like a sigh or a note, but couldn’t catch the consonant that might shape it into sense. I wrenched myself from the window and stepped outside.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol

She considers how winter highlights one of the central perplexities of existence — the mystery of beauty. In a sentiment that calls to mind Baudelaire’s assertion that “beauty always has an element of strangeness,” Dillard contemplates winter’s strange and sorrowful landscape of loss, and writes:

Is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all?

[…]

A wind rose, quickening; it invaded my nostrils, vibrated my gut. I stirred and lifted my head. No, I’ve gone through this a million times, beauty is not a hoax… Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?, a lyrical illustrated story about the cycle of life and the eternal cycle of growth and decay

Watching a maple leaf twirl to the ground in its final flight, Dillard considers something else we easily forget, as essential as beauty — the irrepressible cycle of growth and decay, life and death, each rendering the other both necessary and inevitable:

Another year has twined away, unrolled and dropped across nowhere like a flung banner painted in gibberish. “The last act is bloody,” said Pascal, “however brave be all the rest of the play; at the end they throw a little earth upon your head, and it’s all over forever.” Somewhere, everywhere, there is a gap…

[…]

The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps … are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fjords splitting the cliffs of mystery.

Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the solid, turn, and unlock — more than a maple — a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from The River, a watercolor ode to the seasonality of being human.

In a passage that calls to mind Simone Weil’s beautiful notion of “the needs of the soul,” Dillard arrives at the ultimate existential gift that winter gives us when we make ourselves willing to receive it:

There is not a guarantee in the world. Oh your needs are guaranteed; your needs are absolutely guaranteed by the most stringent of warranties, in the plainest, truest words: knock; seek; ask. But you must read the fine print. “Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” That’s the catch. If you can catch it it will catch you up, aloft, up to any gap at all, and you’ll come back, for you always come back, transformed in a way you may not have bargained for… Did you think, before you were caught, that you needed, say, life? Did you think you would keep your life, or anything else you love? … You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see creatures die, and you know you will die. And one day it occurs to you that you must not need life. Obviously. And then you’re gone…

I think that the dying pray at the last not “please,” but “thank you,” as a guest thanks his host at the door… The universe was not made in jest but in solemn, incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.

The Abundance is a bountifully rewarding read in its totality. Devour more of its richness with Dillard on what it takes to be a writer, then revisit Henry Beston on solstice, seasonality, and the human spirit and Dillard’s abiding wisdom on the two ways of seeing, choosing presence over productivity, and how to reclaim our capacity for joy and wonder.

BP

Marianne Moore and the Crowning Curio: How a Poem Saved One of the World’s Rarest and Most Majestic Trees

“It is still leafing; still there. Mortal though.”

That a tree can save a writer’s life is already miraculous enough, but that a writer can save a tree’s life is nothing short of magical.

In 1867, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, once an American Revolution battlefield, opened its gates to a community hungry for a peaceful respite of wilderness amid the urban bustle. So intense was public enthusiasm that local residents began donating a variety of wildlife to fill the 585-acre green expanse, from ducks to deer. But the most unusual and enduring gift turned out to be a tree, donated by a man named A.G. Burgess and planted in 1872.

This was no ordinary tree. Ulmus glabra “Camperdownii,” better-known as Camperdown Elm, is a species unlike regular trees in that it cannot reproduce from a seed. The rare elm carries its irregularity on the outside — its majestic, knobby branches grow almost parallel to the ground, “weeping” down. To ameliorate its reproductive helplessness, the Camperdown Elm requires outside help — a sort of assisted grafting, be it by accident of nature or intentional human hand.

This is how the species originated in the 1830s: The head forester of the Earl of Camperdown discovered a mutant branch of a Scots Elm growing along the ground at Camperdown House in Dundee, Scotland; he decided to graft it onto an ordinary Scots Elm. The result, to which every single Camperdown Elm in the world today can be traced, was an unusual-looking tree — a sort of giant bonsai with “weeping” branches. But this ugly duckling turned out to have a secret superpower — it was immune to the disease that killed all of its cousins, the Dutch Elms, across North America.

Unlike the world’s oldest living trees, which predate our civilization by millennia, the Camperdown Elm is a curious conduit between nature and humanity: Both human-made and gloriously wild, with its barbaric-looking bark and defiant branches, it stands as a poignant metaphor for the interdependence of all beings — nowhere more so than in the story of the Brooklyn tree.

The baby Camperdown Elm shortly after it was planted in Prospect Park on an elevated mound in order to give its branches additional room to clear the ground. (Photograph: New York Public Library archives)

As excitement over the novelty of Prospect Park began dying down, the Camperdown Elm came to suffer years of neglect. Suddenly, it became more than a metaphor for impermanence and mortality — its heavy branches were weeping into the precipice of death, the public deaf to its tears.

But then, in the 1960s, it was saved by a force even more miraculous than that by which its Scottish great-great-grandfather had been born — not by a botanist or a park commissioner or a policymaker, but by a poet fifteen years the tree’s junior.

The poet was Marianne Moore (November 15, 1887–February 5, 1972), who had been elected president of New York’s Greensward Foundation — an advocacy group for public parks — in 1965. This brilliant and eccentric woman, who never married and by all accounts never fell in love, found herself enamored with the old odd-looking tree. Under the auspices of the foundation, she created a citizen group called Friends of Prospect Park, aimed at protecting the Camperdown Elm and other endangered trees in the park.

In 1967, eighty at the time and with a Pulitzer Prize under her belt, Moore penned “The Camperdown Elm” — a beautiful ode to this unusual, dignified, yet surprisingly fragile life-form of which humans are the only bastions. The poem, animated by the same impulse undergirding Hermann Hesse’s sublime meditation on what trees teach us about belonging, was included in Moore’s Complete Poems (public library).

THE CAMPERDOWN ELM

I think, in connection with this weeping elm,
of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge
    overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
conversing with Thomas Cole
in Asher Durand’s painting of them
under the filigree of an elm overhead.

No doubt they had seen other trees — lindens,
maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris
street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine
their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s
massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”
arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.
The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it
and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness
of its torso and there were six small cavities also.

Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;
still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is
    our crowning curio.

A quarter century after a children’s book saved New York’s Little Red Lighthouse, Moore’s poem mobilized the Friends of Prospect Park to envelop the Camperdown Elm in attentive and nurturing care, which ultimately saved it. The group went on to identify and salvage other vulnerable, neglected trees throughout the park. In her will, Moore established a fund to protect Brooklyn’s beloved “crowning curio.” She died exactly one hundred years after the Camperdown Elm was planted.

Today, halfway into its second century, the Camperdown Elm’s majestic canopy is buoyed by the air of poetry and human grace. Complement its heartening story with an uncommonly beautiful Japanese pop-up book celebrating what a tree can teach us about the cycle of life and death.

BP

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