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Thoreau on Nature as Prayer

“In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean.”

Thoreau on Nature as Prayer

Walt Whitman saw trees — “so innocent and harmless, yet so savage” — as a wellspring of wisdom on being rather than seeming. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse exulted in his love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Two generations earlier, another poet laureate of nature and the human spirit made trees a centerpiece of his emotional universe. For Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), they were creative and spiritual companions, sane-making and essential. His love of them comes alive in Thoreau and the Language of Trees (public library) — a selection of the great Transcendentalist poet and philosopher’s meditations on trees, drawn from his two-million-word journal by writer and photographer Richard Higgins, whose beautiful black-and-white photographs complement Thoreau’s arboreal writings.

Photograph by Richard Higgins from Thoreau and the Language of Trees.

Thoreau reverenced trees as living incantations, wordless prayers, benedictions for the art of being. In their company, he found a counterpoint to the falsehoods of society. Fifteen years after his mentor Emerson lamented in his own journal that “in cities… one seems to lose all substance, & become surface in a world of surfaces,” Thoreau redoubles his insistence on defining one’s own success and writes in a diary entry from January of 1857:

In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home… It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.

Four decades later, Whitman — who was two years younger than Thoreau but long outlived him — would record a kindred sentiment in his own notebook: “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.”

Complement the thoroughly elevating Thoreau and the Language of Trees with Rachel Carson on our scientific and spiritual bond with nature and David George Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most interesting trees taught him about life, then revisit Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of walking, knowing vs. seeing, the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, and how to use civil disobedience to advance justice.

BP

Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience

“Truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are.”

Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience

The question of why we read and what books actually do for us is as old as the written word itself, and as attractive. Galileo saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers. For Kafka, books were “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; Carl Sagan held them as “proof that humans are capable of working magic”; James Baldwin found in them a way to change one’s destiny; for Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, they stood as our ultimate frontier of freedom.

But one of the finest, most dimensional inquiries into the significance of books and the role of reading in human life comes from Neil Gaiman in a beautiful piece titled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.”

Originally delivered as a lecture for The Reading Agency, an English charity devoted to giving kids from all backgrounds an equal chance at the good life by fostering an early love of reading, the speech was later included in The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (public library) — the terrific compendium that gave us Gaiman on the power of cautionary questions.

Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)
Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)

Gaiman considers how the act of reading changes us, “what it’s good for”:

Once in New York, I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons — a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth — how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, fifteen years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based about asking what percentage of ten- and eleven-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

Echoing Madeleine L’Engle’s spirited 1983 lecture on creativity, censorship, and the duty of children’s books, Gaiman considers how otherwise well-intentioned adults might thwart the seed of that life-enlarging and sometimes even life-saving passion for reading. In a passage of particular urgency for parents and educators, he writes:

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was R. L. Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.

There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to someone encountering it for the first time. You don’t discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is the gateway drug to other books you may prefer them to read. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the twenty- first-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.

Gaiman then turns to the second key function of literature — its unparalleled ability to foster empathy. In a sentiment that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit’s inspired assertion that “a book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” he writes:

When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

In a sentiment reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s electrifying case for how imaginative storytelling expands our scope of the possible, Gaiman points to a third essential function of fiction in human life — its ability to introduce us to different versions of the world by envisioning alternate possibilities for the way things are:

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.

But perhaps the surest way to foil a budding love of reading is to cut off access to books altogether, and there is no greater hedge against that hazard than the library — that sacred place Thoreau once extolled as a glorious “wilderness of books.” (“When a library is open, no matter its size or shape,” Bill Moyers wrote in his foreword to a recent photographic love letter to libraries, “democracy is open, too.”) Gaiman recounts the formative role of the library in his own life:

I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in my summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s library I began on the adult books.

Gaiman was fortunate that the librarians tasked with nurturing his love of reading were the kind who inspire poems and not the kind who tried to bar pioneering astronaut Ronald McNair from his childhood library. With an affectionate eye to the librarians of his youth, Gaiman reflects:

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on interlibrary loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and they would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader — nothing less, nothing more — which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

Libraries are about Freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

Writing nearly a century after Hermann Hesse’s magnificent manifesto for why the book will never lose its magic no matter how technology evolves, Gaiman borrows a prefect metaphor to substantiate his belief that books will endure in and perhaps past the age of screens:

As Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, over twenty years before the Kindle showed up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.

But Gaiman takes care not to confuse the medium with the message — it is reading that counts, and its rewards are medium-agnostic. He writes:

We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens.

I do not care — I do not believe it matters — whether these books are paper or digital, whether you are reading on a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing.

But a book is also the content, and that’s important.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

These tales have survived on the shoulders of people who have done their part to transmit them forward — something Gaiman examined in his excellent lecture on how stories last. He considers what it would take to uphold our own responsibilities to the future — as readers, as writers, as citizens, and as members of the storytelling species:

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. We have an obligation to use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers — and especially writers for children, but all writers — have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were — to understand that truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armor and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children to read that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we’ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

Writing more than two centuries after William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination, Gaiman points to the same supreme human faculty as our greatest obligation:

We all — adults and children, writers and readers — have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

[…]

Just look around this room… Everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it might be easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, in this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things. They daydreamed, they pondered, they made things that didn’t quite work, they described things that didn’t yet exist to people who laughed at them.

And then, in time, they succeeded. Political movements, personal movements, all begin with people imagining another way of existing.

Gaiman’s final obligation is of especially resonant relevance today:

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent The View from the Cheap Seats with Hermann Hesse on the three types of readers, Ursula K. Le Guin on the sacredness of public libraries, and Virginia Woolf on how to read a book, then revisit Gaiman on creative courage, his eight rules of writing, and his philosophical dream, animated.

BP

The Savage and the Scholar: Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on the Role of the Artist in Humanizing Our History

“The poet, regardless of education, age, sex, and tastes, remains in his heart of hearts the spiritual heir of primitive humanity.”

The Savage and the Scholar: Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on the Role of the Artist in Humanizing Our History

Henry David Thoreau considered the poet — a term he used broadly, not unlike we use the term artist today — humanity’s mystic laureate; the supreme teller of truth, champion of beauty, and sensemaker of reality. “The poet,” he wrote in contemplating the difference between an artist, an artisan, and a genius, “will remember only that he saw truth and beauty from his position.” But what position, exactly, does the poet — does the artist — hold today in the collective remembering we call culture?

That’s what the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) explores in one of the many marvelous pieces in her Nonrequired Reading (public library) — the prose collection of Szymborska’s responses to and riffs on books she devoured during one voracious period of reading in the 1970s, which also gave us her meditations on what books do for the human spirit and how the prospect of cosmic solitude can enlarge our humanity.

wislawa_books

In a magnificently centrifugal riff on a book about the history of the Near East in antiquity, Szymborska considers the singular inner life of the poet — and perhaps she, like Thoreau, intends for this to extrapolate to the artist in the largest sense — as the necessary bridge between our most refined artistic achievements and our most primitive nature:

The poet, regardless of education, age, sex, and tastes, remains in his heart of hearts the spiritual heir of primitive humanity. Scientific explanations of the world don’t make much of an impression on him. He is an animist and a fetishist, who believes in the secret powers sleeping in all things, and who is convinced that he may stir these forces with the help of a few well-chosen words. The poet may even have seven cum laude degrees — but at the moment when he sits down to write a poem, his rationalist school uniform begins to pinch beneath the arms. He wriggles and wheezes, undoes first one button, then another, and finally leaps out of his clothing completely, to stand exposed before all as a savage with a ring through his nose. Yes, yes, a savage, since what else can you call a person who talks in verse to the dead and the unborn, to trees, to birds, and even to lamps and table legs, except perhaps an idiot?

She contrasts the role of the poet with that of the scholar in the craftsmanship of common experience we call history:

Let us return to the subject of history after this protracted introduction. The poet is compromised by his backwardness in this area as well. The past for him remains a history of wars and concrete individuals. Whereas for today’s historians, especially those preoccupied with constructing grand syntheses, wars and individuals are a secondary concern at best. For these historians, the prime historical movers are the means of production, the conditions of property-ownership, and the climate. Sporadic events don’t play a major role in the historical process. You may either bypass them completely or present them in such a way that they don’t distract the reader from more important matters. Phrases specially furbished for such purposes assist him here: “the achievement of supremacy,” “the loss of domination,” “the suppression of separatist tendencies,” “the sudden hampering of development,” and so on. Blood doesn’t drip from such words, the sparks of fires don’t scatter from them. It’s no longer a treacherous assault, ambush, slaughter, rape, and repression. It’s simply that country X “found itself within the range of foreign invaders” or, better, “of newcomers” or, better yet, “within range of the culture of Y.” The language of historians strives for abstraction and has largely achieved it.

Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen for a vintage adaptation of The Iliad and the Odyssey for young readers

Unlike the scholar, who is occupied with extracting from history the maximum amount of information, the poet is concerned not with the historical but with the eternal; not with information but with wisdom. (Lest we forget, the pursuit of wisdom in our age of information is all the more urgent today.) Szymborska captures this perfectly:

The historian calmly leafs through Gilgamesh, that most ancient epic of humankind, and immediately latches on to what he needs, i.e., “one of the earliest testaments to the formation of the state leadership’s social base.” The poet isn’t equipped to relish the epic for such reasons. Gilgamesh might just as well not exist for him if it holds only such information. But it does exist, because its titular hero mourns the death of his friend. One single human being laments the woeful fate of another single human being. For the poet this fact is of such momentous weight that it can’t be overlooked in even the most succinct historical synthesis. As I say, the poet can’t keep up, he lags behind. In his defense I can only say that someone’s got to straggle in the rear. If only to pick up what’s been trampled and lost in the triumphal procession of objective laws.

Complement the wholly terrific Nonrequired Reading with Amanda Palmer’s beautiful readings of Szymborska’s poems “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait,” then revisit James Baldwin on the artist’s role in society.

BP

How Naming Confers Dignity Upon Life and Gives Meaning to Existence

“Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

To name a thing is to acknowledge its existence as separate from everything else that has a name; to confer upon it the dignity of autonomy while at the same time affirming its belonging with the rest of the namable world; to transform its strangeness into familiarity, which is the root of empathy. To name is to pay attention; to name is to love. Parents name their babies as a first nonbiological marker of individuality amid the human lot; lovers give each other private nicknames that sanctify their intimacy; it is only when we began naming domesticated animals that they stopped being animals and became pets. (T.S. Eliot made a playful case for the profound potency of this act in “The Naming of Cats.”)

And yet names are words, and words have a way of obscuring or warping the true meanings of their objects. “Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf observed in the only surviving recording of her voice, and so they are more accountable to other words than to the often unnamable essences of the things they signify.

Illustration by Ben Shahn from Ounce Dice Trice by poet Alastair Reid, an unusual children’s book of imaginative names for ordinary things

That duality of naming is what Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Thoreau of botany, explores with extraordinary elegance in Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (public library) — her beautiful meditation on the art of attentiveness to life at all scales.

As a scientist who studies the 22,000 known species of moss — so diverse yet so unfamiliar to the general public that most are known solely by their Latin names rather than the colloquial names we have for trees and flowers — Kimmerer sees the power of naming as an intimate mode of knowing. As the progeny of a long lineage of Native American storytellers, she sees the power of naming as a mode of sacramental communion with the world.

Reflecting on a peculiarity of the Adirondack mountains she calls home, where most rocks have been named — “Chair Rock,” “Elephant Rock,” “Burnt Rock” — and people use them as reference points in navigating the land around the lake, Kimmerer writes:

The names we use for rocks and other beings depends on our perspective, whether we are speaking form the inside or the outside of the circle. The name on our lips reveals the knowledge we have of each other, hence the sweet secret names we have for the ones we love. The names we give ourselves are a powerful form of self-determination, of declaring ourselves sovereign territory. Outside the circle, scientific names for mosses may suffice, but inside the circle, what do they call themselves?

[…]

I find strength and comfort in this physical intimacy with the land, a sense of knowing the names of the rocks and knowing my place in the world.

And yet, echoing Aldous Huxley’s admonition that the trap of language leads us to confuse the words for things with their essences, Kimmerer considers the limiting nature of names from her dual perspective as a scientist and a storyteller:

A gift comes with responsibility. I had no will at all to name the mosses in this place, to assign their Linnean epithets. I think the task given to me is to carry out the message that mosses have their own names. Their way of being in the world cannot be told by data alone. They remind me to remember that there are mysteries for which a measuring tape has no meaning, questions and answers that have no place in the truth about rocks and mosses.

Still, Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the aesthetics of silence, “human beings are so ‘fallen’ that they must start with the simplest linguistic act: the naming of things.” Naming is an act of redemption and a special form of paying attention, which Kimmerer captures beautifully:

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 words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.

Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart

What is true of mosses is also true of every element of the world upon which we choose to confer the dignity of recognition. Drawing on her heritage — her family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi — Kimmerer adds:

In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other, but also with plants.

[…]

Intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world… Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.

Gathering Moss is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. See more of it here, then complement this particular passage with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the deeper meanings of everyday words and a wonderful illustrated catalog of untranslatable words from around the world.

BP

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