Brain Pickings

Page 4

Perfect Flowers: Adventures in Nature’s Nonbinary Botany, with a Side of Emily Dickinson

Rewilding the landscape of possibility for the poetry of being.

“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, epochs before we had our ever-expanding twenty-first-century vocabulary of identities, as she celebrated the “androgynous mind” as the mind most “resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.” Given Woolf arrived at her exquisite epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking amid her blooming garden, she might have been pleased to know that the botanical term for the blossoms of androgenous plants, also known as bisexual plants — plants that contain both the male pollen-producing stamen and the female ovule-producing pistils, and can therefore self-pollinate — is perfect flowers.

Lily from Flora von Deutschland, 1903. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Among the most common perfect flowers are lilies, roses, irises, snapdragons, flax flowers, morning glories, petunias, and the flowers of the coffee plant, the apple tree, and the tomato (which was once known as love apple).

Tomato, or Love-Apple, from A Curious Herbal — the illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants, which the young Elizabeth Blackwell published in 1737 to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Plants that contain only one set of gametes — among them begonias, squash, asparagus, and cottonwood — are termed imperfect. Curiously, there are sets of seemingly similar species that fall into opposite categories: the almond tree blooms a perfect flower (which inspired literature’s lushest metaphor for strength of character), while the walnut and the hazelnut do not; soy is perfect, while corn is not.

Coffee plant by Étienne Denisse from Flore d’Amérique, 1843. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In one sense, perfect flowers are less evolutionarily helpless, not having to rely solely on pollinators to deliver the essential fertilizing material from another plant’s gene pool. But they are also more vulnerable — a single disease can vanquish a species with a self-contained gene pool, while a cross-pollinated plant is more likely to contain genes susceptible to the disease as well as genes resistant to it. Lest we forget, diversity is the wellspring of resilience — in the evolution of nature, as in the ever-evolving conservatory of human nature we call society.

Art by Ping Zhu from The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story

“It has always pleased me to exalt plants in the scale of organised beings,” Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography. Long before he developed his theory of evolution, his grandfather — the physician, poet, slave-trade abolitionist, and scientist-predating-the-coining-of-scientist Erasmus Darwin — composed a book-length poem titled The Botanic Garden, using scientifically accurate poetry to enchant the popular imagination with the scandalous new science of sexual reproduction in plants. Published in 1791, the wildly popular book was deemed too explicit for unmarried women to read.

Iris from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Half a century after The Botanic Garden, the young Emily Dickinson, who was a gardener before she was a poet, approached this dual reverence of the botanical and the poetic from a different angle in her herbarium — a meticulously composed collection of 424 New England wildflowers, including hundreds of perfect flowers, arranged with a stunning sensitivity to scale and visual cadence across the pages of the large album, with slim paper labels punctuating the specimens like enormous dashes inscribed with the names of the plants, sometimes the common and sometimes the Linnaean.

Page from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium

The herbarium was Emily Dickinson’s first formal work of composition, each flower a stanza in the poetry of landscape and life, deliberately placed to radiate a particular feeling-tone. Her poems were never published in book form in her lifetime, but this book of flowers remained with her and now survives her.

On the cover of the first edition of her posthumously published poetry is a painting of one of her favorite wildflowers — the perfect flower Monotropa uniflora, commonly known as Indian Pipe for its shape when in bloom, or Ghost Flower for its lack of chlorophyll, which she considered “the preferred flower of life.” Once pollinated, the translucent white plant turns dark and dries up before releasing its resilient seeds into the living world.

Cover of the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems, 1890, featuring a painting of Indian Pipes by Mabel Loomis Todd.

When Emily Dickinson died at fifty-five, without a single white in her dark auburn hair, Susan — the great love of her life — wrapped her in a white robe and rested alongside her in the small white casket a single pink lady’s slipper — a rare orchid associated with Venus, beautiful and savage, a living Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Into the neck of the white shroud she tucked a small posy of violets — the flower Emily cherished above all others for its “unsuspected” splendor, to which she had dedicated the most dramatic page of her herbarium. “Still in her Eye / The Violets lie,” she had written in one of her earliest and most intense poems dedicated to Sue, which ends with the declamation “Sue — forevermore!”

Violets from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium

Living when she lived and loving whom she loved, in an imperfect world too small for her genius or her love, Emily Dickinson dreamt of lusher landscapes of possibility, leaping beyond her biology and the limiting binaries of her culture with her bold, subversive verses:

Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a Man!

She never lived to see the human world live up to nature’s nonbinary botany of desire.

But she had her love and all the perfect flowers.


Rilke on the Relationship Between Solitude, Love, Sex, and Creativity

“There is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear… People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”

Rilke on the Relationship Between Solitude, Love, Sex, and Creativity

“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” artist Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary in her seventy-seventh year as she looked back on a long and lush life to consider the central role of solitude in creativity.

A generation before her, recognizing that “works of art arise from an infinite aloneness,” Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) explored the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity in his stunning correspondence with the nineteen-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus — an aspiring poet and cadet at the same military academy that had nearly broken Rilke’s own adolescent soul.

Posthumously published in German, these letters of uncommonly penetrating insight into the essence of art and love — that is, the essence of life — now come alive afresh as Letters to a Young Poet: A New Translation and Commentary (public library) by ecological philosopher, Buddhist scholar, and environmental activist Joanna Macy, and poet and clinical psychologist Anita Barrows: two women who have lived into the far reaches of life — Macy was ninety-one at the time of the translation and Barrows seventy-three — and who have spent a quarter century thinking deeply about what makes life worth living in translating together the works of a long-ago man who barely survived to fifty and who was still in his twenties when he composed these letters of tender and timeless lucidity.

1902 portrait of Rilke by his brother-in-law, Helmuth Westhoff

Anticipating the illuminations of twentieth-century psychology about why a childhood capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for creativity, self-esteem, and healthy relationships later in life, Rilke writes to his young correspondent in the short, dark, lonesome days just before the winter holidays:

What (you might ask yourself) would a solitude be that didn’t have some greatness to it? For there is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear. It comes almost all the time when you’d gladly exchange it for any togetherness, however banal and cheap; exchange it for the appearance of however strong a conformity with the ordinary, with the least worthy. But perhaps that is precisely the time when solitude ripens; its ripening can be painful as the growth of a boy and sad like the beginning of spring… What is needed is only this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going within and meeting no one else for hours — that is what one must learn to attain. To be solitary as one was as a child. As the grown-ups were moving about, preoccupied with things that seemed big and important because the grown-ups appeared so busy and because you couldn’t understand what they were doing.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Echoing Kierkegaard’s ever-timely insistence that “of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems… to be busy” and Emerson’s observation that “our hurry & embarrassment look ridiculous” the moment we pause the headlong rush of sociality through which we try to escape from ourselves, Rilke adds:

If one day one grasps that their busyness is pathetic, their occupations frozen and disconnected from life, why then not continue to see like a child, see it as strange, see it out of the depth of one’s own world, the vastness of one’s own solitude, which is, in itself, work and status and vocation?

“Solitude” by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

And yet the crucial, exquisite creative tension that Rilke so singularly harmonizes is the essential interplay between solitude and love — each enriching the other, each magnifying the totality of the spirit from which all art springs. In another letter penned the following spring, he writes:

Don’t let your solitude obscure the presence of something within it that wants to emerge. Precisely this presence will help your solitude expand. People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult, as is true for everything alive. Everything in nature grows and defends itself in its own way and against all opposition, straining from within and at any price to become distinctively itself. It is good to be solitary, because solitude is difficult, and that a thing is difficult must be even more of a reason for us to undertake it.

To love is good too, for love is difficult. For one person to care for another, that is perhaps the most difficult thing required of us, the utmost and final test, the work for which all other work is but a preparation. With our whole being, with all the strength we have gathered, we must learn to love. This learning is ever a committed and enduring process.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Available as a print.

Two decades before Kahlil Gibran offered his abiding poetic wisdom on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence in true love, Rilke calls for shedding the ideological shackles of our culture’s conception of love as a melding of entities. “No human experience is so rife with conventions as this,” he observes with an eye to those who have not yet befriended their sovereign solitude and instead “act from mutual helplessness” to “simply surrender to love as an escape from loneliness.” He offers the liberating alternative that still requires as much countercultural courage in our day as it did in his:

To love is not about merging. It is a noble calling for the individual to ripen, to differentiate, to become a world in oneself in response to another. It is a great, immodest call that singles out a person and summons them beyond all boundaries. Only in this sense may we use the love that has been given us. This is humanity’s task, for which we are still barely ready.


This more human love (endlessly considerate and light and good and clear, consummated by holding close and letting go) will resemble that love that we so arduously prepare — the love that consists of two solitudes that protect, border, and greet each other.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In another letter, Rilke adds the complexity of physical intimacy to this realm of transcendent difficulty, formulating his advice on how to best harness eros as a creative force:

Yes, sex is hard. But anything expected of us is hard. Almost everything that matters is hard, and everything matters… Come to your own relationship to sex, free of custom and convention. Then you need not fear to lose yourself and become unworthy of your better nature.

Sexual pleasure is a sensory experience, no different from pure seeing or pure touch, like the taste of a fruit. It is a great, endless experience given to us, a natural part of knowing our world, of the fullness and brilliance of every knowing. And nothing we receive is wrong. What’s wrong is to misuse and spoil this experience and to use it to excite the exhausted aspects of our lives, to dissipate rather than connect.

Long before scientists shed light on how the sexuality of early flora and fauna gave our planet its beauty, Rilke adds:

Seeing the beauty in animals and plants is a form of love and longing; and we can see the animal, as we see the plant, patient and willing to come together and increase — not out of physical lust, not out of suffering, but bowing to necessities that are greater than lust and suffering and more powerful than will and resistance.

Oh that humans might humbly receive and earnestly bear this mystery that fills the earth down to the smallest thing, and feel it as part of life’s travail, instead of taking it lightly. If they could only be respectful of this fertility, which is undivided, whether in spiritual or physical form. For this spiritual creativity stems from the physical, derives from that erotic essence, and is but an airier, more delightful, more eternal iteration of its lush sensuality.

Red poppy from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

So too with the role of the erotic in creative work:

The art of creating is nothing without the vast ongoing participation and collaboration of the real world, nothing without the thousandfold harmonizing of things and beings; and the creator’s pleasure is thereby inexpressibly rich because it contains memories of the begetting and bearing of millions. In a single creative thought dwell a thousand forgotten nights of love, which infuse it with immensity. And those who come together in the night, locked in thrusting desire, are gathering nectar, generating power and sweetness for some future poetic utterance that will sing the rapture.

For more of and about this ravishing new translation of Letters to a Young Poet — one which embodies the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original,” and the finest such miracle performed on a classic since Ursula K. Le Guin’s feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching — savor this On Being conversation with Macy and Barrows about the wider resonances of Rilke’s work in our world, then revisit Rilke’s contemporary Hermann Hesse on solitude and the courage to find yourself, physicist Brian Greene’s Rilkean reflection on how to live with our human vulnerabilities, and Rilke himself on what it takes to be an artist.


How Memory Makes Us and Breaks Truth: The Rashomon Effect and the Science of How Memories Form and Falter in the Brain

“We are our memory… that chimerical museum of shifting shapes, that pile of broken mirrors.”

It is already disorienting enough to accept that our attention only absorbs a fraction of the events and phenomena unfolding within and around us at any given moment. Now consider that our memory only retains a fraction of what we have attended to in moments past. In the act of recollection, we take these fragments of fragments and try to reconstruct from them a totality of a remembered reality, playing out in the theater of the mind — a stage on which, as neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has observed in his landmark work on consciousness, we often “use our minds not to discover facts, but to hide them.”

We do this on the personal level — out of such selective memory and by such exquisite exclusion, we compose the narrative that is the psychological pillar of our identity. We do it on the cultural level — what we call history is a collective selective memory that excludes far more of the past’s realities than it includes. Borges captured this with his characteristic poetic-philosophical precision when he observed that “we are our memory… that chimerical museum of shifting shapes, that pile of broken mirrors.” To be aware of memory’s chimera is to recognize the slippery, shape-shifting nature of even those truths we think we are grasping most firmly.

Art by Cecilia Ruiz from The Book of Memory Gaps, inspired by Borges

Nearly a century after Nietzsche admonished that what we call truth is “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms… a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished,” the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (March 23, 1910–September 6, 1998) created an exquisite cinematic metaphor for the slippery memory-mediated nature of truth in his 1950 film Rashomon, based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” — a psychological-philosophical thriller about the murder of a samurai and its four witnesses, who each recount a radically different reality, each equally believable, thus undermining our most elemental trust in truth.

As researchers in the second half of the twentieth century came to shed light on the foibles of memory, Kurosawa’s masterpiece lent its name to the amply documented unreliability of eyewitness accounts. The Rashomon effect, detailed in this wonderful animated primer from TED-Ed, casts a haunting broader nimbus of doubt over our basic grasp of reality — we only exist, after all, as eyewitnesses of our own lives.

All of these psychological perplexities arise from the basic neurophysiological infrastructure of how memories form and falter in the brain — something the great neurologist Oliver Sacks explored in his classic medical poetics of memory disorders, and something South African biomedical scientist Catharine Young explores in another TED-Ed episode, animated by the prolific Patrick Smith:

Complement with Neurocomic — a graphic novel about how the mind works — and the animated science of how playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, then revisit Virginia Woolf on how memory seams our lives, Sally Mann on how photographs can unseam memory, and neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin on how medicine’s most famous amnesiac illuminates the wonders of consciousness.


The Other Great Gertrude-and-Alice Love Story: The Life and Legacy of Pioneering Photographer and Bicyclist Alice Austen

Quiet courage and improbable redemption under the sycamore tree.

She has mounted fifty pounds of photography equipment on her bicycle and is pedaling along the shore to the Staten Island ferry, headed for Manhattan. Photography is only a generation old and Alice Austen (March 17, 1866–June 9, 1952) is twenty-nine. She is about to take photographs of the proper technique for mounting, dismounting, riding, and carrying a bicycle for her friend Maria’s trailblazing manifesto-manual for cycling, inciting Victorian women to embrace the spoked engine of emancipation: “You are at all times independent. This absolute freedom of the cyclist can be known only to the initiated.”

Illustration from Bicycling for Ladies based on Alice Austen’s photographs. Available as a print and as a face mask.

Alice — artist, athlete, banjo player, sailor, founder of the Staten Island Garden Club, the first woman to own a car in the borough — has come as close to absolute freedom as a woman of her era could come, transcending the narrow roadways of her time with her wheels, her lens, and her love.

Alice Austen and her bicycle, circa 1897. (Alice Austen House archive.)

As the ferry traverses the East River, Alice is watching the Statue of Liberty rise imperturbable over Ellis Island, where she has just photographed people at New York Harbor’s immigrant quarantine stations — something she did every year for a decade, returning to that crucible of humility and hope to document those tender and terrifying moments when lives are begun afresh with little more than wordless daring and a fragile dream.

Soldiers at the Statue of Liberty docks, August 1887. (Alice Austen House archive.)

As a girl, abandoned by her father before her birth and raised by her mother in a cottage by an enormous sycamore rising strong despite the blackened interior hollowed out by lightning, Alice had watched Lady Liberty being built, part emblem and part promise. The statue was dedicated the year Emily Dickinson died and Alice turned ten — the year her uncle, a sea-captain, gave her a dry-plate camera from England as a birthday present.

Alice Austen. Self-portrait, age nineteen. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Turning a closet into a darkroom, Alice proceeded to teach herself the art of photography, taking meticulous process notes to refine her technique. Not yet out of her teens and already one of the most accomplished photographers in America, she ventured out into world to document its vibrant life, dedicating hers to her art. In an era when almost no women practiced photography — an activity both intensely physical and intensely delicate, given the size, weight, and fragility of early cameras and glass plates — she became the first American woman known to work outside the studio, creating what we now know as street photography.

Young bicycle messenger, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Riding the Manhattan-bound ferry that day in her youth, Alice didn’t yet know — for we never know these things — that she was soon to meet the love of her life.

Formal seated portrait of Alice Austen by Dunn Portrait Studios of New Brunswick, New Jersey, June 30, 1887. (Alice Austen House archive.)

In the final months of the nineteenth century, Alice Austen took a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains, where she met Gertrude Tate, six years her junior — a vivacious dance instructor and kindergarten teacher from Brooklyn, who wore a wig over her buzz-cut hair and with whom Alice would spend the remaining fifty-three years of her life.

Gertrude Tate dancing in the sun in 1899, the summer she and Alice met in the Catskills. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Gertrude Tate. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Gertrude with and without wig, Catskill Mountains, 1899. (Alice Austen House archive.)

So began the other great Gertrude-and-Alice love story — far less fabled than the one of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas a generation later, but also one in which two people, joined together, become themselves.”

Over her long life, Alice Austen took more than 8,000 photographs, turning her sensitive and daring lens toward the lives of immigrants, child laborers, New York “street types,” and people for whom Victorian culture had neither terms nor tenderness and whom we might call LGBT today.

Alice Austen’s friend Maria Ward, who went by Violet, with partner, circa 1890. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Emerging from her photographs is a lovely testament to Frederick Douglass’s faith in early photography as an instrument of social justice, bridging the ideal and the real.

Trude & I, 1890s. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)
Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and self dressed up, sitting down, 1891. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)
The Darned Club, 1891. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)
Group Apparatus, 1893. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)

A generation before Berenice Abbott, another trailblazing lesbian photographer, created her iconic series Changing New York, Alice Austen captured the changing face of the city — this ever-changing emblem of a city — during its most rapid period of transformation as modernity was finding its sea legs and America was becoming America.

Postman collecting the day’s mail at 56th Street and Madison Avenue, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Newsboy at Grand Central Depot, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Organ-grinder with wife at 48th Street and Broadway, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Street-cleaner at 34th Street, New York City, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Two working children at City Hall Park, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Alice was flung into financial struggle. By the end of WWII, she and Gertrude were evicted from the home they had shared for three decades and thrust into the hands of their respective extended families, none of whom approved of their lifelong relationship. Without means and without options, they were separated. Gertrude was taken to Queens. At eighty, Alice ended up at the Staten Island Farm Colony — the euphemistic name for the local poorhouse. Gertrude, who continued teaching dance well into her seventies, visited weekly.

Alice (seated) and Gertrude in their late years. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Like Vivian Maier — another visionary photographer who also captured the street life of the city and who also, by the scant surviving evidence, was very probably queer — Alice Austen lived out her life without artistic recognition. Like Maier’s work, Austen’s was brought to light by a man who chanced upon it and knew he had chanced upon greatness. Unlike Maier, Austen was still alive.

In 1950, while working on his book The Revolt of American Women, Oliver Jensen — a thirty-six-year-old former Life magazine editor and writer — discovered 3,500 of Alice’s glass-plate negatives in the basement of the Staten Island Historical Society and was instantly taken with their uncommon genius. Leafing through phone books, he was staggered to realize that Alice was still alive, then doubly staggered to learn that she was living at a poorhouse.

Drawing on his magazine connections, he secured publication of Alice’s work in Life, which raised enough funds to migrate her to a nursing home. He then built on the initial visibility to organize an exhibition of her work at a local museum in 1951 — the first and only in her lifetime. When the show opened on October 7, now celebrated as Alice Austen Day, Alice was there with Gertrude by her side.

A friend’s young sons in what Alice called her “express wagon,” May 1889. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Six women, Staten Island, 1895. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Shortly after the opening, Alice suffered a stroke. By spring, she was dead. Gertrude survived her by a decade, living to ninety. The couple had expressly wished to be buried together — a wish Gertrude’s family bluntly refused in one final act of assault on their lifelong devotion.

Alice and Gertrude, early 1900s. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Today, the Staten Island home the couple shared for most of their life, the cottage in which Alice grew up and mastered her art, survives as Alice Austen House — part museum and part memorial, celebrating Alice’s trailblazing art and the totality of being from which it sprang, including her lush love for Gertrude. The sycamore tree — one of the sylvan marvels in Benjamin Swett’s wonderful book New York City of Trees (public library), from which I first learned of Alice Austen’s story — still rises by the house, still charred and hollowed, still growing and lush with life.


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