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Conversations with the Earth: Geologist Hans Cloos on the Complementarity of Art and Science in Illuminating the Splendor of Nature and Reality

“There is another, inner way… which binds the artist to the world. He who walks this trail sees the beauty of the earth, and hears its music.”

Conversations with the Earth: Geologist Hans Cloos on the Complementarity of Art and Science in Illuminating the Splendor of Nature and Reality

German geologist Hans Cloos (November 8, 1885–September 26, 1951) belongs atop the hierarchy of great nonfiction writers — a scientist who wrote about his subject matter with a poetic conscience and an expansive sense of aesthetic harmony. Marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, herself a poet laureate of science and the catalyst of the modern environmental movement, was a great admirer of Cloos as a singular writer who “illuminates his scientific fact with rare intuition and perception,” effecting an uncommon enchantment with the living reality of nature. Perhaps because Cloos was also a poet, philosopher, musician, and painter, he wrote beautifully not only about science itself but about the complementarity of science and the arts as a joint mode of knowing reality in its fullest dimensions. That is what he explores in the opening chapter of his lyrical posthumously published autobiography, Conversations with the Earth (public library) — a splendid, underappreciated book, which Carson lauded as “deeply significant, and deserving of wide and thoughtful reading.”

Hans Cloos, 1934

A generation after Bertrand Russell extolled the superiority of “love knowledge” over “power knowledge” in the scientific outlook, Cloos writes:

The present is the era of man. Our struggle for survival dominates the scene; we increase or diminish other forms of life to nourish our own. A thousand other ages have preceded us, a thousand more will follow. The patient earth has offered its growing life thousands upon thousands of times to the warmth of the sun, and it might thrive and be transformed, and eventually vanish to provide space, light, and sustenance for new and different kinds of life. Restlessly the earth has changed, like the ever-moving sea. Lands and mountains rose out of the sea, only to be returned again to the ocean.

But the present is the era of man. Today knowledge reigns supreme. For the first time since its beginning our planet, earth, sees and understands itself. For a billion years the earth rolled on, quite blind and mute. It has used up all this enormous period of time in forming, out of plants and animals, through millions of unfinished experiments, the organ through which it will recognize itself. For a billion years the patient earth amassed documents and inscribed them with signs and pictures which lay unnoticed and unused. Today, at last, they are waking up, because man has come to rouse them. Stones have begun to speak, because an ear is there to hear them. Layers become history and, released from the enchanted sleep of eternity, life’s motley, never-ending dance rises out of the black depths of the past into the light of the present… 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.

Photograph by Maria Popova

While our scientific knowledge of the universe may always remain incomplete, Cloos observes, the path to such knowledge is open to all willing to make the effort. But there is a different mode of knowing the universe that requires a different self-election:

There is another, inner way, a way that is not accessible to everyone. It leads from the unconscious within ourselves to the imponderable and invisible in the earthly environment. It is this way which binds the artist to the world. He who walks this trail sees the beauty of the earth, and hears its music.

Why does man find beauty in a landscape? Is it not because he is a part of nature, inwardly subject to nature’s laws, because he has an unconscious insight into the internal order of the earth, into the rhythm of its repetitions, the harmony of its lines and surfaces and the balanced interplay of its parts? And does not our delight in the contemplation of nature grow out of the harmony between the music of our own soul and the music of the earth?

Nearly a century and a half after Schopenhauer examined the essential difference between how art and science illuminate reality, and a century after Frederick Douglass called for the complementarity of observation and contemplation in cultural progress, Cloos considers the art of speaking of and for nature:

But man, ever the thinking, exploring man who has made it his life’s work and duty to listen to nature’s voice, can scarcely hear “music” every moment of the day. It is human custom, and geology affirms the practice, to explore the natural order by sober, patient observation and by logical deduction, and to describe what has been found os that anyone can readily understand and enjoy it.


The experienced observer does more than merely report and recite. He guides the eager student to an understanding of the earth. He may chart the scientist’s steep, barren road of sober observation and strict deduction, or the artist’s gentle road of contemplation and empathy. And, finally, he may point out his own unique way, the path of the initiated, which leads him from the laboratories and libraries to the meadows and flower gardens of the living earth.

Illustration by Matthew Forsythe from The Golden Leaf

Echoing Carson’s assertion that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Cloos plumbs the elemental core of our relationship with nature:

Two fundamental principles stand out above all others:

As parts of the earth we depend on its inorganic substance and on the eternal change which it undergoes. And as children of the earth we are subordinate, dependent particles in the unceasing stream of life.

A century after Margaret Fuller made her sublime proclamation that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Cloos returns to the essential complementarity of art and science in our quest to know reality at its richest:

How closely akin are music, the purest and most ethereal of the arts, and mathematics, most sober of the sciences, however unlike their forms may be. He who hears the music of the earth will find that pleasure in its melodies is more than a light and gladsome enjoyment. He will find, indeed, that the experience furnishes another and deeper understanding of the language in which the world [speaks] to us.

More than half a century later, Conversations with the Earth remains a beautiful book deserving of a far wider readership. Complement it with Richard Jefferies, another forgotten poet laureate on nature and another of Rachel Carson’s heroes, on how nature’s beauty dissolves the boundary between us and the Earth, and Loren Eiseley, who remains a gold standard for lyrical science writing, on the relationship between nature and human nature.


I Am Loved: Nikki Giovanni’s Poems for Kids, Selected and Illustrated by Beloved 94-Year-Old Artist Ashley Bryan

A vibrant ode to the inherent poetry of existence.

I Am Loved: Nikki Giovanni’s Poems for Kids, Selected and Illustrated by Beloved 94-Year-Old Artist Ashley Bryan

It is often said that we are born scientists — naturally curious, tickled rather than daunted by the unknown, unafraid to experiment and to stumble in learning the world. Broadening the common ground between science and poetry is the awareness that we are equally born poets — children rejoice in the sandbox of language, where word and image are castled into wild possibilities of meaning, their minds sculpted by the magic of metaphor.

In the tradition of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s illustrated poems for young people, Maya Angelou’s courageous children’s verses illustrated by Basquiat, and T.S. Eliot’s classic cat poems illustrated by Edward Gorey, now comes I Am Loved (public library) — a lovely set of poems by Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943), one of the great poets of our time, illustrated by the prolific ninety-four-year-old artist, storyteller, and humanitarian Ashley Bryan (b. July 13, 1923).

Animated by his lifelong ardor for poetry, Bryan selected a dozen of Giovanni’s poems to bring to life in his unmistakable style — artwork vibrant and irrepressibly alive, radiating the native poetry of existence. Here he is reciting the Langston Hughes poem that ignited and continues to stoke his love of poetry:

Art by Ashley Bryan for I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni

by Nikki Giovanni

(for Carolyn Rodgers, October 4, 2010)

We look for words:
    intelligent    intense
    chocolate    warm
    ambitious    cautious

to describe a person

We design monuments:
    the Pyramids    the Taj Mahal
    the Lincoln Memorial    the Empire State Building
    the Wrigley Building    Coffins

to say someone was loved

We sing a sad blue
We sing a river — no — bridge
We sing a Song of a Blackbird
    To Say

You will be missed.

Art by Ashley Bryan for I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni

by Nikki Giovanni

I wrote a poem
for you because
you are
my little boy

I wrote a poem
for you because
you are
my darling daughter

and in this poem
I sang a song
that says
as time goes on
I am you
and you are me
and that’s how life
goes on

Art by Ashley Bryan for I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni

by Nikki Giovanni

ever been kidnapped
by a poet
if i were a poet
i’d kidnap you
put you in my phrases and meter
you to jones beach
or maybe coney island
or maybe just to my house
lyric you in lilacs
dash you in the rain
blend into the beach
to complement my see
play the lyre for you
ode you with my love song
anything to win you
wrap you in red Black green
show you off to mama
yeah if i were a poet i’d kid
nap you

Art by Ashley Bryan for I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni

by Nikki Giovanni

How can there be
No heaven
When rain falls
gently on the grass
When sunshine scampers
across my toes

When corn bakes
into bread
When wheat melts
into cake

When shadows
And owls
And little finches
eat upside

How can there be
No Heaven

When tears comfort
When dreams caress
When you smile
  at me

Complement the immeasurably wonderful I Am Loved with this illustrated collection of classic love poems, then revisit Nikki Giovanni on love, her poems celebrating libraries and librarians, and her fantastic forgotten conversation with James Baldwin.


Nobel-Winning Physicist Niels Bohr on Subjective vs. Objective Reality and the Uses of Religion in a Secular World

“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”

Nobel-Winning Physicist Niels Bohr on Subjective vs. Objective Reality and the Uses of Religion in a Secular World

In the autumn of 1911, just as the dawn of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s groundbreaking theory of relativity were unsettling our understanding of existence, some of the world’s most influential physicists were summoned to Brussels for the Solvay Conference — an invitation-only gathering that would become a turning point for modern physics and our basic understanding of reality. The conference was such a towering success that it became a regular event, with twenty-five installments over the next century. The most famous was the fifth, convened in 1927 and chaired by the Dutch Nobel laureate Hendrik Lorenz, whose transformation equations had become the centerpiece of Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Of the 29 attendees that year, 17 would become Nobel laureates; Marie Curie, the sole woman since the inaugural gathering, would become the only scientist to win two Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines. (It was at the first Solvay Conference that Curie had met Einstein — the inception of a lifelong friendship in the course of which he would buoy her during a crisis with his splendid advice on how to handle haters.)

The 1927 Solvay Conference (colorized photograph)

One evening during the 1927 conference, some of the younger attendees — including twenty-seven-year-old Wolfgang Pauli, who was yet to co-invent synchronicity with Carl Jung, and twenty-six-year-old Werner Heisenberg, who had just published his revolutionary uncertainty principle earlier that year — stayed up at the hotel lounge and launched into a swirling conversation at the borderline of physics and metaphysics, ignited by the young physicists’ unease about Einstein’s views on God. (Three years later, Einstein himself would traverse that borderline in his historic conversation with the Indian poet and philosopher Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize.) They collided with the difficulty of reconciling science and religion, some adamantly insisting that the two were simply incompatible, for religion is a vestige of a pre-scientific world of superstition, while others suggesting that science can never supplant but can only complement the essential moral guidance by which theology strengthens society.

The unresolved question stayed with Heisenberg. After the conference, he recounted the conversation to quantum theory founding father and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr (October 7, 1885–November 18, 1962). Bohr surprised him with a nuanced and uncommonly insightful take on the subject, which Heisenberg recounts in Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (public library) — part of the pioneering World Perspectives series envisioned by philosopher Ruth Nanda Anshen as a canon of books by the world’s great “spiritual and intellectual leaders who possess full consciousness of the pressing problems of our time with all their implications,” with a board of editors including Robert Oppenheimer and Bohr himself.

Niels Bohr as a young man

Bohr tells Heisenberg:

We ought to remember that religion uses language in quite a different way from science. The language of religion is more closely related to the language of poetry than to the language of science. True, we are inclined to think that science deals with information about objective facts, and poetry with subjective feelings. Hence we conclude that if religion does indeed deal with objective truths, it ought to adopt the same criteria of truth as science. But I myself find the division of the world into an objective and a subjective side much too arbitrary. The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.

With an eye to the monumental impact of Einstein’s relativity and to the profound shift in thought which quantum theory’s notion of complementarity introduced, Bohr adds:

That is why I consider those developments in physics during the last decades which have shown how problematical such concepts as “objective” and “subjective” are, a great liberation of thought. The whole thing started with the theory of relativity. In the past, the statement that two events are simultaneous was considered an objective assertion, one that could be communicated quite simply and that was open to verification by any observer. Today we know that “simultaneity” contains a subjective element, inasmuch as two events that appear simultaneous to an observer at rest are not necessarily simultaneous to an observer in motion. However, the relativistic description is also objective inasmuch as every observer can deduce by calculation what the other observer will perceive or has perceived. For all that, we have come a long way from the classical ideal of objective descriptions.

In quantum mechanics the departure from this ideal has been even more radical. We can still use the objectifying language of classical physics to make statements about observable facts. For instance, we can say that a photographic plate has been blackened, or that cloud droplets have formed. But we can say nothing about the atoms themselves. And what predictions we base on such findings depend on the way we pose our experimental question, and here the observer has freedom of choice. Naturally, it still makes no difference whether the observer is a man, an animal, or a piece of apparatus, but it is no longer possible to make predictions without reference to the observer or the means of observation. To that extent, every physical process may be said to have objective and subjective features. The objective world of nineteenth-century science was, as we know today, an ideal, limiting case, but not the whole reality. Admittedly, even in our future encounters with reality we shall have to distinguish between the objective and the subjective side, to make a division between the two. But the location of the separation may depend on the way things are looked at; to a certain extent it can be chosen at will.

This, Bohr notes, is why the language of objectivity doesn’t belong in religious rhetoric — religion and its pluralities are best understood, and best applied to human life as an instrument of moral enrichment rather than one of dogmatic constriction, through the lens of complementarity:

The fact that different religions try to express this content in quite distinct spiritual forms is no real objection. Perhaps we ought to look upon these different forms as complementary descriptions which, though they exclude one another, are needed to convey the rich possibilities flowing from man’s relationship with the central order.

Illustration by Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by Lillian Lieber

A quarter century before mathematician Lillian Lieber demonstrated how mathematical abstractions like infinity, which have no correlate in physical reality, offer an analogue for moral questions, Bohr considers whether or not the tenets of religion can similarly offer useful abstractions, even though they are not to be taken as objective truth:

In mathematics we can take our inner distance from the content of our statements. In the final analysis mathematics is a mental game that we can play or not play as we choose. Religion, on the other hand, deals with ourselves, with our life and death; its promises are meant to govern our actions and thus, at least indirectly, our very existence. We cannot just look at them impassively from the outside. Moreover, our attitude to religious questions cannot be separated from our attitude to society. Even if religion arose as the spiritual structure of a particular human society, it is arguable whether it has remained the strongest social molding force through history, or whether society, once formed, develops new spiritual structures and adapts them to its particular level of knowledge. Nowadays, the individual seems to be able to choose the spiritual framework of his thoughts and actions quite freely, and this freedom reflects the fact that the boundaries between the various cultures and societies are beginning to become more fluid. But even when an individual tries to attain the greatest possible degree of independence, he will still be swayed by the existing spiritual structures — consciously or unconsciously. For he, too, must be able to speak of life and death and the human condition to other members of the society in which he’s chosen to live; he must educate his children according to the norms of that society, fit into its life. Epistemological sophistries cannot possibly help him attain these ends. Here, too, the relationship between critical thought about the spiritual content of a given religion and action based on the deliberate acceptance of that content is complementary. And such acceptance, if consciously arrived at, fills the individual with strength of purpose, helps him to overcome doubts and, if he has to suffer, provides him with the kind of solace that only a sense of being sheltered under an all-embracing roof can grant. In that sense, religion helps to make social life more harmonious; its most important task is to remind us, in the language of pictures and parables, of the wider framework within which our life is set.

Physics and Beyond, though out of print, is a fascinating read in its totality and well worth the search for a surviving copy. Complement this particular portion with pioneering nineteenth-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, on our conquest of truth, Carl Sagan on science and spirituality, Richard Feynman on why uncertainty is essential for morality, Simone de Beauvoir on the moral courage of atheism, Alan Lightman on transcendent experiences in the secular world, and Sam Harris on spirituality without religion.


Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem

“One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem

“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” Emerson wrote in contemplating the key to personal growth. Hardly anything does this for us more powerfully than art — it unsettles us awake, disrupts our deadening routines, enlarges our reservoir of hope by enlarging our perspective, our grasp of truth, our capacity for beauty.

This singular function of art is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) reflects on in an interview by the polymathic marine conservationist Jonathan White, included in his wonderful Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin (Photograph: The Oregonian)

In a roaming conversation over tea, “with only momentary interruptions by Lorenzo the cat or chimes from the grandfather clock,” Le Guin tells White:

The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world. We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again. We’re drawn in — or out — and the windows of our perception are cleansed, as William Blake said. The same thing can happen when we’re around young children or adults who have unlearned those habits of shutting the world out.

Art, Le Guin suggests a century after Kandinsky extolled its spiritual element and a decade after Susan Sontag considered its ethical responsibility, restores to secular culture the sense of sacredness and moral purpose:

Our culture doesn’t think storytelling is sacred; we don’t set aside a time of year for it. We don’t hold anything sacred except what organized religion declares to be so. Artists pursue a sacred call, although some would buck and rear at having their work labeled like this. Artists are lucky to have a form in which to express themselves; there is a sacredness about that, and a terrific sense of responsibility. We’ve got to do it right. Why do we have to do it right? Because that’s the whole point: either it’s right or it’s all wrong.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Albert Camus’s reflection on the lacuna between truth and meaning, Le Guin — who spent the last sixty-five years of her life married to a historian — considers the lacuna between the events of the past and their selective retelling in what we call history:

History is one way of telling stories, just like myth, fiction, or oral storytelling. But over the last hundred years, history has preempted the other forms of storytelling because of its claim to absolute, objective truth. Trying to be scientists, historians stood outside of history and told the story of how it was. All that has changed radically over the last twenty years. Historians now laugh at the pretense of objective truth. They agree that every age has its own history, and if there is any objective truth, we can’t reach it with words. History is not a science, it’s an art.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds

The paradox, of course, is that because our notion of history is rooted in the written record, words are both our instrument of truth and our weapon of distortion. We use them both to reveal and to conceal — a duality which Hannah Arendt so memorably dissected in her meditation on lying in politics. Le Guin — who has written beautifully about the transformational potential of words — echoes Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power and responsibility of language, and reflects on the challenging task of those who limn reality in words:

As a writer, you want the language to be genuinely significant and mean exactly what it says. That’s why the language of politicians, which is empty of everything but rather brutal signals, is something a writer has to get as far away from as possible. If you believe that words are acts, as I do, then one must hold writers responsible for what their words do.

With a concerned eye to how our metaphors shape our thinking, Le Guin adds:

We can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language. One reflects the other. A lot of people are getting tired of the huge pool of metaphors that have to do with war and conflict [and] the proliferation of battle metaphors, such as being a warrior, righting, defeating, and so on. In response, I could say that once you become conscious of these battle metaphors, you can start “fighting” against them. That’s one option. Another is to realize that conflict is not the only human response to a situation and to begin to find other metaphors, such as resisting, outwitting, skipping, or subverting. This kind of consciousness can open the door to all sorts of new behavior.

What literature does, Le Guin points out, is enlarge our understanding of our own experience by enriching its container in language:

One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say. It’s one reason why we read poetry, because poets can give us the words we need. When we read good poetry, we often say, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s how I feel.’

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

In a sentiment evocative of James Baldwin’s assertion that “an artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian [whose] role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” she adds:

Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want, too. If we never find our experience described in poetry or stories, we assume that our experience is insignificant.

Complement this particular portion of the splendid Talking on the Water with Le Guin’s immortal wisdom on the artist’s task, growing older, storytelling as an instrument of freedom, her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching, and her classic unsexing of gender.


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