Brain Pickings

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Rare Butterflies and Unsung Pollinators: Gorgeous 18th-Century Drawings by the First Artist and Naturalist to Depict the Wing-borne Beauty of the New World

The world’s first pictorial glimpse of the strange and wondrous creatures that give our planet its scent and color.

A century after the self-taught German naturalist and artist Maria Merian laid the foundation of entomology with her art, and a century before the Australian teenage sisters Harriet and Helena Scott fomented one of the greatest triumphs of conservation with their stunning butterfly drawings, John Abbot (1751–1841) became the first artist and naturalist to document pictorially the wing-borne beauty of the New World.

Little blue argus butterfly (Papilio argiolus) and great American fritillary (Papilio passiflorae)

John was still a teenager when the Old World’s most venerated scientific institution, The Royal Society of his native London, took notice of his consummate entomological illustrations. While his trailblazing compatriot Sarah Stone was drawing the exotic animals of Australia and New Zealand, he was encouraged to leave for North America to help shed light on the insect corner of the continent’s largely unexplored living landscape.

Black and blue admirable butterfly (Papilio ursula) and chestnut-coloured butterfly (Papilio gilippus)

And so, in the summer of his twenty-third year, John Abbot made the arduous Atlantic crossing, heading for the capital settlement of the first British colony in North America: Jamestown, Virginia.

From the moment he set foot on American soil, throughout those difficult early years as a young immigrant, throughout the scientific disenchantment with a habitat far less biodiverse than he had expected, he persisted in collecting and rearing insects, studying and drawing them to send his painstaking artwork back to London.

His first two shipments were lost at sea. Still, he persisted.

As the air grew flammable with the spirit of revolution, he considered returning to London, considered following in Merian’s footsteps and voyaging to the butterfly paradise of Surinam, but ultimately decided not to give up on America just yet.

American brimstone butterfly (Papilio eubule) and large black and orange butterfly (Papilio archippus)

In the harsh winter of 1775, he traveled to Georgia to stay with a family he had befriended during the transatlantic crossing — the Goodalls (possible kin of Jane Goodall). Living in a log cabin 100 miles outside Augusta, Abbot immersed himself in the world of insects and birds, studying and painting the dazzling diversity of winged life.

Black-barred swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio ajax) and snake-root black swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio philenor)

As the months unspooled into years, he went on drawing. He served in the British army during the Revolutionary War and went on drawing, got married, had a son, and went on drawing, lost his wife and went on drawing, with a particular passion for the rarest and most neglected of species.

Black and yellow swallow-tail butterfly (Pailio troilus) and sassafras black swallow-tail butterfly (Papilio Ilioneus)

By the end of his long life, more than double the era’s life expectancy, he had produced thousands upon thousands of illustrations of insects, including the native plants they live on and pollinate into life, and several sets of birds. Today, his work is celebrated as some of the finest pictorial scholarship in the history of science and some of the finest scientific illustration in the history of art, held and exhibited in natural history and art museums all over the world. The best of it is collected in Abbot’s magnum opus. The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (public library), originally published in 1797.

My favorite of his drawings, both aesthetically and scientifically, are the several species of hawk-moth, Sphingidae — the unsung heroes of the pollinator world.

Painted hawk-moth (Sphinx vitis) and fringe-tree hawk-moth (Sphinx chionathi)

They are the hummingbirds of the insect universe, with majestic bodies up to eightfold the weight of the average half-gram butterfly and a mighty flight-motor reaching up to 60 wingbeats per second. With tongues up to three times the length of their bodies, they pollinate some of Earth’s most fragrant blooming plants — jasmine, gardenia, honeysuckle, wild rose, evening primrose.

Black and yellow-underwing hawk-moth (Sphinx tersa) and yellow-spotted tyger hawk-moth (Sphinx octomaculata)
Fan-tailed hawk-moth (Sphinx lugubris) and potatoe hawk-moth (Sphinx convolvuli)
Wild-grape hawk-moth (Sphinx pampinatrix) and pine or cypress hawk-moth (Sphinx coniferarum)
Yellow under-winged eyed hawk-moth (Sphinx myops) and wild-honeysuckle hawk-moth (Sphinx azaleae)

Complement with Stephen Jay Gould on what Nabokov’s butterfly studies reveal about the nature of human creativity and the fascinating natural history of how early pollinators gave Earth its colors, then revisit other stunning art from the golden age of natural history illustration: stunning snails from the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of mollusks, psychedelic fishes from the world’s first marine life encyclopedia in color, the vibrant life-forms of the Great Barrier Reef from the first study of one of Earth’s most delicate ecosystems, and the otherworldly beauty of jellyfish rendered by the artist-scientist who coined the word ecology.


Tangerine Meditation: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Simple, Profound Mindfulness Practice to Magnify Your Capacity for Joy

How to see the universe in a small orange orb.

Tangerine Meditation: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Simple, Profound Mindfulness Practice to Magnify Your Capacity for Joy

My poet friend Marie Howe gives the students in her ecopoetry class a lovely assignment: At the outset of the semester, each young poet is asked to name the animal they find most repulsive, then to learn everything they can about it — scientifically, historically, culturally. By the conclusion of the course, they have to write a poem about it.

Inevitably, the creatures previously regarded as remote and abstract othernesses, caricatured by a few loathsome features, are gradually rendered interesting by the thousand small details of their being, complex and concrete. Because interest is the crucible of intimacy and intimacy the crucible of connection, because the light of attention cast upon the creatures renders them luminous golden threads indivisible from the tapestry of aliveness that makes our rocky planet an enchanted loom of a world, the poems inevitably become love poems.

Snake and Muricated lizard, from trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s natural history illustrations of exotic and endangered animals. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

So it is that any totality of love is born of the specifics — those footholds of understanding by which we ascend the ladder of appreciation and admiration to arrive at a particular and attentive love that subjectifies what it loves rather than objectifying it, the way Ursula K. Le Guin believed poetry subjectifies the universe.

Attention, after all, is the native poetry of consciousness and the most elemental form of love.

A quarter millennium after William Blake saw “a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower” and a century after William James laid the foundation of modern psychology with the then-radical assertion that your experience is what you agree to attend to, the great Vietnamese peace activist and Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh developed a simple, powerful instrument for refining attention, kindred to Marie’s poetic assignment, further miniaturized into a portable everyday aid for living with greater aliveness.

Thich Nhat Hanh

In a section of his 1992 classic Peace Is Every Step (public library) titled “Tangerine Meditation,” he observes that if you are offered a freshly picked tangerine, the magnitude of your enjoyment will depend on the level of your mindfulness:

If you are free of worries and anxiety, you will enjoy [the tangerine] more. If you are possessed by anger or fear, the tangerine may not be very real to you.

He goes on to share a reality-regrounding mindfulness practice from his work with children that is, like a great children’s book, a miniature masterpiece of philosophy and a psychological salve for any stage of life:

One day, I offered a number of children a basket filled with tangerines. The basket was passed around, and each child took one tangerine and put it in his or her palm. We each looked at our tangerine, and the children were invited to meditate on its origins. They saw not only their tangerine, but also its mother, the tangerine tree. With some guidance, they began to visualize the blossoms in the sunshine and in the rain. They saw petals falling down and the tiny fruit appear. The sunshine and the rain continued, and the tiny tangerine grew. Now someone has picked it, and the tangerine is here. After seeing this, each child was invited to peel the tangerine slowly, noticing the mist and the fragrance of the tangerine, and then bring it up to his or her mouth and have a mindful bite, in full awareness of the texture and taste of the fruit and the juice coming out. We ate slowly like that.

Art by Maggie Stephenson. (Available as a print.)

Echoing 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,” Thich Nhat Hanh adds:

Each time you look at a tangerine, you can see deeply into it. You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine. When you peel it and smell it, it’s wonderful. You can take your time eating a tangerine and be very happy.

For a different and equally potent take on how attention magnifies joy, drawing on a different orange fruit, savor Diane Ackerman’s sensual poem “The Consolation of Apricots,” then revisit Thich Nhat Hanh’s gentle and powerful wisdom on mastering the art of “interbeing” we call love, the four Buddhist mantras for turning fear into love, and his wonderful hugging meditation — which might just be the loveliest way for this world to stretch itself alive after the long contact-famished stupor of a global pandemic.


Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence

“The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.”

Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence

“In forty years of medical practice,” the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients…: music and gardens.”

Virginia Woolf, savaged by depression throughout and out of her life, arrived at her buoyant epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking in her garden.

“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process.

“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her scientific-poetic serenade to gardening.

But if modern gardening has a patron saint, it must be the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994).

Derek Jarman

In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, Jarman left the bustling pretensions of London for a simple life on the shingled shores of Kent. He took up residence in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant on the headland of Dungeness, a newly designated a conservation area. He named it Prospect Cottage, painted the front room a translucent Naples yellow, replaced the ramshackle door with blue velvet curtains, and set about making a garden around the gnarled century-old pear tree rising from the carpet of violets as the larks living in the shingles sang high above him in the grey-blue English sky.

At low tide, he collected some handsome sea-rounded flints washed up after a storm, staked them upright in the garden “like dragon teeth,” and encircled each with twelve small beach pebbles. These rudimentary sundials became his flower beds, into which he planted a wondrous miniature wilderness of species not even half of which I, a growing gardener, have encountered — saxifrage, calendula, rue, camomile, shirley poppy, santolina, nasturtium, dianthus, purple iris, hare-bell, and his favorite: sea kale. (A gorgeous plant new to me, which I immediately researched, procured, and planted in my Brooklyn garden.)

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

As the seasons turned and his flowers rose and the AIDS plague felled his friends one by one, Jarman mourned loss after loss, then grounded himself again and again in the irrepressible life of soil and sprout and bud and bloom. The garden, which his Victorian ancestors saw as a source of moral lessons, became his sanctuary of “extraordinary peacefulness” amid the deepest existential perturbations of death, his canvas for creation amid all the destruction.

The record of this healing creative adventure became Jarman’s Modern Nature (public library) — part memoir and part memorial, a reckoning and a redemption, a homecoming to his first great love: gardening. What emerges from the short near-daily entries is a kind of hybrid between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Thoreau’s philosophical nature journals.

On the last day of February, after planting lavender in a circle of stones he collected from the beach under the clear blue sky, he writes:

Apart from the nagging past — film, sex and London — I have never been happier than last week. I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Plated lavender and clumps of red hot poker.

It is a different garden of Eden he is building on these windblown shores, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, too bedeviled by millennia of religion-fomented homophobia. Gardening becomes not only his salvation, but his act of resistance:

Before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.

Honeysuckle from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

Acutely aware that he could finish any moment, that he could be the next to go, Jarman turns his garden into processing ground for grief — a personal grief, a cultural grief, a civilizational grief:

The wind calls my name, Prophesy!


Time is scattered, the past and the future, the future past and present. Whole lives are erased from the book by the great dictator, the screech of the pen across the page, your name, Prophesy, your name!

But the ultimate gift of gardening is the way it concentrates and consecrates time, grounding the gardener in a present both conscious of and undistracted by the ongoing cycles of seasonality stretching across all past and all future.

Iris by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

In the first week of March, Jarman arrives at what may be the greatest reward of gardening, evocative of poet Ross Gay’s lovely sentiment that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” He writes:

The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.

I am reminded of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s insight about film, Jarman’s primary creative medium — that its raw material and its gift to the viewer is time: “time lost or spent or not yet had.” I am reminded, too, of Seneca, writing two millennia earlier about mastering the existential math of time spent, saved, and wasted — I have found few that better clarify the difference between the three than the quiet lessons of gardening.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

In the garden, Jarman discovers — or rather befriends — the most disquieting byproduct of time: boredom. Half a century after his Nobel-winning compatriot Bertrand Russell placed a capacity for boredom and “fruitful monotony” at the heart of human flourishing, Jarman contemplates his new cottage life away from London’s familiar “traps of notoriety and expectation, of collaboration and commerce, of fame and fortune,” and writes:

I have re-discovered my boredom here… where I can fight “what next” with nothing.

His boredom, like all of our boredom, becomes a laboratory for presence — a nursery in which to grow the capacity for paying attention, a studio in which to master the vital art of noticing, out of which our contact with beauty and gladness arises — the wellspring of all that makes life livable. In an entry from the last day of March, Jarman shines the beam of his garden-honed attention directly at the poetics of reality:

Sun a pure white globe in a chalky sky, mist blowing across the Ness in milky veils, silent pussy willow woods the palest pastel yellow luminous in the silvery light.

Hare-bell from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

He finds again and again that the attention of presence and the attention of remembrance are one:

My garden is a memorial, each circular bed a dial and a true lover’s knot — planted with lavender, helichryssum and santolina.

And so this living temple of the present becomes a memorial of the future past and a monument to conservation. In one of the short poems punctuating his journal, penned as he records news of a government summit on global warming, Jarman addresses a visitor from the barely recognizable future:

to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
no longer remembered as earth
may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
perform an archeology of soul
on these precious fragments
all that remains of our vanished days
here — at the sea’s edge
I have planted a stony garden
dragon tooth dolmen spring up
to defend the porch
steadfast warriors

Complement Modern Nature — which I discovered through Olivia Laing’s magnificent essays on art, artists, and the human spirit — with Debbie Millman’s illustrated love letter to gardening and poet-gardener Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in willful gladness.


Maria Mitchell’s Telescope and the Kickstarting of Popular Astronomy: The Heartening Story of the World’s First Crowdfunding Campaign for Science

“Patient thought, patient labor, and firmness of purpose are almost omnipotent.”

Maria Mitchell’s Telescope and the Kickstarting of Popular Astronomy: The Heartening Story of the World’s First Crowdfunding Campaign for Science

To be human is to live suspended between the scale of snails and the scale of stars, confined by our creaturely limitations but not doomed by them — we have, after all, transcended them to compose the Benedictus and eradicate smallpox and land a mechanical prosthesis of our curiosity on Mars.

Our most pernicious creaturely challenge is not one of the imagination, which soars so readily when given half a chance, but one of perspective, so easily contracted by the fleeting urgencies of the present. On the scale of our individual lives and on the collective scale of the human future, there are few more gladsome correctives for our limitations than learning to take the telescopic perspective of time — which is why, for the past few years, I have poured my heart and every resource into the endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory as a democratic dome of perspective and possibility for generations to come, and why I inscribed into its mission statement an aspiration irradiated by Whitman’s words: to make this cosmic calibration of perspective available to “all souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different… all nations, colors… all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe.”

Portrait of Maria Mitchell (Maria Mitchell Museum, photograph by Maria Popova)

But it was Whitman’s contemporary Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — America’s first professional female astronomer and a key figure in Figuring (from which this story is adapted) — who furnished the foundational inspiration for the endeavor: her quiet intellect, her indomitable spirit, her discomposing experience while visiting the most venerable observatories of the Old World — an experience that no human being should have along the vector of their talent and their dreams — and the way she emerged from that experience with the absolute determination to eradicate it from the world’s repertoire of exclusion.

Already an international scientific celebrity after the world-renowned comet discovery she had made while still in her twenties, Mitchell had spent a working as the first woman employed by the American federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe — all the while saving up for trip to visit the astronomical bastions of Europe and meet the scientists and poets who were her living heroes. In the summer of 1857, after the hardest winter of her life, she rounded up her savings for a transatlantic ticket, made the arduous journey from her native Nantucket Island to Manhattan, and boarded a steamer to Liverpool. Having narrowly avoided a collision with another ship during the ten-day crossing, it arrived in England on her thirty-ninth birthday.

With a prized letter of introduction from Sir John Herschel — the era’s most esteemed astronomer, who had played a key role in the birth of photography a quarter century earlier and had applauded Mitchell’s comet discovery — she hastened to meet her greatest scientific hero: the polymathic Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist had been coined two decades earlier and whose amiable genius left Mitchell feeling that “no one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her.”

From England, with the help of Nathaniel Hawthorne — who had taken the post as American consul after his ill-fated almost-romance with Herman Melville — Mitchell set out to visit some of Europe’s intellectual luminaries, including her favorite poet, and to look through humanity’s finest telescopes. In Italy, she headed for the Observatory of Rome, mecca of the latest research on spectroscopy, but was jarred to learn that the observatory was closed to women. Somerville, by then revered as Europe’s most learned woman, had been denied entrance. Even Herschel had failed to arrange entry for his scientifically inclined daughter.

Solar System quilt by Mitchell’s contemporary Ellen Harding Baker, made over the course of seven years to teach women astronomy when they were barred from higher education in science. Available as a print and a face mask. (Smithsonian)

Mitchell recorded wryly in her diary:

I was ignorant enough of the ways of papal institutions, and, indeed, of all Italy, to ask if I might visit the Roman Observatory. I remembered that the days of Galileo were days of two centuries since. I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, — that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.

Mitchell was eventually allowed to enter with special permission from the Pope, obtained after American diplomats pressed on her behalf. An hour and a half before sunset, she was led through the church into the observatory, where she marveled at the expensive instruments the papal government employed in studying the very motions for which they had tried Galileo two centuries earlier. She had hoped to see nebulae through the observatory’s powerful telescope, but she was informed that her permission did not extend past nightfall and was hastily sent away. A woman of uncommon clarity about the art of knowing what to do with one’s life, she must have resolved, as soon as the back door spat her out into the narrow alley behind Collegio Romano, that when she built her own observatory, it would welcome any and all who hungered to commune with the cosmos.

Art from What Miss Mitchell Saw — a picture-book biography of Maria Mitchell

Upon returning from Europe, Mitchell was greeted by an extraordinary gift — a five-inch refractor telescope, on a par with the instruments of the world’s greatest observatories, purchased through what may have been the world’s first crowdfunding campaign for science.

Elizabeth Peabody — who had coined the word Transcendentalism, revolutionized education, and introduced America to Eastern philosophy with her translations of Buddhist texts — had envisioned the project and spent years raising the $3,000 for the telescope through a subscription paper, rallying the women of New England to contribute: Kickstarter and Patreon rolled into one, a century and a half before either existed. Just as Mitchell was departing for her European journey, Emerson — the emperor of American intellectual life, whose unexpected praise had just lifted the struggling young Whitman out of despairing obscurity — had lent his voice to the crowdfunding effort on the pages of his popular magazine:

In Europe, Maria Mitchell would command the interest and receive the homage of the learned and polite, while in America so little prestige is attached to genius or learning that she is relatively unknown. This is a great fault in our social aspect, one which excites the animadversion of foreigners at once. “Where are your distinguished women — where your learned men?” they ask, as they are invited into our ostentatiously furnished houses to find a group of giggling girls and boys, or commonplace men and women, who do nothing but dance, or yawn about till supper is announced. We need a reform here, most especially if we would not see American society utterly contemptible.

Maria Mitchell
Maria Mitchell

While touring Europe’s iconic astronomical institutions, Mitchell had been dreaming up an observatory of her own. The crowdfunded telescope came as a wondrous surprise after a particularly difficult stretch for her, marked by the death of her great love, Ida, and her once-brilliant mother’s terrifying descent into dementia. The instrument became the first physical building block of her dream. Behind the school resembling a Greek temple where her father had once served as founding schoolmaster, she erected a simple eleven-foot dome that rotated on a mechanism made of cannonballs. A month before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, her observatory opened its doors and Mitchell began welcoming boys and girls. The crowdfunded telescope is still housed at the more recently built observatory across the street from Mitchell’s humble childhood home in Nantucket.

But beyond its material impact, crowdfunding bequeaths upon its beneficiary something even more powerful — a tangible token of solidarity and faith by a vast number of fellow humans, solidarity and faith that made all the difference to Mitchell as she endeavored to blaze a brand new path. Within a decade of the gift, she became the only woman on the faculty of the newly established Vassar College. She immersed her all-female students in an unexampled curriculum marrying mathematical physics with observational astronomy — something the all-male Harvard, which had dropped its mathematics requirement altogether in 1851, would later replicate. Mitchell’s students became not only the world’s first class of professional women astronomers but the first generation of Americans trained in what we now call astrophysics. Some of them went on to join the ranks of the famed “Harvard computers,” who revolutionized our understanding of the universe long before they could vote.

Maria Mitchell, standing at telescope, with her students at Vassar

Occasionally, Mitchell punctuated her astrophysically ambitious lectures with glimpses of her life-tested credo, which must have sculpted her students’ spirits as much as her mathematical-astrophysical rigor sculpted their minds:

I am far from thinking that every woman should be an astronomer or a mathematician or an artist, but I do think that every woman should strive for perfection in everything she undertakes.

If it be art, literature or science, let her work be incessant, continuous, life-long. If she be gifted above the average, by just so much is the demand upon her for higher labor, by just that amount is the pressure of duty increased… Think of the steady effort, the continuous labor of those whom the world calls “geniuses.” Believe me, the poet who is “born and not made” works hard for what you consider his birthright. Newton said his whole power lay in “patient thought,” and patient thought, patient labor, and firmness of purpose are almost omnipotent.

Complement with more excerpts from Figuring, exploring the little-known humanity beneath celebrated legacies that have shaped our lives, then revisit Mitchell on how friendship transforms us and consider lending a friendly hand in the endeavor to honor her legacy by building New York’s first public observatory.


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