Simple, tenderly expressive line drawings unspool a complex, inexpressible universe of feeling.
By Maria Popova
Kepler may not have revolutionized our understanding of the universe had his illiterate mother not ignited his love of astronomy by taking him to see a comet as a six-year-old boy in 1536. “Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the trailblazing psychologist Donald Winnicott observed four centuries later in his landmark manifesto for motherhood. That debt is perhaps the tenderest, strongest, most complex thread on the enchanted loom of existence.
Animator, illustrator, and director Jenny Wright was midway through her university studies at Central Saint Martin’s College in London when her mother died. In consonance with Borges’s insistence that “all that happens to us… is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art,” she transmuted her grief — that slippery, noxious, all-pervading mercury of sorrow which words can never fully hold — into a soulful animated short film titled “My Mother’s Eyes,” which became her graduation thesis. Simple, tenderly expressive line drawings unspool a complex, inexpressible universe of feeling as this deeply personal memorial unlatches the floodgates to a universal human emotion.
Complement with some beautiful advice to a daughter from pioneering political philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, who died birthing her own daughter, then revisit poet Meghan O’Rourke’s sensitive and trenchant meditation on how to live with loss, composed after her mother’s death.
“What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?”
By Maria Popova
More than two years after a fire started by a teenage boy destroyed 47,000 acres of old-growth forest in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, having just resolved to face the new year like a tree, I found myself on the brink of tears before the blackened trunk of an ancient ponderosa pine as I walked the sylvan scar tissue of the tragedy. A conversation with my hiking companion — a dear friend currently working with the Navajo Nation on preserving and learning from their own ecological inheritance — led to the impossible question of how we can even begin to measure the loss: What is a tree worth? Not its timber, not its carbon offset value, but its treeness — the source of the existential wisdom Whitman celebrated, the mirror Blake believed it holds up to a person’s character, its silent teachings about how to love and how to live and what optimism really means.
The teenager who decimated this green tapestry of belonging was ordered to pay $36.6 million in restitution — a number that staggers at first, but only until one considers the nearly 4,000,000 leaved and rooted victims of the crime, and the many more millions of creatures for whom the forest was home, and even the occasional insignificant human animals who, like my friend and I, bathed in these ancient trees to wash away the sorrows of living.
Noting the disappearance of Maine’s white pines, Thoreau laments how these majestic trees, each endowed with a living spirit as immortal as his own, are vanishing because the men who cut them down for lumber have failed to see their true value. In a passage included in the altogether revitalizing Thoreau and the Language of Trees (public library), he writes:
Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have “seen the elephant”? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones; for everything may serve a lower as well as a higher use.
I have been into the lumber-yard, and the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.
Little did the fathers of the town anticipate this brilliant success, when they caused to be imported from farther in the country some straight poles with their tops cut off, which they called Sugar-Maples; and, as I remember, after they were set out, a neighboring merchant’s clerk, by way of jest, planted beans about them. Those which were then jestingly called bean-poles are to-day far the most beautiful objects noticeable in our streets. They are worth all and more than they have cost, — though one of the selectmen, while setting them out, took the cold which occasioned his death, — if only because they have filled the open eyes of children with their rich color unstintedly so many Octobers. We will not ask them to yield us sugar in the spring, while they afford us so fair a prospect in the autumn. Wealth in-doors may be the inheritance of few, but it is equally distributed on the Common. All children alike can revel in this golden harvest.
The quest to capture nature’s vanishing masterpieces, endowed with the delicacy of flowers and the mathematical precision of honeycombs.
By Maria Popova
Hardly any scientific finding has permeated popular culture more profoundly, transmuted its truth into a more pervasive cliché, or inspired more uninspired college application essays than the fact that no two snowflakes are alike. But for the vast majority of human history, the uniqueness of snowflakes was far from an established fact.
In the early seventeenth century, while revolutionizing science with the celestial mechanics of the macro scale that would land his mother in a witchcraft trial, Johannes Kepler turned his inquisitive imagination to the micro scale with a rather unusual Christmas present he made for a friend — a booklet titled The Six-Cornered Snowflake, exploring in a playful and poetic way the science of why snowflakes have six sides. When one landed on his sleeve in the bitter Prague winter, Kepler found himself wondering why snowflakes “always come down with six corners and with six radii tufted like feathers” — and not, say, with five or seven. Centuries before the advent of crystallography, the visionary astronomer became the first to invite science into this ancient dwelling place of beauty and to ask, essentially, why snowflakes are the way they are. But it would be another two centuries before this intersection of science and splendor enraptures the popular imagination with the nexus of truth and beauty in the form of ice crystals — a task that would fall on a teenage farm-boy in Vermont.
Wilson Bentley (February 9, 1865–December 23, 1931) was fifteen when his mother, aware of her son’s sensitive curiosity and artistic bent, strained the family’s means to give him a microscope for his birthday. Over the next four years, while Walt Whitman was exulting a state over that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Wilson placed every curio he could find under his microscope: blades of grass, pebbles, insects. The day he managed to place a snowflake on the glass plate and to savor its microscopic perfection before it melted, he was besotted. Snowflakes became his life. “Miracles of beauty,” he called them. He began sketching what he saw through his microscope, but felt that his drawings failed to capture the full miraculousness before it vanished into liquid erasure. Although his father was already irate with the boy’s artistic deviation from farm labor, “fussing with snowflakes” rather than pulling potatoes, Wilson somehow persuaded him to invest in a camera.
Weeks before his twentieth birthday, he mounted his new 1.5-inch microscope eyepiece to the lens of his enormous view camera with its accordion-like body fully extended. On January 15, 1880, Wilson Bentley took his first photograph of a snowflake. Mesmerized by the beauty of the result, he transported his equipment to the unheated wooden shed behind the farmhouse and began recording his work in two separate sets of notebooks — one filled with sketches and dedicated to refining his artistic photomicroscopy; the other filled with weather data, carefully monitoring the conditions under which various snowflakes were captured.
For forty-six winters to come, this slender quiet boy, enchanted by the wonders of nature and attentive to its minutest manifestations, would hold his breath over the microscope-camera station and take more than 5,000 photographs of snow crystals — each a vanishing masterpiece with the delicacy of a flower and the mathematical precision of a honeycomb, a ghost of perfection melting onto the glass plate within seconds, a sublime metaphor for the ecstasy and impermanence of beauty, of life itself. A generation after the invention of photography recalibrated our relationship to impermanence, Wilson Bentley devoted his life to popularizing the uniqueness of snowflakes and helping others appreciate the ephemeral “masterpiece of design” that each snowflake is, its singular and fleeting existence never to be replicated, its beauty gone “without leaving any record behind.”
In his later years, he reflected on the adolescent passion that would become his life’s work:
I became possessed with a great desire to show people something of this wonderful loveliness, an ambition to become, in some measure, its preserver.
And so he did. Wilson Bentley, who comes alive in Duncan Blanchard’s wonderful 1998 biography The Snowflake Man (public library), grew famous as Snowflake Bentley, establishing himself as the world’s first snowflake photographer and enrapturing vast audiences with nature’s masterworks of ephemeral perfection.
Half a century after he first grew enchanted with the photomicroscopy of snowflakes, in a 1922 article for Popular Mechanics, Bentley extolled the rewards of this art purchased by physical hardship in below-freezing temperatures:
Every snowflake has an infinite beauty which is enhanced by knowledge that the investigator will, in all probability, never find another exactly like it. Consequently, photographing these transient forms of Nature gives to the worker something of the spirit of a discoverer. Besides combining her greatest skill and artistry in the production of snowflakes, Nature generously fashions the most beautiful specimens on a very thin plane so that they are specially adapted for photomicrographical study.
Months before his death, his life’s work was finally published under the title Snow Crystals — a scrumptious monograph of 2,500 of his most beguiling photographs, which remains in print today as Snowflakes in Photographs (public library).
“The impression we derive from a book, depends much less upon its real contents, than upon the temper of mind and preparation with which we read it.”
By Maria Popova
In the final years of the eighteenth century, the radical political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) entered into a pioneering marriage of equals with another radical political philosopher and novelist: Mary Wollstonecraft, founding mother of what later ages termed feminism. While Wollstonecraft was pregnant with their daughter — future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, a Romantic radical in her own unexampled right — Godwin began channeling their nightly conversations about how to raise happy, intelligent, and morally elevated children in a series of essays later published as The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — a title that gives it a deceptive air of politeness and dated propriety; it is in fact a radical work, scandalous to Georgian and Victorian sensibilities, centuries ahead of its time, anticipating the conclusions of modern social science and psychology, neither of which existed as a formal field of study in Godwin’s time, about some of the fundamentals of optimal parenting.
The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness. Happiness to the individual in the first place. If individuals were universally happy, the species would be happy.
At the heart of this happiness-generating education, Godwin places the importance of instilling in children an early love of literature, which would “inspire habits of industry and observation” that by young adulthood would ferment into “a mind well regulated, active, and prepared to learn.” Although his language is bound in the era’s biases — an era far predating Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of man as the universal pronoun — Godwin’s ideas soar with timelessness, on the wings of poetically articulated truth:
There is perhaps nothing that has a greater tendency to decide favourably or unfavourably respecting a man’s future intellect, than the question whether or not he be impressed with an early taste for reading… He that loves reading, has every thing within his reach. He has but to desire; and he may possess himself of every species of wisdom to judge, and power to perform.
He considers how books not only enrich us with the wisdom of the ideas contained in them, but also sprinkle upon us some the splendor of mind that originated them, producing in us a quickening of both sense and sensibility:
Books gratify and excite our curiosity in innumerable ways. They force us to reflect. They hurry us from point to point. They present direct ideas of various kinds, and they suggest indirect ones. In a well-written book we are presented with the maturest reflections, or the happiest flights, of a mind of uncommon excellence. It is impossible that we can be much accustomed to such companions, without attaining some resemblance of them. When I read Thomson, I become Thomson; when I read Milton, I become Milton. I find myself a sort of intellectual camelion, assuming the colour of the substances on which I rest. He that revels in a well-chosen library, has innumerable dishes, and all of admirable flavour. His taste is rendered so acute, as easily to distinguish the nicest shades of difference. His mind becomes ductile, susceptible to every impression, and gaining new refinement from them all. His varieties of thinking baffle calculation, and his powers, whether of reason or fancy, become eminently vigorous.
Having thus outlined the invaluable lifelong benefits of reading, Godwin endeavors to lay out the elementals of raising a reader. Building on the most central, most radical ethos of his Enquirer essays — the countercultural idea that children ought to be treated not as subjects to authoritarian rule but as equal citizens of life, endowed with intellect and sensitivity, and must be granted the dignity of truth rather than being bamboozled with hypocrisies and shielded from the world’s disquieting realities — he writes:
The child should early begin in some degree to live in the world, that is, with his species; so should he do as to the books he is to read. It is not good, that he should be shut up for ever in imaginary scenes, and that, familiar with the apothegms of philosophers, and the maxims of scientifical and elevated morality, he should be wholly ignorant of the perverseness of the human heart, and the springs that regulate the conduct of mankind. Trust him in a certain degree with himself. Suffer him in some instances to select his own course of reading… Suffer him to wander in the wilds of literature.