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What Trees Teach Us About Human Nature, Relationships, and the Secret to Lasting Love: Wisdom from a 17th-Century Gardener

“Not only rational and irrational, but even inanimate creatures have a voice, and speak loudly to men, and it is our duty to learn their language, and hearken to them.”

Since the dawn of time, trees — the oldest living things in our world — have been our silent companions, which we’ve transmuted into the myths and metaphors through which we make sense of the world — from their deity-like role in ancient Indian legends to their long history as the perfect visual metaphor for visualizing human knowledge to their symbolic representation of the cycle of life. Perhaps because they are so strong and so silent, bearing steadfast witness to our earthly lives and while reaching up toward the heavens, we’ve long projected our spiritual longings onto trees and turned to them for answers to our existential questions.

Four centuries before Hermann Hesse proclaimed trees “the most penetrating of preachers,” the English author Ralph Austen, who wrote in great detail and with great beauty about various aspects of gardening, explored just that in a peculiar pamphlet titled The Spiritual Use of an Orchard or Garden of Fruit Trees (public library) — the companion to his 1653 book A Treatise on Fruit-trees, showing the manner of grafting, setting, pruning, and ordering of them in all respects. Beneath the highly religious language of the era and the highly esoteric subject of the book lie unexpectedly elegant metaphors for human concerns of eternal resonance to secular life — from the secret of lasting relationships to the true test of character.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

The book was republished nearly two centuries later, with this disarming note to the reader from the editor and publisher, a T. Pettit from London’s Soho, making the modern reader — this modern reader, at least — wistfully wishful that publishers today had such courtesy and warmth for their audiences:

Come, now learn a parable of the Fig tree — and (believe it) there are but two things requisite to enable you to learn to profit or profitably:

first, a heart to receive instruction;
second, The Great Teacher for your instructor;

and then, I am sure you will get heavenly lessons by heart.

I leave the worthy Author to tell his own story, and so bid you heartily welcome to a participation of some of the Fruits to be gather’d from this Orchard.

Grace be with you, and farewell,
so says your Servant,
The Editor.

Waltham Abbey,
September 26, 1847

In the original 1653 “Preface to the Reader,” Austen vows to “endeavour to make some spiritual use, and improvement of [fruit trees]” and writes:

When we have gone through all the works and labours to be performed in the orchard, and have received thereby a rich recompense of temporal profits and pleasures in the use of the trees and fruits, we may (besides all that) make a spiritual use of them, and receive more and greater profits and pleasures thereby. Men are not wont to stint themselves at worldly profits, but why are they not willing to receive all kinds of profits, or why are they not willing to receive the greatest, and the best? … How much more foolish and unwise, is he that seeks after temporal profits, and neglects spiritual, and eternal? Therefore be careful to make a spiritual improvement of fruit trees.

Artwork from The Night Life of Trees, based on ancient Indian mythology.

But while Austen’s text bears the deep religiosity of his era, at its heart is a deeper, timeless wisdom that speaks to those of us who are nonreligious but invested in attaining a sense of secular spirituality — for who can deny that trees teach us to belong to our own lives? Trees, he assures us, contain great gospels of truth:

The world is a great library, and fruit trees are some of the books wherein we may read and see plainly the attributes of God, his power, wisdom, goodness &c. … for as trees (in a metaphorical sense)* are books, so like-wise in the same sense they have a voice, and speak plainly to us, and teach us many good lessons.

[…]

Fruit trees, though they are dumb companions, yet (in a sense) we may discourse with them… We may read divine truths in them, as in a book consisting of words and sentences… Not only rational and irrational, but even inanimate creatures have a voice, and speak loudly to men, and it is our duty to learn their language, and hearken to them.

To do this, Austen argues, requires that we begin seeing other creatures as more than mere means to our practical ends — a remarkably prescient case, given that half a millennium later, we still struggle to stop operationalizing creatures far closer to us on the evolutionary chain than trees. Beneath his religious language, a hallmark of his era, is a deeper message about how we commune with the universe by attending to all of its life forms so we can glean what Mary Oliver memorably called “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.” Austen writes:

If we make use of creatures to serve our turn only in reference to our toward man, we make not half that use of them as we ought, we should study the creatures and learn from them, to bring us nearer the Creator, climbing up by them, as by step, or stairs, till we ascend to the highest good.

How much of the goodness and excellencies of God do fruit trees show forth when they (in their seasons) flourish with leaves, blossoms and fruits; especially considered not only as they appear beautiful to the eye, but also with all their inward beauties and perfections, their virtues, and uses in the life of man?

Centuries before tree-hugging became a cultural trope, Austen extols the rewards of tree-whispering as a form of contemplative practice and intimacy with our own minds:

Fruit trees discover many things of God, and many things of ourselves, and concerning our duty to God. We enquire of, and discourse with fruit trees when we consider, and meditate of them, when we search out their virtues and perfections… when we pry into their natures, and properties, that is speaking to them.

And when we (after a serious search) do make some use and result of what we see in them, when we collect something from them concerning the power, wisdom, goodness, and perfections of God, or our duty to God, that is the answer of the fruit trees; then fruit trees speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.

Our considerations of them are the questions we put to them, and the inferences or conclusions, are their answers. Those are the lessons they teach us… Fruit trees are a Text from which may be raised many profitable doctrines… Many things may be learned from fruit trees for spiritual profit… Fruits of faith, love, joy, peace, and other fruits of the spirit, bunches of grapes, for the feeding, and refreshing of our souls…

‘Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences’ by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth from Encyclopédie (1780), from Manuel Lima’s The Book of Trees.

Austen, who was only forty-one at the time of this treatise and by that point had already planted more than a thousand fruit trees with his own hands, draws on his experience with these silent sages to offer a number of apt metaphors for the central concerns of human life. In one passage, he explores what the grafting of fruit trees teaches us about compatibility in human relationships. Half a millennium before modern psychologists and relationship gurus began pointing to shared values as the single most important factor in lasting relationships — that is, relationships in which the partners nurture each other’s continual growth — Austen writes:

Grafts and stocks joined together of contrary, or much different natures, will not grow, nor thrive together; if they be joined in grafting, either the graft grows not at all, or else very poorly and weakly, and in a few years decays and dies; but if the kinds of trees are joined together according to rules of nature and art, then they thrive together vigorously, and bear fruits plentifully… Persons joined in any relation, they have comfort or affliction together according to their natures.

[…]

Likeness is both the cause and the bond of love.

And yet, Austen admonishes in a remarkably modern sentiment, this similarity shouldn’t be of the superficial kind — much like one wouldn’t graft two trees that have similar leaves but thrive in wholly different conditions, one shouldn’t seek a mate merely on the basis of appearance or alignment of demographic variables like class or income. He counsels:

Likeness in natures, manners, customs, begets love, and distance in these causeth dislike, and sometimes hatred… This should teach all who intend to enter into the stage of marriage, to look well into their choice, that it be upon good grounds , and not for worldly advantages in the first place, as most do, and match a soul to the earth, between which there’s no likeness, nor proportion: neither are they to look so much at likeness in the more low, and inferior respects, as person, age, birth, friends, riches, &c. (though care is to be had in these) as to that great likeness, in natures, manners, habits, and principles of the mind, for these are the springs and the ties of love, therefore “be not unequally yoked together.”

In a sentiment rather ominous given its proximity in time to Henry VIII historic break with the Catholic Church in order to get the first true divorce, Austen adds:

The sad experience of many thousands may be a sufficient warning to others.

If that love flows according to that likeness of natures, then let this teach us to strive for increase of grace…

Austen seems to remind us, too, that lasting, nourishing relationships are daily work:

Every act of grace adds something to the habit, so that the habits of grace are mightily confirmed by their frequent operations.

Austen also admonishes against mistaking appearances from true grace, arguing that — like trees — the people most obsessed with the shape and style of their persona are most vacant in the substance of their personhood:

Fruit trees that bring forth the fairest and most beautiful blossoms, leaves, and shoots, they (usually) bring forth the fewest, and least fruits; because where nature is intent, and vigorously pressing to do one work (spending its strength there) it is at the same time, weak about other works; but distinct, and several works of nature, in moderate and remiss degree, are all promoted at the same time… Generally those persons who are excessive, and most curious about the forms of duties have least of the power of godliness.

Artwork from The Night Life of Trees.

The true test of character, Austen suggests through his arboreal metaphor, is in the fruits of our personhood — our motives, the actions they produce, and the aftertaste those leave in others — rather than in the appearance of our persona:

The fruits of trees discover plainly of what kind the trees are: the leaves and blossoms … may deceive us, but the fruits cannot deceive us, but discover manifestly of what nature the trees are… The ways, and conversations of men discover what their natures are: If men of discerning judgments will but exactly observe, and try the actions of others, they may (by degrees) conclude from what principles they act [but] from the actions and ways of some persons, a man cannot easily conclude this; vices in some are clothed in the habits of virtues.

Complement The Spiritual Use of an Orchard or Garden of Fruit Trees with a lovely children’s book based on an arboreal allegory for the human imagination, the fascinating history of visualizing human knowledge through trees, and Eve Ensler’s beautiful meditation on how trees lead us back to ourselves.

* Only a century earlier, Gutenberg had ensured that trees are books in a less-than-metaphorical sense.

BP

The Unlikely Roads That Lead Us Back to Ourselves: Eve Ensler on How a Tree Saved Her Life

An emboldening story of reawakening to the “insane delight” of merely being.

Tony Award-winning playwright, performer, and activist Eve Ensler is best-known for the paradigm-shifting 1998 cultural classic The Vagina Monologues and the monumental V-Day movement that sprang from it. She is also a woman of hard-earned wisdom on how traumatic experience makes us leave our bodies. Her harrowing and hope-giving book In the Body of the World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection (public library) chronicles Ensler’s tumultuous journey and the paths — often confusing, usually surprising, never easy, yet always simple — that lead us back to our bodies and our whole selves.

On this winding road back to herself, Ensler encountered a most unexpected sherpa: a tree — one of those strange and wonderful companions to our existence, which Hermann Hesse called “the most penetrating of preachers” and in which we have found the secret life of the spiritual world, the great mysteries of science, and the perfect visual metaphor for visualizing human knowledge. Trees are, after all, the oldest living unitary things in the world — and something about the patience with which they bear witness to the world makes them speak deeply to life and death.

One tree did precisely that for Ensler. She paints the backdrop of her lifelong resistance to the transformation to follow:

I have been afraid of trees. I have felt the Earth as my enemy. I did not live in the forests. I lived in the concrete city where I could not see the sky or sunset or stars. I moved at the pace of engines and it was faster than my own breath. I became a stranger to myself and to the rhythms of the Earth. I aggrandized my alien identity and wore black and felt superior. My body was a burden. I saw it as something that unfortunately had to be maintained. I had little patience for its needs.

She recounts the curious, almost mystical effect of a particular tree outside her hospital room as she lay fighting for life after a monstrous cancer had ravaged her body:

What I hadn’t anticipated was the tree. I was too weak to think or write or call or even watch a movie. All I could do was stare at the tree, which was the only thing in my view. At first it annoyed me and I thought I would go mad from boredom. But after the first days and many hours, I began to see the tree.

On Tuesday I meditated on bark; on Friday, the green leaves shimmering in late afternoon light. For hours I lost myself, my body, my being dissolving into tree.

Illustration from The Night Life of Trees

The tree became an antidote to all the habitual ways in which we escape from ourselves — from the gentle aliveness of the world, both inner and outer — and launch into a deadening trot on the hedonic treadmill, placing our fragile sense of worth on doing rather than being. Ensler writes:

I was raised in America. All value lies in the future, in the dream, in production. There is no present tense. There is no value in what is, only in what might be made or exploited from what already exists. Of course the same was true for me. I had no inherent value. Without work or effort, without making myself into something significant, without proving my worth, I had no right or reason to be here. Life itself was inconsequential unless it led to something. Unless the tree would be wood, would be house, would be table, what value was there to tree? So to actually lie in my hospital bed and see tree, enter the tree, to find the green life inherent in tree, this was the awakening. Each morning I opened my eyes. I could not wait to focus on tree. I would let the tree take me. Each day it was different, based on the light or wind or rain. The tree was a tonic and a cure, a guru and a teaching.

She traces the origin of her arboreal antagonism:

“I never want to see another tree,” I said with bravado at twenty-two as I was speeding down a turnpike away from the green hills of Vermont toward Manhattan. I think I said “fucking tree.” I never want to see another fucking tree. It was a joke, but it wasn’t a joke. I hated trees. They had come to mean small towns and small minds, isolation and gossip, long, freezing winters and endless, green, swallowing landscapes, skiing coeds and empty chatter, families and babies, marriage and life. Trees had everything to do with life. I drove that day out of the forests and hills and blue skies and nights of falling stars into concrete, after-hours joints, Mafia hit men, anonymous sex, anonymous despair, gin and bourbon, and an end to morning, let alone trees. I see now how much I wanted to die, or how much I did not want to live with the pain inside me.

A group therapist once said that if you want to understand your relationship to your mother, look at your relationship to groups, but I say, “Look at your relationship to the Earth.” The Earth was terrifying to me and separate, radically apart, foreign. I wanted it so much, I stopped wanting it.

This tree outside my room brought back other trees, trees I had seen without seeing, had loved without loving: the weeping willow at the bottom of my driveway in Scarsdale, madly shedding in the fall, making a shimmering bed of soft white lime leaves; the majestic pine trees in Croatia by the sea, filled with vociferous cicadas in late summer; the single tree in the middle of the Mara in Kenya, the lonely solitary tree that I first sat under with a beaded Masai mother who had stopped the practice of female genital mutilation on her daughter and kept playfully punching my arm with joy; the tree in Kabul, or I should say the stump of an ancient tree that had been cut down and burned by rebels, and the way the old, very wrinkled caretaker of the park cried when he talked about the hundred-year-old tree becoming firewood for some wild men for a few stupid nights.

The tree outside the hospital room window became an invitation to a special kind of silence — an opening to the third of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul.” Ensler recounts:

I had days of silence with my tree and my dear friend and Paris neighbor, MC, who came to stay with me in the hospital. She is Belgian and the quietest person I know. Her silence was new like the tree. At first it was disconcerting, then, over time, delicious. Her presence did not require me to do anything: not to explain or entertain or make sense. She did not ask for anything, and she did not invade the boundaries of my illness. There was a week of silence, of presence, of tree.

[…]

There was the tree. My tree. Not that I owned it. I had no desire for that. But it had come to be my friend, my point of connection and meditation, my new reason to live. I was not writing or producing or on the phone or making anything happen… I was not contributing much more than my appreciation of tree, my love of green, my commitment to trunk and bark, my celebration of branch, my insane delight over the gentle white May blossoms that were beginning to flower everywhere.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree

Ensler was eventually discharged from the hospital, but as chemo besieged her body, a complication returned her to that room and restrapped her to the IV bag. And then the tree performed its silent miracle:

I was back in the room with the tree. This time I felt lonely and sad, deeply sad. Some part of me didn’t want to cooperate or move forward.

The tree seemed to mock my self-pity. I was raging, I was totally exhausted by myself, exhausted by my desperate fear of vanishing into ordinary. I was at the end of my body’s road. Everything had stopped inside me, even tears. I passed out.

When I woke up my bag was full and life, it seemed, was coursing through me. The tree had worked its magic. What I didn’t know was that the tree was actually inside me and saving my life. It turns out that Taxol, one of my chemo chemicals, is found in the bark of the ancient yew tree. Even better, the Taxol is made from the needles of the tree, so the tree does not have to be destroyed. Taxol functions to stabilize the cell structure so solidly that killer cells cannot divide and multiply. It was a tree that was calming and protecting me, fortifying my cell structure so it was safe from attack.

I had finally found my mother.

In a characteristically excellent conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett, Ensler delves further into the details of how the devastating events and experiences of her life — childhood abuse, cancer, the horrific rape and violence she witnessed in the Congo — became her raw material for living:

When I was younger and went through so much violence, I separated myself from all the things that represented life because life was too painful. Beauty, nature, love, children — none of the things felt possible to me. I felt like I had been exiled from that world. And although I looked at it longingly from time to time, I also looked at it with bitterness and the kind of cynical bad-ass self which was, like, I’m on my way to the city and I’ll never see another tree again.

[…]

Every day, every hour, it was as if the tree began to reveal itself to me. Or I began to see the tree or both those things happened together. And I fell in love with that tree. I loved the bark, I loved the trunk, I loved the branches… It was just unbelievable. And by the end of my stay in the hospital, which was a few weeks, the tree actually blossomed these white blossoms and I felt like I was born back into nature somehow. Like I had been asleep, and I had awakened.

In the Body of the World is remarkable in its entirety. Complement this particular meditation with Hesse on what trees teach us about the meaning of life and Katsumi Komagata’s Little Tree — an unbelievably beautiful Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life and death — then be sure to subscribe to On Being for a steady stream of stimulating and deeply enlivening conversations.

BP

Too-ticky’s Guide to Life: Wisdom on Uncertainty, Presence, and Self-Reliance from Beloved Children’s Book Author Tove Jansson

“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”

Tove Jansson (August 9, 1914–June 27, 2001) is among the most imaginative, important, and influential children’s book creators of all time, an artist and writer of unparalleled creative vision and great sensitivity to life’s ineffable nuances. A recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, she had the courage to turn down Walt Disney and build her own creative empire. From her beloved Moomins characters to her spectacular vintage illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit, her stories exude the metaphorical magic of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh tales, the fanciful whimsy of Baum’s Oz world, the contemplative introspection of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and the enchanting symbolism of Carroll’s Wonderland. Philip Pullman has aptly called her “a genius of a very subtle kind” and Neil Gaiman considers her work “a surrealist masterpiece.”

Tove Jansson in 1967 (photograph by Hans Gedda)

Jansson’s singular sensibility springs from her own unusual life. Born to an artistic and rather eccentric family from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, young Tove was raised by wildly creative parents — her father was one of Finland’s greatest sculptors and her mother designed books and postage stamps, illustrated book jackets, and created punchy political cartoons. Jansson completed her formal training in art and graphic design in various institutions across Sweden, Finland, and France, but the origin of her iconic Moomin characters was rooted in an affectionate family joke rather than in her formal training — while studying in Stockholm in her late teens and living with relatives there, Jansson would regularly sneak into the kitchen for treats; her uncle would tease her that a “Moomintroll” lived in the kitchen pantry, ready to breathe cold air down stealthy snackers’ necks.

Tove Jansson: self-portrait © Moomin Characters™

Moominvalley’s main protagonist, Moomintroll, is thus a self-portrait of sorts, but perhaps Jansson’s most interesting character is also the one based on the most intimate part of her life. Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley who solves even the most existential of problems with equal parts practicality and wisdom, was inspired by the love of Jansson’s life — the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, Jansson’s spouse. The two women met in art school during their twenties and remained together until Jansson’s death more than six decades later, collaborating on a lifetime of creative projects — all at a time when queer couples were straddling the impossible line between anguishing invisibility and dangerous visibility.

Jansson and Pietilä crafting characters for the television adaptation of the Moomin series.

Although Too-ticky, clad in her signature red-and-white sweater, appears in a number of the Moomin books, her spirit blossoms most vibrantly in the 1957 gem Moominland Midwinter (public library), where “her common sense often restores order in the valley.” More than mere common sense, however, Too-ticky’s laconic sagacity and aphoristic reflections are full of invaluable wisdom on life.

The book tells the story of Moomintroll who, unlike his family that hibernated from November to April every year, wakes up early and decides to stay up through the harsh Scandinavian winter. He grows angry at the sun’s absence, angry at the raging blizzards, angry at those who seem able to enjoy rather than resent the season of snow and ice. It is a tale of learning to live with the vital discomfort of uncertainty, to get lost in order to find oneself, to surrender to the rhythms of life rather than agonizing in resistance.

Lost in the forest, Moomintroll comes upon a warm light emanating from a cozy hole someone had dug for shelter — “someone who lay looking up at the serene winter sky and whistling very softly to herself.” It is, of course, Too-ticky. When Moomintroll inquires about the song she is whistling, she replies, Whitman-like, with a wonderfully metaphorical answer:

It’s a song of myself… The refrain is about the things one can’t understand. I’m thinking about the aurora borealis. You can’t tell if it really does exist or if it just looks like existing. All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.

This theme of uncertainty and of finding joy in questioning reality is a recurring one for Too-ticky. Echoing the first of Bertrand Russell’s ten famous commandments of teaching, learning, and life“Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” — she offers comforting solidarity in Moomintroll’s lament that he doesn’t understand the snow:

I don’t either… You believe it’s cold, but if you build yourself a snowhouse it’s warm. You think it’s white, but at times it looks pink, and another time it’s blue. It can be softer than anything, and then again harder than stone. Nothing is certain.

In many ways, Too-ticky’s wisdom seems almost Zen Buddhist in nature. In addition to championing the ability to be at peace with uncertainty, she also advocates a minimalist approach to material possessions — when Moomintroll discovers, distraught and indignant, that someone is secretly smuggling things out of his sleeping family’s house, Too-ticky responds:

That’s nice, isn’t it? You’ve got too many things about you. As well as things you remember, and things you’re dreaming about.

Too-ticky is also a sage of the “slow churn” and wise champion of the idea that “anything worthwhile takes a long time.” (Janssen would certainly know — she wrote her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, in 1939 and published it in 1945, but it was not a success; her first critical acclaim arrived in 1946, nearly a decade after she had created the Moomins, with the publication of Comet in Moominland.) When Moomintroll grows angry and impatient with the sun’s refusal to rise, Too-ticky reminds him that hurrying is a toxic way of trying to resist the present:

Don’t be in such a hurry… Soon now. Sit down and wait.

When the sun does appear, it flits across the horizon for a fleeting moment, only to set back down. Moomintroll is even more frustrated, but Too-ticky assures him that the sun, like the myth of the overnight success, follows an incremental rise to brilliance:

He’ll return tomorrow… And then he’ll be a tiny bit bigger, about like a piece of cheese rind. Take it easy.

The story is also a gentle primer on evolution. When Moomintroll, against Too-ticky’s instruction, opens her secret cabinet and finds a strange creature living there, he tells her it was “only a sort of old rat,” but she corrects him:

That was no rat. It was a troll. A troll of the kind you were yourself before you became a Moomin. That was how you looked a thousand years ago.

Moomintroll is so unsettled by the notion that he is related to a mere rat — an elegant allegory for why some people are drawn to such defensive fancies as Young Earth creationism — he storms into the attic to look for an old family album. Janssen writes:

Page after page of dignified Moomins, most often reproduced standing in front of porcelain stoves, or on fret-worked verandahs. Not a single one of them resembled the cupboard troll. “Must be a mistake,” Moomintroll thought. “He can’t be any relation of mine.”

Slowly, Moomintroll makes peace with Too-ticky’s knowledge:

He went down and looked at his sleeping Pappa. Only the nose bore some resemblance to the troll’s. But possibly, a thousand years ago.

There is almost a cosmology element to this undercurrent — a reminder that, however discomfiting this too may be to most humans, we are indeed a cosmic accident. Janssen traces the evolution of Moomintroll’s understanding:

Suddenly he felt very proud of having an ancestor. And it cheered him no little to think that Little My [Moomintroll’s sister] had no pedigree at all, but rather had come into the world by chance.

But perhaps her most profound wisdom deals with our quintessential struggle to make peace with death, which stems from an inability to recognize the comforting interconnectedness of life. When the Lady of the Cold — the beautiful but formidable priestess of the Great Cold, capable of turning into an icicle any fool so bewitched as to look straight into her eyes — freezes the cheerful little squirrel Moomintroll had befriended, Too-ticky sighs:

It’s very hard to tell if people take any pleasure in their tails when they’re dead.

Death, too, is part of nature’s necessary cycles of growth and decay. When Moomintroll and Little My remonstrate the very mention of death, Too-ticky responds:

When one’s dead, then one’s dead. This squirrel will become earth all in his time. And later on still there’ll grow trees from him, with new squirrels skipping about in them. Do you think that’s so very sad?

Too-ticky’s greatest gift, it appears, is a certain quality of presence — the kind she cultivated in “her own private winter world that had followed its own strange rules year after year” — that allows her to feel one with the world. It is from that standpoint that, when spring finally arrives, she responds to Moomintroll’s accusation that she hadn’t comforted him during the long winter by offering assurance that spring will come, but instead focused on what the world had to offer right there and then. Too-ticky’s answer, emanating a kind of Emerson-like ideal of self-reliance, rings with extraordinary, if uncomfortable, poignancy:

One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.

Moomintroll imbibes Too-ticky’s existential lesson. Soon, when his friend the Snork Maiden comes across “the first brave nose-tip of a crocus” shyly trying to push through snow, she suggests they put a glass over it to protect it from the frost at night. But Moomintroll objects:

No, don’t do that. Let it fight it out. I believe it’s going to do still better if things aren’t so easy.

Decades before the groundbreaking research on why cultivating grit is the greatest key to success, Jansson made the same point with great subtlety and wisdom.

Moominland Midwinter is an immeasurably wonderful read in its entirety, as are all of Jansson’s Moomin books. For another taste, see my favorite one.

BP

Pioneering Astronomer Maria Mitchell on Science and Life: Timeless Wisdom from Her Diaries

“The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) played an enormous and lasting role in paving the way for women in science. The first recognized female astronomer in America and the first woman elected, unanimously, to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mitchell (whose first name is pronounced, unlike mine, mə-RYE-əh) is also considered the first woman employed for a non-domestic specialized skill by the U.S. federal government. She was paid $300 a year for her job as a “computer of Venus” for the United States Nautical Almanac, a mathematically heavy endeavor requiring that she synthesize complex calculations into charts that predicted Venus’s position in the sky for years ahead — information that sailors all over the world used for critical celestial navigation. A champion of civil rights and women’s education, Mitchell reached worldwide celebrity by the time she was forty. Her brilliant mind and scientific genius were eclipsed only by her enormous kindness and her unrelenting humility.

Culled here from Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals (public library | free ebook) is Mitchell’s most timeless wisdom on science, society, and life.

Maria Mitchell. Portrait by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project.

On October 31, 1853, Mitchell writes in her diary:

People have to learn sometimes not only how much the heart, but how much the head, can bear.

(More than half a century later, Zelda Fitzgerald would come to echo the lament in her own private writings.)

A month later, she writes:

There is said to be no up or down in creation, but I think the world must be low, for people who keep themselves constantly before it do a great deal of stooping!

In September of 1854, her journal bespeaks her remarkable work ethic — of which Tchaikovsky and Jack White would be proud, as would Isabel Allende, E. B. White, and Chuck Close — coupled with her keen self-awareness:

I made observations for three hours last night, and am almost ill to-day from fatigue; still I have worked all day, trying to reduce the places, and mean to work hard again to-night.

[…]

The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

On October 17, 1854, as she observes the way her computations reveal both how much she knows and how much she has yet to learn, Mitchell marvels:

The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.

Will it really unroll to us at some future time? Aside from the gratification of the affections in another world, that of the intellect must be great if it is enlarged and its desires are the same.

Like Ptolemy, Mitchell finds enormous revelry and transcendence in astronomy — something Carl Sagan would come to echo more than a century later in his meditation on science and spirituality. Mitchell writes:

One gets attached (if the term may be used) to certain midnight apparitions. The Aurora Borealis is always a pleasant companion; a meteor seems to come like a messenger from departed spirits; and the blossoming of trees in the moonlight becomes a sight looked for with pleasure.

Aside from the study of astronomy, there is the same enjoyment in a night upon the housetop, with the stars, as in the midst of other grand scenery; there is the same subdued quiet and grateful seriousness; a calm to the troubled spirit, and a hope to the desponding.

And later:

Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. ‘All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.’

In fact, Mitchell harbored enormous admiration for the early astronomers, framed by her appreciation of how knowledge evolves:

They were wonderful men, the early astronomers. That was a great conception, which now seems to us so simple, that the earth turns upon its axis, and a still greater one that it revolves about the sun (to show this last was worth a man’s lifetime, and it really almost cost the life of Galileo). Somehow we are ready to think that they had a wider field than we for speculation, that truth being all unknown it was easier to take the first step in its paths. But is the region of truth limited? Is it not infinite?… We know a few things which were once hidden, and being known they seem easy; but there are the flashings of the Northern Lights — ‘Across the lift they start and shift;’ there is the conical zodiacal beam seen so beautifully in the early evenings of spring and the early mornings of autumn; there are the startling comets, whose use is all unknown; there are the brightening and flickering variable stars, whose cause is all unknown; and the meteoric showers — and for all of these the reasons are as clear as for the succession of day and night; they lie just beyond the daily mist of our minds, but our eyes have not yet pierced through it.

Mitchell — who, by the end of her life, greatly prided herself on having earned a salary for 50 uninterrupted years — had her first job as a librarian at Nantucket’s legendary Atheneum. There, she further cultivated the love of books amidst which she had grown up. In a diary entry from January of 1855, she captures with remarkable eloquence the greatest — and, today, tragically forgotten — responsibility of the true librarian (or writer, or editor, or curator): To invite people beyond the frontiers of their existing knowledge, to elevate them, to broaden their curiosity rather than catering to their familiar wants:

I do not suppose that such works as those issued by the Smithsonian regents are appreciated by all who turn them over, but the ignorant learn that such things exist; they perceive that a higher cultivation than theirs is in the world, and they are stimulated to strive after greater excellence. So I steadily advocate, in purchasing books for the Atheneum, the lifting of the people. ‘Let us buy, not such books as the people want, but books just above their wants, and they will reach up to take what is put out for them.’

“The most important knowledge is that which guides the way you lead your life,” mused Seneca in Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, and Mitchell articulates a parallel sentiment in September of 1855:

To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy; but there are no laws for your individual case — yours is one of a myriad.

During her European tour in 1858, Mitchell visits England’s Greenwich Observatory and presages Brian Cox’s recent meditation on science as a prerequisite for democracy and progress, and observes:

It is singular what a quiet motive-power Science is, the breath of a nation’s progress.

To be sure, Mitchell’s interests — as is typical of most great scientists — spanned well beyond science. She had a profound appreciation for beauty, poetry, and art. As this charming gripe from a diary entry during the same visit indicates, she was also a budding book design critic and indignant defender of literature’s sanctity:

I was vexed when I saw some of our most miserable novels, bound in showy yellow and red, exposed for sale. A friend told me that they had copied from the cheap publications of America. It may be so, but they have outdone us in the cheapness of the material and the showy covers. I never saw yellow and red together on any American book.

Indeed, she saw the appreciation of art as a kind of mental discipline and spiritual hygiene:

Health of body is not only an accompaniment of health of mind, but is the cause; the converse may be true, — that health of mind causes health of body; but we all know that intellectual cheer and vivacity act upon the mind. If the gymnastic exercise helps the mind, the concert or the theatre improves the health of the body.

Mitchell was also a keen observer of human nature. In visiting with a revered elderly Cambridge astronomer who was unable to articulate what steps precipitated his discovery of a new planet, Mitchell observes:

It is always so — you cannot get a man of genius to explain steps, he leaps.

In another journal entry, she considers what modern psychology has since demonstrated and Anaïs Nin has eloquently echoed — the notion that our character and sense of self is a constantly evolving mosaic rather than a static sculpture:

The same individual is not the same at all times; so that between two individuals there is a mean or middle individual, and each individual has a mean or middle self, which is not the man of to-day, nor the man of yesterday, nor the man of to-morrow; but a middle man among these different selves….

In visiting Italy and reflecting on Galileo’s legacy, Mitchell considers the friction between science and religion — a friction bemoaned before her by Galileo himself and after her by Neil deGrasee Tyson and countless contemporary thinkers:

I know of no picture in the history of religion more weakly pitiable than that of the Holy Church trembling before Galileo, and denouncing him because he found in the Book of Nature truths not stated in their own Book of God — forgetting that the Book of Nature is also a Book of God.

It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.

Mitchell herself found enormous beauty and revelry in her science. In an entry from February of 1853, she writes:

I am just learning to notice the different colors of the stars, and already begin to have a new enjoyment. Betelgeuse is strikingly red, while Rigel is yellow. There is something of the same pleasure in noticing the hues that there is in looking at a collection of precious stones, or at a flower-garden in autumn. Blue stars I do not yet see, and but little lilac except through the telescope.

Two years later, she returns to this sacred source of colorful awe:

I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety. … What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars, and astonish the feminine taste by new brilliancy in fashion.

Still, Mitchell’s loyalties remained unflinchingly rooted in the heart of science. Another journal entry:

All their book learning in astronomy should be mathematical. The astronomy which is not mathematical is what is so ludicrously called “Geography of the Heavens” — is not astronomy at all.

After the Civil War, Mitchell was invited to teach at the prestigious new Vassar College, where she was the only woman on the faculty. Frustrated with the conservative mindset of even an institution as liberal as Vassar, Mitchell writes in her diary on October 31, 1866:

We wait and ask for precedent. If the earth had waited for a precedent, it never would have turned on its axis!

Mitchell laments in a diary entry from 1866:

The phrase ‘popular science’ has in itself a touch of absurdity. That knowledge which is popular is not scientific.

She later adds:

One of the unfavorable results of the attempt to popularize science is this: the reader of popular scientific books is very likely to think that he understands the science itself, when he merely understands what some writer says about science.

(How proud and thrilled she would’ve been to see the work of such revered science-popularizers as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Brian Cox, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

In a sentiment Feynman himself would come to echo in his meditation on the role of scientific culture in modern society, Mitchell laments:

This ignorance of the masses leads to a misconception in two ways; the little that a scientist can do, they do not understand, — they suppose him to be godlike in his capacity, and they do not see results; they overrate him and they underrate him — they underrate his work.

And yet Mitchell did very much believe in inviting “the masses” into the whimsy of science:

It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people.

But perhaps she saw the challenge of engaging with science as one of will, not acumen — in another diary entry, she writes:

Great is the self-denial of those who follow science.

In 1871, she extols the critical role of imagination in science:

We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.

Mitchell brings her generosity of spirit, her humility, and optimistic curiosity to her travels, debunking the American-abroad stereotype. Visiting Prussia, she writes:

I try, when I am abroad, to see in what they are superior to us, — not in what they are inferior.

Our great idea is, of course, freedom and self-government; probably in that we are ahead of the rest of the world, although we are certainly not so much in advance as we suppose; but we are sufficiently inflated with our own greatness to let that subject take care of itself when we travel. We travel to learn; and I have never been in any country where they did not do something better than we do it, think some thoughts better than we think, catch some inspiration from heights above our own — as in the art of Italy, the learning of England, and the philosophy of Germany.

In her typical fashion of observing a small circumstance and extrapolating from it a grand truth about life, Mitchell writes while encountering travel difficulties due to two warring railroads in Russia:

War, no matter where or when it occurs, means ignorance and stupidity.

And yet Mitchell was a relentless optimist when it came to the capacity of the human mind and spirit. In a diary entry, chronicling her observation of the Denver solar eclipse in 1878, she writes:

We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more are we capable of seeing.

Maria Mitchell: Life, Letters and Journals is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, a remarkable glimpse of a remarkable mind that shaped modern society in ways we’re only just beginning to fully realize. Do yourself a favor and grab the free download.

UPDATE: Find more of Maria Mitchell, her unusual life, and her far-reaching legacy, in my book Figuring.

BP

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