Brain Pickings

Search results for “hesse”

Wintering: Resilience, the Wisdom of Sadness, and How the Science of Trees Illuminates the Art of Self-Renewal Through Difficult Times

“Wintering… is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.”

Wintering: Resilience, the Wisdom of Sadness, and How the Science of Trees Illuminates the Art of Self-Renewal Through Difficult Times

Rilke reverenced winter as the season for tending to the inner garden of the soul: “Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing,” he wrote to a grief-stricken young woman who had reached out to him for consolation. “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” Albert Camus wrote a generation later in his stunning essays about travel, which are really meditations on homecoming to our strength. Camus was soon to become the second-youngest Nobel laureate of all time and soon to die in a car crash with an unused train ticket to the same destination in his pocket. We are not invincible. But in how we garden the winters of the soul, we find the summer of our strength and the bloom of our fragile aliveness.

That is what Katherine May explores in Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (public library) — a gorgeous book, a generous book, a layered book of uncommon sensitivity and substance, drawn from May’s own experience of living through a deep and disquieting winter of life. She writes:

[Since childhood] we are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.

Art by Valerio Vidali from The Shadow Elephant by Nadine Robert — a subtle children’s book about honoring sadness.

Like happiness — which, as George Eliot well knew, is a skill we incrementally master as we grow older — sadness, May reminds us, is also a skill: There are self-punishing ways to be sad, and self-salving ways to be sad. In skillful wintering, we learn the difference between the two. Rilke, who wintered amply and wisely, knew that great sadnesses clarify us to ourselves — winters of the spirit come in various sizes and cycles, each meaningful, all cumulative in their soul-sculpting beneficence. May writes:

When you start tuning in to winter, you realise that we live through a thousand winters in our lives — some big, some small… Some winters creep up on us so slowly that they have infiltrated every part of our lives before we truly feel them.

[…]

To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical.

This cyclical nature of the seasons of the spirit is counter to our dominant cultural narrative of self-improvement, with its ethos of linear progression toward states of ever-increasing flourishing. It is counter, too, to the world’s major spiritual traditions, with their ideas of salvation and enlightenment. (Any longtime practitioner of Zen or metta meditation, for instance, knows that while we do reach moments of so-called enlightenment — a gladsome dissolution of the self into an all-pervading lovingkindness — these moments are inevitably punctuated by visitations of our habitual tendencies toward egoic shortness of temper, the self-absorption we call melancholy, and other conditioned modes of unenlightened conduct.) And yet befriending this cyclical rhythm of our inner lives, May observes with life-tested clarity, is the key to wintering — to emerging from the coldest seasons of the soul not only undiminished but revitalized.

Ever/After by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Drawing on the analogy of tress — these most fertile metaphors for our humanity, in which we see ourselves and see quiet wisdom on how to live with ourselves, on how to live with each other, on the root of authenticity, on what it means to be an artist and what it means to be human — she writes:

We are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear, a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

In one of the book’s wonderful portals into the world of science as a means of comprehending our elemental humanity, May considers the astonishing actuality of trees beyond the merely metaphorical:

The dropping of leaves by deciduous trees is called abscission. It occurs on the cusp between autumn and winter, as part of an arc of growth, maturity, and renewal. In spring and summer, leaf cells are full of chlorophyll, a bright green substance that absorbs sunlight, fueling the process that converts carbon dioxide and water into the starch and sugar that allow the tree to grow. But at the end of the summer, as the days grow shorter and the temperature falls, deciduous trees stop making food. In the absence of sunlight, it becomes too costly to maintain the machinery of growth. The chlorophyll begins to break down, revealing other colours that were always present in the leaf, but which were masked by the abundance of green pigment: oranges and yellows, derived from carotene and xanthophyll. Other chemical changes take place to create red anthocyanin pigments. The exact mix is different for each tree, sometimes producing bright yellows, oranges, and browns, and sometimes displaying as reds or purples.

But while this is happening, a layer of cells is weakening between the stem and the branch: this is called the abscission zone. Gradually it severs the leaf from access to water, and the leaf dries and browns and in most cases falls off, either under its own weight or encouraged by wintery rains and winds. Within a few hours, the tree will have released substances to heal the scar the leaf has left, protecting itself from the evaporation of water, infection, or the invasion of parasites.

Sundown Poem by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

I have always cherished the bare beauty of winter trees, so fractal and pulmonary against the somber sky — so skeletal, yet so alive. Anyone willing to look closely — and why be alive at all if not to relish the ecstasy of noticing, that crowning glory of our consciousness? — is rewarded with the gasping recognition that the branches are already covered in tiny dormant buds encoding the Braille promise of spring.

May writes:

Most trees produce their buds in high summer, and the autumn leaf fall reveals them, neat and expectant, protected from the cold by thick scales… from the sharp talons of the beech to the hooflike black buds of the ash. Many trees also display catkins in the winter, like the acid-green lambs’ tails of the hazel and the furry grey nubs of the willow. These employ the wind or insects to spread pollen, ready for the new year.

The tree is waiting. It has everything ready. Its fallen leaves are mulching the forest floor, and its roots are drawing up the extra winter moisture, providing a firm anchor against seasonal storms. Its ripe cones and nuts are providing essential food in this scarce time for mice and squirrels, and its bark is hosting hibernating insects and providing a source of nourishment for hungry deer. It is far from dead. It is in fact the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly. It will not burst into life in the spring. It will just put on a new coat and face the world again.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Looking back on her own barren-branched seasons of the soul, she reflects:

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out. This may involve the breaking of a lifelong habit, one passed down carefully through generations: that of looking at other people’s misfortunes and feeling certain that they brought them upon themselves in a way that you never would. This isn’t just an unkind attitude. It does us harm, because it keeps us from learning that disasters do indeed happen and how we can adapt when they do. It stops us from reaching out to those who are suffering. And when our own disaster comes, it forces us into a humiliated retreat, as we try to hunt down mistakes that we never made in the first place or wrongheaded attitudes that we never held. Either that, or we become certain that there must be someone out there we can blame. Watching winter and really listening to its messages, we learn that effect is often disproportionate to cause; that tiny mistakes can lead to huge disasters; that life is often bloody unfair, but it carries on happening with or without our consent. We learn to look more kindly on other people’s crises, because they are so often portents of our own future.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

The whole of Wintering — which explores the biological, psychological, neurochemical, and philosophical subtleties of our state of being in winter the season and winter the metaphor — is a splendid and soul-salving read. Complement it with Thoreau’s transcendentalist strategy for finding inner warmth in the cold of life, Annie Dillard on how winter awakens us to life, Adam Gopnik’s lyrical love letter to the white season, and D.H. Lawrence on trees, solitude, and how we root ourselves when our worlds collapse, then savor more of May’s writing and the personal story from which it springs in her wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.

BP

The Secret Life of Trees: Stunning Sylvan Drawings by Indigenous Artists Based on Indian Mythology

Reverie and reckoning with our relationship to nature between the branches and the birds.

The Secret Life of Trees: Stunning Sylvan Drawings by Indigenous Artists Based on Indian Mythology

Ever since we climbed down from the trees, we have been looking up to them to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. “Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree,” Hermann Hesse wrote a century ago in his sublime sylvan love letter, affirming that “when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

Centuries, millennia before Hesse — before Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Prize for her courageously enacted conviction that “a tree is a little bit of the future,” before scientists uncovered the astonishing language of trees, before Western artists saw in tree silhouettes a Rorschach test for what we are — the indigenous artists and storytellers of the Gond tribe in central India have been reverencing the secret lives of trees as portals into the inner life of nature, into the wildness of our own nature, into a supra-natural universe of myth and magic.

The Tell-Tale Tree

A decade after the Indian artisan community and independent publisher Tara Books created the astonishing handmade masterpiece The Night Life of Trees — intricate portraits of tree-spirits based on ancient Gond mythology, painted by three of the most celebrated living Gond artists and silk-screened by hand using traditional Indian dyes — these wondrous sylvan visions come ablaze anew in a set of black-and-white prints, consummately detailed and alive, silk-screened on handmade paper made of locally sourced cotton waste.

The Antler Tree
The Leaf Tree

The prints, like everything Tara Books make, support their community of artists, craftspeople, and storytellers, some of whom are illiterate, many self-taught, most women, and all devoted to the preservation and celebration of the ancient folk art traditions that have rooted numberless generations into a reverence of the natural world and our relationship with it.

The Allegory Tree
The Blackbird Tree

Leap across epochs and cultures to complement these visual venerations with Mary Oliver’s prayerful tree poem and Pablo Neruda’s prose serenade to the forest, then revisit other treasures from Tara Books: Sun and Moon, a collection of Indian celestial myths illustrated by ten of the country’s finest indigenous artists; Creation, a visual cosmogony of origin myths by one of the Gond artists behind The Night Life of Trees; Waterlife, an exquisite illustrated encyclopedia of marine creatures from Indian folklore; Beasts of India, a bestiary of indigenous animals depicted in various tribal traditions; and the boundlessly gladsome Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit.

BP

Being but Men: Astronomer Natalie Batalha Reads Dylan Thomas’s Cosmic Serenade to Trees and the Wonder of Being Human

“Children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end.”

Being but Men: Astronomer Natalie Batalha Reads Dylan Thomas’s Cosmic Serenade to Trees and the Wonder of Being Human

Trees are unworded thoughts, periscopes of perspective. They are both less alive than we think and more sentient than we thought. In them, we see what we are and see what we can be. From them, we draw our best metaphors for love, for art, for happiness.

Crowning the canon of branched reflections on what it means to be human is the poem “Being but Men” by Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914–November 9, 1953).

Written in 1939 — a time when we were all “men,” a time when Thomas was only twenty-five — and posthumously included in the indispensable Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (public library), it came alive anew at the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating fifty years of Earth Day, in a reading by astronomer Natalie Batalha, who spearheaded NASA’s Kepler mission and its search for habitable worlds outside our solar system and who prefaced her reading with a personal reflection as poetic as the poem:

BEING BUT MEN
by Dylan Thomas

Being but men, we walked into the trees
Afraid, letting our syllables be soft
For fear of waking the rooks,
For fear of coming
Noiselessly into a world of wings and cries.

If we were children we might climb,
Catch the rooks sleeping, and break no twig,
And, after the soft ascent,
Thrust out our heads above the branches
To wonder at the unfailing stars.

Out of confusion, as the way is,
And the wonder, that man knows,
Out of the chaos would come bliss.

That, then, is loveliness, we said,
Children in wonder watching the stars,
Is the aim and the end.

Being but men, we walked into the trees.

Complement with astronaut Leland Melvin — one of a handful of humans in the history of our species to have seen Earth’s trees from the dwelling place of the stars — reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, Mary Oliver’s poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” and Annie Dillard on what mangrove trees teach us about our search for meaning in an impartial universe, then revisit a rare recording of Dylan Thomas reading his iconic poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” along with the story behind it — a poem popularized among a new generation by the final scene of Interstellar, a film entertaining in science fiction the possibilities Natalie’s work in science holds for our shared future as sojourners in space.

Savor more highlights from The Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of science and the wonder of nature through poetry — here.

BP

Essential Life-Learnings from 14 Years of Brain Pickings

On the weight of the world and the weight of the sky.

Brain Pickings was born on October 23, 2006, as a short email to seven friends. Seven years and several incomprehensible million readers into its existence, I began what has since become an annual tradition — a distillation of the most important things I have learned about living while reading and writing my way through life; private learnings offered in the public commons, in the hope that these thoroughly subjective insights of a single consciousness might be of succor or salve to another. It is the only overtly personal writing I do on Brain Pickings. (Though, of course, the whole of it remains a deeply personal exercise in processing my own life and annealing my own ideas through the lives and ideas I celebrate in writing.) We are, after all, made of the same stuff.

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering 19th-century astronomical paintings. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.)

Each year, I have drawn one new learning from that particular season of life. Each year, it has swelled into an existential challenge to prune the vastness, the lushness, the interleaved complexity of experience into a single blade of simple but not simplistic insight into the nature of life, glimpsed from the solitary pinhole of this one life. The challenge has never been more colossal than this past year — the most trying I have lived through, by orders of magnitude. Depression has lowered its leaden cloudscape over me again and again since I was fifteen, but no other year has lidded life more ominously, as the staggering collective grief we are living through together densified the black fog of private loss. In such seasons of life, one is pressed against the limits of one’s being, pressed eventually against the understanding — no, more than understanding and less than understanding: the blind elemental fact — that no matter the outer atmosphere of circumstance, one must lift the inner cloudscape by one’s own efforts, or perish under it.

I chose, by that blind instinct of survivalism we mistake for choice, to lift.

Against this contextual backdrop, here is the central learning drawn from a year so discomposing yet so vital and transformative a verse from the poetry of life. (You can read the previous thirteen here.)

14. Choose joy. Choose it like a child chooses the shoe to put on the right foot, the crayon to paint a sky. Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course; until it becomes an inner law of nature. If Viktor Frankl can exclaim “yes to life, in spite of everything!” — and what an everything he lived through — then so can any one of us amid the rubble of our plans, so trifling by comparison. Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice. So often, it is a matter of attending to what Hermann Hesse called, as the world was about to come unworlded by its first global war, “the little joys”; so often, those are the slender threads of which we weave the lifeline that saves us.

Delight in the age-salted man on the street corner waiting for the light to change, his age-salted dog beside him, each inclined toward the other with the angular subtlety of absolute devotion.

Delight in the little girl zooming past you on her little bicycle, this fierce emissary of the future, rainbow tassels waving from her handlebars and a hundred beaded braids spilling from her golden helmet.

Delight in the snail taking an afternoon to traverse the abyssal crack in the sidewalk for the sake of pasturing on a single blade of grass.

Delight in the tiny new leaf, so shy and so shamelessly lush, unfurling from the crooked stem of the parched geranium.

I think often of this verse from Jane Hirshfield’s splendid poem “The Weighing”:

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

Yes, except we furnish both the grains and the scales. I alone can weigh the blue of my sky, you of yours.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy.