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In Search of the Canary Tree: What a Disappearing Ancient Forest Can Teach Us About Resilience and Grace in a Changing World

“There’s simply no imaginable tomorrow — no modeled future scenario, no amount or shade of red — that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today.”

In Search of the Canary Tree: What a Disappearing Ancient Forest Can Teach Us About Resilience and Grace in a Changing World

“I love the cedar,” Walt Whitman exulted in his sublime Specimen Days, “its naked ruggedness, its just palpable odor, (so different from the perfumer’s best,) its silence, its equable acceptance of winter’s cold and summer’s heat, of rain or drouth — its shelter to me from those, at times — its associations — (well, I never could explain why I love anybody, or anything.)”

Whitman, who celebrated the wisdom of trees, might have been both gladdened and saddened to know that one particular species of cedar — Callitropsis nootkatensis, or yellow cedar, which his contemporary and admirer John Muir considered “a truly noble tree… undoubtedly the best the country affords” — holds deep and previously unfathomed wisdom on the greatest ecological challenge our civilization is facing, wisdom both devastating and strangely optimistic.

The story of this majestic tree and the improbable, urgent insight it provides into the parallel potentialities for grim and glorious planetary futures is what ecologist Lauren E. Oakes explores in In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World (public library).

Art by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali from The Forest by Riccardo Bozzi

Both witness and survivor of epochs of change, the yellow-cedar tree has stood sentinel across the Pacific Northwest, revered by native mystics and exploited by industrialists for its lush golden wood, its growth-rings encoding a record of good and bad fortune dealt indiscriminately by the long hand of geological time. Kindred to the giant sequoia, it is not a true cedar but rather a cypress, also known as yellow cypress or Nootka cypress, after the Nootka Sound of Vancouver Island, where it first entered the annals of botany.

Oakes — one of those science writers who can rise, in her finest passages, to the rare category of enchanter — made the yellow cedar the focal point of her research not long after earning her doctorate. It would soon become her lens on the largest ecological problems — and their most auspicious solutions — of our time. She writes:

I came to Alaska looking for hope in a graveyard. Ice melting, seas rising, longer droughts — in a world seemingly on fire, I chose to put myself in some of the worst of it. The Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska is a collection of thousands of islands in one of the scarce pockets remaining on this planet where thick moss blankets the forest floor and trees range from tiny seedlings to ancient giants. But I wasn’t loading into that Cessna four-seater to look for fairy-tale forests of spruce, hemlock, and cedar. I was flying in search of the forests I’d study — the graveyards of standing dead trees and the plants I so wanted to believe could tell me, through science, that maybe the world is not coming to an end.

Art by Cécile Gambini from Strange Trees by Bernadette Pourquié — an illustrated atlas of the world’s arboreal wonders.

Oakes describes her first embodied encounter with the specter of the yellow cedar as she hovers over the Alaskan coastline in a small jet plane, about to land and commence her research:

To the left, the verdant coastline broke off into inlets and side channels. To my right, I could see the steep hillsides covered in white skeletons of dead trees — standing on end like telephone poles, leafless ghosts of the towering cypress. Boulder-sized rocks on the beaches looked like little specks in relation to the large tracks of terrain with dying trees, the canopies of foliage in faded sepia tone.

I had been so focused on building a sound scientific study that wouldn’t get me or my crew killed that I hadn’t given much thought to what I would feel when I first saw the dead. From the bird’s-eye view, the giant trunks looked like thousands of toothpicks stuck in the earth. If trees were people, anyone would have called it a tragedy — an epidemic running rampant throughout the community in the largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest on Earth. I felt the tiny hairs on my forearms rise.

“We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov wrote in her superb poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World” in recognition that such a response to witnessing the tragedy of another species is, of course, the only truly natural response — the response we cannot help but have the moment we unlearn our civilization-conditioned delusion that we are somehow separate from the rest of nature. Rachel Carson knew this in contemplating science and our spiritual bond with nature: “Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”

It is from this deeply seated response that Oakes wrests her direction of research as a scientist and her direction of hope — that ultimate driver of transformation and survival — as a human being:

There was no driving on from the graveyards of standing dead, no going home, and no forgetting. I didn’t know it then, but those trees would change my life. In the moment, soaring above them, they made me feel vulnerable to our warming world in a way I had never felt before.

There’s a limit to the change we can tolerate, I thought. There’s a threshold and tipping point for every species — humans included.

[…]

What I didn’t know then was that these dead trees would eventually give me more than just hope. They’d give me a sense of conviction about our ability to cope with climate change. They’d motivate me to do my part. They’d move me from pessimism about the outlook of our world to optimism about all we still can do. As we made our way back down Slocum Arm, I stopped focusing on the dead trees and started looking around them. I could see green peeking up and around the barren trunks. I wondered if there was a new forest forming and what individuals could survive amidst the changes occurring. They were there. I could see them reaching toward the light through the broken canopies. I was committed to finding an answer — but for more than just the fate of the trees.

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

A century and a half after the great naturalist John Muir so memorably and poetically observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Oakes set out to investigate the interleaved fates of trees and people, of the local and the global. On foot and kayak, she traveled across Alaska’s coastal forests to speak with hunters, Native weavers, naturalists, climate change deniers, and foresters, fusing ecology and social science in an effort to understand why a species that had survived the tumult of eons was dying so rapidly, what could be done about it, and how both the problem and its improbable solution might illuminate a new path forward for us as an ecologically responsible species. It is a matter of both science and storytelling, reason and reflection — “Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote, “is only a report.” Our search for truth, after all, is inseparable from our hunger for meaning — a hunger we feel at the core of our being, inside the rings of our varied experiences. Oakes writes:

We create and re-create narratives throughout our lives to make sense of what happened, to process experience, to interpret and reinterpret our view of the world as life unfolds. I believe that beautiful and difficult process is what it is to be human.

[…]

Scientific facts rely upon assumptions; they are blocks built upon one another. But what I learned in the archipelago came from a mix of science and the act of doing that work; of striving for another layer of understanding in lived experience. Our own truths, felt in the heart and known in the mind, are transient as we create the storied landscapes of our lives, again and again and again. So this is me, at this point in time, finding my way into tomorrow in a world destined, as some argue, to become uninhabitable. It is a story of refusing my own fear of what a warming world will mean for me in my lifetime; a story of becoming an unexpected optimist against a backdrop of dying forests and in a profession where pessimism is often the common response.

The kind of optimism Oakes cultivates in the course of her yellow-cedar research, both ecological and sociological, is not a blind and passive hope but the kind Walt Whitman saw as our mightiest force of resistance — a sane and sane-making optimism best articulated by a naturalist named Greg Steveler, whom Oakes interviews along the way. He tells her:

A forest is a concept. A forest is an actuating algorithm that we are catching at a moment. But the beauty, to me, one of the principal beauties is to try to imagine the stream of matter and energy through this moment from where it’s coming from to where it’s going. So that’s the forest.

[…]

I don’t do hope.. One of the reasons I think geology has become important to me is that it helps me pass the pain I just mentioned to you. I’m getting better at visualizing deep time in both directions. It makes me realize that the present moment of human depredation is definitely going to be fleeting. Other things will change in ways that I can’t imagine. But there will be ancient things again in the world at some point, and there have been. So it gives my spirit respite to live in remote times, either future or past… Here’s the substance of it: In the modern world, I think it’s intellectually dishonest to be hopeful, but it’s equally stupid to be hopeless. You can’t live out of a hopeless life.

In consonance with Zadie Smith’s insight into the necessary interplay of optimism and despair, he adds:

What occurred to me a few years ago was that I don’t have to get caught in that trap. The best thing for me to do is to develop my inner voice and to steer as close to that as I can and to act as if what I do matters. And allow the future to decide what comes of who I am… There was a fairly brief period in my life when I was pretty well philosophically prostrated by this because I couldn’t bring myself to play these little hope games and say, ‘Oh, see that little thing over there, notice now that the car is using a few gallons per hour less,’ or, ‘Look, someone just put a solar panel on their roof. And so things are getting better!’ Well, they’re not getting better. I didn’t want to play that game with myself, and yet I didn’t want to be trapped in the abysm of being depressed over it. I want to live a more joyful life than that.

[…]

Grace is what we decide to take with us and what we leave behind.

Half a century earlier, conservationist Mardie Murie had drawn on her enchantment with Alaska to help craft the language of the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act — possibly the most lyrical piece of legislature in human history: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man* and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” But in the course of her conversations with the various human stakeholders in the plight of the yellow cedar, Oakes is jolted into the realization that the wildness as such doesn’t exist and never existed — “instead of a physical reality, it’s a state of mind.” Or, rather, it is different states in different minds.

Two of the people she encounters — a Tlingit weaver named Kasyyahgei, who goes by the English name Ernestine, and her niece and apprentice, Cathy — would articulate this notion with staggering intensity. The forest, they felt, gave their people their identity. “Wilderness is a curse word,” Ernestine tells Oakes, then Cathy adds:

I would rather educate the people and see — have them learn the value of what they’re using, as opposed to set aside and make it all stop… Because once you’ve set that in motion, it becomes political football. Who wants to rape the land the most? We’re a minority here. We’re a small voice trying to say there’s true value in this land. This is one part of it that you’re checking, the cedar.

Echoing Rachel Carson’s courageous insistence that the designation and administration of nature “is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics,” Oakes reflects in a sentiment that highlights the complexities and inner contradictions of any ecosystem, including that of human society:

To sit there in Ernestine’s home by her loom and hear her call wilderness a curse word, to claim the designation itself is to blame for the imbalance we’ve created on our planet, that struck me.

Our separation from nature stems from our early efforts to protect it? And that separation is the cause of our problems today? There was an irony and unexpected twist — the once well-intentioned act of protecting wild places had broken the relationships needed to sustain the larger whole over a much longer time frame. It was the exact opposite of what Stegner and the National Park Service would have wanted. What I had once fought for, she was fighting against, but I didn’t feel defensive. I felt like I had something to learn.

[…]

Formally designating lands as “Wilderness” had severed the relationships she and her people had cultivated with the natural world. Ernestine said their relationship to the land and trees had always been one of balance and respect. Just as a curse word divides two people in conversation, setting aside nature tore it apart from humanity. For someone like Ernestine, drawing lines on a map and preserving places for people to connect with “nature” made no sense. This approach was only logical to people who had lost that connection and already severed relationships.

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

Teri Rofkar — another Tlingit Native, also a weaver — highlights this predicament with the insightful insistence that the term natural resource only furthers this artificial divide and the framing of nature as an exploitable commodity. Rather, replacing the term with the word relationship would begin the repairing of our bond with nature. (We know, after all, that relationship is the forest’s fabric of life.) “When we resource, we don’t make the ties of what was lost in order to gain something,” she tells Oakes, who echoes Carson’s insistence that “it is not half so important to know as to feel and writes:

There’s an objective world of the measurable — one where I can identify the species and count the saplings and run the statistics on a large dataset of forests affected by climate change. There’s an objective world where the patterns from interviews reveal that the people most connected to nature are also the ones most prepared to act and respond as it changes around them. Then there’s a whole realm of the immeasurable that’s deeply intertwined with the measurable. Where adapting requires collaboration and working across the boundaries that climate change ignores; where mitigating the damage requires both restraint and bold action. Where what I feel is just as important as what I know. It is what comes with intuition based on knowledge.

With an eye to the intricate interchange between relationship and responsibility, Oakes frames the central question animating her work:

At what point will adaptation become triage, caring for the people most affected? Like an epidemic, an extreme weather event can devastate whole communities of people, but when do we start investing in getting out in front of the next one? … Waiting for the top-down approach is an excuse for doing nothing from the bottom up. Adaptation requires me to stop thinking about climate change as someone else’s problem and accept it as my own. It requires me to stop thinking about the global risks and to start seeing what’s happening in my own community, and then to reach out to others. It requires me to consider the more vulnerable places and populations to ask, “What can I do to help?” These are the things this cypress, and all the people connected to it, have taught me. What happens at the local scale matters when it comes to climate change because that’s where people’s lives are carried out.

Wood specimens from Archie F. Wilson’s landmark collection of arboreal samples. Photomicroscopy by Stanley Yankowski / The Smithsonian

The most beautiful and moving gift of Oakes’s story and her approach is how, by contracting the focus of attention and awareness to the pinhole of the local, to this one living dying species, it radiates insight into the largest global problems, widening the field of vision for possible solutions, widening the locus of lucid hope. A century after Hermann Hesse wrote 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,” Oakes reflects on what the yellow-cedar tree has to teach us and what it asks of us:

I can observe the changes occurring around me and embrace the struggle to accept them, to respond to them, to adapt to them. I can look ahead and live today holding space for tomorrow. I can fight for what we can still curtail. I can play a part, not live apart, and I can act with care for others when the floods hit, when the seas rise, when the snow melts, the rivers run dry, and the flames rage. Defeat may only be a failure to adapt.

If fear is the absence of breath, and faith is a positive force, I want to breathe into an uncertain future. If this tree species and all the people connected to it gave me one great gift, it is this: the realization that there’s simply no imaginable tomorrow — no modeled future scenario, no amount or shade of red—that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today. To me, that is thriving. To me, in this rapidly changing world, that is grace. It is how I choose to live with what I know.

Complement In Search of the Canary Tree — a splendid belated addition to my favorite books of 2018 — with forester Peter Wohlleben on the astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, biologist David George Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most interesting trees taught him about life, and Henry David Thoreau on the prayerful language of trees.

BP

The Best of Brain Pickings 2018

The splendors of the unknown, the uncertain, and the unclassifiable, truth and beauty at the intersection of poetry and science, the timeless tangles of the heart.

In this annual review, as usual, “best” is a composite measure of what I most enjoyed thinking and writing about, and what readers most enjoyed reading and sharing. It follows the annual selections of the year’s loveliest children’s books and overall favorite books.

Here is to the intellectual and spiritual electricity of the eclectic, and to a beautiful new orbit.

* * *

The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage

Read the article here.

* * *

A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan

Read/hear the poem here.

* * *

Life, Loss, and the Wisdom of Rivers

Read the article here.

* * *

Figuring

Read the article here.

* * *

Two Hundred Years of Blue

Read the article here.

* * *

Singularity: Poet Marie Howe’s Beautiful Tribute to Stephen Hawking and Our Belonging to the Universe

Read/hear the poem here.

* * *

A Gentle Corrective for the Epidemic of Identity Politics Turning Us on Each Other and on Ourselves

Read the article here.

* * *

A Velocity of Being: Illustrated Letters to Children about Why We Read by 121 of the Most Inspiring Humans in Our World

Read the article here.

* * *

How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

Read the article here.

* * *

Kahlil Gibran on the Courage to Weather the Uncertainties of Love

Read the article here.

* * *

Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair

Read the article here.

* * *

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality

Read the article here.

* * *

Elizabeth Gilbert on Love, Loss, and How to Move Through Grief as Grief Moves Through You

Read the article here.

* * *

Against the Illusion of Separateness: Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful and Humanistic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Read the article here.

* * *

Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert

Read the article here.

* * *

Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance

Read the article here.

* * *

Iris Murdoch on Storytelling, Why Art Is Essential for Democracy, and the Key to Good Writing

Read the article here.

* * *

Create Dangerously: Albert Camus on the Artist as a Voice of Resistance and a Liberator of Society

Read the article here.

* * *

The Hour of Land: Terry Tempest Williams on the Responsibility of Awe and the Wilderness as an Antidote to the War Within Ourselves

Read the article here.

* * *

Carl Sagan on Mystery, Why Common Sense Blinds Us to the Universe, and How to Live with the Unknown

Read the article here.

* * *

Bear and Wolf: A Tender Illustrated Fable of Walking Side by Side in Otherness

Read the article here.

* * *

Literary Witches: An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women Writers Who Have Enchanted and Transformed the World

Read the article here.

* * *

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

Read the article here.

* * *

From Euclid to Equality: Mathematician Lillian Lieber on How the Greatest Creative Revolution in Mathematics Illuminates the Core Ideals of Social Justice and Democracy

Read the article here.

* * *

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

Read the article here.

* * *

Georgia O’Keeffe on the Art of Seeing

Read the article here.

* * *

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time”

Read/hear the poem here.

BP

George Sand’s Only Children’s Book: A Touching Parable of Choosing Kindness and Generosity Over Cynicism and Greed, with Stunning Illustrations by Russian Artist Gennady Spirin

“It is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.”

George Sand’s Only Children’s Book: A Touching Parable of Choosing Kindness and Generosity Over Cynicism and Greed, with Stunning Illustrations by Russian Artist Gennady Spirin

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil. Sometimes, evil comes in one of its deceptively benignant guises — everyday smallnesses of spirit like cynicism and the particularly virulent strain of unkindness disguised as cleverizing, which the golden age of social media has so readily and recklessly fomented.

In youth, when our solidity of soul is most precarious, when we most hunger for peer approval and are most susceptible to cultural reinforcement, we are most vulnerable to the easy payoff of being cynical or clever over the deep, often difficult rewards of being kind.

The great French novelist, memoirist, and playwright Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand (July 1, 1804–June 8, 1876), set out to model a prescient antidote to a culture that rewards cynicism and selfishness over kindness and largeness of heart in her only children’s book, originally composed in 1851 but published in English for the first time in 1988, with stunning illustrations by the then-Soviet artist Gennady Spirin.

George Sand by Gennady Spirin

The author of some eighty novels and numerous plays, stories, and essays animated by her love of nature and her devotion to social change, Sand supported herself and her children by her pen in an era when women were rarely financially independent by their own work and hardly any were professional writers. During the 1848 uprising in France, she started her own liberal newspaper. She attracted great controversy with her outspoken advocacy of women’s rights, her habit of wearing men’s clothing and smoking large cigars, and her passionate convention-defying relationships with both men and women, most famously with the composer Frédéric Chopin. Dostoyevsky revered her as “one of the most clairvoyant foreseers” and one of his greatest influences. Margaret Fuller — who catalyzed American feminism and who appears as a central figure in Figuring — greatly admired Sand’s writing and the way she lived her values, and when they finally met in Paris, Fuller found in her “goodness, nobleness, and power that pervaded the whole — the truly human heart and nature that shone in the eyes.”

Sand’s forgotten children’s novel, The Mysterious Tale of Gentle Jack and Lord Bumblebee (public library), joins the canon of little-known and lovely children’s books by celebrated authors of literature for grownups, including Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom, Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round, William Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree, and James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man.

We meet Gentle Jack — the youngest of seven children, born to unkind, unscrupulous, and greedy parents who have managed to convert all the other children to their cynical worldview, except him. Instead, Gentle Jack has become the laughingstock of the family — his parents scorn him as too stupid, for he wouldn’t follow in their wicked ways, and his siblings tease and bully him, taking his boundless kindness for weakness.

Gentle Jack bears the abuse stoically. But he wishes from the bottom of his large, aching heart that his parents would love him as much as he loves them. Often, he takes his great sadness into the forest to find refuge by his favorite tree — an old, hollow oak hidden away by rocks and brambles.

One day, after particularly brutal abuse at home, Gentle Jack lies weeping beneath his oak when something stings his arm. Sand writes:

He looked up and saw a huge bumblebee, which sat there without moving and stared at him in a most insolent fashion.

Jack took hold of the bee by its wings and gently placed it on the palm of his hand.

“Why did you hurt me, when I have done nothing to hurt you?” he asked. “Go on, fly away and be happy.”

After releasing the bee, Jack tends to his sting with some forest herbs and dozes off, only to awaken and discover in astonishment “a tall, fat gentleman dressed in black from head to toe, standing in front of him.”

The gentleman stared at Jack with enormous round eyes and said in a loud booming voice, “You have done me a service I shall never forget. Come, child, ask for whatever you most desire.”

When Gentle Jack responds that there is nothing he longs for more than for his parents to love him, the mysterious man replies that it is “a very difficult wish to grant” but that he would do his best. He declares that Gentle Jack is kind, but he must become clever in order for his parents to love him, and he will make him clever. The boy responds true to his nature:

“Oh, Sir!” exclaimed Jack. “If, in order to become clever, I must also become wicked, then please don’t make me clever. I would rather remain stupid and continue to be kind.”

“And what do you expect to achieve by being kind in a world full of wicked people?” asked the gentleman.

“Alas, Sir, I don’t know how to answer your question,” said Jack, who was becoming more and more frightened. “I’m not clever enough for that. But I have never done anyone any harm. Please don’t make me want to, or give me the means of doing so.”

After proclaiming him a fool, the fat man sweeps his great black velvet cloak and disappears into the forest, promising to make the boy clever the next time they meet. Still jolted by the encounter, Gentle Jack reluctantly heads home, dreading another beating for being out so long. Upon his return, his mother scolds him, then tells him that he is the luckiest boy in the world, for a nobleman by the name of Lord Bumblebee had just stopped by the house. After eating an enormous jar of honey, for which he had paid handsomely, he had asked after the family’s youngest child. Upon hearing Gentle Jack’s name, he had exclaimed that this was the very child he had been looking for and that he would make his fortune. Then he had vanished without another word.

Gentle Jack’s mother, greedy for the nobleman’s riches, promptly shoves her son out the door, instructing him to find Lord Bumblebee’s castle.

And so the two meet again. This time, in addition to all his riches, Lord Bumblebee offers to make him clever by teaching him the “sciences” of magic and witchcraft if he would be his son. But Gentle Jack remains true to his nature:

“You are most kind, Sir,” said Jack, “but I have parents already, and although they have other children they love more than me, they might need me some day and it would be wrong of me to leave them.”

When Gentle Jack returns home, convinced that his loving loyalty would make his parents love him in turn, his mother roughly jilts his embrace, asking instead what bounty he has brought back from the nobleman’s castle. Upon discovering that not only has Gentle Jack brought nothing back, but he had refused to become “the heir of a man who was richer than the king himself,” his parents begin to beat him, then dress him in rags and send him back to the nobleman.

Woven of equal measures sweetness and severity, the story builds into an ever-accelerating test of character.

When Jack turns fifteen and Lord Bumblebee comes to terms with the disappointment that he would not have children from his own marriage, he offers once again to adopt the boy, but at a Faustian cost — Jack would inherit all the Lord’s riches, but he would have to fight endless, ruthless battles to keep them.

The evil nobleman sets out to instill in the boy his own cynical and selfish credo. After showing him the merciless combat and cunning by which those in power maintain their position, he tells him:

In this world, you must rob or be robbed, murder or be murdered, be a tyrant or a slave. It is up to you to choose: Do you wish to conserve wealth like the bees, amass it like the ants, or steal it like the hornets? The surest way, I believe, is to let others do the work and then take from them. Take, take, my boy, by force or by cunning; it’s the only way to achieve happiness.

If Jack were to choose to be a bumblebee like him, he too would be inducted into the order of magicians like Lord Bumblebee, but he would have to swear a terrible oath: “to abandon compassion and that virtue which men call honesty.” Incredulous of the proposition, the gentle boy inquires whether all magicians must take this oath.

“There are those,” replied Lord Bumblebee, “who swear to exactly the opposite and who make it their business to serve, protect, and love all living creatures. But they are just fools.”

“Well, Lord Bumblebee,” replied Jack, “you haven’t succeeded in making me clever, because I prefer those spirits to yours, and I have no desire whatsoever to learn how to plunder and to kill. I thank you for your good intentions, but I request your permission to return home to my parents.”

“Fool,” replied Lord Bumblebee. “Your parents are hornets who have forgotten their origins.”

“Well, then,” replied Jack, “I will go into the wilderness and join the good spirits.”

Enraged by the boy’s unrelenting goodness, Lord Bumblebee declares that he would not let him — he would sting him to death. At this utterance, he transforms into a hideous insect and begins chasing Gentle Jack through the forest. The terrified boy, leaping headlong into a brook for cover, begins calling on the “good spirits” for help.

Suddenly, a great blue dragonfly appears and, flying in front of him, beckons the boy to follow her. The skies open into a heavy downpour, impeding Lord Bumblebee’s pursuit.

But this is not salvation. Part II of the story, titled “How Gentle Jack Reached the Enchanted Island at Last and Why He Could Not Stay There,” presents the ultimate test of character.

Gentle Jack finds himself in a heavenly, sweet-scented fairyland — an idyllic world where “there were children, as sweet as cherubs, who chased each other and turned somersaults, and lovely maidens who sat plaiting flowers into each other’s hair,” a place where “young folk made music and danced while old folk sat and watched.”

He discovers that the blue dragonfly had been his fairy godmother in disguise — the queen of the good spirits. She had happened to be passing through the land of his birth — “a land like any other, a mixture of goodness and evil, of good and bad people” — at the very moment he was born and she had blessed him at birth with gentleness, honesty, and kindness.

Long ago, she tells him, Lord Bumblebee had ruled and ravaged Gentle Jack’s homeland by corrupting its inhabitants with greed. In punishment for his evil deeds, the godmother-queen had turned him into a common bumblebee, “condemned to crawling, hiding himself away, and buzzing around an old oak tree in the forest which he had originally planted with his own hands when he was master and tyrant of the country” — a punishment that could only be lifted by Gentle Jack’s hand, on the day he says to the bumblebee, “Fly away and be happy.” Only then would Lord Bumblebee regain his human incarnation, and only if he promised to make Jack very happy.

Jack also learns that one day on the enchanted island is equivalent to a hundred years in his homeland, and in the day since his arrival, Lord Bumblebee had once again corrupted his compatriots, turning them into thieves and hoarders — affirmation for the real-world sentiment John Steinbeck would articulate from the peak of World War II two centuries later: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.” The queen tells her godson:

The spirit of greed and theft has stifled the spirit of kindness and generosity in every heart and has driven into oblivion the great knowledge which you alone, of all who were born on this unhappy earth, now possess.

Upon hearing this, Gentle Jack realizes that he is not stupid after all and that his loving kindness is the only cure for the small-spirited suffering of his people. (“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Tolstoy — who also admired and was influenced by Sand — would write to Gandhi half a century later.) But when the queen tells him that he must not worry about it any longer, for on the enchanted island he is immortal, impervious to sorrow, and protected from all evil, Gentle Jack can’t find contentment in this privileged comfort. He throws his arms around his godmother and speaks from his large heart:

Smile on me, dear godmother, so that I may not die of grief when I leave you — because leave you I must. No matter that I have neither parents nor friends left in my homeland, I feel that I am the child of that country and must serve it. Since I am the possessor of the most beautiful secret in the world, I must share it with those poor people who hate each other and who are to be pitied. No matter, also, that I’m as happy as the good spirits, thanks to your kindness. I am, nonetheless, a mere mortal, and I want to share my knowledge with other mortals. You have taught me how to love. Well, I feel that I love those evil, mad people who will probably hate me, and I ask you to lead me back among them.

With a kiss, the queen tells Jack that while her heart is breaking to see him go, she loves him all the more for having understood his duty:

The knowledge I have given you has borne fruit in your soul. I will give you neither a lucky charm, nor a magic wand to protect you against the wiles of the evil bumblebees, because it is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.

Instead, she allows him to pick as many flowers from her meadow as he wishes — magical flowers that make every person who inhales their scent gentler, kinder, and more beneficent, flowers he could hand out in his country to aid him in what the queen knows will be “a terrible and dangerous struggle” against evil.

And so, stepping onto a rose petal boat, Gentle Jack returns to his land as a prophet of love, goodness, generosity, and beauty. When he is assaulted by angry, avaricious mobs, he waves his fragrant flowers at them until the entire population is “miraculously calmed.”

Lord Bumblebee eventually gets wind of Gentle Jack’s miracles and sends an ambassador to invite him to his court. Despite his new friends’ admonitions that the tyrant could be up to no good, Gentle Jack accepts the invitation, eager to convert even the evilest man in the land.

There is no sugary happy ending to the story, no lulling assurance that good always prevails over evil. Perhaps because Sand’s own country was still haunted by the grim specter of the French Revolution, she composes a sad, beautiful, cautionary ending — a realist’s reminder that good only prevails when we put all of our might and our ethic of love and our unflinching commitment to kindness behind it, for, as Zadie Smith would write nearly two centuries later in her spectacular meditation on optimism and despair, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

The Mysterious Tale of Gentle Jack and Lord Bumblebee is out of print but well worth the used-book hunt. Complement it with Voltaire’s trailblazing sci-fi philosophical meditation on the human condition, adapted in a lovely illustrated vintage children’s book, then revisit other works by great writers scrumptiously illustrated by great artists: Tolstoy illustrated by Maurice Sendak, Mark Twain illustrated by Norman Rockwell, Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Brothers Grimm illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti, George Orwell’s Animal Farm illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dalí, and Goethe’s Faust illustrated by Harry Clarke.

BP

Stranger in the Village: James Baldwin’s Prophetic Insight into Race and Reality, with a Shimmering Introduction by Gwendolyn Brooks

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) wrote as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves in 1960. Twenty-six years later, in the last spring of his life, Baldwin — by then one of the world’s most formidable forces of cultural transfiguration — visited the Library of Congress on the invitation of Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks — the trailblazing poet who had become the first black writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize thirty-six years earlier — had chosen Baldwin for the event concluding her appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States. Nearly eighty at the time, she would far outlive him and would come to recognize, in the discomfiting hindsight of history, his profound and prophetic insight into the frayed fabric of his society, as well as his enduring wisdom on what it would take to reweave it.

The event, a recording of which is preserved in the Library of Congress archives, would be one of Baldwin’s last major public appearances. Brooks introduces him with these shimmering words:

You know the phrase larger than life. If that phrase is valid at all, it likes James Baldwin. This man has dared to confront and examine himself, ourselves, and the enigmas between. Many have been called prophets, but here is a bona fide prophet. Long ago, he guaranteed “the fire next time” — no more water, but fire next time. Virtually the following day, we, smelling smoke, looked up and found ourselves surrounded by leering, singing fire. I wonder how many others have regarded this connection. And, no, James Baldwin did not start the fire — he foretold its coming. He was a pre-reporter — he was a prophet.

His friends enjoy calling him Jimmy, and that is easy to understand — the man is love personified. He has a sweet, soft, lay, loving, enduring smile. [Baldwin smiles, audience laughs]. He has a voice that can range from eerie effortless menace — menace educational and creative — to this low, cradling, insinuating, and involving love. This love is at once both father and son to a massive concern — a concern for his own people, surely, but for the cleansing, the extension of all the world’s categories. No less, surely, since he knows, surely, that the fortunes of these over here affect inevitably those over there.

Essayist, novelist, poet, playwright, new French Legion of Honor medalist, human being being human: James Baldwin.

Baldwin proceeds to read from his work, beginning with the ending of an essay he had written more than three decades earlier, during his short stay in the small Swiss village of Leukerbad at the outset of his life in Europe, titled “Stranger in the Village” and later published in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library). Composed in 1953 — the same cultural moment in which his compatriot and fellow prophet Rachel Carson was bringing her own prescience to the other great problem of their time, which also remains unsolved in ours — the essay stuns with its timeliness today and stands testament to Baldwin’s singular gift as a prophet and seer into past, present, and future.

Baldwin writes:

The cathedral at Chartres… says something to the people of this village which it cannot say to me; but it is important to understand that, this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them. Perhaps they are struck by the power of the spires, the glory of the windows; but they have known God, after all, longer than I have known him, and in a different way, and I am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone and seeming to say that God and the devil can never be divorced. I doubt that the villagers think of the devil when they face a cathedral because they have never been identified with the devil. But I must accept the status which myth, if nothing else, gives me in the West before I can hope to change the myth.

In a passage of bone-chilling prescience, affirming Zadie Smith’s insistence that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Baldwin adds:

Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world — which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white — owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us — very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will — that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

Illustration by Yoran Cazac from Little Man, Little Man — Baldwin’s only children’s book

In a sentiment that reverberates with astonishing relevance three generations later, Baldwin — America’s poet laureate of “the doom and glory of knowing who you are” — concludes by framing the difficult reality we must face rather than flee from in order to nurture a nobler, healthier, and more just society:

The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

The Price of the Ticket — which also gave us Baldwin on the creative process, our capacity for transformation as individuals and nations, and his definition of love — remains an indispensable and indeed prophetic read. Complement it with Baldwin on resisting the mindless of majority, how he learned to truly see, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, his advice on writing, his historic conversation with Margaret Mead about forgiveness and responsibility, and his only children’s book, then revisit Gwendolyn Brooks on vulnerability as strength and her advice to writers.

BP

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