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The Music of Trees: Improvisation, Iteration, and the Science of Immortality

“Potentially, every tree is immortal.”

The Music of Trees: Improvisation, Iteration, and the Science of Immortality

Hermann Hesse believed that if we could learn to listen to the trees, we would achieve profound perspective on our human lives by grasping the deepest meaning of aliveness. He used listening in the metaphorical sense. But the great existential gift of trees — to us in the metaphors they furnish, and to themselves in the materiality of survival — might indeed be a kind of musicality, accounting for their virtuosity at resilience: beyond “the blind optimism” of a tree’s poetic enchantment lies a supersense for listening to the world and responding with inspired ingenuity, encoded with singular wisdom on how to live and how to die.

So suggests arborist William Bryant Logan in his contribution to Old Growth — a wondrous anthology of essays and poems about trees, culled from the decades-deep archive of Orion Magazine, with contributions as varied as Ursula K. Le Guin and Michael Pollan, and a foreword by the poetic bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Perspective by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In an essay titled “The Things Trees Know,” Bryant writes:

To study how trees grow is to admire not only their persistence but also their imagination. Live wood just won’t quit. Every time you knock it down, it comes back again, but when a plant sprouts back, it is not a random shot, like some finger simply raised to make a point. Rather, the growing tip of any stem — what botanists call the meristem — answers with an inborn, complex pattern, like a musical tune.

He draws out the musical analogy, reflecting on Charlie Parker’s famous advice to young musicians on the steps to becoming a true jazz artist: learn the instrument, learn the tunes, and only then soar with the skilled freedom of improvisation that makes jazz. Pointing to Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” as a perfect embodiment of that three-step triumph, Bryant writes:

It begins with a perfectly clean statement of the tune, beautiful in itself for the richness of its tone, notes that are almost solid, so you could build a house out of them. Within three minutes, the tune has modulated into completely unexpected shapes, sizes, rising and falling glissades, stops and starts, pianissimos to fortes, but it never loses the thread of that original tune. Every tree is a jazz player, in just this way, although where a long Coltrane piece might last a quarter hour, a tree’s performance may go on for half a millennium or more.

Understanding a particular tree, Bryant argues, is a matter of discerning “its notes, its scales, its sharps, its flats, and its time signatures.” In the 1970s, the botanists Francis Hallé, Roelof Oldeman, and P. B. Tomlinson identified six sets of choices, which serve as the chords that every tree combines to compose its particular tune: to branch (most trees) or not to branch (palms); if branching, to branch only at the base of the stem or all along it; to grow new branches only upward (staghorn sumac), only outward (pagoda dogwood), or in some combination of the two; to grow each branch in a continuous upward or downward direction determined at its outset, or to change direction as it grows; to flower at the tips of branches (staghorn sumac) or along their sides (maple); to grow the trunk and branches continuously without rest or to have a dormant season.

Winter Moon at Toyamagahara by Hasui Kawase, 1931. (Available as a print.)

Bryant writes:

Out of these six choices, each plant plays its tune, the phrase that has characterized its kind for millions of years. No matter where its seed sprouts, each will try to play its melody.

The tree does this by a process of deft improvisation attuned to the myriad chance-conditions and events of its environment, changing the scale of its melody as needed. (This reminds me of Coltrane’s own observation that jazz musicians are born with a certain feeling “that just comes out no matter what conditions exist.”) Botanists call the tree’s responsive improvisation reiteration. Bryant writes:

It is jazz: take the tune, stretch it, cut it into pieces, put them back together, transpose it up or down, flatten it out, or shoot it at the sky. Each tree gets its chops, gets its charts, and then throws them away. It knows the chart by heart, and so can repeat it with a thousand variations for hundreds of years, as it grows to its full stature, lives among its peers, and grows back down to the ground. Positive and negative morphogenesis, they dubbed the cycle: growing up and growing down.

As soon as the tune is played, the initial reiteration is the first major branch. As a leafy tree grows, it will generate what arborists call scaffold branches. These are the few — maybe five to eight — very large stems upon which the tree will hang most of its crown — that is, most of its smaller branches and their millions of leaves… The skill of the tree as an organism is like Coltrane in his vamping: it brings the variations back to the persisting theme.

In his classic love letter to trees, penned long before the science of reiteration was understood, Hesse observed that trees “struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws” — that is, to play their tune. But as much as they might be, in Hesse’s words, “the most penetrating preachers” in the art of living, they have at least as much to teach us about the art of dying. Beyond the already disorienting science of why a tree, like a human being, is partly dead throughout life, trees are living testaments to Richard Dawkins’s wonderful perspective on the luckiness of dying, virtuosos at the art of letting life go with the same purposeful poise with which it is lived.

Possible Certainties by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Citing a common saying about oaks — “Three hundred years growing, three hundred years living, three hundred years dying.” — Bryant considers the third stage of a tree’s life, known as negative morphogenesis, or “growing down”:

Growing down is not just decay. It is as active and improvisational as was the building up. Roots are damaged or die. Branches are lost to storms. Hollows open up on the trunk and are colonized by fungi like the wonderful and aptly named dryad’s saddle. The tree’s solid circulation system resolves itself back into discrete pathways, some living and some dead. It becomes obvious that scaffold branches were once separate trees, as they become so again, some maintaining their root systems and others losing them. Now the tips of the higher branches begin to die back. Instead of growing new reiteration branchlets on their undersides, as they did in their youth, they now sprout perfect little trees of their species on the tops of the branches, between the trunk and the dead tips. It is a complete restatement of the thematic tune, happening dozens of times among the still-living branches.

What unfolds in this dying stage is a process known as Phoenix regeneration:

Little by little, a tree loses its crown, first small branches, then larger ones. Roots decay. The circulation system that carries water aloft to the leaves starts to break down. When no leaves emerge on a branch, it can no longer feed itself. It dies and falls to the ground, but the tree does not give up. When a giant that was once ninety feet tall has shrunk to a height of twenty feet, little images of itself may sprout from the lower trunk or even from the root flare, wherever a living connection between root and branch survives… It is not impossible that one or the other of those last sprouts — if only they can generate their own stable root systems — may grow once again to ninety feet tall… Potentially, every tree is immortal.

The Leaf Tree of indigenous Gond mythology, from The Night Life of Trees.

Recounting his encounter with a colossal long-fallen Osage orange tree, from the dead trunk of which two miraculous former branches had risen vertically as new trunks lush with life, Bryant returns to his musical improvisation analogy:

It is as though a person rested her arm on the dirt, spread out her palm, and two perfect new arms emerged from her lifeline, complete with all the muscles and tendons and circulation, the hands, palms, fingers, and fingernails. Or perhaps more accurate, as though a person lay down at night and had two new people overnight sprout from his torso, complete from toenails to cowlicks. I think John Coltrane would have loved phoenix regeneration. It is like those moments in “My Favorite Things” where the whole piece seems about to jump off the top end of the soprano sax register, but suddenly the tune takes up again.

Old Growth is a trove of wonder and wisdom in its entirety. Complement this fragment with Dylan Thomas’s short, splendid poem about trees and the wonder of being human, Thoreau on the true value of a tree, and forester and biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus on how the astonishing science of “tree islands” illuminates the key to resilience.


Trees, Whales, and Our Digital Future: George Dyson on Nature, Human Nature, and the Relationship Between Our Minds and Our Machines

“Nature’s answer to those who seek to control nature through programmable machines is to allow us to build systems whose nature is beyond programmable control.”

Trees, Whales, and Our Digital Future: George Dyson on Nature, Human Nature, and the Relationship Between Our Minds and Our Machines

Long ago, in the ancient bosom of the human animal stirred a quickening of thought and tenderness at the sheer beauty of the world — a yearning to fathom the forces and phenomena behind the enchantments of birdsong and bloom, the rhythmic lapping of the waves, the cottony euphoria of clouds, the swirling patterns of the stars. When we made language to tell each other of the wonder of the world, we called that quickening science.

But our love of beauty grew edged with a lust for power that sent our science on what Bertrand Russell perceptively rued as its “passage from contemplation to manipulation.” The road forked between knowledge as a technology of control and knowledge as a technology of acceptance, of cherishing and understanding reality on its own terms and decoding those terms so that they can be met rather than manipulated.

We went on making equations and theories and bombs in an attempt to control life; we went on making poems and paintings and songs in an attempt to live with the fact that we cannot. Suspended between these poles of sensemaking, we built machines as sculptures of the possible and fed them our wishes encoded in commands, each algorithm ending in a narrowing of possibility between binary choices, having begun as a hopeful verse in the poetry of prospection.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Every writer, if they are lucky enough and passionate enough and dispassionate enough, reads in the course of their lifetime a handful of books they wish they had written. For me, Analogia (public library) by George Dyson is one such book — a book that traverses vast territories of fact and feeling to arrive at a promontory of meaning from which one can view with sudden and staggering clarity the past, the present, and the future all at once — not with fear, not with hope, but with something beyond binaries: with a quickening of wonderment and understanding.

Dyson is a peculiar person to tell the history and map the future of our relationship with technology. Peculiar and perfect: The son of mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson and the philosophically inclined physicist Freeman Dyson, and brother to technology investor and journalist Esther Dyson, George rebelled by branching from the family tree of science and technology at age sixteen to live, as he recounts, “in a tree house ninety-five feet up in a Douglas fir above Burrard Inlet in British Columbia, on land that had never been ceded by its rightful owners, the Tsleil-Waututh.”

Art from The Tree House by Dutch father-daughter duo Ronald Tolman and Marije Tolman, 2009

In this tree house he built with his own hands, Dyson shared the harsh winters — winters when a cup of tea poured from his perch would freeze before touching the ground — with a colony of cormorants roosting in the nextcrown fir. There, he watched a panoply of seabirds disappear underwater diving after silver swirls of fish he could see in the clear ocean all the way up from the tree. There, he learned to use, and to this day uses, his hands to build kayaks and canoes with the traditional materials and native techniques perfected over millennia. With those selfsame hands, he types these far-seeing thoughts:

There are four epochs, so far, in the entangled destinies of nature, human beings, and machines. In the first, preindustrial epoch, technology was limited to the tools and structures that humans could create with their own hands. Nature remained in control.

In the second, industrial epoch, machines were introduced, starting with simple machine tools, that could reproduce other machines. Nature began falling under mechanical control.

In the third epoch, digital codes, starting with punched cards and paper tape, began making copies of themselves. Powers of self-replication and self-reproduction that had so far been the preserve of biology were taken up by machines. Nature seemed to be relinquishing control. Late in this third epoch, the proliferation of networked devices, populated by metazoan codes, took a different turn.

In the fourth epoch, so gradually that almost no one noticed, machines began taking the side of nature, and nature began taking the side of machines. Humans were still in the loop but no longer in control. Faced with a growing sense of this loss of agency, people began to blame “the algorithm,” or those who controlled “the algorithm,” failing to realize there no longer was any identifiable algorithm at the helm. The day of the algorithm was over. The future belonged to something else.

A belief that artificial intelligence can be programmed to do our bidding may turn out to be as unfounded as a belief that certain people could speak to God, or that certain other people were born as slaves. The fourth epoch is returning us to the spirit-laden landscape of the first: a world where humans coexist with technologies they no longer control or fully understand. This is where the human mind took form. We grew up, as a species, surrounded by mind and intelligence everywhere we looked. Since the dawn of technology, we were on speaking terms with our tools. Intelligence in the cloud is nothing new. To adjust to life in the fourth epoch, it helps to look back to the first.

Born in the third epoch but identifying with the ways of the first, Dyson finds himself challenged “to reconcile the distinction, enforced by the American educational system, between those who make a living with their minds and those who make a living with their hands.” The challenge feels personal — we have each touched it in some aspect of our lives — but it is a universal challenge rooted in a long-ago bifurcation in our civilizational sensemaking: the split between digital computers, which process one thing at a time in succession, and analog computers, which process the dizzying everythingness of everything all at once. Our brains are analog computers, constantly orienting to reality by weaving a topology of connections into a three-dimensional map of patterns. Our machines hum to one-dimensional algorithms of sequential logical steps. Theirs is the time of bits, ours the time of atoms, the time of Kierkegaard, who knew that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity.”

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

To be sure, there is ample digital coding at work in nature, in the building blocks of life itself — the DNA code used for information storage and information editing across time and generations. Trees, too, are digital computers, integrating myriad continuously changing inputs — available sunlight, available water, soil composition, atmospheric chemistry, wind direction, proximity of other trees — into the single-channel output of growth rings spaced in precise one-year intervals. They embody what may be the fundamental difference between the analog universe, in which time is a continuum, and the digital universe, in which there is no time — only the illusion of time woven of discrete steps, sequential but timeless. In his tree house, the teenage Dyson lived amid growth-rings dating back to the year 1426, a time when none of his European ancestors had set foot or the mind’s eye on those shores.

Imagine coming of age in such palpable contact with the continuity of time against the selective fragmentation we call history. Imagine becoming, in that crucible of awareness, an uncommonly insightful historian of science and technology.

Dyson traces the birth of the digital universe to Leibniz, who developed binary arithmetic after pondering the hexagrams of the ancient Chinese I Ching, then built on his already revolutionary work on infinitesimals to enlist the functions of binary arithmetic — functions analogous to the logical operations “and,” “or,” and “not” — in building the first universal language of binary code: a system of black and white marbles rolling along mechanical tracks, not unlike the zeroes and ones churning the Internet, that would encode into an alphabet of primes the real alphabet and all the concepts with which language is tasked. Leibniz envisioned the result as “a new kind of instrument which will increase the power of the mind much more than optical lenses strengthen the eyes.” This rudimentary digital computer would “work out, by an infallible calculus, the doctrines most useful for life, that is, those of morality and metaphysics.”

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

So began the modern mythos of computation as a controlled instrument for meaning-making, which we call artificial intelligence — the cult at whose altar we daily lay our faith in the ever-swifter logical processing of information, only to find ourselves empty-palmed for meaning and increasingly out of control. Dyson writes:

Leibniz’s digital universe, despite its powers, remains incomplete, just as Isaac Newton, his rival over credit for the invention of the calculus, gave us a mathematical description of nature that predicts everything correctly, but only up to a certain point. The next revolution will be the coalescence of programmable machines into systems beyond programmable control.

Every technology is a technology of thought that carries with it the ideologies of its time. Dyson builds this cautionary model of the future upon the foundation of the past, stratified with the same human tendencies that are now shaping our machines. He paints neither a techno-utopia nor a techno-dystopia but something more nuanced and complex, a kind of ominous autonomous techno-colonialism rooted in the ruthless colonial past: The first high-speed wireless communication network in North America, which manifested the contours of Leibniz’s vision and furnished the rudiments of the Internet, transmitted Morse code over sunlight across 60,000 square miles in a campaign to track down and capture the last free-roaming Apache: nineteen men, thirteen women, and six children.

Not one person alive in the spring of 1886 when the network first began firing — not Thomas Edison, who had just shut down his Menlo Park laboratory and married his second wife, not Walt Whitman who was facing his mortality while contemplating “the similitudes of the past and those of the future” — could have envisioned what would become of these rudiments, just as none of the early digital programmers high on their technicolor dreams envisioned how the algorithms they were composing might one day come to colonize the species that made them. Dyson writes:

Some inventions result from theorizing how something should work and then building it. Others result from building something that works before understanding it.

Pulsing beneath the history of our technologies of thought is the intimation that our unexamined belief in the digital universe as more efficient, powerful, and altogether superior to the analogy might be the product a colossal and catastrophic civilizational blind spot. Dyson challenges some of our basic intuitions and assumptions about analog and digital computing by contrasting our communication systems with those of whales — our evolutionary elders, predating our minds and our machines by fifty million years, whose songs were the only nonhuman sound we encoded on The Golden Record that sailed aboard the Voyager spacecraft to carry the signal of who and what we are for a thousand million years, to some other civilization in the unfathomed reaches of spacetime.

Art from Year of the Whale by Victor B. Scheffer, 1969

Dyson writes:

Whales both perceive their surroundings and communicate using sound, which behaves differently in an incompressible medium like water than in a compressible medium like air. If humans could communicate directly, brain to brain, using light, would we have developed languages based on a limited vocabulary of sounds? Human language, either evolved from or coevolved with sequences of discrete gestures, is optimized to withstand poor transmission over a noisy, low-bandwidth channel and might emerge quite differently among minds not subject to these constraints. Whales are no doubt communicating, but not necessarily by mapping their intelligence to sequences of discrete symbols the way we use language to convey our thoughts. When we play music, the whales might be thinking, “Finally, they are showing signs of trying to communicate like us!”

The difference between analog and digital computing parallels the question of whether a linear, symbolically coded language is a necessary indicator of conscious intelligence or not. In a digital computer, higher-dimensional inputs are reduced to one-dimensional strings of code that are stored, processed, and then translated back into higher-dimensional outputs, with a hierarchy of languages mediating the intervening steps. Large numbers of logical operations are transformed into waste heat along the way. Among analog computers, information can be stored, processed, and communicated directly as higher-dimensional maps.

An epoch after Einstein and Tagore contemplated the notion of a universal mind in their historic conversation, after the physicist John Ambrose Fleming — inventor of the vacuum tube and popularizer of the term “electronic” — exhorted humanity to regard the universe “not as a collection of Things or Events existing apart from any awareness of them by observers, but as manifested Thoughts in a Universal Mind,” after modern neuroscientists predicted the inevitability of a planetary übermind as the next step in the evolution of consciousness, Dyson points to what may be the most astonishing, supernatural-seeming analog sensemaking mesh-network of minds in nature:

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are the largest of the dolphins, evolved from land mammals who returned to the sea more than fifty million years ago. They roam the entire planet as separate populations belonging to a single species, forming complex, persistent matrilineal social structures, with young males mentored by their post-reproductive grandmothers, whose life spans are known to reach a hundred years or more. Breathing, sleep, and other physiological functions are synchronized across the members of a pod. Their communication may be closer to telepathy than to language as we know it, and it could even be that orca mind and consciousness is a parallel, distributed property belonging to the pod collectively as much as to any individual whale.

These questions of consciousness and networked communication, central to our notions of artificial intelligence, grow even more rife with astonishment when we consider trees — organisms that, unlike us and unlike whales, lack minds as we understand them, minds as systems of operations conducted on nervous systems and brains, instead operating by what poet Jane Hirshfield admired as a “blind intelligence.”

Little Painting of Fir-Trees (1922) by Paul Klee, who believed that an artist is like a tree. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Looking back on his time in the Douglas fir tree house, where he lived decades before Suzanne Simard published her epoch-making research on how trees communicate with one another, Dyson writes:

Living without telephone, computer, internet, or even electric light, I had time beyond measure to think. I found myself thinking about what, if anything, a tree might think. Not thinking the way we think, but the way a single neuron thinks, integrating information over time. It might take years to register the premonition of an idea, centuries for an entire forest, networked through synapses established by chemical signaling pathways among its roots, to form a thought. After three years I was no closer to an understanding, except to have gained a lingering suspicion that trees were, in some real and tangible way, as John Ambrose Fleming put it, “manifested Thoughts in a Universal Mind.”


Growth rings in trees are Nature’s way of digitizing time. Some of the split cedar boards paneling the walls of the tree house spanned seven hundred years. I counted the grain in one seven-inch board, and it went back to the year 1426. Halfway through that board, in 1679, Leibniz had imagined his digital computer, with marbles running along mechanical tracks. Two and a half inches ago, in 1778, James Cook had arrived on the Northwest Coast. Bering and Chirikov had arrived half an inch earlier, in 1741. My entire life, so far, spanned one-quarter of an inch.

Relief print from the cross-section of fallen tree by artist Bryan Nash Gill (1961–2013) from his project Woodcut.

With this telescopic view of time and with the hindsight of half a lifetime, having lived through the birth and euphoric adolescence of the modern digital age, Dyson suggests that the digital world will inevitably follow the trajectory of the living world as nature devised it, our algorithms commencing a kind self-referential evolutionary process that will soon altogether slip from our imperious creator-hands to take on a destiny of their own:

A digital universe is populated by two species of bits: differences that are varying in time but invariant in space, and differences that are varying in space but invariant in time. Bits can be stored over time as memory, or communicated across distance as code. Digital computers translate between these two forms of information — structure and sequence — according to definite rules. These powers of translation are more general than the arithmetical functions for which they were first invoked. Nature, too, discovered a method for translating sequences (of nucleotides) into structures (of proteins) — and back. Once this loop is established, evolution will do the rest.


Strings of bits gained the power of self-replication, just like strings of DNA. Thus began a chain reaction, with the order codes persisting largely unchanged, like the primordial alphabet of amino acids, over the seventy years since they were first released.

Nature evolved its analog computers — the nervous systems and brains that encode, store, and use information absorbed from the world, including the brain with which you are parsing this thought — so that organisms can learn to govern their own behavior and control their environment. Digital computers, being the product of our evolution-honed analog minds, cannot but follow the same course. Dyson writes:

Bits are the new electrons. Governing everything from the flow of goods to the flow of traffic to the flow of ideas, information is treated statistically, the way pulse-frequency-coded information is processed in a neuron or a brain. Analog is back, and its nature is to assume control.


Nature’s answer to those who seek to control nature through programmable machines is to allow us to build systems whose nature is beyond programmable control.

And yet something essential and essentially human is lost in our foundational assumption undergirding the digital world, in the strange certainty that binary arithmetic could ever fully represent the way we think. It is the thing all the poets and the rare poetic physicists have pondered all those epochs: the hunger for meaning beyond truth, for the beautiful beyond the binary. Dyson writes:

What if you wanted to capture what everything known to the human species means? Thanks to Moore’s law it takes little time and less and less money to capture all the information that exists. But how do you capture meaning? Even in the age of all things digital, this cannot be defined in logical terms, because meaning, among humans, isn’t logical. Leibniz’s logical utopia fails to close. The best you can do, once you have collected all possible answers, is to invite well-defined questions and compile a pulse-frequency-weighted map of how everything connects. This system, in conjunction with illogical humans, will not only be observing and mapping the meaning of things; it will start constructing meaning as well, the way a dictionary doesn’t just catalog a language, but defines the language, over time. The meaning of something is established, among humans, by the degree to which that something connects to other familiar things. A search engine, mapping those connections, isn’t just a collective model of how we think; increasingly, it is how we think. In time it will control meaning, in the same way as the traffic map controls the flow of traffic, even though no one is in control.

An exquisite mosaic of meaning, this book of subtle and unsythnesizable splendors chronicles and questions the choices we made as a civilization — not always consciously and not always conscientiously — that took us to where we are and shaped what we might become. But Analogia is also Dyson’s tender love letter to his parents, his love letter to the natural world, and his sensitive appeal, drawn both from a dispassionate scholarship of history and from the passions of his own life, for recognizing that the flow of information will neither drown out nor slake the longing for illumination in our primal search for meaning; an appeal for remembering that while the life of the mind filters our experience of the world, the mind is both function and functionary of the life of the body — not digital, not mechanical, but pulsating with analog aliveness, animated by the selfsame forces that rib the whales and ring the trees and constellate the atoms of long-dead stars into these cathedrals of consciousness that consecrate the subjective interpretation we call meaning.

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

Two generations ago, cybernetics pioneer Norbert Weiner made his cautionary case for “the human use of human beings,” prophesying that the world of the future — which is now our present — would be “an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”

Humanity was then too high on those early digital hopes and hubrises to heed his caution.

We now have another chance to listen, another chance to course-correct toward a future that cherishes whale songs above even the most efficient logical sequences of bits, another chance to branch off from the evolutionary tree of digital determinism that we ourselves have seeded.

Another Way by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

José Ortega y Gasset on the True Meaning and Measure of Intelligence

“Intelligence asserts itself above all not in art, nor in science, but in intuition of life.”

José Ortega y Gasset on the True Meaning and Measure of Intelligence

In her spare, stunning poem “Optimism,” Jane Hirshfield reverences the “blind intelligence” by which a tree relentlessly orients toward the light to survive — a kind of unreasoning, life-hungry intuition distinctly different from the way we humans define and measure our own intelligence, our measurements and definitions mired in myriad cultural biases and blind spots. The Western model of intelligence, with its fixation on the logical-mathematical mind, is in some deep sense the ultimate “blind intelligence,” dappled with blind spots that obscure so much of the raw, unmediated attentiveness to life that make it not only survivable but worth living.

That is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in a wonderful aside toward the end of On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — the gauntlet he throws at our culturally inherited, unexamined ideas about love and what makes us who we are.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Lamenting the “extremely small” number of truly intelligent people, Ortega hastens to anchor the lament in a definition of intelligence rooted not in the intellectual snobbery of Western high culture, which equates intelligence with erudition and acumen in the narrow domain of verbal-mathematical ability, but in something more akin to the Eastern notion of mindfulness — the sort of unclouded perception and clarity of consciousness at the heart of Buddha-nature and Zen-mind. In consonance with Simone de Beauvoir’s insistence that intelligence “is nothing else but the presence which is attentive to the world and to itself,” Ortega writes:

By intelligence I mean only that the mind react to happenings with a certain sharpness and precision, that the radish not be perpetually seized by its leaves, that the gray not be confused with brown and, above all, that objects in front of one be seen with a little exactness and accuracy, without supplanting sight by mechanically repeated words.

Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s observation that “most people remain all of their lives in a stupor,” Ortega rues that most people spend most of their lives with the radish fully engulfed by the leaves:

Ordinarily, one has the impression of living amid somnambulists who advance through life buried in an hermetic sleep from which it is impossible to stir them in order to make them aware of their surroundings.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Observing how much more influenced by our environment and cultural milieu we are than we realize — something reflected in the original Latin use of the word genius in the phrase genius loci, “the spirit of a place” — and how much our habits sculpt our fate, he adds:

Probably, humanity has almost always lived in this somnambulistic state in which ideas are not a wide-awake, conscious reaction to things, but a blind, automatic habit, drawn from a repertory of formulae which the atmosphere infuses into the individual.

Much of the erudition we mistake for intelligence is the product of this trance, intoxicated with the atmosphere of ideologies invisible to those living under the dome of their time and place — we need only look at eugenics and phrenology, once regarded as pinnacles of science, to shudder with the fact of such culturally constructed fictions. Half a century before Siddhartha Mukherjee confronted these damaging “slips between biology and culture” in his superb inquiry into the dark cultural history of IQ and why we cannot measure intelligence, Ortega writes:

It is undeniable that a large pat of science and literature has also been produced in a somnambulistic trance; that is to say, by creatures who are not at all intelligent… Science and literature, as such, do not imply perspicacity; but, undoubtedly, their cultivation is a stimulant which favors the awakening of the mind and preserves it in that luminous state of alertness which constitutes intelligence. The difference between the intelligent person and the fool is, after all, that the former lives on guard against their own foolishness, recognizes it as soon as it appears, and strives to eliminate it, whereas the fool enchantedly surrenders to their foolishness without reservations.

Art from the 19th-century French physics textbook Les monde physique. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

Half a millennium after the polymathic physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal considered the limits of the logical mind against intuition, and a generation before philosopher Martha Nussbaum made her penetrating case for the intelligence of emotions, Ortega offers an antidote to the common cultural snobbery about what intelligence means — the kind of snobbery particularly virulent among the privileged and overeducated. Echoing Henri Bergson’s perceptive and paradoxical observation that “the intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life,” he writes:

I consider it a grave misfortune if, in any period or nation, intelligence remains, practically speaking, reduced to the limits of the intellectual. Intelligence asserts itself above all not in art, nor in science, but in intuition of life. The intellectual, however, barely lives; they are usually a person with poverty of intuition; their acts in the world are few and they have very little knowledge of [love], [work], pleasure, and passion. They lead an abstract existence, and can barely throw a morsel of authentic live meat to the sharp-pointed teeth of intellect.

Complement with Proust on how our intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart, then revisit Ortega’s sweeping meditation on love, attention, and the invisible architecture of our being, in the final pages of which he shines this sidewise gleam on intelligence.


Can People Change? The Psychological Möbius Strip That Keeps Us from Ending Painful Relationships

Facing the logical fallacies that fuel painful emotional patterns and what it takes to break them with dignity, mindfulness, and emotional maturity.

“Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving,” Nina Simone sang in 1969. “How can they know that it’s time to go?”

A decade earlier, a young Swiss psychologist traversed the Atlantic to begin a new life in America. Watching the migratory geese from the salt-stained railings of her own migratory vessel, she wrote in her journal: “How do these geese know when to fly to the sun? Who tells them the seasons? How do we, humans, know when it is time to move on?” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would go on to revolutionize our understanding of what it means and what it takes to move on through her epoch-making 1969 model of the five stages of grief.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

While the death of a loved one can make the notion of moving on unfathomable at first, it also makes it, by definition, inevitable — there is no other recourse, for such loss is unambiguous and irreversible. But there is a species of grief, spawned of a type of loss that is more ambiguous and elastic, that muddles the notion of moving on into an impassable and disorienting swamp: the cyclical grief of loving someone on the grounds of their highest nature and watching them fall short of it over and over, in damaging and hurtful ways, which you excuse over and over, because of their impassioned apologies and vows of reform, or because of the partly noble, partly naïve notion that a truly magnanimous person is one who always has the breadth of spirit to forgive — a notion rooted in a basic misapprehension of what forgiveness really means.

Art by Margaret C. Cook for Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

To move on from such relationships is one of life’s most difficult, triumphant feats of maturity — largely because we enter them and stay in them for reasons that far predate the particular person or situation, reasons rooted in our earliest attachments, those formative relationships in which perpetual optimism is both part of a child’s natural innocence and a necessary survival strategy for the helplessness of being in the care of a damaged and damaging adult.

Those dynamics — and how to break them with dignity, mindfulness, and emotional maturity — is what the soulful philosophical writer and School of Life founder Alain de Botton examines in one of his animated essays exploring the beautiful complexity of human relationships:

Because the unwillingness to walk away from a hurtful person is rooted in the belief that people change, the predicament gnaws at the fundaments of human nature and our ongoing effort to better understand what we are made of. Because relationships are the most fertile crucible of growth and transformation, because decades of research into psychology and the science of limbic revision have demonstrated that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love,” this wager we place on the prospect of change is a transcendently optimistic belief. It is also a dangerous belief, for optimism can often metastasize into willful blindness. (To say nothing of the counterpoint possibility that, across a span of time and unfaced trauma, people can change for the worse, their good qualities eroded, for instance, by the twin metastasis of addiction and unhappiness feeding each other as they destroy their host.)

Mary McCarthy captured the optimism in asking her friend Hannah Arendt: “What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were?” Arendt captured the danger in cautioning her against the “crooked corkscrews of the heart” that keep us in painful relationships — a phrase she borrowed from her poet-friend W.H. Auden, who struggled with the paradox himself, oscillating between the aspiration to be “the more loving one” and the lucid awareness that false enchantment can poison a life with its toxic staying power.

De Botton explores the bipolar pull of the can-people-change question in another animated essay that illuminates the logical fallacies into which emotion drags us:

Perhaps Arendt captured this best — this great paradox and great heartbreak of relationships with unhealed people, this false and dangerous optimism that we can ever love someone out of their trauma — in her observation that “you can’t expect somebody who loves you to treat you less cruelly than he would treat himself.”

Complement with Alain de Botton on what emotional maturity really means, then revisit Shel Silverstein’s sweet illustrated allegory for the secret to healthy relationships.


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