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William Godwin’s Stunning 1794 Advice to a Young Activist on How to Confront the Status Quo with Self-Possession, Dignity, and Persuasive Conviction

“Above all… abstain from harsh epithets and bitter invective… Truth can never gain by passion, violence, and resentment. It is never so strong as in the firm, fixed mind, that yields to the emotions neither of rage nor fear.”

William Godwin’s Stunning 1794 Advice to a Young Activist on How to Confront the Status Quo with Self-Possession, Dignity, and Persuasive Conviction

In the autumn of 1793, the thirty-year-old West Indian political reformer Joseph Gerrald set out for Edinburgh as a delegate for a convention of British reformers gathering there to advance the then-radical causes of universal suffrage and annual parliaments. During the trip, he toured the Scottish countryside to promote the ideals of the reform movement and soon published a fiery pamphlet addressed to the people of England, unambiguously titled A Convention, the Only Means of Saving Us from Ruin.

Although the aims of the convention were rather moderate, they were still deemed incendiary against the backdrop of the era’s extreme conservatism. Gerrald and his collaborators were arrested on charges for sedition. A trial was scheduled for March 10, 1794.

On January 23, Gerrald received an extraordinary letter of solidarity, moral support, and astute advice on how to handle himself in court from the English political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836), who was yet to forge the original union of equals with the great Mary Wollstonecraft and father Frankenstein author Mary Shelley with her.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

The letter, posthumously published in William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries (public library | public domain), stands as a timeless document of dignity, reason, and resistance, advising the young idealist — any young idealist, in any era, along any axis of social change — on how to stand up to the status quo with unfaltering self-possession, dignity, and persuasive conviction.

Nearly two centuries before Audre Lorde issued her sobering exhortation that “your silence will not protect you,” Godwin frames the trial hearings as “the means of converting thousands, and, progressively, millions, to the cause of reason and public justice,” urging Gerrald to use his voice and visibility, even under assault, as a platform for advancing the reform movement:

You have a great stake, you place your fortune, your youth, your liberty, and your talents on a single throw. If you must suffer, do not, I conjure you, suffer without making use of this opportunity of telling a tale upon which the happiness of nations depends. Spare none of the resources of your powerful mind.

Reflecting on the value of the convention and of activists gathering around shared ideals of progress, he adds a rhetorical aside of astounding timeliness today:

Will the present overbearing and exasperating conduct of government lead to tranquillity and harmony? Will new wars and new taxes, the incessant persecution, ruin, and punishment of every man that dares to oppose them heal the dissensions of mankind? No! Nothing can save us but moderation, prudence and timely reform. Men must be permitted to confer together upon their common interests, unprovoked by insult, counteracting treachery, and arbitrary decrees.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

Bolstering the young man’s self-assurance with words of electric encouragement, Godwin goes on to delineate the optimal psychological framework of persuasion:

Never forget that juries are men, and that men are made of penetrable stuff: probe all the recesses of their souls. Do not spend your strength in vain defiance and empty vaunting. Let every syllable you utter be fraught with persuasion. What an event would it be for England and mankind if you could gain an acquittal! Is not such an event worth striving for? It is in man, I am sure it is, to effect that event. Gerrald, you are that man. Fertile in genius, strong in moral feeling, prepared with every accomplishment that literature and reflection can give. Stand up to the situation — be wholly yourself.

[…]

It is the nature of the human mind to be great in proportion as it is acted upon by great incitements. Remember this. Now is your day. Never, perhaps never, in the revolution of human affairs, will your mind be the same illustrious and irresistible mind as it will be on this day.

Godwin ends his letter with a passage of uncommon insight into the art of debate, replete with timeless wisdom on holding one’s ground with dignity — wisdom so timely in our own age of highly combustible opinion-weaponry:

Do not fritter away your defence by anxiety about little things; do not perplex the jury by dividing their attention. Depend upon it, that if you can establish to their full conviction the one great point… you will obtain a verdict.

[…]

Above all, let me entreat you to abstain from harsh epithets and bitter invective. Show that you are not terrible but kind, and anxious for the good of all. Truth will lose nothing by this. Truth can never gain by passion, violence, and resentment. It is never so strong as in the firm, fixed mind, that yields to the emotions neither of rage nor fear. It is by calm and recollected boldness that we can shake the pillars of the vault of heaven. How great will you appear if you show that all the injustice with which you are treated cannot move you: that you are too great to be wounded by their arrows; that you still hold the steadfast course that becomes the friend of man, and that while you expose their rottenness you harbour no revenge. The public want men of this unaltered spirit, whom no persecution can embitter. The jury, the world will feel your value, if you show yourself such a man: let no human ferment mix in the sacred work.

Farewell; my whole soul goes with you. You represent us all.

W. Godwin.

Godwin’s daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley — herself a visionary far ahead of her time — would later recount that despite Gerrald’s eloquent defense, the judge interrupted him with the astounding assertion that he was even more dangerous to society because his motives were pure rather than criminal. He was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to fifteen years of penal transportation — a verdict Shelley considered equivalent to a death sentence, for Gerrald was already ill with tuberculosis and could not be expected to survive a long journey to a faraway colony.

After a yearlong imprisonment in London, he was put on a cargo vessel named Sovereign — one final jab of irony — and shipped off to New South Wales, where he died four months later, shortly after his thirty-third birthday. But his example ignited in generations of reformers the passion for justice and human rights — a bittersweet reminder that, in Zadie Smith’s beautiful words, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

Complement with Albert Camus on what it really means to be a rebel and Albert Einstein’s wonderful letter of solidarity and advice to Marie Curie when she — yes, even she — was besieged by detractors, then revisit Godwin’s soul-stirring love letters to and from Mary Wollstonecraft.

BP

Advice on Writing from Emily Dickinson’s Editor

“Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence.”

Advice on Writing from Emily Dickinson’s Editor

“You can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write,” W.S. Merwin wrote in his gorgeous poem encapsulating his greatest mentor’s advice. No one has embodied this ethos more fully than Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), who lived and died a century earlier never knowing whether anything she wrote was any good, never knowing whether and how and that her body of work would revolutionize literature and rewrite the common record of human thought and feeling.

In her thirty-first year, on the pages of a national magazine, Dickinson — a central figure in Figuring, from which this essay is adapted — encountered the person who would become the closest thing she ever had to a literary mentor.

In the spring of 1862, exactly four decades ahead of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Atlantic Monthly published a twenty-page piece titled “A Letter to a Young Contributor” by the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Thomas Wentworth Higginson (December 22, 1823–May 9, 1911).

Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Addressing young writers — primarily the many women who sent the Atlantic manuscripts for consideration under male pseudonyms — the thirty-nine-year-old Higginson writes:

No editor can ever afford the rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one. The only difficulty lies in drawing the line.

A good editor, Higginson asserts, has learned to draw that line by having “educated his eye till it has become microscopic, like a naturalist’s, and can classify nine out of ten specimens by one glance at a scale or a feather.” He chooses a strangely morbid metaphor to illustrate the editorial challenge and thrill of finding that rare undiscovered genius among “the vast range of mediocrity”:

To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to the public.

He goes on to offer a bundle of advice on how an aspiring writer is to court her prospective editor: Revise amply before sending in your manuscript; write legibly with “good pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it”; develop a style of expression not “polite and prosaic” but “so saturated with warm life and delicious association that every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables”; counterbalance profundity of sentiment with levity of style; know that “there is no severer test of literary training than in the power to prune out your most cherished sentence, when you find that the sacrifice will help the symmetry or vigor of the whole”; don’t show off your erudition but showcase its fruits; and remember that “a phrase may outweigh a library.” He writes:

There may be phrases which shall be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses to explore; a single word may be a window from which one may perceive all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence… Labor, therefore, not in thought alone, but in utterance; clothe and reclothe your grand conception twenty times, if need be, until you find some phrase that with its grandeur shall be lucid also.

In a sun-filled bedroom fifty miles to the west, a woman who had crowded lifetimes of passion into her thirty-one years and corked it up in the volcanic bosom of her being devoured the piece—a woman who would boldly defy Higginson’s indictment that a writer should use dashes only in “short allowance” or else they “will lose all their proper power,” a woman whose reclusive genius would become his choleric discovery.

Emily Dickinson’s home, the Homestead.(Photograph: Maria Popova)

For more than a decade, Dickinson had been welding her words to her experience with white heat in the private furnace of her being, sharing her poems only with her intimates. Now she felt beckoned to step across the threshold of the door Higginson had set ajar with his open letter inviting unknown writers into the public life of literature.

On April 16, 1862, Emily Dickinson sent Thomas Wentworth Higginson four of her poems, along with a short, arresting note in the slanted swoop of her barely decipherable hand, stripped of the era’s epistolary etiquette. “Mr. Higginson,” she addressed him bluntly, with no formal salutation, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” She was likely making an allusion, whether conscious or not, to her revered Aurora Leigh, in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s heroine exults in her calling while struggling to become a published poet:

I felt
My heart’s life throbbing in my verse to show
It lived

And then Dickinson added:

The Mind is so near itself — it cannot see, distinctly — and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed — and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.

She didn’t sign the letter, either, but instead enclosed a smaller sealed envelope with her name inscribed in pencil on a cream-colored notecard — a choice that would still puzzle Higginson thirty years later.

Two more letters followed shortly. Dickinson ended the third with the come-hither of a bespoke verse, then asked seductively: “Will you be my Preceptor, Mr. Higginson?” He would, and he did, commencing a correspondence that would last the poet’s lifetime.

Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Art by Maira Kalman. (The New Yorker)

But although Dickinson had so insistently enlisted Higginson as her “Preceptor,” again and again she would reject his efforts to tame and commercialize her poetry, to make it “more orderly,” buoyed by a quiet confidence in the integrity of her unorthodox verse. “Could you tell me how to grow,” she implored in her third letter to Higginson, “or is it unconveyed — like Melody — or Witchcraft?” When he offered criticism, then worried that he might have been too harsh, she assured him with humility and aplomb that it was all welcome: “Men do not call the surgeon, to commend—the Bone, but to set it, Sir, and fracture within, is more critical.” And then she promptly sent him four more poems, unheeding of his editorial suggestions.

Over the years, Dickinson would fracture Higginson’s stiff understanding of art, and through the cracks a new kind of light would flood his world. “There is always one thing to be grateful for — that one is one’s self & not somebody else,” she would tell him. Here stood a writer who was unassailably her own self. Between her unruly punctuation, Higginson would eventually find “flashes of wholly original and profound insight into nature and life,” language ablaze with “an extraordinary vividness of descriptive and imaginative power.” When her poems finally entered the world on November 12, 1890 — four years after her death — Higginson exulted in the preface:

In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed. In other cases, as in the few poems of shipwreck or of mental conflict, we can only wonder at the gift of vivid imagination by which this recluse woman can delineate, by a few touches, the very crises of physical or mental conflict… But the main quality of these poems is that of extraordinary grasp and insight, uttered with an uneven vigor sometimes exasperating, seemingly wayward, but really unsought and inevitable.

The volume was an astonishing success, much to the chagrin of Houghton Mifflin, who had originally rejected it. Five hundred copies vanished from the shelves on the first day of publication. Within the first year, the book had gone through eleven printings, and nearly eleven thousand copies had been absorbed into the body of culture.

That year, as the rapids of Dickinson’s verse sprang into the world, William James’s groundbreaking Principles of Psychology coined the notion of stream of consciousness. Soon, as English reviewers launched upon Dickinson attacks unequaled since those on Shelley and Keats a century earlier, Alice James — William James’s brilliant bedridden sister — would write wryly in her diary, itself an unheralded triumph of literature:

It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle… What tome of philosophy resumes the cheap farce or expresses the highest point of view of the aspiring soul more completely than the following —

     How dreary to be somebody
     How public, like a frog
     To tell your name the livelong day
     To an admiring bog.

For a different but intimately related side of Dickinson, savor her electric love letters to Susan Gilbert — her closest lifelong bond, who inspired the vast majority of her poetry — then take in some timeless advice on the craft from some of the greatest writers in the century and a half since: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Oliver, Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, John Steinbeck, and Rachel Carson, another heroine of Figuring.

BP

The Coming Victory of Democracy: Thomas Mann on Justice, Human Dignity, and the Need to Continually Renew Our Ideals

“To come close to art means to come close to life, and if an appreciation of the dignity of man is the moral definition of democracy, then its psychological definition arises out of its determination to reconcile and combine knowledge and art, mind and life, thought and deed.”

The Coming Victory of Democracy: Thomas Mann on Justice, Human Dignity, and the Need to Continually Renew Our Ideals

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her stirring essay on optimism and despair. But what does the reinvention, reassertion, and survival of progress look like when the basic fabric of democracy is under claw?

That is what Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955) examined on the cusp of World War II with a prescience that bellows across the decades to speak to our own epoch and to every epoch that will succeed us.

Thomas Mann at his desk (Thomas Mann Archive)

When Hitler seized power in 1933, the 58-year-old Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature five years earlier, went into exile in Switzerland. The following year, he visited America for the first time. He returned each year thereafter, until he finally emigrated permanently in 1938 and became one of a handful of German expatriates in the United States to vocally oppose Nazism and fascism. Between February and May 1938, just before the outbreak of the war, Mann gave a series of poignant and rousing lectures across America, published later that year as The Coming Victory of Democracy (public library) — a spirited insistence that “we must not be afraid to attempt a reform of freedom,” and a clarion call for the urgent work of continually renewing and reasserting democracy as menacing ideologies rise and fall against it.

In a testament to the great Serbian-American physicist, chemist, and inventor Michael Pupin’s assertion that “an immigrant can see things which escape the attention of the native,” Mann opens with an incisive reflection on democracy, its original ideals, and the necessity of its continual recalibration to the pressures pushing against it:

America needs no instruction in the things that concern democracy. But instruction is one thing — and another is memory, reflection, re-examination, the recall to consciousness of a spiritual and moral possession of which it would be dangerous to feel too secure and too confident. No worth-while possession can be neglected. Even physical things die off, disappear, are lost, if they are not cared for, if they do not feel the eye and hand of the owner and are lost to sight because their possession is taken for granted. Throughout the world it has become precarious to take democracy for granted — even in America… Even America feels today that democracy is not an assured possession, that it has enemies, that it is threatened from within and from without, that it has once more become a problem. America is aware that the time has come for democracy to take stock of itself, for recollection and restatement and conscious consideration, in a word, for its renewal in thought and feeling.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Martha Graham’s notion of “divine dissatisfaction” as the motive force of all creative work, Mann notes that a certain restlessness about the state of the world and our place in it is inherent to the human animal:

It is the fate of man in no condition and under no circumstances ever to be entirely at ease upon this earth; no form of life is wholly suitable nor wholly satisfactory to him. Why this should be so, why there should always remain upon earth for this creature a modicum of insufficiency, of dissatisfaction and suffering, is a mystery — a mystery that may be a very honourable one for man, but also a very painful one; in any case it has this consequence: that humanity, in small things as in great, strives for variety, change, for the new, because it promises him an amelioration and an alleviation of his eternally semi-painful condition.

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice in Wonderland

The greatest threat to democracy, Mann argues, comes from demagogues who prey on this restlessness with dangerous ideologies whose chief appeal is “the charm of novelty” — the exploitive promise of a new world order that allays some degree of dissatisfaction for some number of people, at a gruesome cost to the rest of humanity. To counter this perilous tendency, democracy must continually regenerate itself. Mann writes:

Daring and clever as fascism is in exploiting human weakness, it succeeds in meeting to some extent humanity’s painful eagerness for novelty… And what seems to me necessary is that democracy should answer this fascist strategy with a rediscovery of itself, which can give it the same charm of novelty — yes, a much higher one than that which fascism seeks to exert. It should put aside the habit of taking itself for granted, of self-forgetfulness. It should use this wholly unexpected situation — the fact, namely, that it has again become problematical — to renew and rejuvenate itself by again becoming aware of itself. For democracy’s resources of vitality and youthfulness cannot be overestimated… Fascism is a child of the times — a very offensive child — and draws whatever youth it possesses out of the times. But democracy is timelessly human, and timelessness always implies a certain amount of potential youthfulness, which need only be realized in thought and feeling in order to excel, by far, all merely transitory youthfulness in charms of every sort, in the charm of life and in the charm of beauty.

That particular strain of fascism was endemic to Mann’s time, but it has manifested in myriad guises countless times before and since. In a letter penned at the peak of the war Mann was hoping to prevent with this humanistic shift in consciousness, John Steinbeck would capture these cycles chillingly: “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.”

Art by Tomi Ungerer from his visionary book Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear .

Mann considers the idea of justice as elemental to our humanity, locating in it the wellspring of our dignity:

It is a singular thing, this human nature, and distinguished from the rest of nature by the very fact that it has been endowed with the idea, is dominated by the idea, and cannot exist without it, since human nature is what it is because of the idea. The idea is a specific and essential attribute of man, that which makes him human. It is within him a real and natural fact, so impossible of neglect that those who do not respect human nature’s participation in the ideal — as force certainly does not — commit the clumsiest and, in the long run, the most disastrous mistakes. But the word “ justice ” is only one name for the idea — only one; there are other names which can be substituted that are equally strong, by no means lacking in vitality; on the contrary, even rather terrifying — for example, freedom and truth. It is impossible to decide which one should take precedence, which is the greatest. For each one expresses the idea in its totality, and one stands for the others. If we say truth, we also say freedom and justice-, if we speak of freedom and justice, we mean truth. It is a complex of an indivisible kind, freighted with spirituality and elementary dynamic force. We call it the absolute. To man has been given the absolute — be it a curse or a blessing, it is a fact. He is pledged to it, his inner being is conditioned by it, and in the human sphere a force which is opposed to truth, hostile to freedom, and lacking in justice, acts in so low and contemptible a manner because it is devoid of feeling and understanding for the relationship between man and the absolute and without comprehension of the inviolable human dignity which grows out of this relationship.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions.

A quarter century before the pioneering social scientist John Gardner penned his influential treatise on self-renewal, Mann calls for a reinvention of democracy that places human dignity at the heart of its political and civic ideals:

We must reach higher and envisage the whole. We must define democracy as that form of government and of society which is inspired above every other with the feeling and consciousness of the dignity of man.

Echoing Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition against the cowardice of cynicism as one of the greatest obstacles to a flourishing society, Mann calls for relinquishing our reflexive cynicism about human nature:

The dignity of man — do we not feel alarmed and somewhat ridiculous at the mention of these words? Do they not savour of optimism grown feeble and stuffy — of after-dinner oratory, which scarcely harmonizes with the bitter, harsh, everyday truth about human beings? We know it — this truth. We are well aware of the nature of man, or, to be more accurate, the nature of men — and we are far from entertaining any illusions on the subject… Yes, yes, humanity — its injustice, malice, cruelty, its average stupidity and blindness are amply demonstrated, its egoism is crass, its deceitfulness, cowardice, its antisocial instincts, constitute our everyday experience; the iron pressure of disciplinary constraint is necessary to keep it under any reasonable control. Who cannot embroider upon the depravity of this strange creature called man, who does not often despair over his future… And yet it is a fact — more true today than ever — that we cannot allow ourselves, because of so much all too well-founded skepticism, to despise humanity. Despite so much ridiculous depravity, we cannot forget the great and the honourable in man, which manifest themselves as art and science, as passion for truth, creation of beauty and the idea of justice; and it is also true that insensitiveness to the great mystery which we touch upon when we say “man” or “humanity” signifies spiritual death. That is not a truth of yesterday or the day before yesterday, antiquated, unattractive, and feeble. It is the new and necessary truth of today and tomorrow, the truth which has life and youth on its side in opposition to the false and withering youthfulness of certain theories and truths of the moment.

It is only a difference of degree, not of kind, between this ordinary cynical contempt for human goodness and the most extreme acts of evil. Mann writes:

Terror destroys people, that is clear. It corrupts character, releases every evil impulse, turns them into cowardly hypocrites and shameless informers. It makes them contemptible — that is the reason why these contemners of humanity love terrorism.

Thomas Mann with Albert Einstein at Princeton, 1938.

Twenty years before Aldous Huxley asserted that “generalized intelligence and mental alertness are the most powerful enemies of dictatorship and at the same time the basic conditions of effective democracy,” Mann places education and critical thinking at the center of a robust democracy:

Democracy wishes to elevate mankind, to teach it to think, to set it free. It seeks to remove from culture the stamp of privilege and disseminate it among the people — in a word, it aims at education. Education is an optimistic and humane concept; and respect for humanity is inseparable from it. Hostile to mankind and contemptuous of it is the opposing concept called propaganda, which tries to stultify, stupefy, level, or regiment men for the purpose of military efficiency and, above all, to keep the dictatorial system in power.

[…]

Democracy being a fertile ground for intellect and literature, for the perception of psychological truth and the search for it, contradicts itself inasmuch as it has an acute appreciation and makes a critical analysis of the absurd wickedness of man, but nevertheless insists resolutely upon the dignity of man and the possibility of educating him.

In consonance with Iris Murdoch’s assertion that “tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Mann considers art as a pillar of democracy:

To come close to art means to come close to life, and if an appreciation of the dignity of man is the moral definition of democracy, then its psychological definition arises out of its determination to reconcile and combine knowledge and art, mind and life, thought and deed.

Complement The Coming Victory of Democracy with Leonard Cohen on democracy’s breakages and redemptions, Jill Lepore on the improbable birth of American democracy, Robert Penn Warren on democracy and poetry, and Walt Whitman’s indispensable Democratic Vistas, then revisit Mann on time and our search for meaning.

BP

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.

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

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

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