“The object in meditation and all of our contemplative disciplines is silence… in order for you to perceive something other than yourself… Poetry is the verbal art-form by which we can actually create silence.”
By Maria Popova
Poetry interrupts the momentum of story, unweaves the narrative thread with which we cocoon our inner worlds. A single poetic image can lift us from the plane of our storied worldview toward the gasp of a whole new vista, where in the spacious silence of the unimagined we imagine ourselves afresh.
In his short introductory conversation with Sam, David reflects:
The object in meditation and all of our contemplative disciplines is silence. But… that silence is in order for you to perceive something other than yourself — what you’ve arranged as yourself to actually perceive this frontier between what you call your self and what you call other than your self, whether that’s a person or a landscape.
One of the greatest arts of poetry is actually to create silence through attentive speech — speech that says something in such a way that it appears as a third frontier between you and the world, and invites you into a deeper and more generous sense of your own identity and the identity of the world… Poetry is the verbal art-form by which we can actually create silence.
His essay on silence in Consolations harmonizes this sentiment:
Silence is frightening, an intimation of the end, the graveyard of fixed identities. Real silence puts any present understanding to shame; orphans us from certainty; leads us beyond the well-known and accepted reality and confronts us with the unknown and previously unacceptable conversation about to break in upon our lives.
In silence, essence speaks to us of essence itself and asks for a kind of unilateral disarmament, our own essential nature slowly emerging as the defended periphery atomizes and falls apart. As the busy edge dissolves we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.
Reality met on its own terms demands absolute presence, and absolute giving away, an ability to live on equal terms with the fleeting and the eternal, the hardly touchable and the fully possible, a full bodily appearance and disappearance, a rested giving in and giving up; another identity braver, more generous and more here than the one looking hungrily for the easy, unearned answer.
Consolations touched me deeply when I first read it several years ago and remains my regular companion through life, as does Waking Up, which has been nothing less than a lifeline this past life-syphoning year.
The story of the countercultural courage and persistence that shaped the modern ecological conscience.
By Maria Popova
It is 1928 and you are walking in Central Park, saxophone and wren song in the April air, when you spot her beneath the colossal leafing elm with her binoculars. You mistake her for another pearled Upper East Side lady who has taken to birding in the privileged boredom of her middle age. And who could blame you? In some obvious ways — polished and traveled, born into a wealthy New York family to a British father whose first cousin was Charles Dickens — she bears the markings. In some invisible ways — in the strata of personhood that our unchosen surfaces and accidents of birth are apt to conceal and shortchange — she is anything but.
Within a quarter century — a span in which she would change the course of culture and the vitality of nature for centuries to come — she would be celebrated on the pages of the nation’s most esteemed cultural journal as “the only honest, unselfish, indomitable hellcat in the history of conservation.” Those whom she held uncomfortably accountable would deride her as “a very hot potato” and a “common scold” — but that accountability would revolutionize policies and mindsets. She would become things the words for which — words all of us now live with, for things many of us are living — did not yet exist in the popular lexicon: dissident, activist, citizen scientist.
Rosalie Edge (November 3, 1877–November 30, 1962) was well into her fifties when she became invested in the plight of birds after reading about the slaughter of 70,000 bald eagles in Alaska. She would later write:
Thousands of people who had within them a yearning toward nature, a deep-seated need to preserve its beauty, had been in very truth asleep. I know, for I was one of them.
Until that point, her fierce wakefulness to justice had been channeled toward the plight of half of her own species, which culminated with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. But the multigenerational triumph left Edge — who had spent years composing pamphlets, delivering speeches, and serving as secretary-treasurer of the New York State chapter of the Woman Suffrage Party — with the postpartum hollowing of spirit that follows the completion of any project into which one has poured all of oneself.
But a person of passion and brilliance is never bored for long.
One night while traveling in Europe with her family, Edge found herself reading and rereading a sixteen-page pamphlet — the era’s primary whistleblowing medium — titled “A Crisis in Conservation.” It exposed the ties the nation’s network of Audubon Societies had to gun and ammunition makers and the consequent withholding of protection from species hunters considered pests or targets — including the bird, which this very nation had taken for its symbol and spirit animal: the North American bald eagle.
Edge’s family summoned her for dinner, but she kept pacing the room in fiery disbelief, later recalling:
For what to me were dinner and the boulevards of Paris when my mind was filled with the tragedy of beautiful birds, disappearing through the neglect and indifference of those who had at their disposal wealth beyond avarice with which these creatures might be saved?
As soon as she returned to America, still thinking about the eagles, Edge turned her wakeful intellect and indomitable passion for justice toward the broader fate of feathered beings in the hands of the thumbed.
On the eve of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Rosalie Edge, in her dress and her greying bun, walked across Central Park to the twenty-fifth annual gathering of the National Association of Audubon Societies. There, she calmly rose from the back to hold its leaders accountable for the practices revealed by the pamphlet. After a stunned silence, various men in power took turns with defensive stabs at her credibility, then derided the rhetorical style of the pamphlet without addressing its substance.
To Edge, this was only evidence that something was amiss, that she must persist until it is righted.
And so she did. Over the years that followed, Rosalie Edge “stood up very often,” as she later recalled. After seeing a photograph of hundreds of dead hawks neatly lined up on the Appalachian forest floor, she traveled to Eastern Pennsylvania to witness the barbaric tradition that had occasioned the horror: recreational hunters gathering every autumn to shoot thousands of migrating hawks, having stalked out the perfect summit from which to intercept the migration path and perform the mass slaughter.
Realizing that cruelty of such scale and such tradition required a solution just as grand, Edge had no qualms about using her privilege as an instrument of justice: She set out to buy the mountain.
In 1934, she borrowed $500 from Willard Gibbs Van Name (not that Willard Gibbs; the American Museum of Natural History zoologist who had first awakened her passion for conservation and with whom she had founded the Emergency Conservation Committee two years earlier), signed a two-year lease with the option of eventually buying the 1,400-acre wilderness for $3,000, and hired two wardens — an ornithologically ardent couple from New England — to keep hunters away. And so Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was born. Rosalie Edge was fifty-seven.
Within a single migration cycle, hawk populations improved dramatically. The sanctuary became a pioneering model of conservation, replicated by other conservationists in other habitats to protect other species. Nearly a century later, it is the world’s most active site of raptor conservation and observation.
For the remaining two decades of her life, Rosalie Edge went on to become one of the most vocal, visible, and effective champions of conservation, inspiring the founding of The Nature Conservancy, The Environmental Defense Fund, and The Wilderness Society; inspiring generations of ordinary citizens with her ethos that the protection of nature is not something to be awaited from above but a basic civic duty for each of us, echoing her contemporary and kindred spirit Eleanor Roosevelt’s insistence on the power of personal responsibility in social change.
The New York Times never honored the city’s most ecologically impactful daughter with an obituary, not even in their wonderfully redemptive and honorable series of post-posthumous obituaries of brilliant overlooked women. In Rosalie Edge’s lifetime, the paper’s sole headline containing her name — printed the year Olympic National Park was created largely thanks to the nationwide grassroots campaign Edge had spearheaded — hovers over a two-sentence report of a shoulder fracture that Edge, “known for establishing a mountain sanctuary for predatory birds,” had suffered upon slipping at a dance party. But she is redeemed at long last as one of the conservation heroes profiled and celebrated in Michelle Nijhuis’s altogether magnificent book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction (public library), in which Edge figures as an exquisite specimen of the species of visionaries Nijhuis interleaves into the broader story of conservation:
Each person profiled here stood, or stands, at a turning point in the story of modern species conservation — a story which, for better and sometimes worse, still guides the international movement to protect life on earth… Though they often used pragmatic arguments to convert others to their cause, their personal motivations ran deeper, for many had started keeping company with members of other species to escape their own troubles. Some were painfully shy, or burdened with mental or physical illness. Some were separated from spouses at a time when divorce was a scandal, or drawn to their own gender when homosexuality was taboo. Most of them knew something about suffering, and they found consolation in the sights and sounds of other forms of life.
With an eye to Edge and her legacy in particular, Nijhuis writes:
When Edge and Van Name founded the Emergency Conservation Committee, the language of ecology was still unfamiliar, even within the conservation movement. The concept of the food chain, sometimes called the food web, had been proposed only three years earlier by the British ecologist Charles Elton. The word “ecosystem,” commonly used in ecology and conservation to describe an assemblage of interacting species and their physical surroundings, would not be coined until 1935. Many scientists — and most of the general public — continued to think of the living world as an assembly of relatively independent parts, not an interconnected whole.
Edge’s understanding of ecological relationship… set her apart from most conservationists of her time. Her concern for all species and her opposition to most hunting were shared by animal welfare activists, including many of the women who opposed the plume trade. But while Edge hated cruelty to individual animals, she devoted most of her energy to preventing the extinction of species.
The birds and animals must be protected not merely because this species or another is interesting to some group of biologists, but because each is a link in a living chain.
I first came within the aura of Edge’s influence during my long immersion in Rachel Carson world in the research for Figuring: Edge — who died months after Silent Spring raised its epoch-making voice of ecological conscience, and who never lived to see it inspire the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency — had been an early voice of dissent and admonition against the heedless use of pesticides. She had furnished Carson, who visited Hawk Mountain two decades earlier, with key DDT data about the pesticide’s savaging impact on birds.
While Rosalie Edge did not have Rachel Carson’s poetic gift, her fierce devotion to hawks inspired it: Carson, who would soon popularize the esoteric word ecology, composed one of her most breathtaking essays about the interconnectedness of nature upon returning from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in 1945:
They came by like brown leaves drifting on the wind. Sometimes a lone bird rode the air currents; sometimes several at a time, sweeping upward until they were only specks against the clouds or dropping down again toward the valley floor below us; sometimes a great burst of them milling and tossing, like the flurry of leaves when a sudden gust of wind shakes loose a new batch from the forest trees.
On the horizon to the north, formed by a series of seven peaks running almost at right angles to the ridge on which we sit, an indistinct blur takes form against the sky. Second by second the outlines sharpen. Soon the unmistakable silhouette of a hawk is etched on the gray.
Here on the mountain top we are in the sweep of all the winds out of a great emptiness of sky, and the cold seeps through to the very marrow of my bones. But cold, windy weather is hawk weather, and so I am glad, although I shiver and my nose reddens, and I look speculatively at my thermos of hot coffee… Mists are drifting over the valley. A grayness overhangs all the sky and the clouds seem heavy with unshed rain. It is an elemental landscape — a great rockpile atop a mountain, nearby a few trees that have been stripped and twisted by the mountain winds, a vast, pale, arching sky.
Perhaps it is not strange that I, who greatly love the sea, should find much in the mountains to remind me of it. I cannot watch the headlong descent of the hill streams without remembering that, though their journey be long, its end is in the sea. And always in these Appalachian highlands there are reminders of those ancient seas that more than once lay over all this land. Halfway up the steep path to the lookout is a cliff formed of sandstone; long ago it was laid down under shallow marine waters where strange and unfamiliar fishes swam; then the seas receded, the mountains were uplifted, and now wind and rain are crumbling the cliff away to the sandy particles that first composed it. And these whitened limestone rocks on which I am sitting — these, too, were formed under that Paleozoic ocean, of the myriad tiny skeletons of creatures that drifted in its water. Now I lie back with half closed eyes and try to realize that I am at the bottom of another ocean — an ocean of air on which the hawks are sailing.
“Mysteries inside mysteries in our own bodies of which we can’t make sense, another world waiting for a religion or calculus to explain.”
By Maria Popova
It is dazzling enough to live with the knowledge that everything around us — the fiery cardinal that evolved from the T-rex, the blooming daffodil that traded its sallow brown-green for blazing yellow to attract the primordial pollinators, the human eye millennia in the lensing, the eye that now beholds these wonders and inhales them into a consciousness endowed with the triumphal capacity for being wonder-smitten — is a living record of manifest possibility 13.8 billion years in the making.
Now consider living with the knowledge that all of it is not only the change log of the past, but also the pre-composed code of the future.
I consider this one April afternoon, sitting in a Brooklyn garden just coming alive with bud and bee, as I listen to a physicist-saxophonist friend electric with enthusiasm about his research exploring the radical mathematical implication that the universe might be autodidactic — that the fundamental forces, rather than abiding by the static and predictable laws we have so far discerned, might be the evolving self-perpetuating algorithms of the ultimate learning machine, algorithms that began as simple principles and went on to continually revise and elaborate on themselves, not unlike biological evolution is continually revising and elaborating on life. The fundamental poem, composing itself.
In detailing the physics behind this model, Stephon skips no beat honoring one of his great heroes, on whose shoulders this theory stands: Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), whose Nobel-winning work on quantum electrodynamics laid the foundation of quantum computing and its promise of enlisting phenomena like entanglement and superposition in computing the previously incomputable.
Love begins in the streets with vibration and ends behind closed doors in jealousy. Creation and destruction. What do we pray for but the equation that helps us make sense of what happens in our daily lives? What do we believe in if not that which tells us we’re alive? Sex, laughter, sweat, and equations elegant enough to figure on our fingers. Math is spirit and spirit is faith in numbers; both take us to the edge but no further than we can imagine. You don’t believe in math? Try to figure the velocity of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to land a man on the Moon without it. You don’t believe in God? Try to use math to calculate what the eye does every second of any given moment. If Big Blue tried to work that differential equation in our lifetime, it couldn’t. Mysteries inside mysteries in our own bodies of which we can’t make sense, another world waiting for a religion or calculus to explain. Look into any mirror; it’s like sitting in a theater watching a silent movie, but you’re the one pantomiming your story. You think you have this world figured out, but you can’t tell which hand you’re using and using and using. And why do we try?
We try, of course, because curiosity is the true triumph of consciousness; because what Einstein called “the passion for comprehension” is the hallmark of our species. We comprehend by parsing the world into categories and classes, constantly computing the distances and differences between them. This, it bears repeating, is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth — but it is also a limiting one, a dangerous one, nowhere more so than in the artificial binaries we create in trying to orient ourselves by differentiation.
With an eye to the limiting binaries of our Cartesian inheritance, and perhaps with an eye to his own experience of love — which every artist cannot but factor into their cosmogony — Jordan writes:
You cannot solve for the use of one side of the body over the other, so there is no single voice that emits from it. You cannot solve for the harmonics of a dual body, facing each other, both inquisitive. You cannot solve for the marriage of opposites, their fit, their match, their endlessness. You cannot solve for the morning stretch that calls to both sides, first this one, then that one, aligning the day. You cannot solve for the bass of one hand and the treble of the other, both keeping rhythm hostage under the skin of the bongo. You cannot solve for the balance of a locked door and a safe cracker’s ear against it and the move X number of clicks to the left and Y number of clicks back to the right and back past and back past till the latch clicks open in your mind.
“Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil.”
By Maria Popova
“The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… Here is the Amen beyond the prayer,” Derek Jarman wrote as he grieved his dying friends, faced his own death, and contemplated art, mortality, and resistance while planting a garden between an old lighthouse and a new nuclear plant on a barren shingled shore.
Laing’s Jarman-fomented essay, titled “Paradise,” begins with the question of whether gardening is a form of art and ends with the question of whether art is a form of resistance — a necessary tool for building the Garden of Eden we imagine a flourishing society to be.
Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shoots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is an abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.
To bridge Laing’s two questions, one must somehow reconcile these two temporal models: linear time, which the Greek called chronos and along which we plot the vector of progress, and cyclical time, or kairos, which is the time of gardens and, Laing intimates, the time of societies. We long for the assurance of steady progression, yet all around us the rest of nature churns in cycles. How do the cicadas know when to awake from their seventeen-year slumbers and rise up by the billions to make new life that will in turn repeat the cycle? And the migratory birds, “how can they know that it’s time to go?,” as Nina Simone asked in her serenade to time — Nina Simone, who also chose to cover Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” and who gave all she had to a movement the central concerns of which have returned a life-season later with redoubled urgency, its fruits only just beginning to ripen in our lifetime.
Therein lies the paradox — how do we practice resistance if time is the substance we are made of, as Borges so timelessly observed, and yet we live suspended between these two parallel versions of time as we try to build paradise?
“Resistance” has always been a funny word to me — one without direct translation in my native Bulgarian, in this particular context of constructive social change. It contours something necessary but not sufficient — while ennobling and empowering in its implication of defying wrongness, it limits its own power by ending at what is to be eradicated, without indication of what is to be grown in its place and how. In this respect, the resistance approach to human nature (and the consensual collective byproduct of human natures we call society) is like the pesticide approach to nature.
“Resistance” is a word especially limited by the elemental fact that there are certain things simply beyond the reach of resistance, impervious to our passions and protestations — spacetime, gravity, the fundamental laws that gave rise to our existence and will eventually return us to the stardust of which we are made. Your face will sag and your spine will bend under the twin assault of gravity and time, and so will mine, until our atoms disband altogether to become food for the worm and fertilizer for the mycelial wonderland from which bluebells will rise some future spring.
None of this we can resist.
But maybe — and that is what redeems and consecrates our finite human lives and our limited powers — within those parameters, there is space enough and spirit enough to resist what is poisonous to the ideological soil we call culture and persist in planting, for as long as we have to live and with as much generosity as we have to give, something lush and beautiful. That we might never live to see it bloom might just be okay. To have planted the seeds is satisfaction enough worth living for.
Is art resistance? Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil. But it seems to me that whatever else you do, it’s worth tending to paradise, however you define it and wherever it arises.
The arc of the moral universe might not be so different from that of the stem bent with bluebells tolling their vernal reminder that change comes in cycles. Every arc, after all, is but a segment of a circle. What it takes to draw our share of it with a steady hand as we try “widening our circles of compassion” without the assurance of immediate results — that is the question we each answer with our lives.
Poet and gardener Ross Gay comes closest to my own answer in his life-tested conviction that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” As I roll in my palm six large seedpods of sea kale — a neglected flowering wonder I discovered on the pages of Derek Jarman’s journal — and thumb them into the moist Brooklyn soil where they may or may not sprout, I find more and more that attention is the elemental unit of time. Each moment we are fully paying attention is an atom of eternity. The quality of our attention measures the quantity of our aliveness — our sole generator of resistance and persistence.