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The Cosmic Miracle of Trees: Astronaut Leland Melvin Reads Pablo Neruda’s Love Letter to Earth’s Forests

“Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet. I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”

The Cosmic Miracle of Trees: Astronaut Leland Melvin Reads Pablo Neruda’s Love Letter to Earth’s Forests

“Today, for some, a universe will vanish,” Jane Hirshfield writes in her stunning poem about the death of a tree a quarter millennium after William Blake observed in his most passionate letter that how we see a tree is how we see the world, and in the act of seeing we reveal what we are: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” he wrote. “As a man is, so he sees.”

If a single tree is home to a miniature universe of life, and if we are learning with wide-eyed wonder that a tree is not a self-contained world but a synaptic node in a complex cosmos of relationships in constant and astonishing communication with other nodes, relationships that weave the fabric of earthly life, what does it make us — what does it reveal about our character, as a planetary people and a civilization — to watch the world’s forests vanish in flames before our eyes, in wildfires so ferocious as to be visible from space?

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

A century after Walt Whitman turned to trees as our wisest moral teachers and a generation before Wangari Maathai defended them with her life in a movement of moral courage that won her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) — one of humanity’s furthest-seeing and lushest-minded artists — shone a gorgeous sidewise gleam at an answer by way of celebration rather than lamentation in a passage from his Memoirs (public library), posthumously published in English the year the Voyager spacecraft captured that poetry-fomenting first glimpse of our Pale Blue Dot seen from far away. (Translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin, this treasure of a book is now — unfathomably, tragically, a civilizational embarrassment — out of print.)

At the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating fifty years of Earth Day, astronaut and poetry-lover Leland Melvin — one of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of humans in the history of our species to have left this rare planet, to have seen its forests and its intricate living web of relationships from the cosmic perspective, and to have returned loving it all the more passionately — breathed new life into Neruda’s forgotten words with a soulful reading of that passage:

Under the volcanoes, beside the snow-capped mountains, among the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forest… My feet sink down into the dead leaves, a fragile twig crackles, the giant rauli trees rise in all their bristling height, a bird from the cold jungle passes over, flaps its wings, and stops in the sunless branches. And then, from its hideaway, it sings like an oboe… The wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb, enter my nostrils and flood my whole being… The cypress of the Guaitecas blocks my way… This is a vertical world: a nation of birds, a plenitude of leaves… I stumble over a rock, dig up the uncovered hollow, an enormous spider covered with red hair stares up at me, motionless, as huge as a crab… A golden carabus beetle blows its mephitic breath at me, as its brilliant rainbow disappears like lightning… Going on, I pass through a forest of ferns much taller than I am: from their cold green eyes sixty tears splash down on my face and, behind me, their fans go on quivering for a long time… A decaying tree trunk: what a treasure!… Black and blue mushrooms have given it ears, red parasite plants have covered it with rubies, other lazy plants have let it borrow their beards, and a snake springs out of the rotted body like a sudden breath, as if the spirit of the dead trunk were slipping away from it… Farther along, each tree stands away from its fellows… They soar up over the carpet of the secretive forest, and the foliage of each has its own style, linear, bristling, ramulose, lanceolate, as if cut by shears moving in infinite ways… A gorge; below, the crystal water slides over granite and jasper… A butterfly goes past, bright as a lemon, dancing between the water and the sunlight… Close by, innumerable calceolarias nod their little yellow heads in greeting… High up, red copihues (Lapageria rosea) dangle like drops from the magic forest’s arteries… A fox cuts through the silence like a flash, sending a shiver through the leaves, but silence is the law of the plant kingdom… The barely audible cry of some bewildered animal far off… The piercing interruption of a hidden bird… The vegetable world keeps up its low rustle until a storm chums up all the music of the earth.

Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.

I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.

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

Complement with poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s lovely illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees, Mary Oliver’s radiant poem “When I Am Among the Trees” radiantly read by Amanda Palmer, the uncommonly wonderful picture-book The Forest, and the poetic nature writer Robert Macfarlane — who also read at the 2020 Universe in Verse — on how trees illuminate the secret of true love, then savor other highlights from this poetic celebration of the science and splendor of nature: a sublimely beautiful animation of Marie Howe’s stirring poem about our cosmic belonging and the meaning of home, inspired by Stephen Hawking; astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by the late, great astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson; Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate and Universe in Verse alumna Tracy K. Smith; and artist Ohara Hale’s lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience.

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Physicist Brian Greene on Mortality, Our Search for Meaning, and the Most Important Fact of the Universe

“When you see all of those stories nested together in one narrative arc… it gives a deeper understanding of where we came from, and what’s happening at the moment, and ultimately where we’re going.”

Physicist Brian Greene on Mortality, Our Search for Meaning, and the Most Important Fact of the Universe

“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in letter to his grief-stricken friend, the Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy, in 1923 — the year he published, after a decade of work, his miraculous Duino Elegies.

Nearly a century after Rilke’s death, the theoretical physicist and mathematician Brian Greene — who is reading and reflecting on the ninth of Rilke’s ten elegies at the 2020 Universe in Verse — brought the poetics of science to this life-expanding perspective on mortality in his equally miraculous book Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (public library), which he launched in dialogue with his Columbia colleague, Pioneer Works Director of Sciences, and poetry-performer Janna Levin.

Brian Greene. (Photograph by Michael Avedon for Pioneer Works Science Studios.)

In this fragment from their altogether revelatory conversation, Greene bridges Shakespeare and science to consider how facing the elemental fact of our finitude — facing it with the courage that only comes from lucidity, from “absolute and passionate presence with all that is here” — dilates our subjective experience of time and broadens our being, so that while we may not live any longer than we do, we may live wider:

Elsewhere in the conversation, and throughout his excellent book, Greene echoes the sentiment at the heart of Richard Feynman’s iconic Ode to a Flower, insisting that a knowledge of what we are made of, a knowledge of the fundamental laws — the laws that govern the atoms that make the molecules that make the cells that make the conscious, self-reflective beings that examine these laws in conversation and contemplation — helps us tell a fuller story of who and what we are. “When you see all of those stories nested together in one narrative arc,” he says, “it gives a deeper understanding of where we came from, and what’s happening at the moment, and ultimately where we’re going.”

He makes an elegant argument for this necessity of self-cohesion in another fragment of the conversation:

When you recognize that we are the product of purposeless, mindless laws of physics playing themselves out on our particles — because we are, all, bags of particles — it changes the way you search for meaning and purpose: You recognize that looking out to the cosmos to find some answer that’s sort of floating out there in the void is just facing the wrong direction. At the end of the day, we have to manufacture our own meaning, our own purpose — we have to manufacture coherence… to make sense of existence. And when you manufacture purpose, that doesn’t make it artificial — that makes it so much more noble than accepting purpose that is thrust upon you from the outer world.

This recognition, Greene reminds us, is the very thing that makes our humanity and the consciousness from which it springs such a wondrous triumph of nature, chance, and evolution:

If we’re used to thinking of consciousness as this pristine, spectacular quality that we are endowed with from something magical in the external world, to frame it in a reductionist way might feel like we’re flattening it. However, I think it’s utterly spectacular that the very same physical processes that are responsible for this pitcher of water or the structure of this table are what’s responsible for conscious self-awareness — how miraculous that collections of particles can do and think and feel what we do. That, I think, is the conclusion — it amplifies and elevates the wonder of it all, it doesn’t take away from it.

In the full conversation, in which Greene goes on to explore consciousness, free will, evolution, storytelling, and more, is well worth savoring and can be savored on Broadcast — the wonderful new digital initiative my friends at Pioneer Works have launched to open to the world their archive of uncommon treasures featuring some of the world’s fiercest and most fertile minds — scientists and artists, Nobel laureates and Pulitzer-winning authors — in conversation and contemplation at the edge of our search for truth, our longing for beauty, and our hunger for meaning.

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Singularity: Marie Howe’s Ode to Stephen Hawking, Our Cosmic Belonging, and the Meaning of Home, in a Stunning Animated Short Film

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. Remember?”

“We, this people, on a small and lonely planet,” Maya Angelou begins “A Brave and Startling Truth” — her cosmic wakeup call to humanity, which flew into space aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft and which opened the 2018 Universe in Verse, dedicated to our ecological awakening on the wings of Rachel Carson’s courageous work.

That year, Marie Howe — one of our great living poets, who awakens the creaturely conscience of the next generation in her ecopoetry class at Sarah Lawrence College — premiered a kindred poem that stilled the crowd constellating at Pioneer Works before erupting into a thousand-bodied standing ovation. While inspired by Stephen Hawking (who had just returned his stardust to the universe several weeks earlier) and titled after his trailblazing work on black holes and singularities — work that shines a sidewise gleam on the origin of everything — the poem is at bottom a stunning meditation on the interconnectedness of belonging across space and time, across selves and species, across the myriad artificial unbelongings we have manufactured as we have drifted further and further from our elemental nature. Its closing line is an invocation, an incantation, ending with a timeless word of staggering resonance today: home.

As we now stand on a profound precipice two years later — facing our deeply interconnected ecology of being on this shared cosmic home as we look back on fifty years of Earth Day built on Carson’s legacy, facing the most intimate meaning of home in our isolated shelters scattered across this “small and lonely planet” — the poem pulsates with a whole new meaning, as all great poems do in the veins of time.

And so, as a special treat for the 2020 Universe in Verse, streaming on April 25 into millions of homes around this sole shared home, I teamed up with SALT Project — a kindred clan of visual storytellers, who have won some hearts and won some Emmys with their soulful shorts ranging from book trailers to bird migration documentaries — to bring Howe’s “Singularity” to life in a transcendent short film, illustrated by paper collage artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner and featuring original music by the heroic cellist Zoë Keating, who was present in atoms at the 2018 show when “Singularity” premiered and who also composed the score for “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — the headlining miracle of a poem for the 2020 show.

It is with exuberant joy and gratitude that I share, as a special taste of the 2020 Universe in Verse, this symphony of beauty and perspective, over which so many talented women have labored with so much heart and generosity of spirit .

SINGULARITY
by Marie Howe

          (after Stephen Hawking)

Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?

so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money —

nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone

pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.

For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you.
   Remember?

There was no   Nature.    No
 them.   No tests

to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf    or if

the coral reef feels pain.    Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that

to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not

at all — nothing

before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.

Can molecules recall it?
what once was?    before anything happened?

No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb      no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with

is is is is is

All   everything   home

Complement with an ink-and-watercolor animation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s gorgeous poem of brokenness and belonging and an animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s feminist revision of the history of science, then be sure to tune into the 2020 Universe in Verse at 4:30PM EST on April 25 for more poetic gifts of cosmic perspective, read by astrophysicists, artists, astronauts, and a portable galaxy of other radiant humans, including Patti Smith, Amanda Palmer, Elizabeth Gilbert, Debbie Millman, Brian Greene, Rosanne Cash, and Neil Gaiman.

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A Lifeline for the Hour of Despair: James Baldwin on 4AM, the Fulcrum of Love, and Life as a Moral Obligation to the Universe

“I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”

A Lifeline for the Hour of Despair: James Baldwin on 4AM, the Fulcrum of Love, and Life as a Moral Obligation to the Universe

“Yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of life’s most haunting hour. But what we find in that intermediate space between past and future, between the costumed simulacrum of reality we so painstakingly construct with our waking lives and reality laid bare in the naked nocturnal mind, is not always a resting place of ease — for there dwells the self at its most elemental, which means the self most lucidly awake to its foibles and its finitude.

The disquietude this haunted hour can bring, and does bring, is what another titanic writer and rare seer into the depths of the human spirit — James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) — explored 130 years after Hawthorne in one of his least known, most insightful, and most personal essays.

Richard Avedon and James Baldwin. (Photograph courtesy of Taschen.)

In 1964, as the Harlem riots were shaking the foundation of society and selfhood, Baldwin joined talent-forces with the great photographer Richard Avedon — an old high school friend of his — to hold up an uncommonly revelatory cultural mirror with the book Nothing Personal (public library). Punctuating Avedon’s signature black-and-white portraits — of Nobel laureates and Hollywood celebrities, of the age- and ache-etched face of an elder born under slavery and the idealism-lit young faces of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Georgia, of the mentally ill perishing in asylums and the newlyweds at City Hall ablaze with hope — are four stirring essays by Baldwin, the first of which gave us his famous sobering observation that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”

At no time does the terror within, Baldwin argues in the third essay, bubble to the surface of our being more ferociously than in that haunting hour between past and future, between our illusions of permanence and perfection, and the glaring fact of our finitude and our fallibility, between being and non-being. He writes:

Four AM can be a devastating hour. The day, no matter what kind of day it was is indisputably over; almost instantaneously, a new day begins: and how will one bear it? Probably no better than one bore the day that is ending, possibly not as well. Moreover, a day is coming one will not recall, the last day of one’s life, and on that day one will oneself become as irrecoverable as all the days that have passed.

It is a fearful speculation — or, rather, a fearful knowledge — that, one day one’s eyes will no longer look out on the world. One will no longer be present at the universal morning roll call. The light will rise for others, but not for you.

Half a century before the physicist Brian Greene examined how this very awareness is the wellspring of meaning to our ephemeral lives and a century after Tchaikovsky found beauty amid the wreckage of the soul at 4AM, Baldwin adds:

Sometimes, at four AM, this knowledge is almost enough to force a reconciliation between oneself and all one’s pain and error. Since, anyway, it will end one day, why not try it — life — one more time?

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

After singing some beautiful and heartbreaking Bessie Smith lyrics into his essay — lyrics from “Long Road,” a song about reconciling the knowledge that one is ultimately alone with the irrepressible impulse to reach out for love, “to grasp again, with fearful hope, the unwilling, unloving human hand” — Baldwin continues:

I think all of our voyages drive us there; for I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.

That alone, Baldwin insists, is reason enough to be, as Nietzsche put it, a “yea-sayer” to life — to face the uncertainty of our lives with courage, to face the fact of our mortality with courage, and to fill this blink of existence bookended by nothingness with the courage of a bellowing aliveness.

In a passage that calls to mind Galway Kinnell’s lifeline of a poem “Wait,” composed for a young friend on the brink of suicide, Baldwin writes:

For, perhaps — perhaps — between now and the last day, something wonderful will happen, a miracle, a miracle of coherence and release. And the miracle on which one’s unsteady attention is focused is always the same, however it may be stated, or however it may remain unstated. It is the miracle of love, love strong enough to guide or drive one into the great estate of maturity, or, to put it another way, into the apprehension and acceptance of one’s own identity. For some deep and ineradicable instinct — I believe — causes us to know that it is only this passionate achievement which can outlast death, which can cause life to spring from death.

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

And yet, so often, we lose faith in this miracle, lose the perspective we call faith — so often it slips between the fingers fanned with despair or squeezes through the fist clenched with rage. We lose perspective most often, Baldwin argues, at four AM:

At four AM, when one feels that one has probably become simply incapable of supporting this miracle, with all one’s wounds awake and throbbing, and all one’s ghastly inadequacy staring and shouting from the walls and the floor — the entire universe having shrunk to the prison of the self — death glows like the only light on a high, dark, mountain road, where one has, forever and forever! lost one’s way. — And many of us perish then.

What then? A generation after Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry composed his beautiful manifesto for night as an existential clarifying force for the deepest truths of the heart, Baldwin offers:

But if one can reach back, reach down — into oneself, into one’s life — and find there some witness, however unexpected or ambivalent, to one’s reality, one will be enabled, though perhaps not very spiritedly, to face another day… What one must be enabled to recognize, at four o’clock in the morning, is that one has no right, at least not for reasons of private anguish, to take one’s life. All lives are connected to other lives and when one man goes, much more goes than the man goes with him. One has to look on oneself as the custodian of a quantity and a quality — oneself — which is absolutely unique in the world because it has never been here before and will never be here again.

Baldwin — whom U.S. Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks described as “love personified” in introducing his last public appearance before his death — wedges into this foundational structure of soul-survival the fact that in a culture of habitual separation and institutionalized otherness, such self-regard is immensely difficult. And yet, he insists with the passion of one who has proven the truth of his words with his own life, we must try — we must reach across the divides within and without, across the abysses of terror and suspicion, with a generous and largehearted trust in one another, which is at bottom trust in ourselves.

Art by from Little Man, Little Man — James Baldwin’s only children’s book, written to foment his own young nephew’s self-regard.

Echoing his contemporary and kindred visionary Leonard Bernstein’s insistence that “we must believe, without fear, in people,” Baldwin adds what has become, or must become, the most sonorous psychosocial refrain bridging his time and ours:

Where all human connections are distrusted, the human being is very quickly lost.

More than half a century later, Nothing Personal remains a masterwork of rare insight into and consolation for the most elemental aches of the human spirit. For a counterpoint to this nocturnal fragment, savor the great nature writer Henry Beston, writing a generation before Baldwin, on how the beauty of night nourishes the human spirit, then revisit Baldwin on resisting the mindless of majority, how he learned to truly see, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, his advice on writing, his historic conversation with Margaret Mead about forgiveness and responsibility, and his only children’s book.

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