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Thrush Song: A Stunning Harmonic Tribute to Rachel Carson’s Courage by Composer Paola Prestini and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City

“All the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness.”

Thrush Song: A Stunning Harmonic Tribute to Rachel Carson’s Courage by Composer Paola Prestini and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City

In 2019, the New York Philharmonic commissioned composer and force of nature Paola Prestini — co-founder of National Sawdust, that visionary locus of possibility for world-building through music — to compose an original piece for their multi-season Project 19 initiative, celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Inspired by the stories of the remarkable unsung women in Figuring, she reached out to me to write the words. I chose a moment that occurs some 485 pages into the book — a moment small and private, but enormous in its symbolic significance and cultural reverberations.

In January 1962, after a decade of incubation and four years of methodical research, Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) turned in the manuscript for what would become Silent Spring — the epoch-making catalyst of the modern environmental movement, making ecology a household word and invitinig the human imagination to consider how intricately, vulnerably interleaved nature’s ecosystems are. Carson, by then savaged by cancer, knew that speaking such inconvenient truth to power would come at grave personal cost. It did: She was soon assaulted by government and industry, her scientific credibility attacked on the basis of her biology, with the crude weapon of gender. But she moored herself to what she had articulated to the love of her life, Dorothy Freeman, at the outset of her courageous endeavor:

Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

When Carson turned in the manuscript that cold January night, she tucked her newly adopted son Roger into bed, kissed him good night, took her beloved black cat Jeffie into the study, shut the door behind her, and put on her favorite Beethoven violin concerto. “Suddenly,” she recounted the evening to Dorothy the next day, “the tension of four years was broken and I let the tears come.” She told Dorothy:

Last summer… I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could — I had been able to complete it — now it had its own life.

Carson never lived to see its life in the world, but her work inspired the creation of Earth Day and the led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Paola Prestini (Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe)

Paola transfigured this moment into a gorgeous piece for soprano and orchestra, titled “Thrush Song.” After it premiered with the New York Philharmonic, I invited her to adapt it for a chorus of young people as part of the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating 50 years of Earth Day. (Days after David Byrne read a poem at the 2019 edition of The Universe in Verse, I had been awed by the National Sawdust performance of his countercultural hymn of resistance and resilience, accompanied by a coruscating chorus of young people; I was also haunted by Carson’s moving message to the next generations — to the Greta Thunbergs she never lived to meet.)

Paola Prestini’s working sketch for the New York Philharmonic project

Paola reimagined “Thrush Song” as a wondrous harmonic serenade to Carson’s courage, working with a constellation of young women from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, rehearsing and performing remotely in a world stilled and stunned by a global pandemic — a poignant meta-testament to Carson’s legacy: the revelation of how intimately connected we are to one another and to the rest of nature through the intricate, complex, delicate web of biological and ecological relationships weaving the tapestry of being.

The result, which many in the live Universe in Verse audience welcomed as the crowning glory of the nearly four-hour show, is now available for all the world to cherish, with a deep bow of admiration and gratitude to Paola and the remarkable women of the Young People’s Chorus, and special thanks to Debbie Millman for the lovingly hand-lettered lyrics.

Complement with a Carson’s birdsong notation set to music by singer-songwriter Dawn Landes and Neil Gaiman’s poetic tribute to Carson’s courage, written for the 2018 Universe in Verse, then revisit other highlights from the show’s four-year archive: a stunning animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s poem about our cosmic inter-belonging, James Baldwin’s ecological-humanistic wisdom set to song, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, and Neil Gaiman’s subversive feminist celebration of science and the human search for truth, in a tactile animated short film.

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When Did Time Really Begin? The Little Loophole in the Big Bang

A pleasurable warping of the figuring faculty to contemplate what was there before the before.

When Did Time Really Begin? The Little Loophole in the Big Bang

“Time says ‘Let there be,'” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote shortly before her death in her splendid “Hymn to Time,” saluting the invisible dimension that pervades and encompasses the whole of life: “the radiance of each bright galaxy. And eyes beholding radiance. And the gnats’ flickering dance. And the seas’ expanse. And death, and chance.”

But what does time say of the time before there was anything to let be, the time before being?

“The concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe,” Stephen Hawking wrote in his groundbreaking 1988 book A Brief History of Time (public library) — a work of such far-reaching and lasting impact that it awakened the popular imagination to the fundamental physics of reality and, thirty years later, inspired one of the most beautiful and poignant poems of all time.

In the foreword to the final edition of the book published in his lifetime, Hawking quoted Richard Feynman’s exultation at how fortunate we are to live in an age when we are still discovering the fundamental laws of nature. Inevitably, this means we are still understanding the nature of time. As we come closer and closer to accepting that the universe might be not infinite but finite, and that Einstein’s relativity, as revolutionary as it was, has important limitations, the notion that time began at the Big Bang singularity has begun to dissolve into something more complex — and more thrilling: We might say that in the beginning of time, there was no time; but we might equally say that in the beginning of time, there was only time. (Borges touched the poetic truth behind and before the scientific fact in his exquisite refutation of time.)

In this invigorating PBS segment, New York-based Australian astrophysicist Matt O’Dowd delves into the science and splendor of when time actually began and what that illuminates about the nature of a universe which contains everything we know, including the mind that does the knowing, yet one which we are still getting to know:

In this next segment, O’Dowd considers the possibilities, as presently understood, of what might have happened before the Big Bang:

Complement with science historian James Gleick on how our cultural obsession with the scientific impossibility of time travel illuminates the central mystery of consciousness, then treat yourself to Nina Simone’s meditation on time and poet Marie Howe’s stunning ode to Hawking’s singularity.

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Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Gorgeous Letter to Children About Reading, Amazement, and the Exhilaration of Discovering the Undiscovered

A celebration of the delicious enchantment of the very first time.

Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Gorgeous Letter to Children About Reading, Amazement, and the Exhilaration of Discovering the Undiscovered

I remember the feeling of first seeing the Moon through the small handheld telescope my father had smuggled from East Germany — how ancient yet proximate it felt, how alive, as though I could glide my six-year-old finger over its rugged radiance — the feeling of electric astonishment at something so surprising yet so inevitable, something that seemed to have always been waiting there just for me to discover it. I remember next having that feeling nearly a decade later, upon first reading To the Lighthouse, my English still too crude to register every note of nuance, but attuned enough to be staggered by the symphonic might of Virginia Woolf’s prose, to be stirred in some still-dim corner of my own mind by the glowing edges of hers.

It is an unrepeatable feeling — better than a first kiss, for it comes without anticipation or hope; more like a great love that rises from some unseen shore like a great blue heron over the misty lake at dawn, unbidden and improbable and discomposing in its majesty. It is a feeling often found between the covers of a great book, in the stillness between expectations, or as the twist at the end of a great poem dopplers past you in the hallway of the mind, leaving you stunned and transformed.

In some strange and wondrous sense, then, that which is still ahead of you, still waiting to be discovered, still holding its secret astonishment, is the most delicious, delirious of rewards.

Umberto Eco hinted at this in his wonderful notion of the “antilibrary” with its insistence that unread books, by virtue of their yet-unimagined and unsavored nourishment, have more value to our inner lives than those we have already metabolized. A generation later, poet and philosopher David Whyte address this in his gorgeous contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — that labor-of-love collection of 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by poets and physicists, cellists and entrepreneurs, artists and astronauts — some of the most inspiring humans in our world, whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Whyte writes:

Dear Young Friend,

I wish. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish I were in your shoes now, I wish I were standing where you are standing now, I would swap everything I have learned through my reading, I would swap my entire library of a thousand books, every journey and adventure I have taken through their pages, all the insights about the world and myself, all the laughter, the tragedy, the moments of shock and relief, all the books that have amazed me and that have made me reread them again and again, to be at the beginning as you are, so that I could read them all again for the very first time.

I wish, I wish, I wish I were in your place with all the books of the world waiting patiently for me. It would be so astonishing to come across Coleridge as a perfect stranger and hear his voice for the first time; I would love to know nothing about Shakespeare or Jane Austen, to be overwhelmed by the fact that there is a Rosalind, or an Elizabeth Bennett, or later, an Emily Dickinson, in this world, and then, and then to see my hand for the first time attempting to write even a little like they have, to follow them in shyness and trepidation and beautiful frustration, to walk through the incredible territory we call writing and reading and see it all again with new eyes. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish

I were in your shoes, in a beautiful waiting to know, waiting to read, waiting to write, so that I could open the door and walk through all the books I have ever read or written as if I hadn’t. I wish, I wish, I wish; I wish I were in your shoes now.

Yours in anticipation,

David Whyte

Savor other testaments to the power and splendor of reading from A Velocity of Being — letters by Rebecca Solnit, Anne Lamott, Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Debbie Millman, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alexander Chee, Kevin Kelly, and Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin — then revisit Whyte on anger and forgiveness, friendship, love, and heartbreak, and resisting the tyranny of labeling the heart’s truth.

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Nothing Is Fixed: James Baldwin on Keeping the Light Alive Amid the Entropic Darkness of Being, Set to Music

“The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

Nothing Is Fixed: James Baldwin on Keeping the Light Alive Amid the Entropic Darkness of Being, Set to Music

“Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” Rachel Carson wrote in her poetic, unexampled 1937 essay Undersea as she incubated the ideas that would awaken humanity’s ecological conscience. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin had written in the closing pages of On the Origin of Species in the middle of the previous century, as though to offer preemptive succor for humanity to steady itself against as he dismantled our comfortable and complacent age-old certitude that we are the pinnacle of “creation,” finished and complete — a certitude applied to the evolutionary, but stemming from the existential, for what is true of the species is true of the individual. As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert aptly observed, “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

But we are — as individuals, as a species, as a society — unfinished and incomplete, our story unwritten. Darwin and Carson both intimated that while there is disorientation in accepting ourselves as increments in advancement the arc of which far exceeds our lifetimes, there is also transcendence, for a story yet unfinished is a story with myriad possible endings — a story that forestalls despair by the sheer force of possibility; a story in which our individual lives matter not less but more, for they are the pixels shaping the panorama of endless change.

That is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores a century after Darwin and a generation after Carson in the final essay from the forgotten treasure Nothing Personal (public library) — his collaboration with the great photographer and his former high school classmate Richard Avedon, which also gave us Baldwin on the ultimate lifeline for your hour of despair.

James Baldwin by artist Marlene Dumas for the 2020Solidarity project — a series of charitable posters by international artists to help cultural institutions around the world survive during the 2020 crisis. Available as a poster, benefiting Pioneer Works — birthplace of The Universe in Verse.

Baldwin considers how we “emptied oceans with a home-made spoon and tore down mountains with our hands” — a sentiment referring to the failures of human rights and social justice he had witnessed and experienced in his own life, but drawing on nature for a metaphor that renders it all the more poignant in the context of our present ecological undoing — and writes:

One discovers the light in the darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.

In consonance with Viktor Frankl, who upon surviving the Holocaust two decades earlier had written stirringly about the moral obligation to “say yes to life, in spite of everything,” Baldwin reflects on the stubborn light that must have blazed in his own parents’ eyes in order for them to survive what they survived, in order for him to exist, and adds:

This is why one must say Yes to life and embrace it whenever it is found — and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is.

[…]

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.

The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

In this highlight from the fourth annual Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the creation of which was inspired by Rachel Carson’s work — musician, activist, and light-filled human vessel of change Morley — the visionary behind the wondrous Borderless Lullabies project — set Baldwin’s transcendent words to music, with Chris Bruce (her sweetheart) on guitar in their quarantine quarters and Dave Eggar on cello, invisible across the spacetime of distanced digital collaboration.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, a stunning animated short film of poet Marie Howe’s ode to our cosmic belonging, Rosanne Cash reading Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about outgrowing our limiting frames of reference, and a lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience, then revisit Baldwin on resisting the tyranny of the masses, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, how he learned to truly see, and his advice on writing.

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