Brain Pickings

Page 7

The Spirituality of Science and the Wonder of the Wilderness: Ornithologist and Wildlife Ecologist J. Drew Lanham on Nature as Worship

“As I wander into the predawn dark of an autumn wood, I feel the presence of things beyond flesh, bone, and blood. My being expands to fit the limitlessness of the wild world.”

The Spirituality of Science and the Wonder of the Wilderness: Ornithologist and Wildlife Ecologist J. Drew Lanham on Nature as Worship

“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,” Rachel Carson wrote as she reflected on science and our spiritual bond with nature a decade before she interleaved her training as a scientist and her poetic reverence of nature, nowhere deeper than in her tender love of birds, to compose Silent Spring — the epoch-making book that catalyzed the modern environmental movement and inspired the creation of Earth Day.

Two generations later, ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham — another scientist with a poet’s soul and the courage to fully inhabit both worlds — explores the abiding relationship between knowledge and mystery, between scientific truth and human meaning, throughout The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (public library).

J. Drew Lanham (Photograph: Clemson University)

Lanham — a self-described “man in love with nature,” “a seeker and a noticer,” “a wildling, born of forests and fields” who worships every bird he sees — was raised in large part by his grandmother, a woman of ample wisdom and ample superstition, whose ravishing love of nature inspired Lanham’s own and whose sometimes comical, sometimes concerning antiscientific beliefs inspirited him to get closer to the truth of things through science. His love of nature never left him but, in a testament to Richard Feynman’s timeless Ode to a Flower, was only magnified by the lucidity of his scientific training.

In consonance with poet Diane Ackerman’s lovely notion of living as an “Earth ecstatic” where others might subscribe to a particular religion, Lanham writes:

Evolution, gravity, change, and the dynamic transformation of field into forest move me. A warbler migrating over hundreds of miles of land and ocean to sing in the same tree once again is as miraculous to me as any dividing sea.

Praise Song for Dawn by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

A century after quantum theory originator and Nobel laureate Max Planck argued that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve” — a sentiment Carl Sagan would later echo in his own singular poetics — Lanham adds:

For all those years of running from anything resembling religion and all the scientific training that tells me to doubt anything outside of the prescribed confidence limits, I find myself defined these days more by what I cannot see than by what I can. As I wander into the predawn dark of an autumn wood, I feel the presence of things beyond flesh, bone, and blood. My being expands to fit the limitlessness of the wild world. My senses flush to full and my heartbeat quickens with the knowledge that I am not alone.

Art from The Blue Hour by Isabelle Simler

One of the wonders of being human is that as much as we may be creatures among creatures, never alone in the web of life, there lives within each of us a parallel wilderness of presences and possible identities comprising the ecology of being we call personhood. Walt Whitman — a poet with a scientist’s soul — knew this when he described himself as a “kosmos” containing a multitude of identities and inheritances, creaturely, cosmic, and cultural. Lanham knows this in taxonomizing the Linnaean poetics of his own personhood:

My being finds its foundation in open places.

I’m a man of color — African American by politically correct convention — mostly black by virtue of ancestors who trod ground in central and west Africa before being brought to foreign shores. In me there’s additionally an inkling of Irish, a bit of Brit, a smidgen of Scandinavian, and some American Indian, Asian, and Neanderthal tossed in, too. But that’s only a part of the whole: There is also the red of miry clay, plowed up and planted to pass a legacy forward. There is the brown of spring floods rushing over a Savannah River shoal. There is the gold of ripening tobacco drying in the heat of summer’s last breath. There are endless rows of cotton’s cloudy white. My plumage is a kaleidoscopic rainbow of an eternal hope and the deepest blue of despair and darkness. All of these hues are me; I am, in the deepest sense, colored.

I am as much a scientist as I am a black man; my skin defines me no more than my heart does.

This integrated view of his interior ecology informs his integrated view of human society and our relationship with nature:

To save wildlife and wild places the traction has to come not from the regurgitation of bad-news data but from the poets, prophets, preachers, professors, and presidents who have always dared to inspire. Heart and mind cannot be exclusive of one another in the fight to save anything.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane — a visual dictionary of poetic spells resisting the erasure of nature’s language from our cultural lexicon.

Complement with Thoreau on nature as prayer, his modern-day counterpart Sy Montgomery on what a lifetime of working with nonhuman animals taught her about the living holiness of nature, and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then savor this marvelous illustrating rewilding of the human spirit.


Our Cosmic Humanity: Astronomer Jill Tarter Reads Nobel-Winning Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

“…as long as our kindness is still incomparable, peerless even in its imperfection…”

“They should have sent a poet,” gasps Jodie Foster’s character in the film based on Carl Sagan’s novel Contact as another galaxy emerges before her eyes outside the spaceship window, redeeming with the wonder of possibility her lifelong dream of finding intelligent life beyond our solar system.

Sagan, who wrote the novel in 1985 and returned his stardust to the universe months before the film’s premiere in 1997, modeled Foster’s character — a scientist persisting in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence against the tidal force of resistance from the limited imagination of mainstream science — on the heroic longtime director of the SETI Institute: astronomer Jill Tarter.

In the spring of 2020, as our one and only world was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day while coming unworlded by a deadly pandemic, Dr. Tarter joined the human chorus serenading our cosmic belonging in The Universe in Verse — my annual charitable celebration of science and the natural world through poetry — to read a poem that could have been composed by her or for her or about her: “The Ball” by the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), who received her Nobel Prize with a stunning reflection on how our certitudes keep us small and whose poignant lesser-known prose has explored the paradoxes and opportunities of our cosmic solitude.

by Wisława Szymborska

As long as nothing can be known for sure,
(no signals have been picked up yet),

As long as earth is still unlike
The nearer and more distant planets,

As long as there’s neither hide nor hair
Of other grasses graced by other winds
Or other treetops bearing other crowns,
Other animals as well grounded as our own,

As long as the local echo
Has been known to speak in syllables

As long as there’s no word
Of better or worse mozarts,
platos, edisons out there,

as long as our inhuman crimes
are still committed only between humans,

as long as our kindness
is still incomparable,
peerless even in its imperfection,

as long our heads packed with illusions
still pass for the only heads so packed,

as long as the roofs of our mouths alone
still raise voices to high heavens —

let’s act like very special guests of honour
at the district fireman’s ball,
dance to the beat of the local oompah band,
and pretend that it’s the ball
to end all balls.

I can’t speak for others —
for me this
misery and happiness enough:

just this sleepy backwater
where even the stars have time to burn
while winking at us


“The Ball,” translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, appears in Szymborska’s indispensable Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library), which also gave us her ode to the number pi and her lovely “Possibilities.”

Part of the Milky Way, from a study made between 1874 and 1876
Part of the galaxy of which we are a part, from Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s 19th-century astronomical drawings. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

For more about Dr. Tarter, her inspiring story, and her poetic credo that “it takes a cosmos to make us human,” savor her On Being conversation with Krista Tippett. (Krista was also a part of The Universe in Verse in 2020 with a lovely reading of and reflection on Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” and in 2019 with Howard Nemerov’s ode to the interconnectedness of the universe.)

For more lush lyrical interleavings of our hunger for elemental truth and our search for human meaning, delve into the Universe in Verse archive, spanning several years and dozens of diversely inspiring humans reading perspective-broadening poems, including astronomer Natalie Batalha reading and reflecting on Dylan Thomas’s cosmic serenade to trees and the wonder of being human, musician Meshell Ndegeocello performing Whitman’s ode to the entwined mutuality of life, physicist Brian Greene reading and reflecting on Rilke and the nature of time, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her spare and poignant invocation of Einstein’s mother, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to Earth’s forests, and Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s poetic premonition of particle physics.


The Tree in Me: A Tender Painted Poem About Growing Our Capacity for Joy, Strength, and Love

What trees can teach us about more closely and loving ourselves, each other, and the world more deeply.

The Tree in Me: A Tender Painted Poem About Growing Our Capacity for Joy, Strength, and Love

Walt Whitman, who considered trees the profoundest teachers in how to best be human, remembered the woman he loved and respected above all others as that rare person who was “entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”

At the outset of what was to become the most challenging year of my life, and the most challenging for the totality of the world in our shared lifetime, I resolved to face it like a tree — a resolution blind to that unfathomable future, as all resolutions and all futures tend to be, but one that made it infinitely more survivable. I was not the only one. Humans, after all, have a long history of learning resilience from trees and fathoming our own nature through theirs: Hesse saw in them the paragon of self-actualization, Thoreau reverenced them as cathedrals that consecrate our lives, Dylan Thomas entrusted them with humbling us into the essence of our humanity, ancient mythology placed them at its spiritual center, and science used them as an organizing principle for knowledge.

Artist and author Corinna Luyken draws on this intimate connection between the sylvan and the human in The Tree in Me (public library) — a lyrical meditation on the root of creativity, strength, and connection, with a spirit and sensibility kindred to her earlier emotional intelligence primer in the form of a painted poem.

Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s timeless and transformative mindfulness teachings, which she first encountered long ago in the character-kiln of adolescence and which profoundly influenced her worldview as she matured, Luyken considers the book “a seedling off the tree” from the great Zen teacher’s classic tangerine meditation — the fruition of her longtime desire to make something beautiful and tender that invites the young (and not only the young) to look more deeply into the nature of the world, into their own nature and its magnificent interconnectedness to all of nature. After years of incubation, after many trials that landed far from her vision, a spare poem came to her. Paintings grew out of the words. A book blossomed.

The tree in me
is seed and blossom,
bark and stump…
part shade,
and part sun.

The singsong verses follow the protagonist — an everychild of ambiguous age, gender, and ethnicity — along a joyful journey of self-discovery, self-understanding, and self-appreciation through warm identification with various aspects of a tree: its irrepressible lushness, the effortless grace with which it bends without breaking, how it is constantly negotiating darkness and light, how it exists in exquisite interdependence with the rest of the living world.

There is a lovely visual nod to one of the most revelatory and paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries in our lifetime — the astonishing mycelial web by which trees communicate with each other underground, a discovery that may be nature’s loveliest metaphor for the secret of love.

As the child looks up to face a young woman — who could be a mother or a sister or a first love or the school janitor or the Vice President — the book ends with a subtle affirmation of William Blake’s timeless tree-tinted insistence that we see not what we look at but what we are.

Because there is
a tree,
and a sky,
and a sun
in me,
I can see
that there is also
a tree
in you.

Couple The Tree in Me with The Day I Became a Bird — a kindred illustrated meditation on learning to let ourselves be seen — then revisit D.H. Lawrence on trees, solitude, and how we root ourselves when relationships collapse and Mary Oliver’s short, shimmering poem “When I Am Among the Trees.”

Illustrations by Corinna Luyken; book photographs by Maria Popova


Kiss of the Sun: Poetry, Love, and Our Search for Meaning at the End of Time

A spare guide to making joyous peace with “the end of time, which is also the end of poetry (and wheat and evil and insects and love).”

Kiss of the Sun: Poetry, Love, and Our Search for Meaning at the End of Time

Who could fault us, really? Who could fault us — exquisite miracles of evolution with a wilderness of consciousness compacted into a modest mammalian skull with a limited cognitive capacity — for being so staggered and stupefied by the knowledge that everything we have ever known and loved and warred over, every axon of every neuron of every mind doing the knowing, along with the mosquito and the moons of Saturn, the neutrino and Andromeda, all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego?

If we are lucky enough, if we are humble and awake enough, we might carve our confusion into an ode to “the singularity we once were.” Mostly, we blink in half-comprehending astonishment at the edge of terror — a consciousness as symphonic as ours cannot contemplate the beginning of time without a haunting awareness of the end of time, for we know that every beginning presupposes an end. We know with a mute creaturely knowledge, and we spend our complex lives hedging against it with all of our arts and antagonisms, that everything eventually ends — each love, each life, the universe itself. The succulent dream of eternity is kerneled with the hard fact that in a mere four billion years, the Sun — this common star whose modest yellow light kissed us into being amid the rude blankness of pure spacetime — will spin into its final collapse and take with it every mitochondrion and every trace of Beethoven. Who could fault us, then, for shuddering at the knowledge that all of it — all that glorious everythingness risen from the nothingness — will eventually vanish back into the void.

Meteor shower, 1868. One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering astronomical illustrations. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Against this backdrop of awareness, the task and triumph of life is to find our own answer, private and pliant, to the bellowing question of what confers meaning and beauty upon our ephemeral existence — which is what Vermont poet laureate Mary Ruefle offers with uncommon splendor of sentiment and image in her poem “Kiss of the Sun,” found in her altogether ravishing Selected Poems (public library).

Poetry entered my life fairly late along its finite trajectory, via my dear friend Emily Levine, who has since returned to the void. It has remained a friendship commons, a place to gather with humans I love and parse the meaning of why we are here, for as long as we share this improbable gift of aliveness. None has been more present or more kindred in this poetic adventure than Amanda Palmer. We began reading and reflecting on poems together in public between songs at Amanda’s shows nearly a decade ago. As our lives shape-shifted, as the world shape-shifted, we never stopped: poetry, a metronome of friendship; poems, atoms of time and atoms of trust. And so I have entrusted Amanda with breathing voice into Mary Ruefle’s gorgeous existential exhale of a poem.

by Mary Ruefle

If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something
among people, then let this be prearranged now,
between us, while we are still peoples: that
at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry
(and wheat and evil and insects and love),
when the entire human race gathers in the flesh,
reconstituted down to the infant’s tiniest fold
and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge
of that fathomless crowd with an orange for you,
reconstituted down to its innermost seed protected
by white thread, in case you are thirsty, which
does not at this time seem like such a wild guess,
and though there will be no poetry between us then,
at the end of time, the geese all gone with the seas,
I hope you will take it, and remember on earth
I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw,
and if by chance there is no edge to the crowd
or anything else so that I am of it,
I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can.

Complement with Ruefle on why we read and her stunning color spectrum of sadness, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time” and physicist Brian Greene’s Rilkean reflection on filling our finitude with meaning.


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