“Try to accept this fat red hurt is your starting point.”
By Maria Popova
“Love your heart. For this is the prize,” Toni Morrison wrote in an exquisite passage from Beloved as she considered the body as an instrument of sanity, joy, and self-respect a century after William James asserted in his groundbreaking work on how our bodies affect our feelings that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” lending the fledgling credibility of a young science to Walt Whitman’s poetic insistence that “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul.”
There is such fertile ground for sensemaking in this space between biology and metaphor that we have always used our bodies as sensemaking instruments for the soul. But no part of the body has taken on more metaphorical meaning than the vital organ depicted in millennia of literature and song as the seat of love.
When we speak of the heart breaking, we are speaking metaphorically, and yet anyone who has lived through heartbreak — that is, anyone who has lived at all — knows intimately the awful way in which the psychological condition of loss takes on the quality of physical pain. It is hardly surprising, then, that the body and the soul heal in consanguinity — the heart-as-metaphor heals the same way the heart-as-organ does.
In this enchanting animated poem, Ducker joins visions with artist Kate Sweeney to deliver a soulful prescription partway between science and metaphor, between organ and instrument, as palliating to the physiology of illness as it is to the psychology of heartbreak:
A SCIENTIST’S ADVICE ON HEALING by Christy Ducker
Try to accept
this fat red hurt
is your starting point,
in the way a pen must be put to paper
in one particular spot,
the globby flap
Change the subject,
before it’s too late.
you do possess,
what flotilla of cells
then draw yourself back
in a language
of your own.
Your body’s talk
is loose as lymph —
it’ll have you open out
as a tree,
or sneak up on pain
for healing won’t come at you
Embrace the lack of heroics —
this isn’t Hollywood,
in a plot
or may not resolve.
The poem appears in Messenger (UK edition) — a slim collection of Ducker’s poems exploring “how we wound and how we heal,” drawing on the science of immunology in a collaboration with York’s Center for Chronic Disease, and featuring visual poetics by Sweeney, who also animated poet Linda France’s magnificent “Murmuration.”
“If we ourselves do not govern our destiny, firmly and courageously, no one is going to do it for us.”
By Maria Popova
A century after the trailblazing conservationist John Muir observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” and half a century before Maya Angelou urged us in her cosmic clarion call to see that “we, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe” must correct our course before we destroy ourselves and our kith-hitched globe, the ecologist and conservationist William Vogt (May 15, 1902–July 11, 1968) composed a masterwork of admonition and actionable vision that shaped the ethos of the modern environmental movement and emboldened the generation of pioneers who set it into motion.
During his long recovery from paralytic polio as a child, William had fallen in love with the natural world, escaping his confinement through books about the wilderness and its wondrous creatures. A century before the Oxford Children’s Dictionary discarded dozens of words related to nature as irrelevant to the imagination and its prosthesis in language, the small bedridden boy grew especially enchanted by the feathered creatures of free flight that he met on the page.
Literature remained his portal into life as he set out on a literary career in New York. But nature beckoned, the birds beckoned.
At thirty, Vogt abruptly left the city for Latin America, traveling on a Peruvian commission to study bird populations on the guano islands. In the three years he spent there, laboring in the salty air on the hot barren rocks, he arrived at an empirical proof of Muir’s insight — Vogt discovered that when changes in ocean currents diminished the population of plankton and anchovies, millions of birds fled the islands in search of food, leaving their defenseless chicks to die in “pitiful, collapsed, downy clumps” that broke his heart.
He saw in this heartbreak a miniature of the whole — the intricate interlacing of creaturely destinies on a planet of finite resources, growing populations, and infinite interconnectedness of needs.
Vogt spent the next decade and a half developing these ideas by devouring countless books and scientific papers, talking with scientists and sea captains, farmers and diplomats, presidents and sheepherders in Patagonia, engineers and trappers in Manitoba. In 1948 — the year the great nature writer Henry Beston cast his poetic hope that “perhaps there is still time to take a stand for the Kingdom of Life [which] needs defenders” and that “perhaps, mighty as its enemies may be, allies will come who are even mightier” — Vogt distilled his learnings in Road to Survival (public library), a mighty manifesto that roused a generation of allies to stand for the Kingdom of Life.
At the crux of his inquiry into the key motive forces of our civilization’s course is Vogt’s insistence that while much is broken with the exploitive consumerism behind the world’s government and industry, much more depends on and is mendable by the concerted collective action of ordinary people. In a humbling testament to the slow work of cultural change and civilizational course-correction, it would take nearly a century for his ideas to come alive and actionable in such pillars of ecological responsibility as the Paris Agreement, the Green New Deal, and Greta Thunberg’s global school climate strike movement.
In an era when humanity regarded the rest of nature as a world parallel to our own — a world at best visited in pleasant excursions, at worst reduced to extractable resources to serve human needs — Vogt insists that “ecological health is one of the indispensables” in the “flowering of human happiness and well-being.” A century after Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology and a decade before Rachel Carson made it a household word, Vogt draws on his island discovery to contour the totality of Earth’s ecological interdependence:
Drastic measures are inescapable. Above everything else, we must reorganize our thinking. If we are to escape the crash we must abandon all thought of living unto ourselves. We form an earth-company, and the lot of the Indiana farmer can no longer be isolated from that of the Bantu… An eroding hillside in Mexico or Yugoslavia affects the living standard and probability of survival of the American people… Today’s white bread may force a break in the levees, and flood New Orleans next spring. This year’s wheat from Australia’s eroding slopes may flare into a Japanese war three decades hence.
Rising from the wakeful pages is the assurance, at once empowering and disquieting with its weight of responsibility, that “we the people” is not some agglomeration of abstract others but the sum total of each and every one of us as individual and concrete agents of change.
In a chapter aptly titled “History of Our Future,” Vogt writes:
When I write “we” I do not mean the other fellow. I mean every person who reads a newspaper printed on pulp from vanishing forests. I mean every man and woman who eats a meal drawn from steadily shrinking lands. Everyone who flushes a toilet, and thereby pollutes a river, wastes fertile organic matter and helps to lower a water table. Everyone who puts on a wool garment derived from overgrazed ranges that have been cut by the little hoofs and gullied by the rains, sending runoff and topsoil into the rivers downstream, flooding cities hundreds of miles away.
Writing shortly before he became National Director of Planned Parenthood — a position he would hold for more than a decade in parallel with his conservation work — Vogt adds:
Especially do I mean men and women in overpopulated countries who produce excessive numbers of children who, unhappily, cannot escape their fate as hostages to the forces of misery and disaster that lower upon the horizon of our future.
The direction of these curves and the misery they write across the earth are not likely to be changed in the proximate future. Their direction is fixed for some decades. Great masses of people have a preponderantly young population; as they come into the breeding age we must, despite all possible efforts short of generalized slaughter, expect human numbers to increase for a time. The drag imposed by ignorance, selfishness, nationalism, custom, etc., is certain to retard, by some decades, any effective or substantial improvement of resource management.
In an admonition of astonishing prescience, Vogt insists that changing the trend requires revising our past ideals to calibrate them to an evolving ecological reality:
The freebooting, rugged individualist, whose vigor, imagination, and courage contributed so much of good to the building of our country (along with the bad), we must now recognize, where his activities destroy resources, as the Enemy of the People he has become… Above all, we must learn to know — to feel to the core of our beings — our dependence upon the earth and the riches with which it sustains us. We can no longer believe valid our assumption that we live in independence.
We must — all of us, men, women, and children — reorient ourselves with relation to the world in which we live… We must come to understand our past, our history, in terms of the soil and water and forests and grasses that have made it what it is. We must see the years to come in the frame that makes space and time one.
In a world he considered already overcrowded and resource-strained by the two billion people inhabiting it — a population that would triple within a generation — Vogt adds:
As we are crowded together… on the shrinking surface of the globe, we have set in motion historical forces that are directed by our total environment.
Half a century after Alfred Russel Wallace issued his prophetic prescription for civilizational course-correction — an admonition that fell on deaf ears at the outset of the twentieth century and would remain a point of willful deafness in the climate denial of the twenty-first — Vogt makes an impassioned and empowering appeal to the only substantive force of change in the grand scheme of any society and civilization:
If we ourselves do not govern our destiny, firmly and courageously, no one is going to do it for us. To regain ecological freedom for our civilization will be a heavy task. It will frequently require arduous and uncomfortable measures. It will cost considerable sums of money. Democratic governments are not likely to set forth on such a steep and rocky path unless people lead the way.
So that the people shall not delude themselves, find further frustration through quack nostrums, fight their way into blind alleys, it is imperative that this world-wide dilemma be made known to all mankind. The human race is caught in a situation as concrete as a pair of shoes two sizes too small. We must understand that, and stop blaming economic systems, the weather, bad luck, or callous saints. This is the beginning of wisdom, and the first step on the long road back.
The story of a forgotten visionary suspended between science and spiritual yearning, who inspired Kant and anticipated Hubble.
By Maria Popova
Thomas Wright (September 22, 1711–February 25, 1786) grew up with a passion for learning and a speech impediment that made the rural English schoolroom a gauntlet. When he set about educating himself at home, his father declared the boy mad for his mathematical passions and burned all the books his mother had bought him. Undeterred, Thomas found a mathematics tutor in a local astronomer, took free science classes at a local parish, then apprenticed himself to a London instrument-maker, falling deeper and deeper in love with astronomy and the quest for elemental truth. By nineteen, he had established a school of his own to teach mathematics and navigation. He would go on to build an observatory, describe the spiral shape of the Milky Way for the first time, declare himself “an enemy to the taking of any thing for granted, merely because a person of reputed judgment has been heard to say it absolutely is so,” and become the first person to suggest that there are galaxies other than our own, nearly two centuries before Hubble staggered our understanding of the universe with the empirical proof.
Only 118 copies of the book were printed, all for Wright’s patrons and private subscribers. (A delight to think that a long-ago astronomer sustained his work the way I do.) One eventually reached Immanuel Kant, who was especially captivated by Wright’s explanation of why the Milky Way appears to us the way it does — an optical effect owing to our particular position within the plane of the galaxy — and by the notion of multiple galaxies. Kant seized upon these ideas and developed them in a book he published anonymously five years later, drawing on Wright’s theories to conceive of his famous “island universes,” which went on to influence generations of astronomers all the way through Hubble and his epoch-making observational proof.
As Kant’s authorship was discovered, his celebrity subsumed these theories, which came to be attributed to him. Wright and his book fell into obscurity, until a polymathic French scientist married to an American woman and living in Philadelphia rediscovered it nearly a century later and published it at his own expense. He dedicated the book to “the American people,” feeling that they were in dire need of a reminder that “knowledge is power” and that “in our republic, as power is confided to the care of the people, it is necessary that they should be correctly informed of vital points, so that they may avoid vital errors.”
Bafflingly, the book was republished without the crucial and consummate illustrations — perhaps out of parsimony (this was the Panic of 1837, America’s first great economic depression), and perhaps in a clever marketing tactic, for the publisher’s introduction teased with the promise of a forthcoming separate folio containing only the illustrations. No record of such a publication survives, but I have restored these antique beauties from Wright’s original 1750 edition and made them available as prints and wearable artworks, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.
Suspended halfway between the time of Kepler, who discovered his revolutionary laws of planetary motion while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial, and the time of Hubble — halfway between the age of superstition and the age of science — Wright, for all his visionary genius, was still trapped in the ideological monoculture of his time — a time that conceived of science as a handmaiden to theology, tasked not with discovering truth but with proving the perfection of a creator-god held as a postulate.
One of the chief and most unquestioned blind spots of this creationist mythology was the absolute faith in the infinity of time and space — a necessary framework to sustain the era’s unquestioned belief in personal immortality: If the soul were to go on forever, it necessitates a spacetime canvas of foreverness to go into. Although we now know that “no infinity has ever been observed in nature” and therefore the universe is by all probability finite, the notion of such finitude was offensive and intolerable to even the most visionary minds of Wright’s era, including his own.
Wright inveighed against the notion of finitude with passion:
Creation must be not only extensively, but intensively indefinite, and beyond the reach of the human understanding to comprehend… The one is as necessary as the other, i, e, an infinite expanse is as reconcileable to our reason, as infinite parts are to our senses.
This might at first sound like a strikingly modern and reasonable argument, evocative of Carl Sagan’s poetic insistence that “the universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.” But Wright’s rationale is theological rather than scientific, rooted not in the biological limits of human consciousness or the technological limits of our computational capacity but in the empirically untested and untestable blind belief in the existence of an omnipotent god:
All the attributes of the Divine Being are, as any one of them, incomprehensible to his creatures; why should our imagination then be supposed to extend beyond the divine activity?
It is a humbling reminder that every visionary of every era is still blinded by what they take as givens, and doubly humbling to realize that the same holds for each one of us along the miniature vistas of our everyday lives. And yet Wright was able to live beautifully within his own paradox, insisting again and again that astronomy is a supreme ally to reason and an impartial clarifying force for elemental truth — it allows us to see for ourselves what is true, to glimpse reality on its own terms, unmediated by ideological interpretation:
In Astronomy… every man’s reason, by the help of a very little mathematics, is able to bring wonderful truths to light without them; and truths not only of the highest importance to every individual, but of a great and common consequence to all mankind… Time and observation will undoubtedly, at last, discover every thing to us necessary to our natures, and proper for us to know. As a proof of which, we see human wisdom daily increases.
In his book, Wright also makes an exquisitely elegant argument for the existence of other planets orbiting other stars — a notion advanced by Pythagoras millennia earlier but still radical in Wright’s day, now proven four thousand times over by the pioneering NASA mission named for Kepler alone, with more such exoplanets constantly discovered by astronomers around the world. He serenades the beauty of deduction:
To say that the Stars, which are a certain visible sort of contemporaries in space with the Sun, have no like planetary bodies like ours moving round them, because we cannot possibly see them, is no less absurd and ridiculous, than to argue, that we can have no reason to expect to find in the proper season, grapes upon every vine — figs upon every tree — roses upon every bush — only because some of them are at such a distance, that neither rose, fig or
grape, can be discovered by the eye.
After quoting Milton (whose Paradise Lost features the first English use of the word space in the astronomical sense), Wright adds:
From certain observations only, we ought to form all our notions of [the universe], if we either hope to arrive at truth, or expect our ideas should be supported by reason.
A rare and rapturous glimpse of the slow double embrace by which some of Earth’s tenderest creatures make more of themselves.
By Maria Popova
In February 2018, I found myself on a friend’s fruit farm in Kauai, having gratefully escaped the short bleak days of Brooklyn winter to finish Figuring. Each day, being a creature of loops and routines, I did my daily sprints along the exact same stretch of gravel by a blooming grapefruit tree on the edge of the farm.
One morning, just before Valentine’s Day, I halted my stride abruptly to avoid something peach-colored and lovely that the evolutionary triumph of my peripheral vision had registered in my path: two splendid rosy wolfsnails (Euglandina rosea), about to engage in the instantaneous courtship the human version of which has evolved to involve roses and love songs. I knelt on the gravel, sweaty and wondersmitten, to film these slow sensorial lovers with my already antique smartphone for as long as my knee could stand it.
At the time, I had just begun incubating the idea that eventually became The Snail with the Right Heart. As I composed the manuscript over the following months, I kept thinking about these tender creatures, learning about the science behind their mating, and chuckling at the thought of what the perfect soundtrack to their dance might be.
The privilege of witnessing this love-dance at such intimate range inspired the central metaphor with which I met the greatest conceptual challenge with this children’s book predicated on the romance of reality — the portion of the story about how snails beget snails, tasked with accurately conveying concepts of science and sexuality to young readers who might not have the frame of reference for either:
This is how it happens: When a snail finds a partner, the two face each other, gently touching their tentacles together to feel if they like each other. And if they do, they glide their bodies alongside one another in a slow double embrace, until their baby-making parts fit together like puzzle pieces. Then, they gently pierce each other with tiny spears called “love darts,” which contain their genes — the building blocks of bodies. Genes are like tiny seeds your parents plant in the garden that becomes your body — your special combination of seeds is what makes you you, what makes your body-garden unlike anyone else’s. Genes are how life talks to the future.
When artist Ping Zhu first began working on the paintings that would eventually become the illustrations for the book, I giddily sent her the footage of the two rosy wolfsnails, which went on to inform and inspire her soulful interpretation of this wondrous evolutionary dance.
For a poetic PG counterpart, here is the incomparable Sir David Attenborough narrating the almost otherworldly mating dance of the snail’s unshelled cousin, filmed with far superior cinematic technology (if scored with an inferior soundtrack):