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Underland: An Enchanting Journey into the Hidden Universe Beneath Our Feet

“Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”

Underland: An Enchanting Journey into the Hidden Universe Beneath Our Feet

“To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water,” the great marine biologist and environmental hero Rachel Carson wrote in her 1937 masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had called “the world below the brine,” a world then more mysterious than the Moon — as she pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic prose illuminating science and the natural world.

Nearly a century later, Robert Macfarlane — a rare writer of Carson’s sensibility, who rises to the level of enchanter — extends a lyrical invitation to a vicarious journey into another mysterious earthly universe of all-pervading darkness with Underland: A Deep Time Journey (public library).

Art by Andrea D’Aquino from a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Macfarlane writes:

We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters left by asteroid strikes on the moon’s face. Look down and your sight stops at topsoil, tarmac, toe. I have rarely felt as far from the human realm as when only ten yards below it, caught in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of an ancient sea.

Enshrined in the layers of the underland, in the layered dust of cultures and epochs, are traces of our abiding need for shelter and sacrament, our age-old hunger for knowledge encoded in the stone tablets of dead languages and the rusted instruments of annealed curiosity, radiating a reminder that we are creatures not only of place but of time. Plunging into the time-warping wonderland beneath the surface through the riven trunk of an old ash tree, Macfarlane writes:

Beneath the ash tree, a labyrinth unfurls.

Down between roots to a passage of stone that deepens steeply into the earth. Colour depletes to greys, browns, black. Cold air pushes past. Above is solid rock, utter matter. The surface is scarcely thinkable… Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely — and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.

[…]

The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.

Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives).

Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions).

Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets).

Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.

Echoing Oliver Sacks’s lovely case for nature’s beauty as a lens on deep time and the interleaving of the universe, Macfarlane writes:

“Deep time” is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.

But for all its consolations, such a dilation of the telescopic perspective can be deeply disquieting in alerting us to our own helpless insignificance — motes of matter in a blink of time, adrift amid the unfeeling emptiness of pure spacetime. It takes especial existential courage to inhabit this physical fact with unflinching psychic agency, with the insistence that however brief our earthly time may be, however small our impact relative to the vast scales of time and civilization, we can still leave a worthy mark on an ancient world. Macfarlane cautions against the defeatist cowardice of taking the scale of deep time for permission to squander our precious allotment:

We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

Long ago, as Johannes Kepler — the first true astrophysicist — was revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, he envisioned the Earth as an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. He was ridiculed for it. Three centuries later, Rachel Carson made ecology a household word. Picking up where Kepler and Carson left off, Macfarlane adds:

When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.

To probe the mysteries of this largely unfathomed underland, Macfarlane explores mines and railway tunnels, catacombs and particle colliders, seeks answers from a spectrum of scientists and indigenous cultures, contemplates the relationship between landscape and language, and draws on the work of pioneers like forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who uncovered the astonishing science of how trees communicate, and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who championed the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species.

One of Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s little-known, pioneering mushroom illustrations, which scientists use to this day to identify fungi species.

Perhaps the underland’s richest and most dimensional lens on deep time — and space, and self — comes from some of Earth’s most poorly understood yet most essential organisms: fungi. Besides serving as a kind of central nervous system for the forest, fungi account for a quarter of Earth’s biomass and furnish the world’s largest organism — the colossal honeycomb fungus of Oregon’s Blue Mountains, dwarfing the blue whale with its mycelial span of nearly four square miles and its girth of two and a half miles. Four decades after Lewis Thomas wrote about how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self — the most exquisite thing I’ve ever read on the subject, from one of the most poetic science writers who ever lived — Macfarlane draws kindred revelations from the underdog kingdom:

All taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin. Fungi thwart our usual senses of what is whole and singular, of what defines an organism, and of what descent or inheritance means. They do strange things to time, because it is not easy to say where a fungus ends or begins, when it is born or when it dies. To fungi, our world of light and air is their underland, into which they tentatively ascend here and there, now and then.

Art by Andrea D’Aquino from a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Masters at the long view of survival, fungi offer a model of unparalleled grit — they were among the first organisms to return to the site of atomic devastation in Hiroshima and their soil presence is an indicator of a forest’s resilience. With an eye to the wisdom of the more-than-human world, to which native cultures have been attuned for millennia and modern science is only just beginning to awaken, Macfarlane considers how fungi challenge us to reconceive some of our basic human constructs:

Orthodox “Western” understandings of nature feel inadequate to the kinds of world-making that fungi perform. As our historical narratives of progress have come to be questioned, so the notion of history itself has become remodelled. History no longer feels figurable as a forwards-flighting arrow or a self-intersecting spiral; better, perhaps, seen as a network branching and conjoining in many directions. Nature, too, seems increasingly better understood in fungal terms: not as a single gleaming snow-peak or tumbling river in which we might find redemption, nor as a diorama that we deplore or adore from a distance — but rather as an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part. We are coming to understand our bodies as habitats for hundreds of species of which Homo sapiens is only one, our guts as jungles of bacterial flora, our skins as blooming fantastically with fungi.

A century and a half after Whitman’s famed observation that we contain multitudes, Macfarlane roots the metaphysical insight in the physical reality of our creaturely nature, entwined with other natures:

We are beginning to encounter ourselves — not always comfortably or pleasantly — as multi-species beings already partaking in timescales that are fabulously more complex than the onwards-driving version of history many of us still imagine ourselves to inhabit.

Given that we have hard enough a time living with full awareness of our belonging to the web of life, of our intricate connection to other living beings, it takes a special wakefulness to fathom our connection to nonliving matter. Even if we know that we are made of dead stars, it is only an abstract knowledge. We so easily forget “the singularity we once were,” as the poet Marie Howe so splendidly captured our cosmic belonging. In the underland, moving through the time-stamped bedrock of being, Macfarlane finds a powerful reminder:

We tend to imagine stone as inert matter, obdurate in its fixity. But here in the rift it feels instead like a liquid briefly paused in its flow. Seen in deep time, stone folds as strata, gouts as lava, floats as plates, shifts as shingle. Over aeons, rock absorbs, transforms, levitates from seabed to summit.

[…]

We are part mineral beings too — our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones — and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land. It is mineralization — the ability to convert calcium into bone — that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

The mineralization of living matter, with its mediation of life and death, furnishes a profound lens on our humanity, on the interchange between being and has-being:

Geologists and palaeobiologists speak of “trace fossils.” A trace fossil is the sign left in the rock record by the impress of life rather than life itself. A dinosaur footprint is a trace fossil. The enigmatic doughnut-shaped flints called “paramoudra” are thought to be the trace fossils of a burrowing worm-like creature that lived vertically in the seabed during the Cretaceous, its breathing organs just above the level of the silt. Boreholes, funnels, pipes, slithers and tracks are all trace fossils — stone memories where the mark-maker has disappeared but the mark remains. A trace fossil is a bracing of space by a vanished body, in which absence serves as sign.

We all carry trace fossils within us — the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace — and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.

Couple Underland, a wondrous read in its entirety, with Macfarlane’s poetic rebellion against the impoverishment of our nature-related lexicon, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd — whose work Macfarlane resurfaced after decades of obscurity — on how mountains deepen our relationship with nature.

BP

Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human

“When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.”

Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”

That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:

A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.

For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

With an eye to the miraculous absurdity of our existence — we only exist by chance, after all, in a universe governed by chaos and predicated on impermanence — Sanders writes:

When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.

Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.

Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.

It is tempting, then — and Sanders succumbs to the temptation in a most delicious way — to seek the existential in the scientific, even if the thread between the two is slender and human-made, rather than woven by this vast unfeeling universe in which we warm ourselves with wonder. In a chapter on our organic composition, so memorably captured in Carl Sagan’s assertion that “we too are made of starstuff,” Sanders shines a sidewise gleam on the illusion of the solid and separate self:

Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.

You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders revisits the subject through the lens of the physics beneath the chemistry in a chapter on the structure and discovery of the atom. In a passage evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s wonderful explanation of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space, she writes:

Such a beautiful (and until recently invisible) idea, the importance and unavoidable nature of atoms, one that seems to put everyone and everything on a satisfyingly level playing field. Your good and bad decisions, your wingspan, your wholeness as a person — these are all possible because of your own 7 billion billion billion atoms, each one made up of (roughly speaking) a positive nucleus in the middle, and the negative electron cloud surrounding it — a cloud that sort of dances from side to side, alternately enchanting other atoms and pushing them away (the really complicated magic can be left to quantum mechanics). Without atoms, nothing would be here; not the book in your hands, not the pen that leaked into your pocket this morning, not those buildings that are enough to make you scared of heights, nothing. If it weren’t for atoms, there wouldn’t be mass, or molecules, or matter, or me, or you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

The irrepressible human inquiry that magnetizes our imagination and draws us to the inner workings of the universe is the same inquiry Tolstoy scrawled into the diaries of his youth: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” Sanders weaves these elemental questions — what are we made of and what does that make us? — into nearly every scientific curiosity she picks up, but she addresses them directly in a chapter devoted to our strangely continuous sense of self, devoid of a physical basis of continuity. She writes:

The idea of an unchanging “you” or “self” is inherently fraught with confusion and conflict, and if you consider the topic for too long it can begin to feel clammy, almost suspect. An apparent string running through all the previous versions of you — the one five minutes ago, a few hours ago, several years — the idea of “self” inevitably gets tangled up in things like the physical body and appearance, like memory. It’s clear that you cannot pin yourself down as any one particular “thing” but rather that you resemble a story line, an endless progression, variations on a theme, something that enables you to relate your present “self” to the past and future ones.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Echoing the great neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recognition of narrative as the cognitive pillar of personhood, she adds:

We do seem to make sense of ourselves and the world as a part of a narrative — we think in terms of main characters, those we speak and interact with, and where the beginnings, the middles, and the endings are.

Radiating from the book is lucid, lyrical consolation for the elemental disquietude of existence — the fact that haunting the fundamental laws of the universe and the sturdy certitude of their mathematics is the daily chaos of uncertainty with which we must somehow live, keeping one eye on our greatest loves and greatest losses, on the trifling urgencies of the mundane, and the other, wincing, on the only certainty there is: that one day we shall cease to exist. Sanders writes:

A lot of our time is spent trying to tie up loose ends, trying to shape disorder into something recognizably smooth, trying to escape the very limits that hold us close, happily ignoring rough edges and the inevitable. We separate ourselves out into past, present, and future, if only to show that we have changed, that we know better, that we have understood something inherent; if only to draw neat lines from start to finish without looking back.

The problem is that chaos is always only ever sitting just across the table, frequently glancing up from its newspaper, from its coffee cup filled with discolored and imploding stars. Because chaos too waits. Waits for you to notice it, for you to realize it’s the most dazzling thing you’ve ever seen, for all of your atoms to collectively shriek in belated recognition and stare, mouth open, at how exquisitely embedded it is in everything. Because we are not designed to be more orderly than anything else; seams have a tendency to come apart with time — you and the universe are the same in this way, which makes for a delicately overwhelming struggle.

So, then, if you can’t ever end things neatly, can’t ever put them back quite the way you found them, surely the alternative is to remain stubbornly carbonated with possibility, to never rest from your rotation. To keep assembling stories between us, stories about how everything was everything, about how much we loved.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Complement Eating the Sun with The Edge of the Sky — a poetic, unusual primer on the universe, written with the 1,000 most common words in the English language — and Carl Sagan on how to live with mystery, then revisit the great nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir on the universe as an infinite storm of beauty.

BP

The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature

“In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature

“I work like a gardener,” the great painter Joan Miró wrote in his meditation on the proper pace for creative work. It is hardly a coincidence that Virginia Woolf had her electrifying epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking amid the flower beds in the garden at St. Ives. Indeed, to garden — even merely to be in a garden — is nothing less than a triumph of resistance against the merciless race of modern life, so compulsively focused on productivity at the cost of creativity, of lucidity, of sanity; a reminder that we are creatures enmeshed with the great web of being, in which, as the great naturalist John Muir observed long ago, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”; a return to what is noblest, which means most natural, in us. There is something deeply humanizing in listening to the rustle of a newly leaved tree, in watching a bumblebee romance a blossom, in kneeling onto the carpet of soil to make a hole for a sapling, gently moving a startled earthworm or two out of the way. Walt Whitman knew this when he weighed what makes life worth living as he convalesced from a paralytic stroke: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

Those unmatched rewards, both psychological and physiological, are what beloved neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) explores in a lovely short essay titled “Why We Need Gardens,” found in Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library) — the wondrous posthumous collection that gave us Sacks on the life-altering power of libraries. He writes:

As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.

Oliver Sacks at the New York Botanical Garden. (Photograph by Bill Hayes from How New York Breaks Your Heart.)

Having lived and worked in New York City for half a century — a city “sometimes made bearable… only by its gardens” — Sacks recounts witnessing nature’s tonic effects on his neurologically impaired patients: A man with Tourette’s syndrome, afflicted by severe verbal and gestural tics in the urban environment, grows completely symptom-free while hiking in the desert; an elderly woman with Parkinson’s disease, who often finds herself frozen elsewhere, can not only easily initiate movement in the garden but takes to climbing up and down the rocks unaided; several people with advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, who can’t recall how to perform basic operations of civilization like tying their shoes, suddenly know exactly what to do when handed seedlings and placed before a flower bed. Sacks reflects:

I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.

Art by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali from The Forest by Riccardo Bozzi

More than half a century after the great marine biologist and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson asserted that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Sacks adds:

Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighborhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.

Illustration by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie.

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether delicious Everything in Its Place with naturalist Michael McCarthy on nature and joy, pioneering conservationist and Wilderness Act co-composer Mardy Murie on nature and human nature, and bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer on gardening and the secret of happiness, then revisit Oliver Sacks on nature and the interconnectedness of the universe, the building blocks of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.

BP

Cosmic Consciousness: Maurice Bucke’s Pioneering 19th-Century Theory of Transcendence and the Six Steps of Illumination

We are not “patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance” but “specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.”

Cosmic Consciousness: Maurice Bucke’s Pioneering 19th-Century Theory of Transcendence and the Six Steps of Illumination

“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in 1902, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

A year earlier, the Canadian psychiatrist and adventurer Maurice Bucke (March 18, 1837–February 19, 1902) published a stunning personal account and psychological study of a dazzling form of consciousness that lies just on the other side of that filmiest of screens, accessible to all. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind (public library) went on to influence generations of thinkers as diverse as Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, and Steve Jobs.

Maurice Bucke

By his own account, Bucke was “born of good middle class English stock,” but grew up almost entirely without education, working tirelessly on his parents’ farm in the backwoods of Canada — tending cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, working in the hay field, driving oxen and horses, and running various errands from the earliest age. He learned to read when he was still a small child and soon began devouring novels and poetry. He remembers that, like Emily Dickinson, he “never, even as a child, accepted the doctrines of the Christian church” — a disposition utterly countercultural in that era of extreme religiosity.

Although his mother died when he was very young and his father shortly thereafter, Bucke recalls being often overcome by “a sort of ecstasy of curiosity and hope.” (What a lovely phrase.) At sixteen, he left the farm “to live or die as might happen,” trekking from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from Ohio to San Francisco, working on farms and railroads and steamboats, narrowly escaping death by illness, starvation, and battle on several occasions. In his twentieth year, he heard of the first major discovery of silver ore in America and joined a mining party, of which he was the only survivor, and barely: On his way to California, while crossing the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, he suffered frostbite so severe that one foot and a few toes on the remaining foot had to be amputated.

When he finally made it to the Pacific Coast, Bucke used a moderate inheritance from his mother to give himself a proper college education. He devoured ideas from books as wide-ranging as On the Origin of Species and Shelley’s poems. After graduating, he taught himself French so that he could read Auguste Comte and German so that he could read Goethe. At thirty, he discovered and became instantly besotted with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he felt contained vaster truth and richer meaning than any book he had previously encountered. It was Whitman who catalyzed Bucke’s transcendent experience.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

More than a century before Michael Pollan insisted in his masterly inquiry into the science of psychedelics that “the Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think,” Bucke suggests that it might be just a poem away. Writing in the third person, as was customary for “the writer” in the nineteenth century, he recounts his transformative illumination:

It was in the early spring, at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. They parted at midnight, and he had a long drive in a hansom (it was in an English city). His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did not come to believe, he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of every one is in the long run absolutely certain.

Although the illumination only lasted a moment, Burke felt that he learned more in those few seconds than in all his years of study, more even than what could ever possibly be taught by the standard modes of scholarship. (“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” Patti Smith would write a century later.) In that instant, as “the secret of Whitman’s transcendent greatness was revealed,” he experienced something he could never forget, which he called “cosmic consciousness” — a term he borrowed from the English philosopher and poet Edward Carpenter, who was among the first Western thinkers to popularize the ancient teachings of the Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Bucke identifies three layers of consciousness, each built upon the lower: Simple Consciousness — a basic awareness, which most non-human animals also possess; Self-Consciousness, which render one aware not only of trees, rivers, and one’s own body, but also of oneself as “a distinct entity apart from all the rest of the universe,” capable of treating one’s own thoughts and feelings as objects of consciousness itself; and Cosmic Consciousness, which Bucke defines as an awareness of “the life and order of the universe.” In a passage of striking consonance with William James’s framework of transcendent experiences, he writes:

Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence — would make him almost a member of a new species. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a quickening of the moral sense, which is fully as striking and more important both to the individual and to the race than is the enhanced intellectual power. With these come, what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.

In language that closely parallels the way people describe the effects of psychedelics, Bucke limns the nature and sequence of this revelatory experience:

Like a flash there is presented to [the person’s] consciousness a clear conception (a vision) in outline of the meaning and drift of the universe. He does not come to believe merely; but he sees and knows that the cosmos, which to the self conscious mind seems made up of dead matter, is in fact far otherwise — is in very truth a living presence. He sees that instead of men being, as it were, patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance, they are in reality specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life.

[…]

The person who passes through this experience will learn in the few minutes, or even moments, of its continuance more than in months or years of study, and he will learn much that no study ever taught or can teach. Especially does he obtain such a conception of THE WHOLE, or at least of an immense WHOLE, as dwarfs all conception, imagination or speculation, springing from and belonging to ordinary self consciousness, such a conception as makes the old attempts to mentally grasp the universe and its meaning petty and even ridiculous.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy

A year before William James published his classic treatise on consciousness and the four features of transcendent experiences, Bucke — whom James references — outlines the characteristics of cosmic consciousness, at the heart of which he places the Eastern concept of “Brahmic Splendor,” also reflected in Dante’s transhumanized state in Paradisio.

  1. A sudden appearance, often accompanied by immersion in a cloud of haze or fire. “The instantaneousness of the illumination,” Bucke writes, “is one of its most striking features. It can be compared with nothing so well as with a dazzling flash of lightning in a dark night, bringing the landscape which had been hidden into clear view.” (A century later, physicist Freeman Dyson would describe one of his most significant scientific breakthroughs as “a flash of illumination.”)
  2. An ecstatic surge of emotion — “joy, assurance, triumph, ‘salvation'” — transcending “the pleasures and pains, loves and hates, joys and sorrows,peace and war, life and death, of self conscious man.”
  3. An intellectual illumination, arising from the emotional ecstasy, difficult to put into words. (William James also lists ineffability as the foremost feature of transcendent experiences.)
  4. Dissolution of the fear of death.
  5. Dissolution of the sense of sin or wrongness.
  6. A sense of immortality accompanying the moral elevation. “This is not an intellectual conviction, such as comes with the solution of a problem, nor is it an experience such as learning something unknown before,” Bucke writes. “It is far more simple and elementary.”

Of central importance in this experience of illumination, he argues, are the character — “intellectual, moral and physical” — and age of the person undergoing it. The illumination is truer and richer, Bucke suggest, when experienced at a later age:

Should we hear of a case of cosmic consciousness occurring at twenty, for instance, we should at first doubt the truth of the account, and if forced to believe it we should expect the man (if he lived) to prove himself, in some way, a veritable spiritual giant.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Drawing on the memoirs, biographies, and letters of historical figures, he goes on to compose a kind of ledger of such spiritual giants who have reported experiences indicative of cosmic consciousness, noting next to each person the age at which they underwent the illumination. Among them he lists:

  • Francis Bacon (30)
  • William Blake (31)
  • Blaise Pascal (31)
  • Honoré de Balzac (32)
  • Walt Whitman (34)
  • Gautama Buddha (35)
  • Edward Carpenter (37)
  • Baruch Spinoza (45)

Bucke sees the attainment of cosmic consciousness as a vital step in the spiritual and moral evolution of our species, but he takes care to emphasize that it “must not be looked upon as being in any sense supernatural or supranormal — as anything more or less than a natural growth.” With electric exuberance, he channels his optimism, both prescient and bittersweet in the hindsight of history:

The immediate future of our race… is indescribably hopeful. There are at the present moment impending over us three revolutions, the least of which would dwarf the ordinary historic upheaval called by that name into absolute insignificance. They are: (1) The material,economic and social revolution which will depend upon and result from the establishment of aerial navigation. (2) The economic and social revolution which will abolish individual ownership and rid the earth at once of two immense evils — riches and poverty. And (3) The psychical revolution of which there is here question.

Either of the first two would (and will) radically change the conditions of, and greatly uplift, human life; but the third will do more for humanity than both of the former, were their importance multiplied by hundreds or even thousands.

The three operating (as they will) together will literally create a new heaven and a new earth. Old things will be done away and all will become new.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

The net result, Bucke envisions, will be nothing less than a revolution of the human soul. While human beings will remain resolutely spiritual, this revolution would be predicated on the dissolution of organized religion:

Religion will… not depend on tradition. It will not be believed and disbelieved. It will not be a part of life,belonging to certain hours, times, occasions. It will not be in sacred books nor in the mouths of priests. It will not dwell in churches and meetings and forms and days. Its life will not be in prayers,hymns nor discourses. It will not depend on special revelations, on the words of gods who came down to teach, nor on any bible or bibles. It will have no mission to save men from their sins or to secure them entrance to heaven. It will not teach a future immortality nor future glories, for immortality and all glory will exist in the here and now. The evidence of immortality will live in every heart as sight in every eye.

Complement Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness with Virginia Woolf’s ecstatic description of a psychedelic experience, physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic account of a secular transcendent experience, and neuroscientist Christof Koch on the central mystery of consciousness, then revisit Edward Carpenter, who inspired Bucke’s ideas, on love, pain, and growth.

BP

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