Brain Pickings

Page 9

We Are Water Protectors: An Illustrated Celebration of Nature, Native Heritage, and the Courage to Stand Up for Earth

An inspired signal from that sacred place where the spirit of wakeful action meets the bone of ancient wisdom.

We Are Water Protectors: An Illustrated Celebration of Nature, Native Heritage, and the Courage to Stand Up for Earth

“Every story is a story of water,” Native American poet Natalie Diaz wrote in her stunning ode to her heritage, the language of the Earth, and the erasures of history.

We ourselves are a story of water — biologically and culturally, in our most elemental materiality and our mightiest metaphors.

From author Carole Lindstrom, member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, and artist Michaela Goade, member of the Central Council of the Tlingit a Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, comes We Are Water Protectors (public library) — a lyrical illustrated celebration of cultural heritage and the courage to stand up for nature.

Inspired by the landmark locus of courage and resistance at Standing Rock — the 2016 movement that magnetized people from more than five hundred indigenous nations and thousands of allies to take a stance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, against its concrete assault on a particular piece of land and against its general symbolism as ominous emblem of extractionism — the book invites young people to cast themselves as agents of change and stewards of the natural world.

In the author’s afterword, Lindstrom explains that in Ojibwe culture, women are considered the protectors of the water and men of the fire. In her tradition, there is a prophecy that paints two possible roads from the present to the future: One is the natural path, embracing the sacred relationship between human beings and the rest of the natural world long before biologists and ecologists discovered that “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human”; the other is a path of unnatural acceleration, propelled by greed and mindless technological frenzy.

In the prophecy, this second path is strewn with black snakes — a symbolic image ominously reflected in the actuality of the oil pipelines that cross-hatch Native lands with their grim message of turning nature from a source of life-wide vitality and reverence to a resource for human need and greed.

Goade — who grew up in the coastal rainforests of Alaska, with an embodied awareness of the intricate relationship between water and life, and is the first Native artist to earn the Caldecott Medal, the Nobel Prize of children’s book illustration — amplifies the story’s message with her vibrant artwork drawing on motifs from Native folklore and mythology.

Radiating from the spirit of the story is a reflection of the touching message to the next generations, with which Rachel Carson said her farewell to life after awakening the ecological conscience of the American mainstream:

Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.

Complement We Are Water Protectors with the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd on the might and mystery of water and a stunning animated poem about our connection to Earth and to each other, then revisit another soulful illustrated celebration of nature in The Blue Hour.

Illustrations courtesy of Roaring Brook Press; photographs by Maria Popova


A Scientist’s Advice on Healing: A Soulful Animated Poem About Getting to the Other Side of Heartbreak

“Try to accept this fat red hurt is your starting point.”

A Scientist’s Advice on Healing: A Soulful Animated Poem About Getting to the Other Side of Heartbreak

“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.

The Human Heart. One of French artist Paul Sougy’s mid-century scientific diagrams of life. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

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.

That is what English poet Christy Ducker explores with uncommon sensitivity and lyric splendor in “A Scientist’s Advice on Healing.” A fine poet and a fine scholar who earned her Ph.D. while composing poems about the Victorian lighthouse keeper Grace Darling, Ducker embodies the animating spirit of The Universe in Verse and stands as a testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s lovely insistence that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside, [and] both celebrate what they describe.”

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:

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,

then move

the globby flap
of blame
     and past
          the mono-sulk
               of pain.

Change the subject,
before it’s too late.
Sketch out
what health
you do possess,
what signal-cascades,
what flotilla of cells
circumnavigate you,

then draw yourself back
     together again,
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
     as assassin,
     or wolf.

Encourage this
for healing won’t come at you
Embrace the lack of heroics —
this isn’t Hollywood,
it’s you,
in a plot
that may
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.”

Couple with “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s stunning cosmic salve for our creaturely tremblings of heart — then revisit Epictetus’s 2,000-year-old Stoic strategy for surviving heartbreak.


Road to Survival: Empowering Wisdom the Forgotten Book That Shaped the Modern Environmental Movement

“If we ourselves do not govern our destiny, firmly and courageously, no one is going to do it for us.”

Road to Survival: Empowering Wisdom the Forgotten Book That Shaped the Modern Environmental Movement

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.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane

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.

Art from If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall

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.

William Vogt

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.

Art from If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall

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.

Art by Aurélia Fronty from Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prévot

Writing shortly before Rachel Carson penned her prescient open letter to America, insisting that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” Vogt calls for long-term thinking and broad-range feeling:

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.

Art by Ping Zhu from The Snail with the Right Heart

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.

For a contemporary counterpart to Vogt’s Road to Survival, see the excellent anthology of policy, poetry, and science All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, shining a kaleidoscope of actionable perspective by women leading the way on the road Vogt envisioned, then revisit Eve Ensler’s extraordinary letter of apology to Mother Earth.


Stunning Celestial Art from the 1750 Astronomy Book That First Described the Spiral Shape of the Milky Way and Dared Imagine the Existence of Other Galaxies

The story of a forgotten visionary suspended between science and spiritual yearning, who inspired Kant and anticipated Hubble.

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.

Art from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
View of the Milky Way (Via Lactea) based on one of Wright’s own observations. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

In 1750, Wright self-published his visionary and verbosely titled book An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, Founded upon the Laws of Nature, and Solving by Mathematical Principles the General Phaenomena of the Visible Creation, and Particularly the Via Lactea (public domain). With his keen aesthetic sensibility — he was also an architect and garden designer — he commissioned “the best masters” to illustrate his theories in thirty-some scrumptious plates populated by comets, planets, and other celestial splendors observed and conjectured.

Depiction of Wright’s theory of the existence of galaxies beyond our Milky Way, which he considered “a partial view of immensity” and “a finite view of infinity.” (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

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.”

The orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, and a comet. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

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.

All the then-known Solar System planets and moons drawn to scale in proportion to a twelve-inch-diameter Sun. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

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 describes this plate as “a representation of the convexity… of the entire creation, as a universal coalition of all the Stars conspherred round one general centre, and as all governed by one and the same law” — a self-contradictory notion: He posits that the universe is infinite, yet represents it by the finite geometry of a sphere. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
A cross-section of Wright’s proposed convexity of creation, “with the eye of Providence seated in the centre, as in the virtual agent of creation.” (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
A three-dimensional section of Wright’s nested infinities. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

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?

Further illustrating his theory of nested perfections, Wright describes this as “a creation of a double construction, where a superior order of bodies C, may be imagined to be circumscribed by the former one A, as possessing a more eminent seat, and nearer the supreme presence, and consequently of a more perfect nature.” (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

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.

Our Sun (top and bottom) and Moon (middle) in proportion to their diameters, alongside two comets. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
Several major comets in proportion to Earth, A. (Available as a print.)

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.

Solar systems other than our own (A), with hypothesized planetary paths of bodies orbiting other stars. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

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.

Complement with the astronomical art of Maria Clara Eimmart — who schooled herself to be an artist and astronomer a century before Wright, in an era when women had no access to formal education in either art or science — and the stunning celestial beadwork of Native artist Margaret Nazon, then savor this wildly original tapestry of thought about infinity, art, science, and the meaning of freedom by mathematician Lillian Lieber, who won Einstein’s ardent admiration.


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