The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Trees at Night: Rebecca Solnit Reads and Reflects on a Stunning Century-Old Poem by the Young Harlem Renaissance Poet Helene Johnson

An eighteen-year-old prodigy’s song of praise for the eternal consolation of trees.

Trees at Night: Rebecca Solnit Reads and Reflects on a Stunning Century-Old Poem by the Young Harlem Renaissance Poet Helene Johnson

It’s a hard thing, achieving perspective — hard for the human animal, pinned as we each are to the dust-mote of spacetime we’ve been allotted, not one of us having chosen where or when to be born, not one of us — not even the most fortunate — destined to live for more than a blink of evolutionary time. It is no wonder, then, that our lens so easily contracts to a pinhole through which the fleeting frights and urgencies of the present stream in to fill the chamber of our complex consciousness with blinding totality.

Remembering that we only have approximately four thousand weeks helps. Taking the telescopic perspective helps. Trees, especially, help — for they remedy our loss of perspective as Earth’s own telescopes of time and mortality, each of them a perpetual death and yet potentially immortal, each a clockwork portal to the past, each “a little bit of the future,” as Wangari Maathai exulted in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech a blink before she became compost for future forests.

Winter Moon at Toyamagahara, 1931 — one of Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage woodblocks of trees. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Charles Babbage, while dreaming up the world’s first computer with Ada Lovelace, marveled at how tree rings encode information about the past — living logs as precise as digital data, as primal as the human heartbeat:

Every shower that falls, every change of temperature that occurs, and every wind that blows, leaves on the vegetable world the traces of its passage; slight, indeed, and imperceptible, perhaps, to us, but not the less permanently recorded in the depths of those woody fabrics.

It is also no wonder, then, that we see ourselves so readily in trees — not only in the easy (and therefore limited) anthropomorphic sense of Western fairy tales and Eastern folk myths that have accompanied our civilization, but in the deeper, more poetic sense that reveals us to ourselves as imaginative creatures animated by a restless yearning to reconcile the ephemeral and the eternal. This is the sense William Blake captured in his most beautiful letter:

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. As a man is, so he sees.

This is also the sense the young Harlem Renaissance poet Helene Johnson (July 7, 1906–July 7, 1995) captured a century and a half after Blake, in a spare and stunning poem written when she was only eighteen: “Trees at Night,” first published in 1925 — just as the high school dropout turned artist and activist Art Young’s beloved graphic series by the same title began appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and LIFE, most likely inspiring the young Johnson, whose precocious erudition and literary taste must have feasted on the era’s most popular magazines.

Art by Art Young from his 1920s series Trees at Night. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.

Johnson’s poem originally appeared in the May edition of the National Urban League’s Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, when a year later, not yet twenty, she won First Honorable Mention in the journal’s literary contest, judged by James Weldon Johnson and Robert Frost. “Trees at Night,” along with all of her surviving poems and a wealth of letters, was later included in the wonderful posthumous volume This Waiting for Love: Helene Johnson, Poet of the Harlem Renaissance (public library) by African American literature professor Verner D. Mitchell.

Although she published poetry for less than a decade — a common talent-corseting reality of marriage for women a mere century ago, radiating from the title of Johnson’s last published poem, at age twenty-nine: “Let Me Sing My Song” — she lived a long life, dying on her eighty-eighth birthday, having witnessed the triumph of the suffrage movement and the civilizational defeat of two World Wars, the horror of the Holocaust and the hard-won hope of Civil Rights, the discovery of the double helix and the retroviral genocide of AIDS, the dehumanizing agony of the atomic bomb and the first human footfall on the Moon. Hers was a true saeculum — that beautiful Etruscan word I learned from Rebecca Solnit, denoting the period of time since the birth of the oldest living elder in the community.

Naturally, it was Rebecca I invited to read “Trees at Night” at the 2022 Universe in Verse. (A free “retrostream” of the full show is available worldwide between 12PM EST on May 21 and 4PM EST on May 22). Being one of the most devoted climate thinkers and activists of our time, she prefaced her reading with a soaring meditation on trees as an antidote to the erasures of human history and a moral compass for our planetary future — the kind of extemporaneous prose poem that can sprout from the lushest minds, next to which Johnson’s lyric loveliness rises even more majestic:

TREES AT NIGHT
by Helene Johnson

Slim Sentinels
Stretching lacy arms
About a slumbrous moon;
Black quivering
Silhouettes,
Tremulous,
Stencilled on the petal
Of a bluebell;
Ink sputtered
On a robin’s breast;
The jagged rent
Of mountains
Reflected in a
Stilly sleeping lake;
Fragile pinnacles
Of fairy castles;
Torn webs of shadows;
And
Printed ’gainst the sky —
The trembling beauty
Of an urgent pine.

Complement with Ursula K. Le Guin’s love-poem to trees as a lens on life and death, then step into Rebecca’s inspiriting new project, Not Too Late — a welcoming portal into the climate movement for newcomers and an arsenal of reinvigoration “for people who are already engaged but weary.”

BP

Trial, Triumph, and the Art of the Possible: The Remarkable Story Behind Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”

A hymn of rage, a hymn of redemption, and a timeless love letter to the possible.

“Day by day I am approaching the goal which I apprehend but cannot describe,” Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827) wrote to his boyhood friend, rallying his own resilience as he began losing his hearing. A year later, shortly after completing his Second Symphony, he sent his brothers a stunning letter about the joy of suffering overcome, in which he resolved:

Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?

That year, he began — though he did not yet know it, as we never do — the long gestation of what would become not only his greatest creative and spiritual triumph, not only a turning point in the history of music that revolutionized the symphony and planted the seed of the pop song, but an eternal masterwork of the supreme human art: making meaning out of chaos, beauty out of sorrow.

Across the epochs, “Ode to Joy” rises vast and eternal, transcending all of spacetime and at the same time compacting it into something so intimate, so immediate, that nothing seems to exist outside this singularity of all-pervading possibility. Inside its total drama, a total tranquility; inside its revolt, an oasis of refuge. The story of its making is as vitalizing as the masterpiece itself — or, rather, its story is the very reason for its vitality.

Beethoven by Josef Willibrord Mähler circa 1804-1805. (Available as a print.)

As a teenager, while auditing Kant’s lectures at the University of Bonn, Beethoven had fallen under the spell of transcendental idealism and the ideas of the Enlightenment — ideas permeating the poetry of Friedrich Schiller. A volume of it became the young Beethoven’s most cherished book and so began the dream of setting it to music. (There is singular magic in a timeless poem set to music.)

One particular poem especially entranced him: Written when Beethoven was fifteen and the electric spirit of revolution saturated Europe’s atmosphere, Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” was at heart an ode to freedom — a blazing manifesto for the Enlightenment ethos that if freedom, justice, and human happiness are placed at the center of life and made its primary devotion, politically and personally, then peace and kindness would envelop humankind as an inevitable consequence. A “kiss for the whole world,” Schiller had written, and the teenage Beethoven longed to be lips of the possible.

This Elysian dream ended not even a decade later as the Reign of Terror dropped the blade of the guillotine upon Marie Antoinette, then upon ten thousand other heads and the dreams they carried. Schiller died considering his “Ode to Joy” a failure — an idealist’s fantasy unmoored from reality, a work of art that might have been of service perhaps for him, perhaps for a handful of others, “but not for the world.”

The young Beethoven was among those few it touched, and this was enough, more than enough — he took Schiller’s bright beam of possibility and magnified it through the lens of his own genius to illuminate all of humanity for all of time. Epochs later, in the savage century of the World Wars and the Holocaust, Rebecca West — another uncommon visionary, who understood that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity” — would contemplate how those rare few help the rest of humanity endure, observing that “if during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”

While Schiller’s poem was ripening in Beethoven’s imagination, the decade-long Napoleonic Wars stripped and bludgeoned Europe. When Napoleon’s armies invaded and occupied Vienna — where Beethoven had moved at twenty-one to study with his great musical hero, Haydn — most of the wealthy fled to the country. He took refuge with his brother, sister-in-law, and young nephew in the city. Thirty-nine and almost entirely deaf, Beethoven found himself “suffering misery in a most concentrated form” — misery that “affected both body and soul” so profoundly that he produced “very little coherent work.” From inside the vortex of uncertainty and suffering, he wrote:

The existence I had built up only a short time ago rests on shaky foundations. What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me: nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery in every form.

That spring, Haydn’s death only deepened his despair at life. The next six years were an unremitting heartache. His love went unreturned. He grew estranged from one of his brothers, who married a woman Beethoven disliked. His other brother died. He entered an endless legal combat over guardianship of his young nephew. He spent a year bedridden with a mysterious illness he called “an inflammatory fever,” riddled with skull-splitting headaches. His hearing almost completely deteriorated. He grew repulsed by the trendy mysticism of new musical developments, which made no room for the raw human emotion that was to him both the truest material and truest product of art.

One of William Blake’s paintings for The Book of Job, 1806. (Available as a print.)

Somehow, he kept composing, the act itself becoming the fulcrum by which Beethoven lifted himself out of the black hole to perch on the event horizon of a new period of great creative fertility. While Blake — his twin in the tragic genius of outsiderdom — was painting the music of the heavens, Beethoven was grounding a possible heaven onto a disillusioned earth with music.

And then he ended up in jail.

One autumn day in 1822, the fifty-two-year-old composer put on his moth-eaten coat and set out for what he intended as a short morning walk in the city, his mind a tempest of ideas. Walking had always been his primary laboratory for creative problem-solving, so the morning stroll unspooled into a long half-conscious walk along the Danube. In a classic manifestation of the self-forgetting that marks the intense creative state now known as “flow,” Beethoven lost track of time, of distance, of the demands of his own body.

Beethoven by Julius Schmid

He walked and walked, hatless and absorbed, not realizing how famished and fatigued he was growing, until the afternoon found him wandering disheveled and disoriented in a river basin far into the countryside. There, he was arrested by local police for “behaving in a suspicious manner,” taken to jail as “a tramp” with no identity papers, and mocked for claiming that he was the great Beethoven — by then a national icon, with a corpus of celebrated concertos and sonatas to his name, and eight whole symphonies.

The tramp raged and raged, until eventually, close to midnight, the police dispatched a nervous officer to wake up a local musical director, who Beethoven demanded could identify him. Instant recognition. Righteous rage. Apologies. Immediate release. More rage. More apologies. Beethoven spent the night at his liberator’s house. In the morning, the town’s apologetic mayor collected him and drove him back to Vienna in the mayoral carriage.

What had so distracted Beethoven from space and time and self was that, twenty-seven years after falling under the spell of Schiller’s poem, he was at last ferocious with ideas for bringing it to life in music. He had been thinking about it incessantly for months. “Ode to Joy” would become the crowning achievement of his crowning achievement — the choral finale of his ninth and final symphony. It would distill the transcendent torment of his creative life: how to integrate rage and redemption, the solace of poetry with the drama of music; how to channel his own poetic fury as a force of beauty, of vitality, of meaning; how to turn the human darkness he had witnessed and suffered into something incandescent, something superhuman.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. (Available as a print.)

It had to be in a symphony, although he had not composed one in a decade and no composer — not Bach, not Mozart, not his hero Haydn — had ever woven lyric poetry or any words at all into a symphony before; the word “lyrics” was yet to enter the lexicon in its musical sense. It had to be the crowning choral finale of the symphony, although he had not written much choral music before. But the light of the idea beamed bright and irrefutable as spring. This was no time for old laurels, no time for catering to proven populisms — this was the time for creation. A decade earlier, Beethoven had written back to a young girl aspiring to become a great pianist, offering his advice on the central urgency of the creative calling:

The true artist is not proud… Though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.

So often, in advising others, we are advising ourselves — the most innocent, vulnerable, and visionary parts of us, those parts from which the spontaneity and daring central to creative work spring. I wonder whether Beethoven remembered his own advice to Emilie as he faced the blank page that spring in 1822 when the first radiant contours of his “Ode to Joy” filled his mind and his footfall.

By summer, he was actively seeking out commissions to live on as he labored. He managed to procure a meager £50 from London’s Harmony Society, but that was enough subsistence and assurance to get to work. For more than a year, he labored unremittingly, stumbling over creative challenge after creative challenge — the price of making anything unexampled. His greatest puzzle was how to introduce the words into the final movement and how to choose the voices that would best carry them.

Meanwhile, word was spreading in Vienna that its most beloved composer was working on something wildly ambitious — his first symphony in a decade, and no ordinary symphony. But just as theater managers began vying for the premiere, Beethoven stunned everyone with the announcement that it was going to premiere in Berlin. He gave no reason. Viennese musicians took it as an affront — did he think they were too traditional to appreciate something so bold? He had been born in Germany, yes, but he had become himself in Austria. Surely, he owed the seedbed of his creative blossoming some measure of faith.

At the harsh peak of winter, Karoline Unger — the nineteen-year-old contralto Beethoven had already chosen to voice the deepest feeling-tones of his “Ode to Joy” — exhorted him to premiere his masterwork in Vienna. Writing in his Conversation Books — the notebooks through which the deaf composer communicated with the hearing world — she told him he had “too little self-confidence” in the Viennese public’s reception of his masterwork, urged him to go forward with the concert, then exclaimed: “O Obstinacy!”

Karolin Unger

Within a month, thirty of his most esteemed Austrian admirers — musicians and poets, composers and chamberlains — had co-written and signed an impassioned open letter to Beethoven, laced with patriotism and flattery, telling him that while his “name and creations belong to all contemporaneous humanity and every country which opens a susceptible bosom to art,” it is his artistic duty to complete the Austrian triad of Mozart and Haydn; imploring him not to entrust “the appreciation for the pure and eternally beautiful” to unworthy “foreign power” and to establish instead “a new sovereignty of the True and the Beautiful” in Vienna. The letter was hand-delivered to him by a court secretary who tutored the royal family.

Not even the most stubborn and single-minded artist is impervious to the sway of adulation. “It’s very beautiful, it makes me very happy!” The Viennese concert was on.

But Beethoven bent under the weight of his own expectations in a crippling combination of micro-managing and indecision. Eager to control every littlest detail to perfection, he committed to one theater, then changed his mind and committed to another, then it all became too much to bear — he cancelled the concert altogether.

After a monthlong tailspin, the finitude of time — concert season was almost over — pinned him to the still point of decision. He uncancelled the concert and, once again confounding everyone, signed with one of the underbidding imperial court theaters he had at first rejected.

The date was set for early May. He hand-picked the four soloists who would anchor the choir and assembled an orchestra dwarfing all convention: two dozen violins, two dozen wind instruments, a dozen cellos and basses, ten violas, and all that percussion.

It was to be not only a performance, not only a premiere, but something more — the emblem of a credo, musical and humanistic. The reception of the symphony would make or break the reception of the ideals behind it. Against this backdrop, it is slightly less shocking — but only slightly — that, in an astonishing final bid for total control of his creation, Beethoven demanded that he conduct the symphony himself.

Everyone knew he was deaf. Now they feared he was demented.

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler

The theater, having won the coveted premiere, reluctantly conceded, fearing Beethoven might change his mind again if his demand went unmet, but persuaded him to have the original conductor onstage with him, with every assurance that he would only be there for backup. The conductor, meanwhile, instructed the choir and orchestra to follow only his motions and “pay no attention whatever to Beethoven’s beating of the time.” The best assurance even one of Beethoven’s closest friends — who later became his biographer — could muster was that the theater would be too dim for anyone to notice that Beethoven was conducting in his old green frock and not in the fashionable black coat a conductor was supposed to wear.

After two catastrophic rehearsals — the only two the enormous ensemble could manage in the brief time before the performance — the soloists railed that their parts were simply impossible to sing. Karoline Unger called him a “tyrant over all the vocal organs.” One of the two male soloists quit altogether and had to be replaced by a member of the choir who had memorized the part.

Somehow, the show went on.

On the early evening of May 7, 1824, the Viennese crowded into the concert hall — but they were not the usual patrons. Looking up to the royal box, Beethoven was crushed to see it empty. He had journeyed to the palace to personally invite the Emperor and Empress but, like most of the aristocracy, they had vanished into their country estate as soon as spring broke the harsh Austrian winter. He was going to be playing for the people. But it was the people, after all, that Schiller had yearned to vitalize with his poem.

Beethoven walked onto the grand stage, faced the orchestra, and raised his arms. Despite the natural imperfections of a performance built on such tensions, something shifted as soon as the music — exalted, sublime, total — rose above the individual lives and their individual strife, subsuming every body and every soul in a single harmonious transcendence.

After the final chord of “Ode to Joy” resounded, the gasping silence broke into a scream of applause. People leapt to their feet, waving their handkerchiefs and chanting his name. Beethoven, still facing the orchestra and still waving his arms to the delayed internal time of music only he could hear, noticed none of it, until Karoline Unger stood up, took his arm, and gently turned him around.

With the birth of photography still fifteen years of trial and triumph away, it is only in the mind’s eye that one can picture the cascade of confusion, disbelief, and elation that must have washed over Beethoven’s face in that sublime moment when his guiding sun seemed suddenly so proximate, almost blinding with triumph.

As soon as he faced the audience, the entire human mass erupted with not one, not two, not three, but four volcanic bursts of applause, until the Police Commissioner managed to yell “Silence!” over the fifth. These were still revolutionary times, after all, and art that roused so fierce a response in the human soul — even if that response was exultant joy — was dangerous art. Here, in the unassailable message of “Ode to Joy,” was a clarion call to humanity to discard all the false gods that had fueled a century of unremitting wars and millennia of inequality — the divisions of nation and rank, the oppressions of dogma and tradition — and band together in universal sympathy and solidarity.

Woodcut by Vanessa Bell from “A String Quartet” by Virginia Woolf, 1921. (Available as a print.)

The sound of Beethoven’s call resounded long after its creator was gone. Whitman celebrated it as the profoundest expression of nature and human nature. Helen Keller “heard” it with her hand pressed against the radio speaker and suddenly understood the meaning of music. Chilean protesters sang it as they took down the Pinochet dictatorship. Japanese musicians performed it after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Chinese students blasted it in Tiananmen Square. Leonard Bernstein, patron saint of music as an instrument of humanism, conducted a group of musicians who had lived on both sides of the Berlin Wall in a Christmas Day concert commemorating the twentieth anniversary of its fall. Ukrainian composer Victoria Poleva reimagined it for an international concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary. A decade later, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine performed her reimagining not long before a twenty-first century tyrant with a Napoleonic complex and a soul deaf to the music of life bludgeoned the small country with his lust for power.

But this, I suspect, was Beethoven’s stubborn, sacred point — the reason he never gave up on Schiller’s dream, even as he lived through nightmares: this unassailable insistence that although the Napoleons and Putins of the world will rise to power again and again over the centuries, they will also fall, because there is something in us more powerful as long as we continue placing freedom, justice, and universal happiness at the center of our commitment to life, even as we live through nightmares. Two centuries after Beethoven, Zadie Smith affirmed this elemental reality in her own life-honed conviction that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

In the winter of my thirteenth year, two centuries after Beethoven’s day and a few fragile years after the fall of Bulgaria’s communist dictatorship, I stood in the holiday-bedazzled National Symphony Hall alongside a dozen classmates from the Sofia Mathematics Gymnasium, our choir about to perform Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” recently adopted as the anthem of Europe by the European Union, of which the newly liberated Bulgaria longed to be a part.

We sang the lyrics in Bulgarian, but “joy” has no direct translation. “Felicity” might come the closest, or “mirth” — those wing-clipped cousins of joy, bearing the same bright feeling-tone, but lacking its elation, its all-pervading exhale — a diminishment reflecting the spirit of a people just emerging from five centuries of Ottoman occupation closely followed by a half-century Communist dictatorship.

And yet we stood there in our best clothes, in the spring of life, singing together, our teenage minds abloom with quadratic equations and a lust for life, our teenage bodies reverberating with the redemptive dream of a visionary who had died epochs before any of our lives was but a glimmer in a great-great-grandparent’s eye, our teenage spirits longing to kiss the whole world with possibility.

Today, “Ode to Joy” — a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic from the year I was born — streams into my wireless headphones as I cross the Brooklyn Bridge on my bicycle, riding into a life undreamt in that teenage girl’s wildest dreams, into a world unimaginable to Beethoven, a world where suffering remains our constant companion but life is infinitely more possible for infinitely more people, and more kinds of people, than even the farthest seer of 1822 could have envisioned.

I ride into the spring night, singing. This, in the end, might be the truest translation of “joy” — this ecstatic fusion of presence and possibility.

BP

The Faith of the Naturist: John Burroughs’s Superb Century-Old Manifesto for Spirituality in the Age of Science

“Communing with God is communing with our own hearts, our own best selves, not with something foreign and accidental. Saints and devotees have gone into the wilderness to find God; of course they took God with them.”

“At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe,” William James wrote in the first years of the twentieth century as he considered the shifting place of spirituality in a science-illuminated world. “Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether?”

For those of us who stand with Simone de Beauvoir on the question of religion and take to poet Diane Ackerman’s answer to spirituality,there is hardly a lovelier gospel than “The Faith of a Naturalist” by John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) — one of the dozen exquisite pieces in his 1920 collection Accepting the Universe: Essays in Naturalism (public library | public domain).

John Burroughs

Two generations after the young Emerson delivered his rousing Harvard Divinity School address about nature and its echo in human nature as the only true religion, which led Harvard to ban him from campus for thirty years, the elderly Burroughs — a self-anointed “naturist” by creed — writes:

To say that man* is as good as God would to most persons seem like blasphemy; but to say that man is as good as Nature would disturb no one. Man is a part of Nature, or a phase of Nature, and shares in what we call her imperfections. But what is Nature a part of, or a phase of? — and what or who is its author? Is it not true that this earth which is so familiar to us is as good as yonder morning or evening star and made of the same stuff? — just as much in the heavens, just as truly a celestial abode as it is? Venus seems to us like a great jewel in the crown of night or morning. From Venus the earth would seem like a still larger jewel. The heavens seem afar off and free from all stains and impurities of earth; we lift our eyes and our hearts to them as to the face of the Eternal, but our science reveals no body or place there so suitable for human abode and human happiness as this earth. In fact, this planet is the only desirable heaven of which we have any clue.

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Burroughs’s contemporary Levi Walter Yaggy. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

Nearly a century before NASA’s Kepler telescope discovered the first known potentially habitable world in another solar system, Burroughs posits that “innumerable other worlds exist in the abysses of space” and considers our conflicted fallibility, which is both part of our humanity and part of our divinity. Drawing on his lifelong devotion to the consolations of the cosmic perspective, he writes:

It is not until we treat man as a part of nature — as a product of the earth as literally as are the trees — that we can reconcile these contradictions. If we could build up a composite man out of all the peoples of the earth… he would represent fairly well the God in nature.

In a sentiment his twenty-first-century counterpart — the wildlife ecologist and ornithologist J. Drew Latham — would echo in his lyrical reflection on nature as worship, Burroughs adds:

Communing with God is communing with our own hearts, our own best selves, not with something foreign and accidental. Saints and devotees have gone into the wilderness to find God; of course they took God with them, and the silence and detachment enabled them to hear the still, small voice of their own souls, as one hears the ticking of his own watch in the stillness of the night. We are not cut off, we are not isolated points; the great currents flow through us and over us and around us, and unite us to the whole of nature… The language of devotion and religious conviction is only the language of soberness and truth written large and aflame with emotion.

Art by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

Defining religion as “a spiritual flowering” that can bloom in any bosom, Burroughs writes:

A man is not saved by the truth of the things he believes, but by the truth of his belief — its sincerity, its harmony with his character… Religion is an emotion, an inspiration, a feeling of the Infinite, and may have its root in any creed or in no creed.

A generation after the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” Burroughs observes:

Men of science do well enough with no other religion than the love of truth, for this is indirectly a love of God. The astronomer, the geologist, the biologist, tracing the footsteps of the Creative Energy throughout the universe — what need has he of any formal, patent-right religion? Were not Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and Lyell, and all other seekers and verifiers of natural truth among the most truly religious of men? Any of these men would have gone to hell for the truth — not the truth of creeds and rituals, but the truth as it exists in the councils of the Eternal, and as it is written in the laws of matter and of life.

Echoing Thoreau’s declamation that “every walk is a sort of crusade,” he adds:

Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance… There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants. The beauty of natural religion is that you have it all the time; you do not have to seek it afar off in myths and legends, in catacombs, in garbled texts, in miracles of dead saints or wine-bibbing friars. It is of to-day; it is now and here; it is everywhere. The crickets chirp it, the birds sing it, the breezes chant it, the thunder proclaims it, the streams murmur it, the unaffected man lives it. Its incense rises from the plowed fields, it is on the morning breeze, it is in the forest breath and in the spray of the wave. The frosts write it in exquisite characters, the dews impearl it, and the rainbow paints it on the cloud. It is not an insurance policy underwritten by a bishop or a “priest; it is not even a faith; it is a love, an enthusiasm, a consecration to natural truth.

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. (Available as a print and face mask.)

An epoch before W.H. Auden — the son of a physicist and the survivor of two world wars — could write of “stars that do not give a damn” in one of his most devastatingly beautiful and humanistic poems, Burroughs considers what many call “Providence,” but we might equally call chance. In place of the narcissistic self-delusion embedded in all notions of a god dispensing personal partialities, Burroughs celebrates the sober transcendence of accepting an impartial universe:

There is no special Providence. Nature sends the rain upon the just and the unjust, upon the sea as upon the land. We are here and find life good because Providence is general and not special.

[…]

Life is here because it fits itself into the scheme of things… We find the world good to be in because we are adapted to it, and not it to us.

Plate from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

As every era takes its science for the beacon that signals the end of ignorance, Burroughs reflects on how the scientific revelations of his time — a time when we still scoffed at the existence of galaxies beyond our own, had no knowledge of DNA or tectonic plates or Pluto, and considered ourselves the only conscious animal — are breaking apart the old edicts of religion to release a deeper and truer spirituality within:

In our day we read the problem of Nature and God in a new light, the light of science, or of emancipated human reason, and the old myths mean little to us. We accept Nature as we find it, and do not crave the intervention of a God that sits behind and is superior to it. The self-activity of the cosmos suffices… We accept the bounty of the rain, the sunshine, the soil, the changing seasons, and the vast armory of non-living forces, and from them equip or teach ourselves to escape, endure, modify, or ward off the destructive and non-human forces that beset our way. We draw our strength from the Nature that seems and is so regardless of us; our health and wholeness are its gifts.

[…]

We have life on these terms… Rain brings the perils of rain, fire brings the perils of fire, power brings the perils of power… Unmixed good is a dream; unmixed happiness is a dream; perfection is a dream; heaven and hell are both dreams of our mixed and struggling lives.

Art by Burroughs’s contemporary Dorothy Lathrop, 1920s. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Now here is a faith a person of warmth and wakefulness can get behind:

The naturalist or naturist… sees the cosmic forces only; he sees nothing directly mindful of man, but man himself; he sees the intelligence and beneficence of the universe flowering in man; he sees life as a mysterious issue of the warring elements; he sees human consciousness and our sense of right and wrong, of truth and justice, as arising in the evolutionary sequence, and turning and sitting in judgment upon all things; he sees that there can be no life without pain and death; that there can be no harmony without discord; that opposites go hand in hand; that good and evil are inextricably mingled; that the sun and blue sky are still there behind the clouds, unmindful of them; that all is right with the world if we extend our vision deep enough; that the ways of Nature are the ways of God if we do not make God in our own image, and make our comfort and well-being the prime object of Nature… He that would save his life shall lose it — lose it in forgetting that the universe is not a close corporation, or a patented article, and that it exists for other ends than our own. But he who can lose his life in the larger life of the whole shall save it in a deeper, truer sense.

BP

Things to Look Forward to: An Illustrated Celebration of Living with Presence in Uncertain Times, Disguised as a Love Letter to the Future

Love, laundry, and the miraculous in the mundane.

Things to Look Forward to: An Illustrated Celebration of Living with Presence in Uncertain Times, Disguised as a Love Letter to the Future

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timeless meditation on living with presence. “Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s,” Seneca exhorted two millennia earlier as he offered the Stoic balance sheet for time spent, saved, and wasted, reminding us that “nothing is ours, except time.”

Time is all we have because time is what we are — which is why the undoing of time, of time’s promise of itself, is the undoing of our very selves.

In the dismorrowed undoing of 2020 — as Zadie Smith was calibrating the limitations of Stoic philosophy in a world suddenly time-warped by a global quarantine, suddenly sobered to the perennial uncertainty of the future — loss beyond the collective heartache besieged the miniature world of my sunny-spirited, largehearted friend and Caldecott-winning children’s book maker Sophie Blackall. She coped the way all artists cope, complained the way all makers complain: by making something of beauty and substance, something that begins as a quickening of self-salvation in one’s own heart and ripples out to touch, to salve, maybe even to save others — which might be both the broadest and the most precise definition of art.

One morning under the hot shower, Sophie began making a mental list of things to look forward to — a lovely gesture of taking tomorrow’s outstretched hand in that handshake of trust and resolve we call optimism.

№3: hot shower

As the list grew and she began drawing each item on it, she noticed how many were things that needn’t wait for some uncertain future — unfussy gladnesses readily available in the now, any now. A century after Hermann Hesse extolled “the little joys” as the most important habit for fully present living, Sophie’s list became not an emblem of expectancy but an invitation to presence — not a deferral of life but a celebration of it, of the myriad marvels that come alive as soon as we become just a little more attentive, a little more appreciative, a little more animated by our own elemental nature as “atoms with consciousness” and “matter with curiosity.”

№5: hugging a friend

Sophie began sharing the illustrated meditations on her Instagram (which is itself a rare island of unremitting delight and generosity amid the stream of hollow selfing we call social media) — each part record of personal gladness, part creative prompt. Delight begets delight — people began sending her their responses to these prompts: unbidden kindnesses done for neighbors, unexpected hobbies taken up, and oh so many sweet strange faces drawn on eggs.

A slipstream of tomorrows hence, her list became Things to Look Forward to: 52 Large and Small Joys for Today and Every Day (public library) — a felicitous catalogue partway between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and poet Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, every page of it radiant with the warmth and wonder that make life worth living and mark everything Sophie makes.

№14: listening to a song you’ve heard before

You can relish a rainbow and a cup of tea, sunrise and a flock of birds, a cemetery walk and a friend’s newborn, the first blush of wildflowers in a patch of dirt and the looping rapture of an old favorite song. You can’t tidy up the White House, but you can tidy up that neglected messy corner of your home; you can’t mend a world, but you can mend the hole in the polka-dot pocket of your favorite coat. They are not the same thing, but they are part of the same thing, which is all there is — life living itself through us, moment by moment, one broken beautiful thing at a time.

№48: walking in cemeteries
№22: weddings
№10: first snow

Sophie writes in the preface:

I have always been a cheerful sort of person, able to find the silver lining in just about any cloud, but 2020 was a son-of-a-cumulonimbus. There was the pandemic, of course, which knocked us all sideways. Like most people, I tried to remain hopeful, counting my blessings, grateful to be alive when so many were dying. But also like most people, I was full of anxiety and fear and grief and uncertainty. My partner, Ed, and I worried about bills, fretted about my aging parents, and missed our kids, who were living away from home. Deciding to downsize, we moved out of the apartment we had happily rented for ten years with our blended family, the longest either of us had ever lived anywhere. We canceled our wedding, because we knew we couldn’t get married without our loved ones. Then in the fall, Nick, the dear, queer father of my children, died in an accident on the other side of the world. The thunderclouds really closed in then, and for a while I struggled to find any rays of hope. I almost lost sight of beauty and wonder and delight.

With an eye to the dangerous seductions of nostalgia — that longing not for a bygone time but for the bygone selves and certitudes that time contained — she adds:

I have often found myself romanticizing the Before Times, when we could travel the world and hug our friends and shake hands with strangers, but I have come to the conclusion that it’s better to look forward: to gather the things we’ve learned and use our patience and perseverance and courage and empathy to care for each other and to work toward a better future for all people. To look forward to things like long-term environmental protection and racial justice; equal rights and an inclusive society; free health care and equitable education; an end to poverty, hunger, and war. But we can also look forward to everyday things that will buoy our spirits and make us laugh and help us feel alive and that will bring others comfort and hope.

№27: collecting pebbles

Tucked between the quiet joys of painting on pebbles and rereading a favorite passage from a favorite book and enfolding a loved one in a simple hug is the unfailing consolation of the cosmic perspective and its simplest, most enchanting guise, which the visionary Margaret Fuller reverenced, a century and a half earlier amid a world torn by revolutions and economic collapse, as “that best fact, the Moon.”

№21: a full moon

In the twenty-first entry, devoted to the full Moon, Sophie writes:

Wherever we are in the world, we see the same moon. It’s the same moon earliest humans would have seen, waxing and waning, rising and setting. Depending on where we were thousands of years ago, we would look to a full moon to mark time, to tell us when to plant corn, when to lay the rice to dry, and when to expect the ducks back. Now we look to the moon and marvel that men have traveled there in unlikely contraptions and actually set foot on its surface. It is our stepping-stone to the vast universe, and looking at a full moon can make us feel very small and very young. But it can also remind us to make the most of our time here on earth, to pop corn and throw rice and watch for ducks.

№44: doing your taxes
№8: applause
№31: moving the furniture around
№25: new glasses

What makes the book so wondrous is that each seemingly mundane thing on the list shimmers with an aspect of the miraculous, each fragment of the personal opens into the universal, each playful wink at life grows wide-eyed with poignancy.

In the thirtieth entry, titled “Clean Laundry” and illustrated with a stack of neatly folded grey T-shirts, Sophie writes:

I tend to put off washing clothes until the last possible day, when I’m reduced to leggings with holes and the mustard top that inspires people to ask if I’m feeling OK, but clean laundry means a whole closet of possibilities. I can dress like a nineteenth-century French farmer or an Edwardian ghost or a deckhand on a whaler off Nantucket. Actually, those are pretty much my three options, but there are many subtle variations.

My clothes are pre-owned, unruly, and difficult to fold, but my partner wears a uniform. Not the kind with epaulets or creased slacks or his name embroidered on his chest, but a deliberate, self-selected uniform. Ed is a playwright and a teacher, and he heeds the advice of Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Once a year, he purchases six gray T-shirts and a dozen pairs of black socks and multiples of carefully chosen, unremarkable shirts and pants. On laundry day, his neatly folded piles of clean clothes are so dear and familiar they put a lump in my throat.

Pulsating through the book, through the list, through the life is the one thing that saves us all: love — the love of partners and of friends, of children and of flowers, of books and music and list-making and this whole improbable living world. Indeed, the entire book is one extended love letter to life itself, composed of the miniature, infinite loves that animate any given life.

In entry №37, titled “Falling in Love,” Sophie writes:

I met my husband, Nick, when I was twenty-one, and we moved in together before the year was out. We got married when I was twenty-five, and I had my first child at twenty-six. But I didn’t fall in love, not properly, until I was thirty-six. And it wasn’t with my husband. It wasn’t that Nick and I didn’t love each other. We did. We were best friends. He could play “My Funny Valentine” on his teeth and make anything out of nothing: a 1930s-style playhouse, a shirt out of a vintage tablecloth, Halloween costumes that made the news. He had a blinding temper, but he was as funny as he was angry, so I laughed at least as much as I cried. When we met, he thought he was 5 percent gay. It turned out he was 5 percent straight. But that was enough to make two excellent children, and we thought we were happy.

Days with young children can pass by in a blur of drop-offs and pickups, bath time and bedtime, Hot Wheels and carrot sticks and Shrinky Dinks. If you’re in love with your partner I can imagine finding moments to notice each other, managing, even through the blur, to see one another clearly. But if you’re not sure, then you can become kind of blurry yourself.

Later, when I met Ed, the man I would fall in love with, I was still a bit blurry, but I saw him in distinct detail. I noticed everything: his beautiful profile, his generous ears, his kind eyes. The way he shoved his T-shirt sleeve up on his handsome shoulder as he talked. His heartbreakingly neat handwriting. The way he was always reading, even when he was walking down the street, underlining without breaking stride. The way he carried everything in a stack: book, extra book, notebook, pen, phone, as though he’d never heard of bags. The way he followed a recipe and put all the ingredients in little bowls. The way his tongue stuck out when he chopped onions or dribbled a basketball or tied a child’d shoe. The way he made all the babies laugh. The way he made me laugh. The way he made my hands tremble.

And I noticed the way he noticed me too. He saw me more clearly than anyone had, ever before.

And bit by bit, I realized that I’d previously had no idea, no idea on earth, what it was to be in love and to be loved in return. Those were heady days. Fourteen years later, they still are. The point is, of course, that you can look forward to falling in love with the love of your life, day after day. If you haven’t found love yet, or found it and lost it, then it can find you, perhaps when you least expect it.

№37: falling in love

Complement Things to Look Forward to, to which neither screen nor synthesis do service, with Sophie’s splendid animation of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Dirge Without Music” — a sort of mirror-image counterpart to this elemental awareness that our time, finite and savage with creative force, is all we have — then revisit her illustrated celebration of our shared world.

Illustrations courtesy of Sophie Blackall

BP

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