The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Your Brain on Grief, Your Heart on Healing

“Grief is a heart-wrenchingly painful problem for the brain to solve… to live in the world with the absence of someone… ingrained in your understanding of the world… For the brain, [they are] simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time.”

Your Brain on Grief, Your Heart on Healing

“‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief,” Emily Dickinson wrote as she calibrated love and loss. But she did not mean that it is good to ruminate and wallow — Dickinson so deftly played with the surface of meaning, so delighted in startling us into a flinch or furrow before plunging us into the deeper truths she fathomed. She meant, I think, that a love lost is grieved forever, whatever the nature of the loss — this she knew, and turned the ongoingness of it into a lifetime of art — but by looking back, we are reminded over and over that the sharp edge of grief does smooth over time, that today’s blunt ache is worlds apart from the first stabs, until grief becomes, as Abraham Lincoln wrote in his stirring letter of consolation to a bereaved young woman, “a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.”

Art by Sophie Blackall for “Dirge Without Music” from The Universe in Verse.

And besides, what does it mean to lose a love anyway? We never lose people, not really. I don’t mean this in some mystical sense — let there be no confusion about what actually happens when we die. I don’t even mean it in the poetic sense. I am speaking strictly from the point of view of the mind emerging from the dazzling materiality of the brain — that majestic cathedral of cortex and synapse shaping every thought we have and every feeling we tremble with.

I am speaking of the paradox inside the brain:

On the one hand, we lose people all the time — to death, to distance, to differences; from the brain’s point of view, these varieties of loss differ not by kind but only by degree, triggering the same neural circuitry, producing sorrow along a spectrum of intensity shaped by the level of closeness and the finality of the loss.

On the other hand, no person we have loved is ever fully gone. When they die or vanish, they are physically no longer present, but their personhood permeates our synapses with memories and habits of mind, saturates an all-pervading atmosphere of feeling we don’t just carry with us all the time but live and breathe inside. Or the opposite happens, which is its own devastation — the physical body remains present, but the person we have known and loved, that safehouse of shared memories and trust, is gone — lost to mental illness, to addiction, to neurodegenerative disease.

Art by Sophie Blackall for “Dirge Without Music” from The Universe in Verse.

In both cases, the brain is tasked with the slow, painful work of reconstituting its map of the world, so that the world makes sense again without the beloved person in it. Mapping, in fact, is not a mere metaphor but what is actually going on in the brain, since our orientation in spacetime and our autonoeic consciousness — the capacity for mental self-representation — share a cortical region.

Where the missed and missing person goes on the map, how the remapping actually unfolds, and what it takes to redraw the map in such a way that the world feels whole again are the questions coursing through The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss (public library) by neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor — a pioneer in fMRI research since the technology first became available, who has devoted a quarter century to studying the particular neurophysiology of grief. She writes:

The brain devotes lots of effort to mapping where our loved ones are while they are alive, so that we can find them when we need them. And the brain often prefers habits and predictions over new information. But it struggles to learn new information that cannot be ignored, like the absence of our loved one.

[…]

Grief is a heart-wrenchingly painful problem for the brain to solve, and grieving necessitates learning to live in the world with the absence of someone you love deeply, who is ingrained in your understanding of the world. This means that for the brain, your loved one is simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time. You are navigating your life despite the fact that they have been stolen from you, a premise that makes no sense, and that is both confusing and upsetting.

Making an important distinction between grief (“the intense emotion that crashes over you like a wave, completely overwhelming, unable to be ignored”) and grieving (an ongoing process punctuated by recurring moments of grief but stringing the moments into a larger trajectory), O’Connor adds:

Grieving requires the difficult task of throwing out the map we have used to navigate our lives together and transforming our relationship with this person who has died. Grieving, or learning to live a meaningful life without our loved one, is ultimately a type of learning. Because learning is something we do our whole lives, seeing grieving as a type of learning may make it feel more familiar and understandable and give us the patience to allow this remarkable process to unfold.

[…]

Grief never ends, and it is a natural response to loss. You will experience pangs of grief over this specific person forever. You will have discrete moments that overwhelm you, even years after the death when you have restored your life to a meaningful, fulfilling experience. But… even if the feeling of grief is the same, your relationship to the feeling changes. Feeling grief years after your loss may make you doubt whether you have really adapted. If you think of the emotion and the process of adaptation as two different things, however, then it isn’t a problem that you experience grief even when you have been grieving for a long time.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

Although volumes have been written about the psychology, philosophy, and poetics of grief — none more piercing than the Joan Didion classic, none more practical than Seneca’s advice to his bereaved mother — there is something singularly revealing about exploring grief from the point of view of the brain beneath the mind, which must begin at the developmental beginning. Childhood — the brain’s most fertile growth period, when most of its major infrastructure is laid out — is also our training ground for loss. Every time we are separated from our primary caregivers, we experience scale-models of loss; every time they return, we learn that the loss of their presence is not a loss of their person, of their love. (A pause worth taking: every abandonment is a miniature of grief.)

In those formative attachments, we also learn the role we ourselves play in the relationship. Because, in building its relational world-map, the brain is constantly computing our loved ones’ position in three dimensions — time, space, and closeness, also known as psychological distance — we learn the causal link between our behavior and a caregiver’s position in the closeness dimension, just like we learn the causal link between our bodily movements and our position in space. When there is secure attachment, the child learns that throughout various surface disruptions, situational factors, and passing emotional weather patterns, there is a steadfast underlying closeness. O’Connor writes:

Closeness is partially under our control, and we learn how to maintain and nurture this closeness, but we also trust those who love us to maintain that closeness as well.

The obvious — and heartbreaking — corollary is that children who grow up without secure attachment experience the pangs of miniature grief much more readily throughout life, with each departure of a loved one, however temporary, because trusting a continuity of closeness does not come naturally to us. But no matter the formative experience of closeness, human beings are universally undone by the death of someone close — the final abandonment, at once the most abstract and the most absolute absence, in which our brains simply cannot compute the total removal of a person so proximate and important from the fabric of psychological spacetime.

Vanish by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Citing the disoriented devastation of a woman ghosted by a lover, O’Connor notes that “ghosting” is the neurologically appropriate word-choice for such abandonments — studied under fMRI, the brain of a person who has lost a loved one to “ghosting” behaves much the same way as the brain of a person who has lost a loved one to death, the mental map suddenly crumbled and torn to pieces. O’Connor describes the strange yet strangely sensical way in which the brain copes with this incomprehensible disruption of reality:

If your brain cannot comprehend that something as abstract as death has happened, it cannot understand where the deceased is in space and time, or why they are not here, now, and close. From your brain’s perspective, ghosting is exactly what happens when a loved one dies. As far as the brain is concerned, they have not died. The loved one has, with no explanation, stopped returning our calls — stopped communicating with us altogether. How could someone who loves us do that? They have become distant, or unbelievably mean, and that is infuriating. Your brain doesn’t understand why; it doesn’t understand that dimensions can simply disappear. If they don’t feel close, then they just feel distant, and you want to fix it rather than believe they are permanently gone. This (mis)belief leads to an intense upwelling of emotions.

[…]

If a person we love is missing, then our brain assumes they are far away and will be found later. The idea that the person is simply no longer in this dimensional world, that there are no here, now, and close dimensions, is not logical.

Drawing on brain imaging studies, she adds:

The ephemeral sense of closeness with our loved ones exists in the physical, tangible hardware of our brain.

The particular bit of hardware is the brain’s posterior cingulate cortex — our built-in GPS of love. Scanning the environment and processing innumerable bits of sensory information, the PCC is constantly calibrating and recalibrating the psychological distance between us and the people we love, tightening the bond the closer we feel and loosening it when we sense distancing. Death turns the GPS into a crude compass trying to orient to an all-pervading, ever-shifting magnetic field suddenly bereft of its true north. O’Connor writes:

After the death of a loved one, the incoming messages seem scrambled for a while. At times, closeness with our deceased loved one feels incredibly visceral, as though they are present in the room, here and now. At other times, the string seems to have fallen off the board — not shorter or longer than it was before, but simply stolen from us entirely.

Liminal Worlds by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

This confusion is so fundamental and so primal, so beyond the reach of reason, that it befalls minds indiscriminately along the spectrum of intelligence and self-awareness — a reality most clearly and devastatingly evinced in the extraordinary love letter Richard Feynman wrote to his wife 488 days after her death and 6,994 days before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

But O’Connor notes that while Western physicians long believed such continuing bonds across the life-death divide to be a symptom of poor coping with grief that makes for poorer bonds with the living, recent research drawing on various grief rituals and customs from cultures around the world has demonstrated that such ongoing inner dialogue with the dead might actually enrich our relationships with the living and allow us to show up for them in a fuller, more openhearted way. She writes:

Our understanding of ourselves changes as we gain wisdom through experience. Our relationships with our living loved ones can grow more compassionate and resonant with gratitude as we age. We can also allow our interactions with our beloved ones who are gone to grow and change, even if only in our minds. This transformation of our relationship with them can affect our capacity to live fully in the present, and to create aspirations for a meaningful future. It can also help us to feel more connected to them, to the best parts of them… Their absence from our physical world does not make our relationship to them any less valuable.

[…]

Instead of imagining an alternate what if reality, we must learn to be connected to them with our feet planted firmly in the present moment. This transformed relationship is dynamic, ever-changing, in the way that any loving relationship is ever-changing across months and years. Our relationship with our deceased loved one must reflect who we are now, with the experience, and perhaps even the wisdom, we have gained through grieving. We must learn to restore a meaningful life.

The greatest challenge, of course, is the perennial challenge of the human mind — how to integrate seemingly contradictory needs or ideas in such a way that they coexist harmoniously, perhaps even magnify each other, rather than cancel each other out. Without such integration, any new relationship can feel like a threat to this ongoing inner bond with the dead, undamming a flood of grief at the notion of emotional erasure: grief for the grief itself, for that outstretched hand holding on to the gone and to ourselves at the same time, to the map as it used to be. This is a fear so understandable as to cusp on the universal. It is also — and this might be the most assuring part of O’Connor’s research — a neurophysiologically misplaced fear. Within the brain, every person we love leaves a tangible, structural imprint, encoded in synapses that can never be vanquished or replaced by new and different love. Because that bond — like every bond, like every idea, like the universe itself — was “only ever conjured up in the mind,” it is there too that it always lives, unassailable by other minds and other events.

Art by Sophie Blackall for “Dirge Without Music” from The Universe in Verse.

O’Connor writes:

Gaining a new relationship is simply not going to fill the hole that exists. Here is the key — the point of new roles and new relationships is not to fill the hole. Expecting that they will can only lead to disappointment.

The point is that if we are living in the present, we need to have someone who loves us and cares for us, and we need someone to love and care for as well. The only way to enjoy a fulfilling relationship in the future, however, is to start one in the present. If we can imagine a future in which we are loved, then we must start a relationship that eventually will become important to us in a way that is different from our previous relationship, but rewarding and sustaining.

Understood this way, then, the ongoing relationship with the gone is a lavishment to other loves, for it has made us exactly who we are — the person doing the loving, the person being loved, the mapmaker of present and possible worlds. O’Connor offers neural affirmation for this poetic aspiration:

After a loved one dies, they are clearly no longer with us in the physical world, which each day proves to us. On the other hand, they are not gone, because they are with us in our brain and in our mind. The physical makeup of our brain — the structure of our neurons — has been changed by them. In this sense, you could say that a piece of them physically lives on. That piece is the neural connections protected within our skull, and these neural connections survive in physical form even after a loved one’s death. So, they are not entirely “out there,” and they are not entirely “in here,” either. You are not one, not two. That is because the love between two people, that unmistakable but usually indescribable property, occurs between two people. Once we have known love, we can bring it into our awareness, we can feel it emerge and emanate from us. This experience reaches beyond the love for the flesh and bones of the person we once knew on this earthly plane. Now loving is an attribute of us, regardless of who we share it with, regardless of what is given to us in return. This is a transcendent experience, a felt sense of being loving without needing anything in return. In the very best moments together, we learned to love and to be loved. Because of our bonded experience, that loved one and that loving are a part of us now, to call up and act on as we see fit in the present and the future.

Complement The Grieving Brain with a mathematician’s geometric model for living with grief and this soulful animated film of “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay — the most beautiful homily on the emotional paradox of loss I know — then revisit Nick Cave’s life-honed wisdom on grief as a portal to greater aliveness.

BP

So I Danced Again: A Vibrant Animated Meditation on the Limits of Words and the Power of Embodied Music in our Search for Meaning

Sound, color, and wonderment where the body meets the soul.

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so,” Alan Watts quipped as he aimed his wry wisdom at the paradox of our search for meaning. “The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”

Half a century earlier, Virginia Woolf exulted in how music and dance rehumanize us, how “dance music… stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — [so that] you forget centuries of civilization in a second.”

Another half-century earlier, searching for the score of the dance we call being, Walt Whitman resolved: “Now I will do nothing but listen, to accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.”

Generations after Whitman, after Woolf, after Watts, artist Lottie Kingslake — who animated the stunning poem-song “Singularity” for The Universe in Verse — shines a sidewise gleam on these questions in her lovely animated film So I Danced Again…

Inspired by communal ritual dances and drawing on conversations with a musician, a music therapist, a neuroscientist, and several dancers, the film is part visual sketchbook of recorded sounds and part abstract existential inquiry. What emerges is a subtle meditation on the limitations of words — that is, of disembodied language — in conveying emotional meaning, which is (as Whitman well knew) an ongoing dialogue between the body and the soul, cerebral and sensorial at the same time, a quickening of thought and feeling that moves through us as we move through the world.

It’s very hard, finding words for things, isn’t it? Finding the words for things. But, then, perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking about it too much, and just enjoying it.

Complement with Helen Keller’s exultant epiphany about how dance is like thought upon visiting Martha Graham’s dance studio, then revisit Zadie Smith on what writers can learn from dancers.

BP

The Healing Power of Nature and Beauty: Florence Nightingale on Expediting Recovery from Illness and Burnout

“People say the effect is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body, too.”

“I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains,” the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in the dawning years of the twenty-first century, “but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically.”

This, however, was not a novel idea. A century and a half before him, another visionary of what we flatly term medicine — the stewardship of that intersectional wonder transpiring between the human body and the human spirit — arrived at the same conclusion.

Florence Nightingale by Henry Hering, 1850s. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

“No more childish things… No more marriage,” Florence Nightingale (May 12, 1820–August 13, 1910) resolved in her diary on her thirtieth birthday.

Within a decade, she had invented professional nursing, founded the world’s first non-religious nursing school, and revolutionized both healthcare and data science by demonstrating measurably the lifesaving power of standardized situation, which she and her team of 38 nurses had introduced in an Istanbul hospital during the Crimean War, reducing death rates in the ward by 99 percent. To communicate these revelatory results to a public illiterate of statistics, she devised a new type of pie chart, known today as the Nightingale rose diagram, which she sent to Queen Victoria and which ushered in a new age of data visualization, empowering generations of information designers and inspiring W.E.B. Du Bois to create the epoch-making diagrams of African American life he presented at the World’s Fair in the final years of Nightingale’s life.

Polar area visualization of mortality rates by Florence Nightingale, 1857

But it was more than standardized sanitation she brought to those hospital wards and more than standardized sanitation that saved those human lives. Just as revolutionary was the type of patient care that made those wounded soldiers await “The Lady with the Lamp” as their “ministering angel” and prompted Emily Dickinson to celebrate her as “holy” across the Atlantic.

Years before Walt Whitman, while volunteering as a nurse in the American Civil War, attested to how “personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship [do] more good than all the medicine in the world,” Nightingale came to see compassion not as a flourish on medical care but as its most tonic offering and its primary instrument of healing. That her own life spanned more than double the life expectancy of her time and place is surely not unrelated to her uncommon insight into health, epochs ahead of her time in many ways — but most of all in her deep understanding of the dialogue between the body and the mind, in health and in healing.

Red poppy by Elizabeth Blackwell from her pioneering 1737 encyclopedia of medicinal plants. (Available as a print, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

When Nightingale’s pioneering nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London grew so successful that two new wards were built, the first thing she ordered for the grand opening were plants and flowers, knowing well that once “all the royalties are gone,” those lush blooming beauties would be “the main pleasure to the patients and nurses.”

Since her earliest days as a working nurse, a century and a half before immunologist Esther Sternberg demonstrated the link between emotional balance and susceptibility to disease, Nightingale witnessed patient after patient receive flowers “with rapture” — a brightening of spirit that very clearly uplifted their total state of being, allaying their physical suffering in measurable ways:

I shall never forget the rapture of fever patients over a bunch of bright-coloured flowers. I remember (in my own case) a nosegay of wild flowers being sent me, and from that moment recovery becoming more rapid.

Wildflowers by Nightingale’s contemporary Clarissa Munger Badger, whose botanical paintings of flowers inspired Emily Dickinson. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

She formalized these observations in the second edition of her revolutionary book Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not, published in 1860, of which this humble woman was so proud that she sent a copy to Queen Victoria. In it, under the heading “Flowers,” Nightingale admonishes against one of the commonest and gravest mistakes in healthcare:

The folly and ignorance which reign too often supreme over the sickroom cannot be better exemplified than by this: while the nurse will leave the patient stewing in a corrupting atmosphere, the best ingredient of which is carbonic acid [carbon dioxide], she will deny him, on the plea of unhealthiness, a glass of cut flowers or a growing plant. Now, no one ever saw “overcrowding” by plants in a room or ward. And the carbonic acid they give off at nights would not poison a fly. Nay, in overcrowded rooms, they actually absorb carbonic acid and give off oxygen. Cut flowers also decompose water and produce oxygen gas. It is true there are certain flowers, e.g., lilies, the smell of which is said to depress the nervous system. These are easily known by the smell and can be avoided.

Long before neuroscience began intimating that consciousness is not a brain function but a full-body phenomenon, long before psychology and physiology entwined to illuminate how the body and the mind converge in the healing of trauma, Nightingale — whose very being was imprinted with a cherishment of flowers by the name her parents had given her — writes:

People say the effect is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body, too. Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by colour and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect.

Light distribution on soap bubble from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Once again ahead of her time, she extends especial compassion to patients suffering from what we call mental illness, now classify along an increasingly elaborate spectrum of disorders, then crudely labeled as hysteria or melancholy or simply (and punitively) insanity — patients doubly anguished by their powerlessness to intercept their own dark spirals of thought, for which beauty and light provide such sanative interception. Noting that the sick “suffer to excess from mental as well as bodily pain,” Nightingale writes in her nursing manual:

Form, colour, will free your patient from his painful ideas better than any argument.

Writing at the dawn of self-help as we now know it, when the pseudoscience of “positive thinking” was just beginning to intoxicate the modern mind as the snake oil of our time, Nightingale inverts the premise and, anticipating William James’s landmark theory of how our bodies affect our feelings by a quarter century, writes:

Volumes are now written and spoken upon the effect of the mind upon the body. Much of it is true. But I wish a little more was thought of the effect of the body on the mind. You who believe yourselves overwhelmed with cares, but are able every day to walk up [the street], or out in the country… you little know much your anxieties are thereby lightened; you little know how intensified they become to those who can have no change, how the very walls of their sickrooms seem hung with their cares, how the ghosts of their troubles haunt their beds, how impossible it becomes for them to escape from some pursuing thought without some help from variety.

Posy of various flowers from Floral Belles from the Green-House and Garden by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Devoting an entire section of the book to variety, Nightingale notes that longtime nurses and long-term patients share in knowing just how immensely “the nerves of the sick suffer from seeing the same walls, the same ceiling, the same surroundings” during long convalescence. She offers an antidote to the debilitating physical effects of monotony:

The superior cheerfulness of persons suffering severe paroxysms of pain over that of persons suffering from nervous debility has often been remarked upon, and attributed to the enjoyment of the former of their intervals of respite. I incline to think that the majority of cheerful cases is to be found among those patients who are not confined to one room, whatever their suffering, and that the majority of depressed cases will be seen among those subjected to a long monotony of objects about them.

The nervous frame really suffers as much from this as the digestive organs from long monotony of diet, as, e.g., the soldier from his twenty-one years’ “boiled beef.”

She makes a special case for the vivifying power of color, insisting that a patient’s craving for beauty is not a mere whim but both an indicator of their psychological inclination toward recovery and a very real physiological need signaled by the body along its trajectory of healing:

The effect in sickness of beautiful objects, of variety of objects, and especially of brilliancy of colour, is hardly at all appreciated. Such cravings are usually called the “fancies” of patients. And often doubtless patients have “fancies,” as, e.g., when they desire two contradictions. But, much more often, their (so-called) “fancies” are the most valuable indications of what is necessary for their recovery. And it would be well if nurses would watch these (so-called) “fancies” closely.

Goethe’s color wheel from his 1809 psychological theory of color. (Available as a print.)

Half a century before Goethe devised his theory of color and emotion, Nightingale notes the invigoration produced by warm, bright colors and the wearying effects of long hours spent looking at deep, cool shades as she offers her remedy for nervous prostration and burnout:

This state of nerves is most frequently to be relieved by care in affording them a pleasant view, a judicious variety as to flowers and pretty things. (No one who has watched the sick can doubt the fact, that some feel stimulus from looking at scarlet flowers, exhaustion from looking at deep blue, etc.) Light by itself will often relieve it. The craving for “the return of the day,” which the sick so constantly evince, is generally nothing but the desire for light, the remembrance of the relief which a variety of objects before the eye affords to the harassed sick mind.

She continued elaborating on and advocating for these ideas for the remainder of her long life. In 1892, already one of England’s most prominent public figures, Nightingale was asked to contribute the entry on nursing for one of the era’s most popular encyclopedic dictionaries. Under the heading “NURSES, training of,” after detailing various essentials of the skilled healthcare practitioner ranging from hygiene to dress, she writes:

Second only to air is light as an essential for growth, health and recovery from sickness — not only daylight, but sunlight — and indeed fresh air must be sun-warmed, sun-penetrated air. This should be meant to include colour, pleasant and pretty sights for the patient’s eyes to rest on — variety of objects, flowers, pictures. People say the effect is on the mind. So it is, but the enlightened physician tells us it is on the body too. The sun is a sculptor as well as a painter. The Greeks were right as to their Apollo.

“Spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric” from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

But my favorite of her reflections on the healing power of nature comes from a letter she penned shortly after her eightieth birthday, in the first year of the twentieth century, synthesizing her learnings about nursing and life. (What is it about eighty being the age at which great minds distill their life-advice?) Winkingly addressing the nursing staff at St. Thomas’ Hospital as her “dear children,” for they had affectionately called her their “mother-chief” throughout her long service, Nightingale writes:

There have been great, I may say, discoveries in nursing. A very remarkable doctor, a great friend of mine, now dead, introduced new ideas about consumption, which might then be called the curse of England. His own wife was what is called “consumptive,” i.e., she had tubercular disease in her lungs. He said to her: “now you have to choose: either you must spend the next six months in your room. Or you must garden every day” (they had a wretched little garden at the end of a street) “you must dig — get your feet wet every day.” She chose the latter, became the hardiest of women and lived to be old.

Complement with two centuries of great writers and artists on the creative and spiritual rewards of gardening, Ellen Meloy on the conscience of color, and V (formerly Eve Ensler) on how the tree outside her hospital window saved her life, then revisit this spacetime serenade to flowers and the meaning of life, starring Emily Dickinson, Michael Pollan, and The Little Prince.

BP

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

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from any link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)