When exactly the split happened is difficult to discern — this crossing-point at which human nature reached upward to its higher potential and downward to its darkest depths at the same time; this divide into “double consciousness,” to borrow Dr. Du Bois’s enduring term for another kind of damaging otherizing the human animal has perpetrated.
When is it, exactly, the turning point when life could have gone one way or another?
But it might have happened even sooner, had the science of botany and its beguiling art not cast upon our species a new enchantment with the wonder of the living world.
For a little while, only a century or so, beauty seemed to forestall entitlement.
It had all begun with a poem: A century before his grandson forever changed our understanding of how nature evolved, the physician, poet, abolitionist, and scientist-predating-the-coinage-of-scientist Erasmus Darwin published The Botanic Garden — a book-length poem that used scientifically accurate metaphors to scintillate the popular imagination with the new science of sexual reproduction in plants. (“It has always pleased me to exalt plants in the scale of organised beings,” Charles Darwin would write in his autobiography a century before Lucille Clifton named the kinship between organized beings in her stunning poem “cutting greens.”)
Published in 1791, Erasmus Darwin’s wildly popular book was deemed too explicit for unmarried women to read. But they did read it. Many took up botany. Some who were artistically gifted brought their gift to the new science.
In poor health since her earliest years, and with a knee disability, Anne grew up almost entirely indoors. Drawing became how she survived the loneliness of childhood, how she brought nature closer to her.
When a family friend introduced her to botany, a new world of possibility burst open — she devoted herself to studying the science of the living world and perfecting her art.
At thirty-three, she made her tentative debut — no small feat for a woman in Victorian publishing — with a book titled The Field, the Garden, and the Woodland. It was quietly received, but that didn’t matter — she had found her calling, and it fed her, and she fed it back to the world.
She kept going: painting and writing, punctuating the natural history with poetry. Every couple of years, she released a new scrumptiously illustrated book.
People started taking notice, moved by her passionate approach to botany, her keen understanding that a touch of the poetic does not dilute the scientific but deepens it (as we now know), her psychologically insightful and empathetic decision to go against the scowl of the academy and use the English rather than Latin names of plants, demolishing the wall of intimidation erected between lay people — especially women, who had no access to formal education in science — and the study of nature.
By the time she was in her fifties, Anne Pratt had become one of the most beloved botanical illustrators of the Victorian era. Queen Victoria herself privately relished and publicly praised her work.
Having secured financial independence by her own talent and devotion, she never had to marry out of need, as most women of her epoch did. And so she married out of love, at sixty.
The closest Anne Pratt came to naming the personal credo that emanated from her books appeared in her preface to her natural history of the seashore, but it could be said of any of her works:
Could we trace the mental history of our great naturalists, we should find that many who have devoted their lives to the pursuits of science, had at first their attention directed to it, like Linnaeus, by listening to a conversation, or, like Sir Joseph Banks, by musing, in a leisure moment, on the beauty of a flower; and thus the reading of a little volume like this, on common things, may serve to awaken an interest in nature, which shall not sleep again.
Her books were portable awakenings, extending a ravishing invitation to paying attention — that elementary particle of wonder that shimmers in every excellent scientist and every excellent soul.
When the series first appeared, Anna Atkins had already revolutionized scientific illustration with the world’s first science book illustrated with photographs. But photography was yet to alter our way of seeing and our style of looking, yet to change the history of science, the history of art, and the whole of visual culture with. Still a young technology with a shadow already looming over it, it was cumbersome and prohibitively expensive, weighed down by the slow uptake of all novel ideas. Illustration remained the primary art of science, and in botany it was just reaching its peak.
Anne Pratt’s illustrations besotted readers with the beauty of this world and went on to inspire generations of botanists, artists, and ordinary people who hungered for intimacy with nature. By the final year of her century — when she had already returned her atoms to the soil she so cherished, having outlived her era’s life expectancy twofold — her oft-reprinted series was celebrated as “the standard popular work upon British Flora.” Her illustrations continued to be widely beloved — and widely plagiarized — for a century.
Today, with every species she painstakingly painted instantly available in trillions of digital photographs depicting its littlest detail from every imaginable angle, the illustrations might appear to some useless — fossils of a bygone epoch from the evolution of seeing.
But to me, something of the warm human hand that painted them remains in them, something radiating the passionate attention with which this middle-aged Victorian woman brought to millions of people, against all the odds of her time and body, the intimate realities of nature as she saw them with her own bygone eyes.
From across the centuries, these time-yellowed plates whisper their quiet, stubborn insistence that we are Nature, too.
“That’s the ruling story on this planet. We live suspended between love and ego.”
By Maria Popova
“Today our whole earth has become only another shore from which we look out across the dark ocean of space, uncertain what we shall find when we sail out among the stars,” Rachel Carson, dying of cancer, told an orchard of human saplings in the commencement address she delivered in the late spring of 1962 — still the best recipe we have for how to save a world — as she was weathering a savage storm of attacks for having awakened the modern ecological conscience with her Silent Spring.
But somewhere along the way between her epoch and ours, as the world became more and more unsteady, humanity was sold on the expensive dream of living certain rather than bewildered, the dream of choosing — or being chosen for — the islanded certitudes of power over the open horizons of truth. The “dark ocean of space” lost its stardusted luster as we grew more and more unwilling to remain uncertain about the nature of reality and the open-endedness of the future.
While the Golden Record was voyaging into the cosmic expanse encoded with the best of us, the possibility of other worlds began falling out of favor as this one became too much to govern, to bear. We fixated on the here and now not like the lover who makes the beloved the single focal point of passionate devotion, but like the small, anxious step-child: fearful, clinging, uncertain of what love looks like.
But beneath the wetsuit of fear, we remained what we are: passionate primates longing for truth and beauty, forever digging for that “submerged sunrise of wonder.”
Richard Powers addresses this binary pull on our nature in a wonderful autobiographical piece presented at Portland’s Literary Arts, folded into which is a kind of civilizational memoir — the biography of an idea that is corroding what is best of us, and the future history of its shimmering alternative.
Back when I was born, the world had only one moon. But by the time I turned five months old, it had twice as many. That was the year when my species… figured out how to escape gravity and send one of its most impressive artworks into permanent orbit.
It was quite a moment — the first time in four and a half billion years the planet had an entirely new type of object in the sky.
I grew up in a country racing into space. Sputnik made a special impression on my father, who had always dreamed of being a scientist but couldn’t hack the math. My dad believed, from my earliest days, that I would succeed where he had failed. That seemed right to me, too.
At the age of seven, at the attic bedroom of my family’s brick house on the north side of Chicago, I read the classic kids’ book he gave me: You Will Go to the Moon. Of all the wild stories I devoured back then — the one about befriending a wild raccoon, or the one about a bracelet falling inside a donut machine and being baked into the product — You Will Go to the Moon seemed by far the most plausible.
I was my father’s son, and I grew up committed to the new frontier: Easy travel to other planets — it all felt so imminent. Of course I would go to the Moon. We all would — the whole parade of human history pointed to it. My part in that outward journey was inevitable. In the meantime, I prepared myself, standing on the various scales at the Adler Planetarium to see how much I would weigh on Mercury, Jupiter, or Mars.
Space was where we would solve all the problems we never quite managed to square away here on this planet’s surface. My child’s pantheism merged with my father’s endless faith in human progress. By the time I turned nine, nothing was more obvious to me: Strange new worlds were within our reach, humankind would explore them forever, and they would be full of the most astonishing kinds of life.
Powers looks back on his childhood and how his generation was sold on the dream of the year 2000 as a “transformative threshold,” on the other wide of which lay “fusion-powered rockets” and “space colonies mounted in geosynchronous orbits” and contact with alien civilizations.
The math of it crushed him — he would be forty-three then, “too decrepit to go anywhere.” (A touching reminder that across cultures and generations, across the bruising artifice of adult divides, in the eternal sweetness of childhood we find out most indivisible humanity: A generation after Powers, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the nine-year-old me declared to my parents that I wanted my cord pulled at the senile age of thirty. My beloved only aunt, then thirty-nine, reasoned with me to consider disembarking Spaceship Life at forty. I still have a blink of time to weigh the evidence for and against.)
Powers recounts watching the grainy Moon landing on a black-and-white TV in Bangkok, where his father had taken a job — the enchantment of “the two buoyant people in bulky suits and helmets, bobbing around on a dusty plain, making footprints that would last forever,” before the program returned to the I Love Lucy episode dubbed into Thai, depositing him back to the planet he “still half-expected to leave forever someday.”
Looking back on the science fiction wonderland of his teenage years — the peaking art of “planetary romances,” drawing on Melville’s island romances from the previous century, which in turn built on Daniel Dafoe a century before that — Powers writes:
It never occurred to me, even when I moved back to the States at the age of fifteen, that I would die before human beings ever set foot again on any new or further place.
By the time I graduated from high school in 1975, humans had taken dominion over the Earth and subdued every inch of it. Going where no one had gone before was now impossible.
And yet something of the wanderlust which artist Rockwell Kent so poetically captured at the dawn of the century seemed part of what Powers calls “the legacy hardware” of the human brain. He couldn’t shake it. So he pressed it down:
Sometime between starting college as a Physics major and ejecting four and a half years later with a Master’s degree in Literature, I gave up space travel. In the interim, I had signed on to the idea — pretty much universal among my professors and fellow students in literature — that we humans were the only game in town, and there was no use pretending otherwise.
And so he came to scorn as crude or colonialist all stories that placed science above psychology, fact above feeling. “Real” literature, to his malleable and culture-sculpted mind, was the story of the social world. “The self-made mazes of the self.” Solipsism on the scale of the species.
I put away science fiction, along with my other childish things, and I began writing stories of my own — stories that, without my realizing it, had assimilated the prevailing literary idea that human beings would never go anywhere new again; that we were here, in an empty universe, with only ourselves to contemplate.
This was not an entirely unfounded prevailing idea. In that era, even most astronomers had no grounds for believing they would live to see the discovery of another new planet — a time when “anything more than brief, poetic speculation about life beyond Earth was courting professional suicide.”
When the unimaginable happened and NASA’s Kepler mission, spearheaded by my visionary friend Natalie Batalha, discovered Kepler-10b — the first potentially habitable planet outside our solar system — Powers was thirty-five and so devoted to his narrow band of literary fiction that he just about missed the news.
Abashed by this poverty of imagination — as much that of his young self as that of his young species — he writes:
I barely registered the landmark that life on Earth had just passed: A few self-replicating molecules, after four billion years of random walks shaped by nothing more than trial and error, had learned how to measure the infinitesimal dimming of light from trillions of miles away with enough precision to infer the transits of minuscule invisible planets passing in front of their obliterating stars — it was like detecting a fly walking across a streetlight in a distant city.
We did that — we Earthlings.
And then, just like that, a civilizational bloom of bold speculations followed — not merely about the existence of life, but about the wild and wondrous types of life that could exist in the frozen lakes of faraway moons or in the roiling mantles of drifting planets.
But Powers missed that, too — having “graduated from outer space,” he was living in the Absolute Here, occupied by Only Us. It took him years to catch up to reality.
Our best advice to others is often not what we have already proven with our own lives, but what we ourselves most need to hear. Back then, when a young man asked him for his best advice on living, that is precisely what Powers offered:
Never forget what you were born knowing. That this fluke, single, huge, cross-indexed, thermodynamic experiment of a story that the world has been inventing to tell itself at bedtime is still in embryo. It’s not even the outline of a synopsis of notes toward a rough draft yet. Buy the plot some time.
But Powers himself was out of purchasing power. By the time he realized he was at the midpoint of his expected lifetime, he found himself gnawed by the same suspicion many of us face on our darkest days: that humanity had permanently maimed life on Earth, that “there was something inherently wrong with Homo sapiens, that we suffered from congenital defect — a built-in, incurable sadistic impulse toward domination that doomed us to failure along with 98% of Earth’s other experiments that had already gone extinct.”
It took decades to calibrate his despair with the elemental fact beneath the flinch:
Insanity wasn’t in our genes — we humans had gone off the rails because our culture had lost its source of external significance. We were so completely colonized by the belief that all meaning came down to economics and private consumption that it no longer even felt like a belief. We’d forgotten the fact that, in Gaylor Nelson’s great phrase, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, and not the other way around.”
Our willingness to dismantle the greatest imaginable place in the universe for life results from the fact that very few of us live here — We had come to see the planet as a collection of exchangeable commodities reduced to their use value.
At the time of his most acute exasperation with our species, Powers befriended the nine-year-old son of a colleague — a kid whom we would now call “neurodivergent,” a term far beyond the cultural horizon then. One day, midway through a conversation about the boy’s beloved Star Wars, somehow Mars came up — the planet’s fate, how it may have been home to life once but lost all of its water to become an arid red desert.
At first incredulous that such a thing could befall a world, the child paused a moment, then asked Powers whether such a thing could befall Earth.
It took twenty years, an existential breakdown that left him in “a constant state of pointlessness and dread,” a deadly pandemic, and a five-year love affair with the astonishing interconnected universe of old-growth forests until Powers could give the child — and himself, and the child he had once been, and the rest of despairing humanity — the real answer in his exquisite novel Bewilderment (public library).
Set sometime in the near future, when our search for life beyond the Solar System has come to its inevitable fruition, it tells the story of a thirty-nine-year-old astrobiologist and his neurodivergent, frightened, boundlessly courageous nine-year-old son, searching together for other worlds and instead discovering how to reworld ours with meaning.
Radiating from their quest is a luminous invitation to live up to our nature not as creatures consumed by “the black hole of the self,” as Powers so perfectly puts it in his talk, but as living empathy machines and portable cosmoses of possibility, whose planetary story is yet unwritten.
Fittingly, the novel opens with an epigraph from Carson’s The Sense of Wonder — her most personal piece of public writing, which had begun as an essay titled “Help Your Child to Wonder,” inspired by the beloved grandnephew she adopted and raised after his mother’s death:
Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
As the father searches for other worlds, he is savaged by despair at humanity’s catastrophic mismanagement of this one, haunted by the growing sense that we couldn’t possibly be good interplanetary emissaries until we have become good stewards of our own home planet. But each time he hits rock bottom, he bounces back up — as we all do, as we all must in order to go on living — with rekindled faith in what we are capable of. There are echos of Maya Angelou’s spaceborne poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” in his reflection on what we, despite our sacrificial destructions at the altar of the self, have achieved in our longing for those truths much larger and longer lasting than us:
A lineage of slow, weak, naked, awkward creatures… had lasted through several near-extinctions and held on long enough to discover that gravity bent light, everywhere in the universe. For no good reason and at insane expense, we’d built an instrument able to see the tiniest bend in starlight made by this small body, from scores of light-years away… We were… making it up as we went along, then proving it for all the universe to see.
Although the novel is set in the future, I would not call it science fiction, or fantasy, or even speculative fiction — it is merely an inspired, lucid glide along the clear vector of knowledge stretching between our past and our future. Again and again, we have assumed to have reached some limit of truth, some limit of the possible called life. Again and again, we have been wrong. Powers’s astrobiologist names an existential possibility that, by all mathematical probability, will become reality in our lifetimes:
Data flowed back from instruments flying all over the Solar System. The planets were wilder than anyone suspected. Moons of Jupiter and Saturn turned out to be hiding liquid oceans beneath their suspiciously smooth crusts. All the Earthly chauvinisms began to fall. We’d been reasoning from a sample of one. Life might not need surface water. It might not need water at all. It might not even need a surface.
I was living through one of the great revolutions in human thought. A few years before, most astronomers thought they’d never live to see the discovery of even a single planet outside the solar system. By the time I was halfway through graduate school, the eight or nine planets known to exist turned into dozens, then hundreds. At first they were mostly gas giants. Then Kepler was launched, and Earth was flooded with worlds, some not much larger than ours… People were looking at infinitesimal changes in the light of immensely distant stars — reductions in brightness of a few parts per million — and calculating the invisible bodies that dimmed them in transiting. Minuscule wobbles in the motion of massive suns — changes of less than one meter per second in the velocity of a star — were betraying the size and mass of invisible planets tugging on them. The precision of these measurements defied belief. It was like trying to use a ruler to measure a distance a hundred times smaller than the amount the ruler would expand from the heat of your hand.
We did that. We Earthlings.
And yet we also did this — this burning house, this sullied pale blue.
Nine is the age of great turning. Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old, not yet grown up, not a little kid anymore. Seemingly in control, but always on the verge of rage.
They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.
Over and over, Powers reckons with the question of why, given how life began in the first place — “One day two billion years ago, instead of one microbe eating the other, one took the other inside its membrane and they went into business together.” — we, supposed pinnacles of life, most privileged beneficiaries of this immense progression of symbiosis, have managed to turn on the rest of life so ungratefully, to grow so childish in mistaking Mother’s body for a resource and our responsibilities for rights. In one of his protagonist’s moments of shamed optimism, Powers produces the great indictment of our species:
That’s the ruling story on this planet. We live suspended between love and ego.
Answering an audience question at his Literary Artstalk, Powers considers what it would take for us to make our tightrope way across the abyss toward the side of love:
For me, the wild is that condition of interbeing, of presence, that understands how beholden it is to place and everything else in that place. To be “bewildered” is to land back on Earth… to understand that there is no way of talking about us or our stories — where we’d been or where we’re going — without being a part of that interdependent wild community, of putting ourselves into the neighborhood — not as something above it, but just as one of the many, many agents that make place.
Novels, if they are any good, are not things one can write about — only things one can read, or write. Read Bewilderment. It is an excellent novel — one of those rare epochal works, of art and of truth, that both slake the soul of their time and outlive it.
“As a writer, you withdraw and disconnect yourself from the world in order to connect to it in the far-reaching way that is other people elsewhere reading the words that came together in this contemplative state.”
By Maria Popova
This is the great and terrifying truth about the creative life: Anything we make — all this longing for beauty and meaning, all these reckonings and raptures, these most passionate and personal fragments of being — is just a tiny seed compacting everything we are, blown into the wind that is the world.
But in that uncertainty is also our redemption — the thing that sets the artist, that civilizational gardener of eternal ideas, apart from the politician or the entrepreneur or any other harvester of seasonal urgencies.
Writing is a murky business: you are never entirely sure what you are doing or when it will be finished and whether you got it right and how it will be received months or years or decades after you finish. What it does, if it does anything, is a largely imperceptible business that takes place in the minds of people you will mostly never see and never hear from (unless they want to argue with you). As a writer, you withdraw and disconnect yourself from the world in order to connect to it in the far-reaching way that is other people elsewhere reading the words that came together in this contemplative state. What is vivid in the writing is not in how it hits the senses but what it does in the imagination; you can describe a battlefield, a birth, a muddy road, or a smell.
And then, making her contribution to the canon of great writers whose gardening anchored their art, she holds up the counterpoint and vital counterpart to this ethereal uncertainty:
A garden offers the opposite of the disembodied uncertainties of writing. It’s vivid to all the senses, it’s a space of bodily labor, of getting dirty in the best and most literal way, an opportunity to see immediate and unarguable effect… To spend time frequently with these direct experiences is clarifying, a way of stepping out of the whirlpools of words and the confusion they can whip up. In an age of lies and illusions, the garden is one way to ground yourself in the realm of the processes of growth and the passage of time, the rules of physics, meteorology, hydrology, and biology, and the realms of the senses.
And yet this is the paradox of the creative life: The world of ideas needs the world of atoms and forces — to believe otherwise is to dial back the centuries and go on perpetrating that amply confuted Cartesianism of regarding the life of the body as separate from the life of the mind. We are living embodiments of these selfsame forces of physics and biology. Walking hydrologies. Portable worlds with weather systems of biochemistry and feeling. Bodies moving through a world of other bodies in a particular stretch of spacetime.
All of these physical variables and the interactions between them shape our ideas, for they shape the interdependent chance-configuration of variables we experience as a self. We would not have Leaves of Grass or Beloved if Whitman’s and Morrison’s minds had been rooted in different bodies and different spacetimes.
“Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning.”
By Maria Popova
In literature, when a storyline involves victim and a persecutor, we call it a drama. In life, most acts of aggression or complaint (which are two sides of the same coin: the emotional currency of existential malcontentment), most tantrums thrown by otherwise reasonable adults, most blamethirsty fingers pointed at some impartial reality, involve the self-victimization of drama. People prone to drama have not only cast themselves as victims of a perpetrator in a plot, but have tacitly conceded that there is a plot, which presupposes a playwright — some external entity scripting the story in which they feel done unto. The person self-cast into a drama is resigned to being a character, insentient to Joan Didion’s fundamental law of having character: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.” Wherever there is drama, there is a deficiency of self-respect and too shallow a well of self-knowledge.
The ways in which we are all susceptible to drowning ourselves into drama, and what it takes to float free, is what Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) explores in her subtle, splendid 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea (public library) — the story of a talented but complacent playwright approaching the overlook of life, who is ultimately overcome by his tragic flaw: Despite his obsessive self-reflection (or perhaps precisely because of it), his egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit — that brightest and most generous part of us, the part rightly called our gift, the part that extends the outstretched hand of sympathy and wonder we call art and invites, in Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”
Looking back on his life, the elderly playwright reflects on his own art and its relation to life itself:
Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top. In the middle they are acted. This is why all the world is a stage.
Murdoch’s entire body of work, from philosophy to fiction, can be thought of as one cohesive inquiry into the meaning of goodness and the meaning of love, lensed through the meaning-machinery of art. She understood uniquely that we act out the messy middle of emotion because it is often too complex, contradictory, and category-defying for us to know what we are really feeling. Perennially half-opaque to ourselves, we feign surety and confidence in our reasons. Unwilling to fully live into what we are — anxious and uncertain creatures, tender and terrified throughout so much of life — we act ourselves into being, taking the stage costumed in false certitudes.
As Murdoch’s protagonist sets out to write his memoirs — those sad shallows of literature, where art drifts to die as vain self-obsession — his cousin and boyhood playmate, now an old men himself, urges him to allot ample room for the eternal subject of human vanity, which renders us blinder to reality and more opaque to ourselves than any of our other confusions:
We are such inward secret creatures, that inwardness the most amazing thing about us, even more amazing than our reason. But we cannot just walk into the cavern and look around. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge. We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value. The heroes at Troy fought for a phantom Helen… Vain wars for phantom goods… People lie so… though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art.
More than anything, we lie to ourselves. Peeled back far enough, even the most layered self-delusion springs from the same source — our illusion of free will amid a world in which, at the most basic level of reality, we control none of the fundamental forces and therefore have extremely limited agency in events. As the precocious teenage Sylvia Plath understood, our latitude of free movement in life is paralyzingly limited “from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention”. In such a reality, choice is only a narrative, and a retroactive one at that — it is the story we tell ourselves, in the vanity-light of hindsight, about why our lives went one way and not another.
What a queer gamble our existence is. We decide to do A instead of B and then the two roads diverge utterly and may lead in the end to heaven and to hell. Only later one sees how much and how awfully the fates differ. Yet what were the reasons for the choice? They may have been forgotten. Did one know what one was choosing? Certainly not.
A subset of the illusion of choice is the illusion of closure — the alluring but ultimately vain idea that, as life lives itself through us in ways far beyond our control, in a complex and by definition ever-fraying tapestry of story-lines, we can tease out any one narrative thread neatly enough to tie it into a complete and permanently valid conclusion. Murdoch dispels the vanity:
Loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.