The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Henry Beston on Whimsicality, the Limits of Knowledge, and What Science Is and Isn’t

Henry Beston on Whimsicality, the Limits of Knowledge, and What Science Is and Isn’t

“Luckily for art,” the wise and wonderful Grace Paley observed in her advice to writers, “life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious.” A century earlier, Thoreau made a similar case for the value of “useful ignorance.” But few writers have spoken to the vitalizing power of not-knowing as a necessary counterpart to knowledge more captivatingly than Henry Beston (June 1, 1888–April 15, 1968) does in Northern Farm (public library) — his magnificent 1948 manifesto for reclaiming our humanity.

Beston writes:

Among the many things for which I remain profoundly grateful is the fact that so much of life defies human explanation. The unimaginative and the dull may insist that they have an explanation for everything, and level at every wonder and mystery of life their popgun theories, but … their wooden guns have not yet dislodged the smallest star. It is well that this be so, for the human spirit can die of explanations, even if, like many modern formulae, they are but explanations which do not explain.

Art by Leonard Weisgard for a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

Urging us to be grateful that “so much will forever remain out of reach, safe from our inquiry, inviolate forever from our touch,” he adds:

A world without wonder, and a way of mind without wonder, becomes a world without imagination, and without imagination man is a poor and stunted creature. Religion, poetry, and all the arts have their sources in this upwelling of wonder and surprise.

Writing long before the discovery of DNA and the detection of dark matter and the vast majority of twentieth-century breakthroughs, Beston considers what true science is and isn’t as a mode of bridging knowledge and wonder:

The general term “Science” is very much with us these days, and I often find myself wondering if those who use it have much idea of what they mean. What is “Science” and more particularly, “a Science”? As I muse upon my own question, I am certain of one thing, to wit, that a share of our present troubles comes from our being led by the nose by a number of completely bogus sciences. Not all the king’s horses would get me to name them! To my mind, however, the pretensions to being “sciences” now being put forward by certain departments of knowledge have just about as much authority as the pretensions of phrenology or the scrying of tea leaves. It is to be noted, moreover, that the use of the scientific method does not make a study a “science.” My own definition? I stick to the hint given by Descartes — a science is a part of knowledge able at any time to consider its given realm and make with foreknowledge and certainty a prophecy concerning the working of its laws.

Art from Carson McCullers’s little-known vintage children’s book celebrating science

But some of nature’s glory, Beston argues, is bound to always remain beyond the scope of science, for its whimsy is the product not of such foreknowable laws but of wonder-worthy randomness, an unmerited grace of evolutionary caprice.

Bowled over by the sight of fireflies on the farm, he writes:

Over the darkness and within it moved the fireflies. The field to the south was twinkling with their lights, and to the west, between the sleeping farm and the loom of the pines, the tiny, golden-phosphorescent brilliances glowed in the dark, moving in numbers over the gloom that was the field. It was not quite a dance, this pulsation and rhythm that was at once everywhere and nowhere, nor was it on the other hand, mechanical, being so full of mystery and waywardness.


The “firefly” or “lightning bug” is a small beetle, a brownish and inoffensive creature. The light and its flashing are supposed to have something to do with the mating season. This may be so. On the other hand, the light and its flashing may simply be another example of the creative splendor and whimsicality — there is no other word — of the mystery of Nature and the earth.


I return to the word “whimsicality” which I used to describe one of the characteristics of Nature. Without some recognition of that element, we do not correctly weigh our visible world. In the Kingdom of Life, Nature sometimes works with a clear purpose of adaptation, constructing, for instance, those wonderful creatures, the leaf-imitating butterflies, and those living twigs, the “walking sticks.” On the other side of this assumption and evidence of purpose, there exists a whole creation of pure fantasy having no explicable relation whatever between purpose and design. You see birds in the tropics that are living paint-boxes, at once exquisitely beautiful and wildly absurd. When naturalists get too serious, I like to think of this side of Nature, so creative, imaginative, and full of gusto, and of the fantastic creatures which are its jocund gift.

Art from Natural Histories, a collection of rare scientific illustrations from the archive of the American Museum of Natural History

Complement this particular portion of the wholly enchanting Northern Farm with Wendell Berry on the way of ignorance and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then revisit Beston on how the beauty of night nourishes the human spirit.

Published December 14, 2015




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