The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Search results for “sy montgomery”

How to Be a Good Creature: Naturalist Sy Montgomery on What 13 Animals Taught Her About Otherness, Love, and the Heart of Our Humanity

“Our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

How to Be a Good Creature: Naturalist Sy Montgomery on What 13 Animals Taught Her About Otherness, Love, and the Heart of Our Humanity

“To be a good human being,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control” — to have, that is, a willingness to regard with an openhearted curiosity what is other than ourselves and therefore strange, discomfiting, difficult to fathom and relate to, difficult at first to love, for we cannot love what we do not understand. Out of such regard arises the awareness at the heart of Lucille Clifton’s lovely poem “cutting greens” — a recognition of “the bond of live things everywhere,” among which we are only a small part of a vast and miraculous world, and from which we can learn a great deal about being better versions of ourselves.

That is what naturalist and author Sy Montgomery, one of the most poetic science writers of our time, explores in How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (public library), illustrated by artist Rebecca Green — an autobiographical adventure into the wilderness of our common humanity, where the world of science and the legacy of Aesop converge into an existential expedition to uncover the elemental truth that “knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

Looking back on her unusual and passionate life of swimming with electric eels, digging for mistletoe seeds in emu droppings, and communing with giant octopuses, Montgomery reflects on what she learned about leadership from an emu, about ferocity and forgiveness from an ermine, about living with a sense of wholeness despite imperfection from a one-eyed dog named Thurber (after the great New Yorker cartoonist and essayist James Thurber, who was blinded in one eye by an arrow as a child), and about what it takes for the heart to be “stretched wide with awe.”

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

Although Montgomery’s lifelong love of animals began with her childhood Scottish terrier, Molly, it took an uncommon turn in her mid-twenties, when she quit her job and moved halfway around the world to live in a tent in the Australian Outback. There, she had her first encounter with an animal so arresting as to be almost alien:

They were emus. Nearly six feet tall, typically seventy-five pounds, these flightless birds stand beside the kangaroo on Australia’s coat of arms as a symbol of this otherworldly continent at the bottom of the globe. Emus seem part bird and part mammal, with a little dinosaur thrown in. Shaggy, twin-shafted brown feathers hang from the rounded torso like hair. A long black neck periscopes up from the body, ending in a gooselike beak. The wings are mere stumps, and stick out from the body like comical afterthoughts. But on their strong, backwards-bending legs, emus can run forty miles an hour — and sever fencing wire, or break a neck, with a single kick.

At the sight of them, a shock leapt from the top of my head down my spine. I’d never been so close to this large a wild animal before — much less while alone, on a foreign continent. I was not so much afraid as I was dazzled. I froze, caught by their grace and power and strangeness, as they lifted their long, scaly legs and folded their huge dinosaurian toes, then set them down again. Balletically dipping their necks into an S-shape as they picked at the grass, they walked past me, and then over the ridge. Finally their haystack-like bodies blended into the brown, rounded forms of the wintering bushes, and were gone.

After they left, I felt a shift in my psyche. But I had no idea that I had just caught the first glimpse of a life farther off the beaten path than I had ever imagined. I could not have known it then, but these strange giant birds would grant me the destiny Molly had inspired, and they would repay me a millionfold for my first act of true bravery: leaving all that I loved behind.

This psychic shift effected a larger, deeper kind of bravery — that of looking at another creature, almost incomprehensibly different from us, and seeing it, without fear or bias or projection, for what it is: a glory of evolution, made singular and beautiful and lovable by the selfsame forces that made us.

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

This generous and largehearted way of seeing would come to mark Montgomery’s life, modeling for the rest of us how to regard otherness — even the starkest kind — in a way that elevates both us and it. She writes:

Only during my lifetime had scientists begun to acknowledge that chimpanzees, humankind’s closest relatives, are conscious beings. But what about creatures so different from us that you’d have to go to outer space, or into science fiction, to find anything so alien? What might I discover about the interior lives of these animals if I were to use, as a tool of inquiry, not only my intellect, but also my heart?

[…]

It’s true that it’s easy to project one’s own feelings onto another. We do this with our fellow humans all the time… A far worse mistake than misreading an animal’s emotions is to assume the animal hasn’t any emotions at all.

Montgomery brings these questions to New England Aquarium, where she gets to know one of Earth’s most alien creatures — the subject of her exquisite book The Soul of an Octopus. She writes:

Reading an octopus’s intentions is not like reading, for instance, a dog’s. I could read [my dog] Sally’s feelings in a glance, even if the only part of her I could see was her tail, or one ear. But Sally was family, and in more than one sense. Dogs, like all placental mammals, share 90 percent of our genetic material. Dogs evolved with humans. Octavia and I were separated by half a billion years of evolution. We were as different as land from sea. Was it even possible for a human to understand the emotions of a creature as different from us as an octopus?

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

As Octavia slowly allows this improbable and almost miraculous cross-species creaturely connection, Montgomery reflects on the insight attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus — “The universe is alive, and has fire in it, and is full of gods.” — and writes:

Being friends with an octopus — whatever that friendship meant to her — has shown me that our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.

Perhaps holiness is nothing other than the capacity for finding loveliness in all things — something Montgomery learns in the heart of the South American jungle, in a surprising encounter with Earth’s largest tarantula.

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

Weighing half a pound, with a head the size of an apricot and legs that can cover your face, this “Goliath birdeater” named Clarabelle offers an unexpected lesson in tenderness — or, rather, in the openness of heart necessary for perceiving and receiving otherness. Montgomery recounts the revelatory experience:

She extended first one black hairy leg, then another, and another after another, until she was standing on my hand. The hooked tarsi at the tips of her feet felt vaguely prickly on my skin, like those of the Japanese beetles I have enjoyed holding since I was little. She stood for a moment while I admired her. She was a jet-haired beauty who looked like she had just had a fancy pedicure, the ends of her feet tipped in a bright, girly pink. For this reason, her species is known as the pinktoe tarantula. They’re exceptionally docile and seldom bite. Even their hairs are not usually irritating.

She began to walk. Slowly at first, stepping forward with her front legs, she crossed my right palm into my waiting left, just as my first dime-store turtle, Ms. Yellow Eyes, would do when I was a child. The tarantula probably weighed about as much as my turtle had.

And then something magical happened. Holding her in my hand, I could literally feel a connection with this creature. No longer did I see her as a really big spider; now I saw her as a small animal. Of course she was both. “Animals” include not only mammals but also birds and reptiles, amphibians and insects, fish and spiders, and many more. But perhaps because the tarantula was furry, like a chipmunk, and big enough to handle, now I saw her and her spider kin in a new light. She was a unique individual, and in my hand, she was in my care. A wave of tenderness swept over me as I watched her walk, softly, slowly, and deliberately, across my skin.

[…]

The world, I realized, brimmed even fuller with life than I had suspected, rich with the souls of tiny creatures who may love their lives as much as we love ours.

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

Complement How to Be a Good Creature with Helen MacDonald on what a hawk taught her about love and loss and Pattyann Rogers’s splendid ode to tiny creatures, then revisit Rachel Carson’s lyrical and revolutionary 1937 masterpiece, which invited humans for the first time to explore this shared planet from the perspective of nonhuman creatures.

BP

I Feel, Therefore I Am: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on Consciousness and How the Feeling-Tone of the Body Underscores the Symphony of the Mind

“Ultimately, we are puppets of both pain and pleasure, occasionally made free by our creativity.”

I Feel, Therefore I Am: Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on Consciousness and How the Feeling-Tone of the Body Underscores the Symphony of the Mind

“A purely disembodied emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his revolutionary theory of how our bodies affect our feelings just before the birth of neuroscience — a science still young, which has already revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos inside the cranium as much as the first century of telescopic astronomy revolutionized our understanding of our place in the universe.

Meanwhile, ninety miles inland from William James, while Walt Whitman was redoubling his metaphysical insistence that “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern… and is the soul,” Emily Dickinson was writing in one of her science-prescient poems:

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and you — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As sponges — Buckets — do —

Art by Margaret Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

It is the task, the destiny of science to concretize with evidence what the poets have always intuited and imagized in abstraction: that we are infinitely more miraculous and infinitely less important than we thought. The universe without, which made us and every star-dusted atom of our consciousness, is ever-vaster and more complex than we suppose it to be; the universe within, which makes the universe without and renders our entire experience of reality through the telescopic lens of our consciousness, is ever-denser and more complex than we suppose it to be.

A century and a half after James, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio picks up an empirical baton where Dickinson had left a torch of intuition. In his revelatory book Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious (public library), he makes the bold case that consciousness — that ultimate lens of being, which shapes our entire experience of life and makes blue appear blue and gives poems their air of wonder — is not a mental activity confined to the brain but a complex embodied phenomenon governed by the nervous-system activity we call feeling.

Decades after Toni Morrison celebrated the body as the supreme instrument of sanity and self-regard, neuroscience affirms the body as the instrument of feeling that makes the symphony of consciousness possible: feelings, which arise from the dialogue between the body and the nervous system, are not a byproduct of consciousness but made consciousness emerge. (Twenty years earlier — an epoch in the hitherto lifespan of neuroscience — the uncommonly penetrating Martha Nussbaum had anticipated this physiological reality through the lens of philosophy, writing in her superb inquiry into the intelligence of emotions that “emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”)

One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known drawings of the brain.

Damasio’s premise rises from the flatland of earlier mind-based theories by a conceptual fulcrum both simple and profound:

Feelings gave birth to consciousness and gifted it generously to the rest of the mind.

This view defies both extremes that dominate our present models of consciousness, each unimaginative and intellectually unambitious in its own way, as all extremes invariably are: materialism, which confines it to the neural activity of the brain, and mysticism, which places it entirely outside the contours of the body and beyond the reach of scientific investigation. Damasio writes:

Any theory that bypasses the nervous system in order to account for the existence of minds and consciousness is destined to failure. The nervous system is the critical contributor to the realization of minds, consciousness, and the creative reasoning that they allow. But any theory that relies exclusively on the nervous system to account for minds and consciousness is also bound to fail. Unfortunately, that is the case with most theories today. The hopeless attempts to explain consciousness exclusively in terms of nervous activity are partly responsible for the idea that consciousness is an inexplicable mystery. While it is true that consciousness, as we know it, only fully emerges in organisms endowed with nervous systems, it is also true that consciousness requires abundant interactions between the central part of those systems — the brain proper — and varied non-nervous parts of the body.

Drawing on the native poetics of our physiology, Damasio offers a definition of consciousness:

Consciousness… is a particular state of mind resulting from a biological process toward which multiple mental events make a contribution… These contributions converge, in a regimented way, to produce something quite complex and yet perfectly natural: the encompassing mental experience of a living organism caught, moment after moment, in the act of apprehending the world within itself and, wonder of wonders, the world around itself.

One of the doodles Darwin’s kids left all over his manuscript of On the Origin of Species.

A century and a half after Darwin scribbled a note to himself in the margin of one of his manuscripts — “Never say higher or lower in referring to organisms… Say more complicated.” — Damasio details the levels of complexity by which various organisms manage the living wonder of themselves. All life-forms, from bacteria to Bach, share a basic machinery of stimulus-detection called sensing. Organisms with nervous systems are capable of minding — the neurobiological process of mapping information into patterns and translating it into mental images.

These images furnish representations of the world, making it comprehensible and therefore survivable as the organism navigates that world by a sort of native biological intelligence that powers the basic self-care necessary for maintaining homeostasis — maintenance that eventually comes aglow with feeling. More complex organisms can manipulate those images, integrating them into a system of reference we call knowledge, which the nervous system makes explicit by creating patterns and committing them to memory, so that the organism can plan, reason, and reflect.

Ultimately, feeling conspires with minding and knowing to give rise to the system-level phenomenon of consciousness from the infrastructure of the nervous system and the body: Our perceptual senses — sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste — render the external world in mental images; our feelings render the internal world, representing in our own minds the state of our bodies — those roiling inner worlds in which all sense of wellbeing is won or lost. From this sense of ownership of ourselves arises the phenomenon of consciousness — the functions that makes possible the novel responses we call adaptation, or art.

Damasio writes:

Consciousness gathers together the bits of sapience that reveal, by dint of their coincident presence, the mystery of belonging. They tell me — or you — sometimes in the subtle language of feeling, sometimes in ordinary images or even in words translated for the occasion, that yes, lo and behold, it is me — or you — thinking these things, seeing these sights, hearing these sounds, and feeling these feelings. The “me” and “you” are identified by mental components and body components.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme

The most crucial of these bits of sapience manifest as mental images formed by body-mind interactions:

Turn a mind inside out and spill its contents. What do you find? Images and more images, the sorts of images that complicated creatures, such as we are, manage to generate and combine in a forward-flowing stream. This is the very “stream” that immortalized William James and gave fame to the word “consciousness” because the two words were so often paired in the phrase “stream of consciousness.” But… the stream… is simply made of images whose near-seamless flow constitutes a mind.

[…]

When we relate and combine images in our minds and transform them within our creative imaginations, we produce new images that signify ideas, concrete as well as abstract; we produce symbols; and we commit to memory a good part of all the imagetic produce. As we do so, we enlarge the archive from which we will draw plenty of future mental contents.

But it is the feeling coloring these mental images that makes our consciousness what it is — every perceived and stored scene or song, landscape or idea, is already infused with affect in the jar of memory, and that is what makes it shimmer with meaning.

Insisting that “we should celebrate the wealth and the messiness we have been gifted by affect,” Damasio writes:

What you perceive or remember, what you try to figure out by reasoning, what you invent or wish to communicate, the actions you undertake, the things you learn and recall, the mental universe made up by objects, actions, and abstractions thereof, all of these different processes can generate affective responses as they unfold. We can think of affect as the universe of our ideas transmuted in feeling, and it is also helpful to think of feelings in music terms. Feelings perform the equivalent of a musical score that accompanies our thoughts and actions.

[…]

Feelings are commingled with the things and events we feel thanks to the exceptional and intimate cross talk between body structures and nervous system.

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

Mapping the four-billion-year history of living organisms along its branching streams, Damasio envisions the distributary that led to us as a cascade of three evolutionary stages: being, feeling, and knowing, which continue to coexist in each of us modern sapiens, coursing through the various anatomical and functional systems that give us life. No invention of nature, Damasio argues, powered a greater leap than the emergence of nervous systems, which made minds possible — but their inception, like so many great inventions, was an unbidden byproduct of solving pressing necessities:

Complex, multicellular organisms with differentiated systems — endocrine, respiratory, digestive, immune, reproductive — were saved by nervous systems, and organisms with nervous systems came to be saved by the things nervous systems invented — mental images, feelings, consciousness, creativity, cultures.

Nervous systems are splendid “afterthoughts” of a non-minded, non-thinking, but pioneeringly prescient nature.

These astonishing afterthoughts of evolution became the stage on which the theater of consciousness plays out. Damasio explains:

Nervous systems enable both complex movements and, eventually, the beginning of a real novelty: minds. Feelings are among the first examples of mind phenomena, and it is difficult to exaggerate their significance. Feelings allow creatures to represent in their respective minds the state of their own bodies preoccupied with regulating the internal organ functions required by the necessities of life… Feelings provide organisms with experiences of their own life.

He considers how this transformative afterthought might have evolved and how it gave us the capacity for feeling that forever changed the course of life on Earth:

Feeling probably began its evolutionary history as a timid conversation between the chemistry of life and the early version of a nervous system within one particular organism… Those timid beginnings provided each creature with an orientation, a subtle adviser as to what to do next or not to do or where to go. Something novel and extremely valuable had emerged in the history of life: a mental counterpart to a physical organism.

[…]

Feelings… provide the urge and the incentive to behave according to the information they carry and do what is most appropriate for the current situation, be it running for cover or hugging the person you have missed.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If…? by Thierry Lenain

Through this essential feedback loop of feeling, we are able to assess how we are doing at the basic task of living — not only at the binary state of whether or not we are staying alive, but on the qualitative scale of how well our actual experience maps onto our optimal experience. Pleasure and pain, love and longing — these are all varieties of conscious experience that allow us to fine-tune our flourishing. They all arise when stimuli trigger molecular messages that travel from body tissues and organs, through nerve terminals, into the central nervous system and the brain, producing mental images that give us valuable information we experience as emotional states, which serve to steer us toward corrective action.

This might seem mechanistic and unpoetic, but out of this biological feedback loop arises our capacity for problem-solving and poetry, for beauty and transcendence, for everything we call creativity. In consonance with the consolation Lou Andreas-Salomé offered to her dispirited poet-friend Rainer Maria Rilke — “A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs.” — Damasio observes:

The human experience of pain and suffering has been responsible for extraordinary creativity, focused and obsessive, responsible for inventing all kinds of instruments capable of countering the negative feelings that initiated the creative cycle.

[…]

Ultimately, we are puppets of both pain and pleasure, occasionally made free by our creativity.

This feedback loop of feeling is unavailable to organisms in the less developed being stage of evolution, and yet out entire sense of being — the meta-awareness we experience as a self — is contingent upon it. Damasio writes:

Not surprisingly, feelings are important contributors to the creation of a “self,” a mental process animated by the state of the organism, and are anchored in its body frame (the frame constituted by muscular and skeletal structures), and oriented by the perspective provided by sensory channels such as vision and hearing.

Once being and feeling are structured and operational, they are ready to support and extend the sapience that constitutes the third member of the trio: knowing.

Feeling provides us with knowledge of life in the body and, without missing a beat, makes that knowledge conscious… The maps and images created on the basis of sensory information become the most abundant and diverse constituents of mind, side by side with ever present and related feelings. More often than not, they dominate the mental proceedings.

[…]

Once experiences begin to be committed to memory, feeling and conscious organisms are capable of maintaining a more or less exhaustive history of their lives, a history of their interactions with others and of their interaction with the environment, in brief, a history of each individual life as lived inside each individual organism, nothing less than the armature of personhood.

Illustration by Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by Lillian Lieber

This understanding defeats a popular dictum of the self-help world — the comfort-blanket belief that one cannot cause another person’s feelings or be caused to feel a certain way by another person’s actions. No: One person can very much make choices and take actions toward another that impact and impair the other person’s homeostasis — that is, the organism’s sense of stability and safety — thus producing in that other person the negative feelings that are the organism’s feedback loop to protect homeostasis: pain, our primary signal for course-correction.

This is where our physiology and psychology converge. Offering neuoroscientific affirmation of Hannah Arendt’s searing philosophical-political indictment that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Damasio writes:

We are quite familiar with the direct way in which illness gives way to discomfort and pain or exuberant health produces pleasure. But we often overlook the fact that psychological and sociocultural situations also gain access to the machinery of homeostasis in such a way that they too result in pain or pleasure, malaise or well-being. In its unerring push for economy, nature did not bother to create new devices to handle the goodness or badness of our personal psychology or social condition. It makes do with the same mechanisms.

This is so because feelings are not purely mental phenomena but delicate interleavings of body and mind — the serpent of consciousness biting its own tail:

The power of feelings comes from the fact that they are present in the conscious mind: technically speaking, we feel because the mind is conscious, and we are conscious because there are feelings… Feelings were and are the beginning of an adventure called consciousness.

Art by indigenous Gond artist Bhajju Shyam from Creation by Thierry Lenain

In the land of language, however, the adventure has been burdened by a great deal of cultural baggage, loaded with misconceptions and misuses. Consciousness is a young English word, not yet born when Milton wrote that “the mind is its own place, and in it self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Today, particularly in panpsychic theory, it is often used interchangeably with mind, which plunders it of the essential role of feeling. Damasio points out that even in the older Romance languages, which include his native Portuguese, one must settle for the word conscience, already blunted by its multiple meanings. My native Bulgarian might come closest to Damasio’s model — the most literal translation of our word for consciousness is self-knowledge.

This, indeed, is the crux of Damasio’s case for feeling — feelings are how we know that our experience is our own, that the bodies through which experience courses are our own, that the perspective through which images flicker on the screen of the mind is our own. I am reminded here of something I once heard Gloria Steinem say, in the midst of a twenty-first century cultural dark age for conscience: “The place where we need to go is where our bodies… are our own. This is the basis of democracy.”

With an eye to this essential parameter of ownership — the great revelation made possible by feeling — Damasio writes:

Feelings let the mind know, automatically, without any questions being asked, that mind and body are together, each belonging to the other. The classic void that has separated physical bodies from mental phenomena is naturally bridged thanks to feelings… Self-reference is not an optional feature of feeling but a defining, indispensable one.

[…]

What does it mean to say “I am conscious”? At the simplest level imaginable, it means to say that my mind, at the particular moment in which I describe myself as conscious, is in possession of knowledge that spontaneously identifies me as its proprietor… Some knowledge about the current operations of my body [and] some knowledge as retrieved from memory, about who I am at the moment and about who I have been, recently and in the long ago past… [produce] mental states imbued with feeling and a sense of personal reference.

At the heart of this idea is the loosening of the brain’s stronghold of consciousness and its diffusion through the entirety of the living organism — a reconfiguration that, as Damasio puts it, “requires the placement of that mind in the setting of its body.”

Katharina Fritsch: Display Stand with Brains, 1989. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2009. Photograph: Maria Popova.)

This embodied model of consciousness looms with some profound consequences.

One, which Damasio does not address directly — perhaps because it is self-evident, or perhaps because he prefers not to ruffle the feelings (that is, the consciousnesses) of those who take flight from evidence in such beliefs — is a bold debunking of certain escapist fantasies from our creaturely reality: both the fantasies haunted by our parochial past and its various religious mythologies of an immortal soul that survives the death of the body (“soul” being the conceptual placeholder for consciousness before the word was coined), and the fantasies haunting the techno-utopian future with Silicon dreams of machine consciousness and technology-assisted ways of preserving human consciousness beyond the lifespan of the body by digitizing and migrating the contents of the brain alone.

Another, which Damasio does touch on at the end of the book, is a humbling antidote to the dual hubris with which humanity regards itself and other life-forms: the hubris of human exceptionalism across species, which presumes that our superior cognitive capacity relative to other animals automatically means superior consciousness (a hubris readily deconditioned by what we have been learning, for instance, about the complex consciousness of the far more modest-brained octopus), and the within-species hubris that treats individuals with higher cognitive capacity measured by our deeply flawed IQ metrics as superior to those with other, less computationally driven and computable forms of intelligence and sensitivity.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures. (Available as a print, a face mask, and stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

And this is the optimistic undertone I hear in Damasio’s model: By understanding as a full-body phenomenon the consciousness that lenses our view of reality and shapes our life-experience, we can not only become better stewards of our own bodies and of the planet we share with other bodies, human and nonhuman, but we can begin to dismantle the artificial hierarchies and categories by which we have long bolstered our creaturely centrality across the various scales and spectra of existence, from Ptolemism to anthropocentrism to racism, choosing instead to be both humbled and hallowed by the evolutionary wonder of consciousness.

In the remainder of Feeling & Knowing, Damasio goes on to detail the three universes of experience from which our mental images spring, how our chemistry and our skeletal frame converge to produce our sense of belonging to ourselves, the role of affect in how we allocate attention, and much more, including how the discoveries of science in the epochs since Emily Dickinson penciled her far-seeing verse have clarified her core insight:

Dickinson was candidly committed to an organic view of mind and to a modern conception of the human spirit. And yet, in the end, what turned out to be wider than the sky was not the brain but life itself, the begetter of bodies, brains, minds, feelings, and consciousness. What is more impressive than the entire universe is life, as matter and process, life as inspirer of thinking and creation.

BP

How to Change Your Mind: Michael Pollan on How the Science of Psychedelics Illuminates Consciousness, Mortality, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

“The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think.”

How to Change Your Mind: Michael Pollan on How the Science of Psychedelics Illuminates Consciousness, Mortality, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that,” cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz wrote in her inquiry into how our conditioned way of looking narrows the lens of our perception. Attention, after all, is the handmaiden of consciousness, and consciousness the central fact and the central mystery of our creaturely experience. From the days of Plato’s cave to the birth of neuroscience, we have endeavored to fathom its nature. But it is a mystery that only seems to deepen with each increment of approach. “Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark 1902 treatise on spirituality, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

Half a century after James, two new molecules punctured the filmy screen to unlatch a portal to a wholly novel universe of consciousness, shaking up our most elemental assumptions about the nature of the mind, our orientation toward mortality, and the foundations of our social, political, and cultural constructs. One of these molecules — lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD — was a triumph of twentieth-century science, somewhat accidentally synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the year physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. The other — the compound psilocin, known among the Aztecs as “flesh of the gods” — was the rediscovery of a substance produced by a humble brown mushroom, which indigenous cultures across eras and civilizations had been incorporating into their spiritual rituals since ancient times, and which the Roman Catholic Church had violently suppressed and buried during the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Together, these two molecules commenced the psychedelic revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, frothing the stream of consciousness — a term James coined — into a turbulent existential rapids. Their proselytes included artists, scientists, political leaders, and ordinary people of all stripes. Their most ardent champions were the psychiatrists and physicians who lauded them as miracle drugs for salving psychic maladies as wide-ranging as anxiety, addiction, and clinical depression. Their cultural consequence was likened to that of the era’s other cataclysmic disruptor: the atomic bomb.

And then — much thanks to Timothy Leary’s reckless handling of his Harvard psilocybin studies that landed him in prison, where Carl Sagan sent him cosmic poetry — a landslide of moral panic and political backlash outlawed psychedelics, shut down clinical studies of their medical and psychiatric uses, and drove them into the underground. For decades, academic research into their potential for human flourishing languished and nearly perished. But a small subset of scientists, psychiatrists, and amateur explorers refused to relinquish their curiosity about that potential.

The 1990s brought a quiet groundswell of second-wave interest in psychedelics — a resurgence that culminated with a 2006 paper reporting on studies at Johns Hopkins, which had found that psilocybin had occasioned “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and significance” for terminally ill cancer patients — experiences from which they “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” In other words, the humble mushroom compound had helped people face the ultimate frontier of existence — their own mortality — with unparalleled equanimity. The basis of the experience, researchers found, was a sense of the dissolution of the personal ego, followed by a sense of becoming one with the universe — a notion strikingly similar to Bertrand Russell’s insistence that a fulfilling life and a rewarding old age are a matter of “[making] your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”

More clinical experiments followed at UCLA, NYU, and other leading universities, demonstrating that this psilocybin-induced dissolution of the ego, extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve in our ordinary consciousness, has profound benefits in rewiring the faulty mental mechanisms responsible for disorders like alcoholism, anxiety, and depression.

Art by Bobby Baker from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me

This renaissance of psychedelics, with its broad implications for understanding consciousness and the connection between brain and mind, treating mental illness, and recalibrating our relationship with the finitude of our existence, is what Michael Pollan explores in the revelatory How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (public library). With an eye to this renaissance and the scientists using brain-imaging technology to investigate how psychedelics may illuminate consciousness, Pollan writes:

One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical experience. While this is happening, imaging tools can observe the changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the “neural correlates” of the sense of self and spiritual experience.

Pollan reflects on the psilocybin studies of cancer patients, which reignited scientific interest in psychedelics, and the profound results of subsequent studies exploring the use of psychedelics in treating mental illness, including addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder:

What was most remarkable about the results… is that participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable “to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.” Two-thirds of the participants rated the session among the top five “most spiritually significant experiences” of their lives; one-third ranked it the most significant such experience in their lives. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly. The volunteers reported significant improvements in their “personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behavior change,” changes that were confirmed by their family members and friends.

[…]

What is striking about this whole line of clinical research is the premise that it is not the pharmacological effect of the drug itself but the kind of mental experience it occasions — involving the temporary dissolution of one’s ego — that may be the key to changing one’s mind.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

Pollan approaches his subject as a science writer and a skeptic endowed with equal parts rigorous critical thinking and openminded curiosity. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s elegant braiding of the numinous and the scientific, he echoes Carl Sagan’s views on the mystery of reality and examines his own lens:

My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens. I start from the assumption that nature is all that there is and gravitate toward scientific explanations of phenomena. That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific-materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive.

Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience — something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper — could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?

The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room — the room of your own mind — that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking — of being! — lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious? I might not have been looking to change my life, but the idea of learning something new about it, and of shining a fresh light on this old world, began to occupy my thoughts. Maybe there was something missing from my life, something I just hadn’t named.

Art by Maurice Sendak from Kenny’s Window — his forgotten first children’s book.

The root of this unnamed dimension of existence, Pollan suggests, is the inevitable narrowing of perspective that takes place as we grow up and learn to navigate the world by cataloguing its elements into mental categories that often fail to hold the complexity and richness of the experiences they name — an impulse born out of our longing for absolutes in a relative world. Psychedelics break down these artificial categories and swing open the doors of perception — to borrow William Blake’s famous phrase later famously appropriated by Aldous Huxley as the slogan of the first-wave psychedelic revolution — so that life can enter our consciousness in its unfiltered, unfragmented completeness. In consequence, we view the world — the inner world and the outer world — with a child’s eyes.

Pollan writes:

Over time, we tend to optimize and conventionalize our responses to whatever life brings. Each of us develops our shorthand ways of slotting and processing everyday experiences and solving problems, and while this is no doubt adaptive — it helps us get the job done with a minimum of fuss — eventually it becomes rote. It dulls us. The muscles of attention atrophy.

A century after William James examined how habit gives shape and structure to our lives, Pollan considers the other edge of the sword — how habit can constrict us in a prison of excessive structure, blinding us to the full view of reality:

Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation. Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner. (That is, from freedom rather than compulsion.)

[…]

The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment. We’re constantly jumping ahead to the next thing. We approach experience much as an artificial intelligence (AI) program does, with our brains continually translating the data of the present into the terms of the past, reaching back in time for the relevant experience, and then using that to make its best guess as to how to predict and navigate the future.

One of the things that commends travel, art, nature, work, and certain drugs to us is the way these experiences, at their best, block every mental path forward and back, immersing us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful — wonder being the by-product of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself. (It’s so inefficient!) Alas, most of the time I inhabit a near-future tense, my psychic thermostat set to a low simmer of anticipation and, too often, worry. The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.

Psychedelics, Pollan argues, eject us from our habitual consciousness to invite a pure experience of reality that calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s notion of “active surrender” and Emerson’s exultation in “the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.” Pollan arrives at this conclusion not only by surveying the history of and research on psychedelics, but by conducting a series of carefully monitored experiments on himself — he travels the world to meet with mycologists, shamans, and trained facilitators, and to experience first-hand the most potent psychedelics nature and the chemistry lab have produced, from the psilocybin mushroom to LSD to the smoked venom of a desert toad.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Together with his wife, Judith, he ingests a psilocybin mushroom he himself has picked from the woods of the Pacific Northwest with the mycologist Paul Stamets, author of the foundational guide to psilocybin mushrooms. Pollan reflects on the perplexity of the experience:

In a certain light at certain moments, I feel as though I had had some kind of spiritual experience. I had felt the personhood of other beings in a way I hadn’t before; whatever it is that keeps us from feeling our full implication in nature had been temporarily in abeyance. There had also been, I felt, an opening of the heart, toward my parents, yes, and toward Judith, but also, weirdly, toward some of the plants and trees and birds and even the damn bugs on our property. Some of this openness has persisted. I think back on it now as an experience of wonder and immanence.

The fact that this transformation of my familiar world into something I can only describe as numinous was occasioned by the eating of a little brown mushroom that Stamets and I had found growing on the edge of a parking lot in a state park on the Pacific coast — well, that fact can be viewed in one of two ways: either as an additional wonder or as support for a more prosaic and materialist interpretation of what happened to me that August afternoon. According to one interpretation, I had had “a drug experience,” plain and simple. It was a kind of waking dream, interesting and pleasurable but signifying nothing. The psilocin in that mushroom unlocked the 5-hydroxytryptamine 2-A receptors in my brain, causing them to fire wildly and set off a cascade of disordered mental events that, among other things, permitted some thoughts and feelings, presumably from my subconscious (and, perhaps, my reading too), to get cross-wired with my visual cortex as it was processing images of the trees and plants and insects in my field of vision.

Not quite a hallucination, “projection” is probably the psychological term for this phenomenon: when we mix our emotions with certain objects that then reflect those feelings back to us so that they appear to glisten with meaning. T. S. Eliot called these things and situations the “objective correlatives” of human emotion.

Pollan finds in the experience an affirmation of James’s notion that we possess different modes of consciousness separated from our standard waking consciousness by a thin and permeable membrane. The psychedelic puncturing of that membrane, he suggests, is what people across the ages have considered “mystical experiences.” But they are purely biochemical, devoid of the divine visitations ascribed to them:

I’m struck by the fact there was nothing supernatural about my heightened perceptions that afternoon, nothing that I needed an idea of magic or a divinity to explain. No, all it took was another perceptual slant on the same old reality, a lens or mode of consciousness that invented nothing but merely (merely!) italicized the prose of ordinary experience, disclosing the wonder that is always there in a garden or wood, hidden in plain sight… Nature does in fact teem with subjectivities — call them spirits if you like — other than our own; it is only the human ego, with its imagined monopoly on subjectivity, that keeps us from recognizing them all, our kith and kin.

[…]

Before this afternoon, I had always assumed access to a spiritual dimension hinged on one’s acceptance of the supernatural — of God, of a Beyond — but now I’m not so sure. The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think.

After another psychedelic journey on the drug LSD, which left him with “a cascading dam break of love” for everyone from his wife to his grandmother to his awkward childhood music teacher, Pollan reflects on some of the things he had said during the experience, recorded by his guide, and the limitations of language in conveying the depth and dimension of the feelings stirred in him. A century after William James listed ineffability as the first of the four features of transcendent experiences, Pollan writes:

It embarrasses me to write these words; they sound so thin, so banal. This is a failure of my language, no doubt, but perhaps it is not only that. Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.

Love is everything.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

Psychedelics, Pollan’s experience suggests, can be a potent antidote to our conditioned cynicism — that habitual narrowing and hardening of the soul, to which we resort as a maladaptive coping mechanism amid the chaos and uncertainty of life, a kind of defensive cowardice reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt’s indictment that “the poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer.” Half a century after psychedelics evangelist Aldous Huxley confronted our fear of the obvious with the assertion that “all great truths are obvious truths,” Pollan writes:

Psychedelics can make even the most cynical of us into fervent evangelists of the obvious… For what after all is the sense of banality, or the ironic perspective, if not two of the sturdier defenses the adult ego deploys to keep from being overwhelmed — by our emotions, certainly, but perhaps also by our senses, which are liable at any time to astonish us with news of the sheer wonder of the world. If we are ever to get through the day, we need to put most of what we perceive into boxes neatly labeled “Known,” to be quickly shelved with little thought to the marvels therein, and “Novel,” to which, understandably, we pay more attention, at least until it isn’t that anymore. A psychedelic is liable to take all the boxes off the shelf, open and remove even the most familiar items, turning them over and imaginatively scrubbing them until they shine once again with the light of first sight. Is this reclassification of the familiar a waste of time? If it is, then so is a lot of art. It seems to me there is great value in such renovation, the more so as we grow older and come to think we’ve seen and felt it all before.

Pollan’s reflections bear undertones of the concept of complementarity in quantum physics. But perhaps more than anything, in widening the lens of his attention to include all beings and the whole of the universe, his psychedelic experience calls to mind philosopher Simone Weil. After what she considered a point of contact with the divine — a mystical experience she had while reciting George Herbert’s poem Love III — Weil wrote that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer, [for] it presupposes faith and love.”

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

In a passage that calls to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stunning description of the transcendent state between wakefulness and sleep, Pollan writes:

Because the acid had not completely dissolved my ego, I never completely lost the ability to redirect the stream of my consciousness or the awareness it was in fact mine. But the stream itself felt distinctly different, less subject to will or outside interference. It reminded me of the pleasantly bizarre mental space that sometimes opens up at night in bed when we’re poised between the states of being awake and falling asleep—so-called hypnagogic consciousness. The ego seems to sign off a few moments before the rest of the mind does, leaving the field of consciousness unsupervised and vulnerable to gentle eruptions of imagery and hallucinatory snatches of narrative. Imagine that state extended indefinitely, yet with some ability to direct your attention to this or that, as if in an especially vivid and absorbing daydream. Unlike a daydream, however, you are fully present to the contents of whatever narrative is unfolding, completely inside it and beyond the reach of distraction. I had little choice but to obey the daydream’s logic, its ontological and epistemological rules, until, either by force of will or by the fresh notes of a new song, the mental channel would change and I would find myself somewhere else entirely.

Echoing Hannah Arendt’s distinction between thought and cognition, in which she asserted that “thought is related to feeling and transforms its mute and inarticulate despondency,” Pollan adds:

For me it felt less like a drug experience… than a novel mode of cognition, falling somewhere between intellection and feeling.

[…]

Temporarily freed from the tyranny of the ego, with its maddeningly reflexive reactions and its pinched conception of one’s self-interest, we get to experience an extreme version of Keats’s “negative capability” — the ability to exist amid doubts and mysteries without reflexively reaching for certainty. To cultivate this mode of consciousness, with its exceptional degree of selflessness (literally!), requires us to transcend our subjectivity or — it comes to the same thing — widen its circle so far that it takes in, besides ourselves, other people and, beyond that, all of nature. Now I understood how a psychedelic could help us to make precisely that move, from the first-person singular to the plural and beyond. Under its influence, a sense of our interconnectedness — that platitude — is felt, becomes flesh. Though this perspective is not something a chemical can sustain for more than a few hours, those hours can give us an opportunity to see how it might go. And perhaps to practice being there.

Looking back on his theoretical and empirical investigation — his research on the ancient history and modern science of psychedelics; his interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, mycologists, hospice patients, and ordinary psychonauts; his own experience with a variety of these substances and his sometimes meticulous, sometimes messy field notes on the interiority of his mind under their influence — Pollan writes:

The journeys have shown me what the Buddhists try to tell us but I have never really understood: that there is much more to consciousness than the ego, as we would see if it would just shut up. And that its dissolution (or transcendence) is nothing to fear; in fact, it is a prerequisite for making any spiritual progress. But the ego, that inner neurotic who insists on running the mental show, is wily and doesn’t relinquish its power without a struggle. Deeming itself indispensable, it will battle against its diminishment, whether in advance or in the middle of the journey. I suspect that’s exactly what mine was up to all through the sleepless nights that preceded each of my trips, striving to convince me that I was risking everything, when really all I was putting at risk was its sovereignty… That stingy, vigilant security guard admits only the narrowest bandwidth of reality… It’s really good at performing all those activities that natural selection values: getting ahead, getting liked and loved, getting fed, getting laid. Keeping us on task, it is a ferocious editor of anything that might distract us from the work at hand, whether that means regulating our access to memories and strong emotions from within or news of the world without.

What of the world it does admit it tends to objectify, for the ego wants to reserve the gifts of subjectivity to itself. That’s why it fails to see that there is a whole world of souls and spirits out there, by which I simply mean subjectivities other than our own. It was only when the voice of my ego was quieted by psilocybin that I was able to sense that the plants in my garden had a spirit too.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

It is a notion evocative of Ursula K. Le Guin’s conception of poetry as a means to “subjectifying the universe” — a counterpoint to the way science objectifies it. “Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates,” Le Guin wrote. Perhaps psychedelics, then, are a portal to the poetic truth that resides beyond scientific fact — the kind of transcendence Rachel Carson found in beholding the marvels of bioluminescence, “one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” Such a feeling radiates beyond the walls of the ego-bound self and into a deep sense of belonging to the whole of nature, part and particle of the universe.

Pollan writes:

The usual antonym for the word “spiritual” is “material.” That at least is what I believed when I began this inquiry — that the whole issue with spirituality turned on a question of metaphysics. Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for “spiritual” might be “egotistical.” Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn’t reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic — that is, more spiritual — idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.

[…]

One of the gifts of psychedelics is the way they reanimate the world, as if they were distributing the blessings of consciousness more widely and evenly over the landscape, in the process breaking the human monopoly on subjectivity that we moderns take as a given. To us, we are the world’s only conscious subjects, with the rest of creation made up of objects; to the more egotistical among us, even other people count as objects. Psychedelic consciousness overturns that view, by granting us a wider, more generous lens through which we can glimpse the subject-hood — the spirit! — of everything, animal, vegetable, even mineral, all of it now somehow returning our gaze. Spirits, it seems, are everywhere. New rays of relation appear between us and all the world’s Others.

In the remainder of the immensely fascinating How to Change Your Mind, Pollan goes on to explore the neuroscience of what actually happens in the brain during a psychedelic experience, how such a temporary rewiring of the cognitive apparatus can translate into enduring psychological change and precipitate profound personal growth, and why this breaking down of “the usually firm handshake between brain and world” may be particularly palliative to those perched on the precipice of mortality. Complement it with Albert Camus on consciousness and the lacuna between truth and meaning, then revisit William James’s trailblazing treatise on the limits of materialism.

BP

Highlights in Hindsight: Favorite Books of the Past Year

Trees, hummingbirds, snails, Stoicism, storytelling, Orwell’s roses, the crucible of consciousness, the end of the universe, and more trees.

I used to assemble annual reading lists of favorite books published each year — never an objective claim of bests, always a subjective inner library catalogue of my readings and rivets. But over the years, as I grew more and more interested in the river of thought and time that has carved out the island of now, I found myself spending more and more time in archives, perusing increasingly older books, reading fewer and fewer of the new — partly because such are my subjective passions (of which The Marginalian has always been a record and reflection), and partly because our present culture seems to treat books as little more than printed “content” (that vacuous term by which we refer to cultural material and thought-matter online), self-referential and preying on the marketable urgencies of the present. With each passing year, more and more books seem to be written and sold as commodities than composed as torches of thought and feeling for our own epoch, but also for epochs to come.

It is a mercy that there are always those who refuse to conform and go on writing books to irradiate with undiminished light the hallway of time stretching between us and future readers. It is a gift of chance that some of these radiances made their way to my small library. Here are some such books published in the past year that I did read and love, enveloped in the context of why.

PROBABLE IMPOSSIBILITIES

“What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller, who lived to nearly 100, wrote in her gorgeous poem “Immortality” a century and a half after a young artist pointed the world’s largest telescope at the cosmos to capture the first surviving photograph of the Moon and the first-ever photograph of a star: Vega — an emissary of spacetime, reaching its rays across twenty-five lightyears to imprint the photographic plate with a image of the star as it had been twenty-five years earlier, immortalizing a moment already long gone.

And yet in a cosmological sense, what exists is precious not because it will one day be lost but because it has overcome the staggering odds of never having existed at all: Within the fraction of matter in the universe that is not dark matter, a fraction of atoms cohered into the elements necessary to form the complex structures necessary for life, of which a tiny portion cohered into the seething cauldron of complexity we call consciousness — the tiny, improbable fraction of a fraction of a fraction with which we have the perishable privilege of contemplating the universe in our poetry and our physics.

In Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (public library), the poetic physicist Alan Lightman sieves four centuries of scientific breakthroughs, from Kepler’s revolutionary laws of planetary motion to the thousands of habitable exoplanets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission, to estimate that even with habitable planets orbiting one tenth of all stars, the faction of living matter in the universe is about one-billionth of one-billionth: If all the matter in the universe were the Gobi desert, life would be but a single grain of sand.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince

Along the way, Lightman draws delicate lines of figuring from Hindu cosmology to quantum gravity, from Pascal to inflation theory, from Lucretius to Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble — lines contouring the most elemental questions that have always animated humanity, questions that are themselves the answer to what it means to be human.

Read more here.

ORWELL’S ROSES

There can be no wakeful and wholehearted devotion to standing for anything of substance — justice or peace or the myriad subtle ways we have of protecting all that is alive and therefore fragile — without wide-eyed, wonder-smitten wakefulness to every littlest manifestation of beauty and aliveness. “Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world,” the young Egon Schiele exhorted in a letter after being arrested for his radical art, hurtling toward an untimely death by the Spanish flu that would take the life of his young pregnant wife three days before taking his.

There can be no reverence for the timeless without tenderness for each moment beading the rosary of our mortal lives, and there is no place where we contact this more clearly than in our encounters with nature, be it in the majesty of a solar eclipse or in the miniature of a flowerpot. “The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end,” the filmmaker and activist Derek Jarman wrote shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death as he began growing through grief amid the beauty of flowers. “Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.”

Suspended in time between Schiele and Jarman, ablaze with determination to counter the forces about to unworld the world with its deadliest war, George Orwell (June 15, 1903–January 21, 1950) devoted himself to a small, radical act of reverence for beauty.

georgeorwell
George Orwell

In the spring of 1936 — while waiting for his beloved to arrive from London for their wedding, contemplating enlisting in the Spanish Civil War, and germinating the ideas that would bloom into Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four — Orwell planted some roses in the garden of the small sixteenth-century cottage that his suffragist, socialist, bohemian aunt had secured for him in the village of Wallington.

This poetic gesture with political roots inspirits the uncommonly wonderful Orwell’s Roses (public library). Like any Rebecca Solnit book, this too is a landmass of layered aboutness beneath the surface story — a book stratified with art and politics, beauty and ecology, mortality and what gives our lives meaning.

She writes:

If war has an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks, and gardens.

Orwell’s cottage in Wallington.

Three and a half years after he planted them, after thirteen seasons of tending to them, Orwell’s roses bloomed for the first time. World War II had just begun and Ernest Everett Just had just discovered the cellular mechanism by which life begins. It was the year Dylan Thomas wrote his cosmic serenade to trees and what it means to be human and May Sarton penned her exquisite case for the artist’s duty to contact the timeless in tumultuous times, the year the World’s Fair immortalized Einstein’s heavy honey-toned German-Jewish accent in a time-capsule recording, beckoning posterity — that is, us — to defy the mass mentality that leads to war, to mindless consumerism, to the commodification of life itself.

In such a world, a rose is a requiem is a revolution.

Read more here.

ANALOGIA

Long ago, in the ancient bosom of the human animal stirred a quickening of thought and tenderness at the sheer beauty of the world — a yearning to fathom the forces and phenomena behind the enchantments of birdsong and bloom, the rhythmic lapping of the waves, the cottony euphoria of clouds, the swirling patterns of the stars. When we made language to tell each other of the wonder of the world, we called that quickening science.

But our love of beauty grew edged with a lust for power that sent our science on what Bertrand Russell perceptively rued as its “passage from contemplation to manipulation.” The road forked between knowledge as a technology of control and knowledge as a technology of acceptance, of cherishing and understanding reality on its own terms and decoding those terms so that they can be met rather than manipulated.

We went on making equations and theories and bombs in an attempt to control life; we went on making poems and paintings and songs in an attempt to live with the fact that we cannot. Suspended between these poles of sensemaking, we built machines as sculptures of the possible and fed them our wishes encoded in commands, each algorithm ending in a narrowing of possibility between binary choices, having begun as a hopeful verse in the poetry of prospection.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Every writer, if they are lucky enough and passionate enough and dispassionate enough, reads in the course of their lifetime a handful of books they wish they had written. For me, Analogia (public library) by George Dyson is one such book — a book that traverses vast territories of fact and feeling to arrive at a promontory of meaning from which one can view with sudden and staggering clarity the past, the present, and the future all at once — not with fear, not with hope, but with something beyond binaries: with a quickening of wonderment and understanding.

Dyson is a peculiar person to tell the history and map the future of our relationship with technology. Peculiar and perfect: The son of mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson and the philosophically inclined physicist Freeman Dyson, and brother to technology investor and journalist Esther Dyson, George rebelled by branching from the family tree of science and technology at age sixteen to live, as he recounts, “in a tree house ninety-five feet up in a Douglas fir above Burrard Inlet in British Columbia, on land that had never been ceded by its rightful owners, the Tsleil-Waututh.”

In this tree house he built with his own hands, Dyson shared the harsh winters — winters when a cup of tea poured from his perch would freeze before touching the ground — with a colony of cormorants roosting in the nextcrown fir. There, he watched a panoply of seabirds disappear underwater diving after silver swirls of fish he could see in the clear ocean all the way up from the tree. There, he learned to use, and to this day uses, his hands to build kayaks and canoes with the traditional materials and native techniques perfected over millennia. With those selfsame hands, he types these far-seeing thoughts:

There are four epochs, so far, in the entangled destinies of nature, human beings, and machines. In the first, preindustrial epoch, technology was limited to the tools and structures that humans could create with their own hands. Nature remained in control.

In the second, industrial epoch, machines were introduced, starting with simple machine tools, that could reproduce other machines. Nature began falling under mechanical control.

In the third epoch, digital codes, starting with punched cards and paper tape, began making copies of themselves. Powers of self-replication and self-reproduction that had so far been the preserve of biology were taken up by machines. Nature seemed to be relinquishing control. Late in this third epoch, the proliferation of networked devices, populated by metazoan codes, took a different turn.

In the fourth epoch, so gradually that almost no one noticed, machines began taking the side of nature, and nature began taking the side of machines. Humans were still in the loop but no longer in control. Faced with a growing sense of this loss of agency, people began to blame “the algorithm,” or those who controlled “the algorithm,” failing to realize there no longer was any identifiable algorithm at the helm. The day of the algorithm was over. The future belonged to something else.

A belief that artificial intelligence can be programmed to do our bidding may turn out to be as unfounded as a belief that certain people could speak to God, or that certain other people were born as slaves. The fourth epoch is returning us to the spirit-laden landscape of the first: a world where humans coexist with technologies they no longer control or fully understand. This is where the human mind took form. We grew up, as a species, surrounded by mind and intelligence everywhere we looked. Since the dawn of technology, we were on speaking terms with our tools. Intelligence in the cloud is nothing new. To adjust to life in the fourth epoch, it helps to look back to the first.

Read more here.

FUNNY WEATHER

The composite creation of a doctor, a philosopher, a poet, and a sculptor, the word empathy in the modern sense only came into use at the dawn of the twentieth century as a term for the imaginative act of projecting yourself into a work of art, into a world of feeling and experience other than your own. It vesselled in language that peculiar, ineffable way art has of bringing you closer to yourself by taking you out of yourself — its singular power to furnish, Iris Murdoch’s exquisite phrasing, “an occasion for unselfing.” And yet this notion cinches the central paradox of art: Every artist makes what they make with the whole of who they are — with the totality of experiences, beliefs, impressions, obsessions, childhood confusions, heartbreaks, inner conflicts, and contradictions that constellate a self. To be an artist is to put this combinatorial self in the service of furnishing occasions for unselfing in others.

That may be why the lives of artists have such singular allure as case studies and models of turning the confusion, complexity, and uncertainty of life into something beautiful and lasting — something that harmonizes the disquietude and dissonance of living.

Red Hill and White Shell by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1938

In Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (public library), Olivia Laing — one of the handful of living writers whose mind and prose I enjoy commensurately with the Whitmans and the Woolfs of yore — occasions a rare gift of unselfing through the lives and worlds of painters, poets, filmmakers, novelists, and musicians who have imprinted culture in a profound way while living largely outside the standards and stabilities of society, embodying of James Baldwin’s piercing insight that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”

Punctuating these biographical sketches laced with larger questions about art and the human spirit are Laing’s personal essays reflecting, through the lens of her own lived experience, on existential questions of freedom, desire, loneliness, queerness, democracy, rebellion, abandonment, and the myriad vulnerable tendrils of aliveness that make life worth living.

What emerges is a case for art as a truly human endeavor, made by human beings with bodies and identities and beliefs often at odds with the collective imperative; art as “a zone of both enchantment and resistance,” art as sentinel and witness of “how truth is made, diagramming the stages of its construction, or as it may be dissolution,” art as “a direct response to the paucity and hostility of the culture at large,” art as a buoy for loneliness and a fulcrum for empathy.

Laing writes:

Empathy is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It’s work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.

I don’t think art has a duty to be beautiful or uplifting, and some of the work I’m most drawn to refuses to traffic in either of those qualities. What I care about more… are the ways in which it’s concerned with resistance and repair.

Read more here.

A SWIM IN A POND IN THE RAIN

We move through a storied world as living stories. Every human life is an autogenerated tale of meaning — we string the chance-events of our lives into a sensical and coherent narrative of who and what we are, then make that narrative the psychological pillar of our identity. Every civilization is a macrocosm of the narrative — we string together our collective selective memory into what we call history, using storytelling as a survival mechanism for its injustices. Along the way, we hum a handful of impressions — a tiny fraction of all knowable truth, sieved by the merciless discriminator of our attention and warped by our personal and cultural histories — into a melody of comprehension that we mistake for the symphony of reality.

Great storytelling plays with this elemental human tendency without preying on it. Paradoxically, great storytelling makes us better able not to mistake our compositions for reality, better able to inhabit the silent uncertain spaces between the low notes of knowledge and the shrill tones of opinion, better able to feel, which is always infinitely more difficult and infinitely more rewarding than to know.

Art by Ping Zhu for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. (Available as a print.)

That is what George Saunders explores throughout A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (public library) — his wondrous investigation of what makes a good story (which is, by virtue of Saunders being helplessly himself, a wondrous investigation of what makes a good life) through a close and contemplative reading of seven classic Russian short stories, examined as “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art — namely, to ask the big questions.” Questions like what truth is and why we love. Questions like how to live and how to make meaning inside the solitary confinement of our mortality. Questions like:

How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seems to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what?

Noting that “all coherent intellectual work begins with a genuine reaction,” Saunders frames the central question of his investigation: what we feel and when we feel it, in a story or in the macrocosm of a story that is a life — a framing that calls to mind philosopher Susanne Langer’s notion of music as “a laboratory for feeling in time,” for all great storytelling, as Maurice Sendak observed, is a work of musicality, and all that fills the brief interlude between birth and death is, in anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s lovely phrasing, the work of “composing a life.” In this sense, a story is instrument for feeling — something Saunders places at the heart of his creative theorem:

What a story is “about” is to be found in the curiosity it creates in us, which is a form of caring.

Considering this consonance between storytelling and life, these parallels between how we move through the fictional world of a story and how we move through the real world, Saunders writes:

To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time… The part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.

Dive in here.

THE SNAIL WITH THE RIGHT HEART

Great children’s books move young hearts, yes, but they also move the great common heart that beats in the chest of humanity by articulating in the language of children, which is the language of simplicity and absolute sincerity, the elemental truths of being: what it means to love, what it means to be mortal, what it means to live with our fragilities and our frissons. As such, children’s books are miniature works of philosophy, works of wonder and wonderment that bypass our ordinary resistances and our cerebral modes of understanding, entering the backdoor of consciousness with their soft, surefooted gait to remind us who and what we are.

This is something I have always believed, and so I have always turned to children’s books — The Little Prince above all others, for me — as mighty instruments of existential calibration. But I never thought I would write one.

And then I did: The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story (public library) is a labor of love three years in the making, illustrated by the uncommonly talented and sensitive Ping Zhu.

While the story was inspired by a beloved young human in my own life, born with the same rare and wondrous variation of body as the real-life mollusk protagonist, it is a larger story about science and the poetry of existence, about time and chance, genetics and gender, love and death, evolution and infinity — concepts often too abstract for the human mind to fathom, often more accessible to the young imagination; concepts made fathomable in the concrete, finite life of one tiny, unusual creature dwelling in a pile of compost amid an English garden.

At the heart of the story is an invitation not to mistake difference for defect and to recognize, across the accordion scales of time and space, diversity as nature’s fulcrum of resilience and wellspring of beauty.

Dive in here.

MEDITATIONS: THE ANNOTATED EDITION

The vast majority of our mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering comes from the violent collision between our expectations and reality. As we dust ourselves off amid the rubble, bruised and indignant, we further pain ourselves with the exertion of staggering emotional energy on outrage at how reality dared defy what we demanded of it.

The remedy, of course, is not to bend the reality of an impartial universe to our will. The remedy is to calibrate our expectations — a remedy that might feel far too pragmatic to be within reach in the heat of the collision-moment, but also one with profound poetic undertones once put into practice, for little syphons the joy of life more surely than the wasted energy of indignation at how others have failed to behave in accordance with what we expected of them.

Few people have understood this more clearly or offered more potent calibration for it than Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180).

Marcus Aurelius

Two millennia before the outrage culture of the Internet, the lovesick queer teenager turned Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher addressed this curious self-mauling tendency of the human mind with his characteristic precision of insight and unsentimental problem-solving in the notebooks that became his Meditations (public library) — a timeless book, newly translated and annotated by the British classics scholar Robin Waterfield, which Marcus Aurelius wrote largely for and to himself, like Tolstoy wrote his Calendar of Wisdom and Bruce Lee calibrated his core values, yet a book that went on to stake the pillars of the philosophical system of Stoicism, equipping countless generations with tools for navigating the elemental existential challenges of being human and inspiring others to fill the gaps of its unaddressed questions with exquisite answers of their own.

Here is one of my favorite pieces from this new translation.

THE SECRET TO SUPERHUMAN STRENGTH

“Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul,” Walt Whitman wrote as the Golden Age of Exploration was setting, psychology was beginning to dawn, and the parallel conquests of nature and of human nature were about to converge into their present chaos of humility and hubris. With all the world’s continents “discovered,” with most of the world’s major rivers and mountains measured and mapped, humans began to turn inward, slowly and grudgingly realizing that wherever we go, we take ourselves with us — our selves, those living bodies containing the cosmoses of feeling we call soul.

Since long before we had neuroscience to tell us that our feelings begin in our bodies and shape our consciousness, we humans have been unconsciously using our bodies to control our feelings. And despite our changing ideologies devised to distract from our greatest terror — be they the ancient religious mythologies of immortality or their misshapen rebirth in the modern mythos of productivity — our lives are unconsciously shaped by the fearsome fact of our finitude. Coursing through every moment of being is the awareness, masked and blunted though it may be, that one day we will have been. We cope with it by clinging to the self, building its exoskeleton of achievements and possessions, only to find our inner lives enfeebled by it; only to watch helplessly as the entropic spectacle that governs the universe — the universe of which we are a small and fleeting part — drags our bodies across the stage of the cosmic drama toward oblivion.

And yet, somehow, in the swirl of it all, we go on living. If we are lucky enough, if we are alive enough, we go on making art, making meaning, making an effort to “leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world.”

We spend our lives trying to discern how to do that and what it all means, trying to illuminate the grand landscape of being with the scattered diffraction of our doings. That touchingly human impulse is what the unclassifiable virtuoso of meaning Alison Bechdel explores in The Secret to Superhuman Strength (public library) — an uncommon beam of illumination, aimed at the depths of existence through the lens of the personal, that one and only lens we ever have on the universe.

Read more and peek inside here.

ALL WE CAN SAVE

In 1977, as the Voyager was soaring into the cosmos, about to take that epochal photograph of our home planet viewed from the edge of our Solar System as a “pale blue dot,” in Carl Sagan’s unforgettable poetic phrase, down here on this irreplaceable Earth, Adrienne Rich was writing in the final verse of her poem “Natural Resources”:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

This poetic sentiment with powerful resolve became the animating spirit of All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (public library) — Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson’s altogether inspiriting anthology, composed as “a balm and a guide for the immense emotional complexity of knowing and holding what has been done to the world, while bolstering our resolve never to give up on one another or our collective future.”

Art by Madeleine Jubilee Saito from All We Can Save

Rising from the pages are the voices of scientists, activists, poets, policymakers, and other frontier-women decolonizing climate leadership — visionaries united by a fierce willingness to contend with the big, unanswered, often unasked questions that leaven our possible future and to begin answering them in novel ways worthy of a world that prizes creativity over consumption and pluralism over profiteering.

Here is one of my favorite contributions — biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus on tree islands, networked resilience, and the power of reciprocity in nature.

BEFORE I GREW UP

Childhood is one great brush-stroke of loneliness, thick and pastel-colored, its edges blurring out into the whole landscape of life.

In this blur of being by ourselves, we learn to be ourselves. One measure of maturity might be how well we grow to transmute that elemental loneliness into the “fruitful monotony” Bertrand Russell placed at the heart of our flourishing, the “fertile solitude” Adam Phillips recognized as the pulse-beat of our creative power.

If we are lucky enough, or perhaps lonely enough, we learn to reach out from this primal loneliness to other lonelinesses — Neruda’s hand through the fence, Kafka’s “hand outstretched in the darkness” — in that great gesture of connection we call art.

Rilke, contemplating the lonely patience of creative work that every artist knows in their marrow, captured this in his lamentation that “works of art are of an infinite loneliness” — Rilke, who all his life celebrated solitude as the groundwater of love and creativity, and who so ardently believed that to devote yourself to art, you must not “let your solitude obscure the presence of something within it that wants to emerge.”

Giuliano Cucco (1929–2006) was still a boy, living with his parents amid the majestic solitudes of rural Italy, when the common loneliness of childhood pressed against his uncommon gift and the artistic impulse began to emerge, tender and tectonic.

Over the decades that followed, he grew volcanic with painting and poetry, with photographs and pastels, with art ablaze with a luminous love of life.

When Cucco moved to Rome as a young artist, he met the young American nature writer John Miller. A beautiful friendship came abloom. Those were the early 1960, when Rachel Carson — the poet laureate of nature writing — had just awakened the modern ecological conscience and was using her hard-earned stature to issue the radical insistence that children’s sense of wonder is the key to conservation.

Into this cultural atmosphere, Cucco and Miller joined their gifts to create a series of stunning and soulful nature-inspired children’s books.

John Miller (left) and Giuliano Cucco in the 1960s

But when Miller returned to New York, door after door shut in his face — commercial publishers were unwilling to invest in the then-costly reproduction of Cucco’s vibrant art. It took half a century of countercultural courage and Moore’s law for Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion to take a risk on these forgotten vintage treasures and bring them to life.

Eager to reconnect with his old friend and share the exuberant news, Miller endeavored to track down Cucco’s family. But when he finally reached them after a long search, he was devastated to learn that the artist and his wife had been killed by a motor scooter speeding through a pedestrian crossing in Rome. Their son had just begun making his way through a trove of his father’s paintings — many unseen by the world, many depicting the landscapes and dreamscapes of childhood that shaped his art.

Because grief is so often our portal to beauty and aliveness, Miller set out to honor his friend by bringing his story to life in an uncommonly original and tender way — traveling back in time on the wings of memory and imagination, to the lush and lonesome childhood in which the artist’s gift was forged, projecting himself into the boy’s heart and mind through the grown man’s surviving paintings, blurring fact and fancy.

Before I Grew Up (public library) was born — part elegy and part exultation, reverencing the vibrancy of life: the life of feeling and of the imagination, the life of landscape and of light, the life of nature and of the impulse for beauty that irradiates what is truest and most beautiful about human nature.

Peek inside here.

BELOVED BEASTS

“Love the earth and sun and the animals,” Walt Whitman instructed in his advice for living a vibrant and rewarding life just before the brokenhearted young marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology. But over the century that followed, the lust for industry and capital became the mating call of the human animal, silencing Whitman’s voice and vanquishing other species. Along the way, a handful of visionaries rose with countercultural courage against the tide of their time and managed to lift the whole of culture along, just enough to see a little more clearly and humbly our place in the family of life on this pale blue dot, and our responsibility to it. We called that vision conservation, but beneath the labels and the language, it is just another way of being fully human.

In Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction (public library), Michelle Nijhuis undusts the uncommon lives of several of these visionaries — “scientists, birdwatchers, hunters, self-taught philosophers, and others who have countered the power to destroy species with the whys and hows of providing sanctuary” — interleaving their stories into the broader story of conservation. She writes:

Each person profiled here stood, or stands, at a turning point in the story of modern species conservation — a story which, for better and sometimes worse, still guides the international movement to protect life on earth… Though they often used pragmatic arguments to convert others to their cause, their personal motivations ran deeper, for many had started keeping company with members of other species to escape their own troubles. Some were painfully shy, or burdened with mental or physical illness. Some were separated from spouses at a time when divorce was a scandal, or drawn to their own gender when homosexuality was taboo. Most of them knew something about suffering, and they found consolation in the sights and sounds of other forms of life.

[…]

The story of modern species conservation is full of people who did the wrong things for the right reasons, and the right things for the wrong reasons.

Read about one of them — Rosalie Edge, the pioneering conservationist who saved the hawks — here.

THE HUMMINGBIRDS’ GIFT

Frida Kahlo painted a hummingbird into her fiercest self-portrait. Technology historian Steven Johnson drew on hummingbirds as the perfect metaphor for revolutionary innovation. Walt Whitman found great joy and solace in watching a hummingbird “coming and going, daintily balancing and shimmering about,” as he was learning anew how to balance a body coming and going in the world after his paralytic stroke. For poet and gardener Ross Gay, “the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia,” is indispensable to the “exercise in supreme attentiveness” that gardening offers.

Essential as pollinators and essential as muses to poets, hummingbirds animate every indigenous spiritual mythology of their native habitats and are sold as wearable trinkets on Etsy, to be worn as symbols — of joy, of levity, of magic — by modern secular humans across every imaginable habitat on our improbable planet.

Belted Hermit and Bishop Hermit Hummingbirds by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

There is, indeed, something almost magical to the creaturely reality of the hummingbird — something not supernatural but supranatural, hovering above the ordinary limits of what biology and physics conspire to render possible.

As if the evolution of ordinary bird flight weren’t miracle enough — scales transfigured into feathers, jaws transfigured into beaks, arms transfigured into wings — the hummingbird, like no other bird among the thousands of known avian species, can fly backward and upside-down, and can hover. It is hovering that most defiantly subverts the standard physics of bird flight: head practically still as the tiny turbine of feather and bone suspends the body mid-air — not by flapping up and down, as wings do in ordinary bird flight, but by swiveling rapidly along the invisible curvature of an infinity symbol. Millions of living, breathing gravity-defying space stations, right here on Earth, capable of slicing through the atmosphere at 385 body-lengths per second — faster than a falcon, faster than the Space Shuttle itself.

Pale-bellied Hermit Hummingbird by John Gould, 1861. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting the Nature Conservancy.)

That supranatural marvel of nature is what Sy Montgomery — the naturalist who so memorably celebrated the otherworldly marvel of the octopus — celebrates in The Hummingbirds’ Gift: Wonder, Beauty, and Renewal on Wings (public library). She writes:

Alone among the world’s ten thousand avian species, only those in the hummingbird family, Trochilidae, can hover in midair. For centuries, nobody knew how they did it. They were considered pure magic.

[…]

Even the scientists succumbed to hummingbirds’ intoxicating mysteries: they classified them in an order called Apodiformes, which means “without feet” — for it was believed (incorrectly) for many years that a hummingbird had no need for feet. It was thought that no hummingbird ever perched, accounting in part for its sun-washed brilliance: as the comte de Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, wrote in his 1775 Histoire naturelle, “The emerald, the ruby, and the topaz glitter in its garb, which is never soiled with the dust of the earth.”

Science, being the supreme human implement of self-correction, eventually caught up to the reality of the hummingbird’s wispy feet, then unpeeled a thousand subtler and more astonishing realities about the extraordinary feats of which this flying jewel is capable. Read about them here.

FEELING & KNOWING

“A purely disembodied emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his revolutionary theory of how our bodies affect our feelings just before the birth of neuroscience — a science still young, which has already revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos inside the cranium as much as the first century of telescopic astronomy revolutionized our understanding of our place in the universe.

Meanwhile, ninety miles inland from William James, while Walt Whitman was redoubling his metaphysical insistence that “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern… and is the soul,” Emily Dickinson was writing in one of her science-prescient poems:

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and you — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As sponges — Buckets — do —

Art by Margaret Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

It is the task, the destiny of science to concretize with evidence what the poets have always intuited and imagized in abstraction: that we are infinitely more miraculous and infinitely less important than we thought. The universe without, which made us and every star-dusted atom of our consciousness, is ever-vaster and more complex than we suppose it to be; the universe within, which makes the universe without and renders our entire experience of reality through the telescopic lens of our consciousness, is ever-denser and more complex than we suppose it to be.

A century and a half after James, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio picks up an empirical baton where Dickinson had left a torch of intuition. In his revelatory book Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious (public library), he makes the bold case that consciousness — that ultimate lens of being, which shapes our entire experience of life and makes blue appear blue and gives poems their air of wonder — is not a mental activity confined to the brain but a complex embodied phenomenon governed by the nervous-system activity we call feeling.

Decades after Toni Morrison celebrated the body as the supreme instrument of sanity and self-regard, neuroscience affirms the body as the instrument of feeling that makes the symphony of consciousness possible: feelings, which arise from the dialogue between the body and the nervous system, are not a byproduct of consciousness but made consciousness emerge. (Twenty years earlier — an epoch in the hitherto lifespan of neuroscience — the uncommonly penetrating Martha Nussbaum had anticipated this physiological reality through the lens of philosophy, writing in her superb inquiry into the intelligence of emotions that “emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”)

One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known drawings of the brain.

Damasio’s premise rises from the flatland of earlier mind-based theories by a conceptual fulcrum both simple and profound:

Feelings gave birth to consciousness and gifted it generously to the rest of the mind.

Read more here.

OLD GROWTH

Whitman, who considered trees the profoundest teachers in how to best be human, remembered the woman he loved and respected above all others as that rare person who was “entirely herself; as simple as nature; true, honest; beautiful as a tree is tall, leafy, rich, full, free — is a tree.”

Humans, indeed, have a long history of seeing ourselves in trees — fathoming our own nature through theirs, turning to them for lessons in resilience and self-renewal. Hermann Hesse saw in them the paragon of self-actualization, Thoreau reverenced them as cathedrals that consecrate our lives, Dylan Thomas entrusted them with humbling us into the essence of our humanity, ancient mythology placed them at its spiritual center, and science used them as an organizing principle for knowledge.

Perspective by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Our ancient bond with trees as companions and mirrors of our human experience comes alive afresh in Old Growth — a wondrous anthology of essays and poems about trees, culled from the decades-deep archive of Orion Magazine.

With a foreword by the poetic bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, and contributions as variegated as Ursula K. Le Guin’s love-poem to trees and arborist William Bryant Logan’s revelatory meditation on immortality and the music of trees, the anthology is a cathedral of wonder and illumination.

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.)