Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Cultivating delight

As an epigraph to one of the chapters in her book Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden, Diane Ackerman quotes Oscar Wilde: ""The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." Of course Ackerman agrees. While most people in world, like our remote and superstitious ancestors, go on assuming that the only things that matter are invisible -- God, gods, angels, demons, immortal souls, the spirits of the dead and ancestors, and so on -- she celebrates and is nourished by (in this book, at least) a Burpee catalog's worth of plants. To read her book is to visit a garden more delightful than any prelapsarian Eden or Elysian Fields.

Ackerman is our great poet of the world illuminated by science. In a book review in the February 9 issue of Science she reveals something about her own background. When she began college in 1966 it was her intention to major in biopsychology. A computer glitch mistakenly put her in English. She was a bit of a poet and considered it fate. The rest is history.

The astronomer Carl Sagan and the poet A. R. Ammons were on her doctoral committee at Cornell. Her thesis was on the workings of the mind in science and poetry.

Not many people find their way into that garden of nature informed by science but yielding itself promiscuously to the senses. Poets and scientists seldom talk to each other; the "two cultures" are as much at odds today as when C. P. Snow famously defined the opposition nearly half-a-century ago. John Brockman's "third culture," although meant to ameliorate the problem, in some ways only complicates the situation, by adding yet another level of elite abstraction remote from our sensate lives.

In Cultivating Delight, Ackerman writes: "But life doesn't require you to choose between reason and awe, or between clear-headed analysis and a rapturous sense of wonder. A balanced life includes both. One of the fascinating paradoxes of being human is that we are inescapably physical beings who yearn for transcendence. One can be spiritual without believing in a supernatural being."