Saturday, October 31, 2009


A Halloweeen pic from Anne. Click to enlarge. My own Halloween contribution is below.


What's with the sudden glut of vampire-themed books and films?

As I recall, my first meeting with a vampire occurred in 1948, at age 12, in the film Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi played Count Dracula, reprising his more famous 1931 title role as the thirsty bloodsucker from Transylvania. I have no memory of neck or fang from that outing, but a few years later I came across this passage from Bram Stoker's defining 1897 novel:
I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one's flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.
Now that I remember.

Since then I've been pretty much out of touch with vampires. Never saw an episode of Buffy. Never read Anne Rice. Haven't touched a Twilight book or seen the movie. Even Jane Austen, it seems, now cavorts with the undead, although not on my watch.

Still, the scientist in me asks: Why do vampires never die -- culturally speaking, I mean? Why are they flourishing now, in our supposedly scientific age? And why does our appetite to bite and be bitten cut across gender? Those puncture wounds in my adolescent neck, a la Bram Stoker, have pretty much healed over, but they may hold a hint to the answer.

Part of the answer may be obvious: We want to live forever. But with eternity on our hands, who wants to sit around on a cloud playing a harp. The tag line on the ads for the Twilight film is "When you can live forever, what do you want to live for?" Ah, now that's the question.

I know there has been a mountain of scholarship on this subject, but I haven't sought it out and so will indulge my own speculation.

Being a vampire means having all the advantages (in fantasy) of living forever -- and the chance to be deliciously naughty too, without guilt, because it's really not your fault.
Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck.
Those puncture holes in your jugular mean the usual rules don't apply.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Sex and war

In the same issue of Science as Kaplan's review of Sex and War, there is a News/Focus article on the evolutionary history of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

The standard view has been that Neanderthals and modern humans shared a common ancestor, most likely in Africa, something less that 500,000 years ago. The population that became the Neanderthals was first to migrate into Europe and western Asia a few hundred thousand years ago, where they lived unmolested until H. Sapiens appeared on the scene about 40,000 years ago. The two species of humans lived side by side for 10,000 years until the Neanderthals were driven into a final refuge -- southern Spain -- where they became extinct. The evidence seems to suggest an unharmonious relationship between Neanderthals and H. Sapiens, an early chapter, perhaps, of sex and war.

Recent fossil finds have complicated the picture. Some anthropologists now believe that two or more hominid species might have lived in Europe and western Asia before H. sapiens came sweeping out of Africa. More sex and war, no doubt, more competition for resources, more chances to practice the fine art of killing. In these earlier hypothesized encounters, Neanderthals came out on top, driving the other populations to extinction, only to be vanquished in turn by our own immediate ancestors.

The image above from Science (credit: Mauricio Anton) reconstructs the species of hominids represented by a trove of half-million-year-old fossils found at Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain. They aren't us, but they aren't all that not-us either. In the drawing, they look rather like they are posing for a group photo at a family reunion. Did they have language? Religion? Did they bury their dead? Did they sing and dance? We have lots left to learn. In any case, once H. sapiens moved into their territory, they were soon gone.

War? Likely. Rape? Mate capture? As far as I know, there is no widely-accepted evidence of interbreeding between H. sapiens and their Euro-Asian predecessors, although the complete sequencing of Neanderthal DNA may yet have more to tell us.

I keep coming back to that haunting drawing of the Sima de los Huesos humans. Modern humans don't have to learn sex and war; it would appear to be in our genes, and probably in their genes too. Learning to love the other is rather more problematic.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Caught in the middle

It doesn't take a genius to recognize that human males have a propensity for intergroup violence, and that the killing is often accompanied by rape. One need only read the newspapers. The only question is to what extent these tendencies are innate or culturally inculcated. Nature or nurture? Or both?

A new book, Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, by population biologist Malcolm Potts and science writer Thomas Hayden, dishes up a bit of both. The violence is in our (male) genes, they maintain, but it is susceptible to cultural control.

What the authors calls "behavioral propensity to engage in male coalitional violence" evolved as far back as the common ancestor of humans and chimps, they claim, although our other close relations, bonobos and gorillas, seem to have found more peaceful ways of living.

Genes predispose, say Potts and Hayden, but cultural forces can alleviate the worst of male nastiness. By empowering women to be leaders in cultural, social and political spheres, the violent propensities of men can be restrained. Further, empowerment will give women control of their reproductive destinies, and will therefore result in fewer offspring. Less population pressure will reduce other factors fueling violence and conflict, the authors claim.

Anthropologist Hillard Kaplan reviews the book in the October 9 issue of Science. He agrees that the available evidence suggests that male intergroup violence has a long evolutionary history. He believes this tendency was exacerbated into large scale warfare with the development of agriculture and the associated larger population groups and competition for fertile land.

Kaplan believes that male group violence is stoked by poor economic prospect for young males. To the empowerment of women he would add education and jobs as a way to reduce antisocial behavior.

There is nothing particularly new or revolutionary about any of this. Progress? Yes, I suppose so, but we clearly have a long way to go before women exercise equal power in society, or before young men in the developing world, especially, have an economic stake in social stability. Meanwhile, as the painting above by Jacques-Louis David, The Sabine Women, suggests, women and children will continue to be caught in the middle. (Click to enlarge.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Making judgments

In the November 5 issue of The New York Review of Books, physician/writer Jerome Groopman references a conference he led at Massachusetts General Hospital for interns and residents. The subject: The causes of misdiagnosis.

Groopman drew his audience's attention to a seminal paper by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (Science, September 27, 1974) on the cognitive pitfalls of human thinking. According to Groopman, the authors studied three kinds of bias:

1) "Anchoring," where a person overvalues the first data he or she encounters;

2) "Availability," where recent or dramatic cases come to mind and so skew one's thinking;

3) "Attribution," where stereotypes prejudice thinking so conclusions arise not from data but from preconceptions.

I took a look at the Tversky and Kahneman paper (available from the Science online archive by subscription only). It is long and technical, but Groopman's summary is fair enough. The good doctor is primarily concerned with how these biases affect medical diagnosis, but of course they also shape our judgments in matters of science, politics, religion, and general life choices.

The whole point of scientific methodology is to minimize these biases. Quantitative data and analysis, control groups, double-blind experiments, peer review, impersonal communication, and so on are all designed to dilute -- and ideally remove -- inevitable individual biases and preconceptions.

Perhaps nowhere are the effects of anchoring, availability and attribution more manifest than in matters of religion. The overwhelming majority of people commit themselves to the familial or cultural religion into which they were born. Even if upon reaching maturity we subject our beliefs to thoughtful analysis, anchoring can still have a hold on our allegiance.

None of us are free of these biases, no matter how hard we try, but being aware of them might at least evoke a degree of agnostic humility.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

At the pond

Late October. The first frost has come and gone. Now the days are warm and sunny, with just a hint of November. Mornings and afternoons, on my walks to and from the college, I linger at the plank bridge where the Queset Brook spreads out into a wide pool. When all this land was part of the Ames family estate, this was known as "the girl's swimming hole." The boy's swimming hole was further along the stream, where it enters the woods.

That was a hundred years ago. Four kids grew up on the estate, two boys and two girls. Their nanny, Matilda Golden, taught them the wildflowers. The coachman, John Swift, named the birds. The gardener, Bunny Woods, shared his general nature lore. And, no, I'm not making up these names. Kids from the village too roamed this land. I often meet old people on my walks who recount stories of growing up with all this gorgeous landscape to play in.

Today, the estate is in the care of the Natural Resources Trust, but you don't see kids playing here any more. This is the sort of landscape that in a July essay of the New York Review of Books Michael Chabon called The Wilderness of Childhood. (I believe the essay may be a chapter in his just-out book, Manhood for Amateurs.) All gone now, laments Chabon: "The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors." I'm not sure Chabon is right on that. The Wilderness of Childhood is still there; I pass through it every day. The kids still have access. It is by choice, I think, that they exile themselves to that other wilderness of cyberspace.

Still, Chabon is surely right that something has changed. He thinks that art will be impoverished: "Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted -- not taught -- to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?" Oh, I suspect that we'll still have art. We'll still have literature. What we will have lost is a sense of the organic, of being immersed up to our necks -- nay, to the tops of our heads -- in something vast and wonderful that is fully, biologically alive. It will be the difference between living our lives to the utterly regular gigahertz beat of the microprocessor, or to the thrumming, raggedy, unpredictable four-billion-year-old pulse of life itself.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Going deep

A few comments on Saturday's APOD, a photo of the so-called Deer Lick Group of galaxies in the constellation Pegasus. The large galaxy is NGC 7331, thought to be pretty much a twin of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The photo gives a nice sense of three dimensions.

NGC 7331 is about 40 million light-years away, and the four fuzzy spots above it in the photograph are other galaxies about ten times further away.

We live in a galaxy very much like NGC 7331 -- a hundred billion stars or so in a spiral disk about 100,000 light-years wide. Our Sun is a rather nondescript yellow star about two-thirds of the way out from the center. It makes one great spin with the galaxy every 200 million years.

The sketch here, from my 365 Starry Nights, shows our part of the galaxy edge-on, about 2000 light-years thick, with a view out from our star toward the "Great Square" of Pegasus. I should say "through" the Great Square of Pegasus, because all of the stars that define the constellation are in our own galaxy. Alpheratz, Algenib, Markab and Scheat are the stars we see as the corners of the Square. (Enif is the Flying Horse's "nose".) The Square is what I call "the Window" in the book. The Deer Lick Group lies just outside of the window frame.

The hundreds of stars you see in the APOD photograph are in the Milky Way Galaxy, between us and the edge as we look out. In fact, most of them are rather close neighbors. The galaxies in the photograph are far beyond.

Imagine the Milky Way Galaxy as a frisbee. The nearest spiral galaxy, Andromeda, would be another frisbee across the room, and NGC 7331 would be a frisbee in the house across the street. The other four galaxies in the Deer Lick Group group would be frisbees in the next block. All of this is just our own little corner of the universe. The most distant galaxies we photograph would be frisbees in the next town. And don't forget the hundreds of billions of other frisbees scattered all over the place.

By the way, the galaxies in the photograph are their actual apparent size. The foreground Milky Way stars, however, are vastly smaller than their images in the photograph. The brighter stars (apparent brightness) make bigger "splotchs" of light as it "soaks in" the film.

Now ponder all of that as you sit there sipping your morning coffee. I will leave it to you to find out how the group of galaxies got their unusual name.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


A Halloween anticipation from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Allow me the indulgence of a commercial break. It's not too early to start thinking about Christmas. And here's the perfect gift for the friend who has everything -- the beautiful matched set of The Soul of the NIght and Honey From Stone, graced with illustrations by Michael McCurdy and Bob O'Cathail.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Living in the little world

"My wisdom is simple," begins Gustav Adolph Ekdahl, at the final celebratory family gathering of Ingmar Bergman's crowning epic Fanny and Alexander.

I saw the movie in the early 1980s when it had its U.S. theater release. Now I have just watched the five-hour-long original version made for Swedish television. Whew!

But back to that speech by the gaily philandering Gustav, now the patriarch of the Ekdahl clan and uncle to Fanny and Alexander. The family has gathered for the double christening of Fanny and Alexander's new half-sister and Gustav's child by his mistress Maj. A dark chapter of family history has come to an end, involving a clash between two world views, one -- the Ekdahl's -- focussed on the pleasures of the here and now, and the other -- that of Lutheran Bishop Edvard Vergerus, Fanny and Alexander's stepfather -- a stern and joyless anticipation of the hereafter.

It is not the habit of Ekdahls to concern themselves with matters of grand consequence, Gustav tells the assembled guests. "We must live in the little world. We will be content with that and cultivate it and make the best of it."

The little world. I love that phrase. This world, here, now. This world of family and friends and newborn infants and trees and flowers and rainstorms and -- oh yes, cognac and farts and stolen kisses and tumbles in the hay. The Ekdahl's are a theatrical family; we will leave it to the actors and actresses to give us our supernatural shivers, says Gustav.

"So it shall be," he says. "Let us be kind, and generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Who do voodoo?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

He looks a bit of the curmudgeon, someone who doesn't suffer fools lightly. But also a kindly person, with a twinkle in his eye. Honest and fair. I'd buy.

It's Bob Park, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Maryland, former Executive Director of the American Physical Society, and author of Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. A veteran debunker of pseudosciences of every sort.

I just read his newest book, Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. A jolly romp of a book, poking a finger in the eye of everything from intelligent design, to prayer, to homeopathy, to quantum mysticism, and beyond. Familiar territory for someone like me who regularly reads Skeptical Inquirer, but lots of fresh background tidbits. An economy pack of spicy peanuts. A bit of the curmudgeon, yes, but honest and fair.

What will tick off many people is Park's summary sentence: "Science is the only way of knowing -- everything else is just superstition."


What are the sources of knowledge? Direct sense experience. Intuition. Tradition. Authority. Revelation. Science.

By "science" I mean the whole suite of methodological tools that have evolved over the centuries. Institutionalized skepticism. Quantitative observation. Reproducibility. Double-blind experiments. Publication that makes no reference to the religion, politics, emotions, or any other personal aspect of the investigator(s). Peer review. Mathematical analysis. Consensus building. And so on.

The other ways of knowing -- unfiltered sense experience, intuition, tradition, authority, and revelation -- yield as many versions of truth as there are persons to believe. Science defines itself by consensus.

Of course, science is not a sufficient guide to the chilling and thrilling woods of life, but I wouldn't want to enter the woods without it. I would modify Park's final sentence to read: "Science is far and away the most reliable way of knowing -- everything else is fraught with subjectivity and self-delusion.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Putting things in bottles

Summer nights in Tennessee in the 1940s. We kids ran up and down the sloping front lawn chasing fireflies. Lightnin' bugs, we called them. They flickered in the darkness like fluid constellations. We caught them up in our hands and put them in bottles, sometimes two or three dozen to the jar. We thought to make lanterns. Heaven knows what amatory anguish our glass prisons caused the fireflies, all those males -- I assume they were males -- blinking away in close confines, horny as hell in a bioluminescent way. Eventually, of course, we let them go, once we realized their light was useless.

Other creatures, other bottles.

Homemade ant farms. A Mason jar filled with sandy loam scooped up from anthills, ants and all. I don't recall any memorable arthropodal architectural, just a bunch of ants milling about waiting for release. Not so much a farm as a frenzied formicary of frustration.

But, ah! the luna moths. The size of our hands. Plucked from the garage wall and dropped into wide-mouthed jars. Drop-dead gorgeous. Mysteriously sensual. Even a six-year-old knew there was something lush and lascivious about these unwilling prisoners. We kept them in the jars for a day or two -- waiting for what? Something magical and forbidden. Our parents usually talked us into letting them go.

Walking sticks. Chrysalises. Daddy-longlegs. Ladybugs. Newts. Each took their turn in our transparent slammers. I wonder what, if anything, we learned? Maybe a little natural history. Maybe something about biological diversity. Maybe something about freedom, confinement, and the milk of human kindness.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The spare and the true

Twice during the past few years, someone has alerted me to quotes from my Globe columns in the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.), illustrating the use of words.

For spacefaring, the dictionary cites my reference to "spacefaring nations."

For exotic, 2. Intriguingly unusual or different; excitingly strange, the dictionary cites my observation "If something can be explained simply, in a familiar way, then it is best to avoid more exotic explanations."

Now that pleases me. I contributed Ockham's Razor to the American Heritage Dictionary! One of the most useful and fruitful philosophical principles ever devised. You have seen it floating through these five-plus years of posts like a guiding spirit.

Always on the lookout for the simplest, most natural explanation. Parsimony. Economy.

William of Ockham was a 14th-century English Franciscan friar and philosopher, from the tiny village of Ockham in Surrey (the village, above, still lies just beyond the sprawl of metropolitan London, probably not all that different today than it was in William's time). He was educated at London and Oxford, and preached and taught across Europe. He was not the first to enunciate the principle of parsimony, but he wielded the razor to great advantage, shaving away superfluous accretions from the philosophy and theology of his time, an exercise that ultimately earned him excommunication from the Church he served -- a Church that then and now seems to delight in conceptual excrescences.

Someone once quoted Shakespeare to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The remark was meant as a put-down of sorts: "Yeah, Mr. Quine, so what do you know?" To which Quine is said to have responded: "Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

If I Ran the Circus (with apologies to Dr. Seuss)

"In all the whole town, the most wonderful spot
Is behind Sneelock's Store in the big vacant lot.
It's just the right spot for my wonderful plans,"
said young Morris McGurk, "if I clean up the cans.
I will put up the tent for my fantastic circus.
I think I will call it the Circus McGurkus.
I'll hoist up the curtains! The crowds will crowd in!
And my Circus McGurkus will promptly begin.

Here, in Ring One, in its own little bottle,
the free-swimming, sweet-grinning pink Axolotl,
with a hairdo to die for and smiley-face eyes,
an amphibian Mexico-City surprise.
It lives in the sewers, no creature is cuter,
if you happen to see one don't call Roto-Rooter.

From far Madagascar, the pride of Ring Two,
the nocturnal Aye-Aye -- related to you.
No kidding! A primate, in our family tree,
a sight for sore eye-eyes if ever there be,
with ears that are bigger than its sweet little butt,
and a long middle finger to show you what's what.

And now! in Ring Three! the star of our shows,
A burrowing beast with a fantabulous nose.
The Star-nose Mole, with a sniffer defying convention,
An olfaction contraption of ingenious invention.
A colossus proboscis. Its tentacles squirm
as our stout-hearted Ringmaster feeds it a worm.

Back to Ring One! our aquatic container --
the Leafy Sea Dragon -- no animal stranger
than this weedy seahorse in algal disguise,
you'd not recognize him if it weren't for his eyes.
A master of camouflage, you won't hear him yelp
for your help if he's draggin' his sea-dragon kelp.

And last, but not least, in the Big Center Ring!
from the benthic Pacific a stupendulous thing.
Kiwa hirsuta, a hirsute crustacean,
a knockdown example of special creation.
What wonderful whimsy! Designer tomfoolery!
A blind-as-a-bat crab, all white and woollery.

The Circus McGurkus -- the best circus you'll find!
My headlining showstoppers will boggle your mind.
Nature is full of zooific surprises.
You'd never see half if you had forty eyeses!"

(With apologies to Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Circus. The pics are from a photo feature on The Huffington Post.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

The song of Bernadette

I can't say exactly what I remember about the release of the film The Song of Bernadette, just at the end of 1943. I was seven years old, growing up in a Catholic family in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I know I saw the film at some point, whether then or soon thereafter I cannot say. Certainly, the book by Franz Werfel was in my mother's library. The "miracles" of Lourdes, like those of Fatima, were part of the background of my youth. They were God's stamp of authenticity on our Roman Catholic faith, the thing that separated us from our non-Catholic neighbors and assured our salvation as members of the One True Faith.

The movie won four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Jennifer Jones, who played Bernadette, the sweet-natured peasant girl who claimed 18 visions of the Blessed Virgin. (Linda Darnel, of all people, made brief appearances as the Virgin). I know this because I have just watched the movie on VHS. On the evidence of the film, not much changed in the Church between 1858, when Bernadette had her visions, and 1958, when I graduated from college on the "eve" of the Second Vatican Council. I grew up in pretty much the same religious milieu as the maid of Lourdes.

Academy Award notwithstanding, Jennifer Jones drifts through her role like an angelic zombie, her one expression a sweet beatitude. While issues of supernaturalism vs. naturalism are explored, the naturalists are generally depicted as stiff-necked villains, and the supernaturalists carry the day. It's a feel-good movie for those who have their heart set on Heaven -- a Wizard of Oz for the rosary brigade. As one of characters says: "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't believe, no explanation will suffice."

None of this is to say that the Lourdes phenomenon is without interest or merit. The story of the shrine is primarily about pain and hope, as non-Catholic Oxford historian Ruth Harris points out in her skeptical but respectful book Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. Pain is always with us, and hope helps us endure. The body and the mind are connected in mysterious ways, as the effectiveness of placebos confirms. If the waters of Lourdes give comfort to believers, who will deny them that relief?

The story of Bernadette, as told by Werfel and Hollywood, is a story of the triumph of innocence over power and greed. In the film, as word of Bernadette's visions spread, the town's skeptical mayor worries that modernity will pass Lourdes by. "Who is going to run a railroad through a hole where spooks perform their medieval antics in dirty caverns," he groans. Today, a century-and-a-half later, five million pilgrims a year flock to the shrine from all over the world. The mayor greatly underestimated the attraction of hope.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Give her a big hand, folks

The Afar Triangle, at the base of the Red Sea in Ethiopia, is today an inhospitable environment -- hot, volcanic, sparsely vegetated. Not exactly the place you or I would chose to live, if we had the choice.

It was apparently a different sort of place 4.4 million years ago, when Ardi and her kind were around. How do we know? Because researchers recovered more than 150,000 plant and animal fossils from the soil horizon that included Ardi's bones, all consistent with open woodlands with patches of forest. Except for Ardi, the fauna are not unlike what you'd find in similar African habitats today -- antelopes, giraffes, and so on. After all, four million years is not such a long stretch of evolutionary time.

Which raises the old question: What sparked the rapid development from Ardi to Homo sapiens? There has been no shortage of suggestions for contributing factors. Language. Tools. Bipedalism. Opposable thumbs. Fire. Diet. Music. Climate change. Ardi's brain was chimp-sized. Did some or all of the above favor larger brains? Or was it the other way around? We have lots more to learn.

One big surprise with Ardi: Her hands are more humanlike than chimplike. Only modest modification of Ardi's digits -- larger thumbs, shorter fingers -- would yield humanlike dexterity.

It is, of course, our brain that defines our humanity. But it's with our hands that we begin our lives. Sucking. Wiggling. Tugging. Stroking. Grooming. Gesturing. Pointing. Holding tools. Hurling weapons. Before we were Homo sapiens we were Homo digitatis. Before we made looms and potter's wheels, we played with sticks. Before we invented geometry and algebra and calculus, we counted on our fingers. Before we made flutes, and tambourines, and harpsichords, we put blades of grass between our thumbs and blew.

If Ardi does indeed take us closer to our common ancestor with chimps -- our closest living relatives -- it may turn out that the big question is not so much how Ardi became us, as how that common ancestor became a chimp.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A grandeur in this view of life

"Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud," said House Republican Majority Whip Tom DeLay some years ago, by way of explaining the Columbine school massacre. I was thinking of that remark the other day as I watched Mr. DeLay making a monkey of himself on Dancing With The Stars.

His point, of course, was that only a biblical version of human origins provides an adequate moral compass for human behavior.

I'm sure we can usefully learn something about right (and wrong) by reading the Bible. And I'll grant DeLay this: It's hard to top the Sermon on the Mount. But the human family is bigger than DeLay's co-religionists, and the central lesson of the Sermon on the Mount -- the Golden Rule -- is pretty much universal. Clearly, that lesson didn't originate with Jesus. Or the authors of Genesis. It would be interesting to know its provenance.

Which is why the search for human origins is so interesting, and why curious minds pursue it. Which brings us to Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus), the stunning 4.4 million-year-old fossil hominid who made her public debut in the 2 October issue of Science.

It is quite an issue, showing the full power of scientific inquiry brought to bear on a remarkably complete skeleton excavated from the Afar Triangle in Africa. Eleven papers, 47 authors, examining every aspect of the find -- the paleobiological context, the geological context, the anatomical implications, and refinements to the human family tree. This is not armchair speculation; this is nitty-gritty work in the hot and dusty field and painstaking analysis in the lab.

You will have read plenty about Ardi in the popular press. A glance at the eleven papers in Science will give an impressive insight into what scientific research is all about. What I found particularly intriguing is the two-page introductory spread with photographs of the 47 contributing authors, something I don't recall the journal doing before.

Men and women. Of many races. From the U.S.A., France, Japan, Ethiopia, Spain, Germany, Chad, Canada, and Turkey. Undoubtedly comprising a variety of religious and political persuasions (such things are irrelevant in scientific communication). A representative assembly of the human family, if I've ever seen one. I would trust my wallet or my life to anyone in the group.

Ardi and her kind are ancestral to us all. Woods-dwelling, tree-climbing, sometime upright-walking, omnivorous Ardi, with her prehensile toes, long fingers and chimp-sized brain. Welcome to Dancing With The Stars, Ardi, you are a star in my book.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The need of some imperishable bliss?

Before I leave Mary Oliver's Thirst, let me reflect briefly on the poem "On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate," which takes its title from the 145th Psalm.

Again, Oliver's language in this volume is that of traditional religion, and seems to point beyond and outside of the natural world. One wonders, too, what she is doing in church -- the poems evoke the Eucharist -- when we expect to find her in the black-bear woods or on Blackwater Pond. Has she pulled an Annie Dillard on us? Has the UU saint become a High Church supplicant?

Not quite. "So it is not hard to understand/ where God's body is, it is/ everywhere and everything," she writes, which has a nice Mary Oliver pantheistic ring to it, a transcribing of the Psalmist's wonderment into the language of the religious naturalist.

This too. She wishes to be good, she tells us, upright and good. "To what purpose? Hope of heaven? Not that. But to enter the other kingdom: grace, and imagination." Yes, grace and imagination. That's the Mary Oliver we thought we knew.

But wait. "And all the same I am still unsatisfied," she writes, with an echo of Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning". And it is out of that sense of incompleteness, I would imagine, that she now cries out "Lord." And fair enough. She has suffered a grievous loss, a loss that a black bear in the dark woods or a hummingbird at a trumpet vine cannot fill.

And so we come to the nexus of unbelief and belief, a turning point possibly encoded in our genes, where each of us makes a decision, to live as fully as we can in this world of wonderment and loss, or to give our sense of incompleteness a human face -- that is, to embrace a divinity we address as Lord who embodies in an unrestricted way the human ideals of love and justice.

Oliver's "On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate" and Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" would together make excellent texts for any course in Religious Studies that professes to grapple with the primary existential question: Do we lift ourselves when we fall and try as best we can to make smooth the way, or do we cry out with the Psalmist, "The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down."

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."
Mary Oliver uses this passage from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers as epigraph for her 2006 collection of poems Thirst. The volume followed the death of her longtime partner Molly Malone Cook. Many of the poems are more frankly religious than her previous work, or her subsequent volume, in the sense that they embrace traditional religious language of celebration, sorrow, and amazement. "Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with/the fragrance of the fields and the/freshness of the oceans which you have/ made..." she writes.

The words she employs do not come easily to my lips. I have lived too long in the here and now -- in the joyous embrace of things -- to use language that carries an historical connotation of helplessness, servitude, longing for release. To cry out "Lord!" -- as Oliver does -- seems to me an admission that the grace of thisness is inadequate, even as the grace of thisness ebbs and flows in every cell of my body, in every leaf and stone and puddle along my path, in that huge orange disk, the Sun, that comes up now -- yes, just now -- like a fiery reminder that "Lord" is just a word, a marker, a placeholder for all we don't understand.

But I would not gainsay Oliver in her bereavement the use of language that has been for millennia the vessel of our wonderment. The Psalmist had a poet's tongue. The author of the Song of Songs knew more accurately than I the depth and breadth and height a soul can reach when feeling out of sight. "Oh, Lord,/ what a lesson/ you send me/ as I stand/ listening," Oliver writes, and I know exactly what she means.

And as for that epigraph. I love the modesty with which Abba Joseph confesses his piety. As far as I can. What else can I do? And the simplicity of Abba Lot's advice. Burn! Let each of your fingertips be alive to the world, he says. Let each of your words be as a votive flame, expressing your heart's desire for a fullness we can only dimly perceive, even as it engulfs us on every side. "Lord, I will learn also to kneel down/ into the world of the invisible,/ the inscrutable and the everlasting," writes Mary Oliver. And in my robust agnosticism, I say Amen.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why not?

A few days ago reader Liz asked: "If we are all one and made out of the same material -- then the things that we make are made out of the same material. But they are not animate. Why not?"

At first glance, this might seem like a naive question, one that we all know the answer to. On reflection, it turns out to be terribly profound. Or should I have said, "wonderfully profound"?

Yes, everything, animate and inanimate, is made of the same stuff -- the 92 naturally-occurring elements -- but all of the animate things we know about are made mainly of carbon compounds -- carbon in combination with with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and a smattering of other elements -- the compounds we study in organic chemistry. Carbon atoms have a knack for joining up in a rich variety of ways.

But all things made of carbon compounds are not animate. The petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries produce gobs of carbon-based products that are not alive, including paints and explosives.

Of course, some things we make are animate. Babies. Gardens. And we use animate matter to make inanimate things. Bread. Yogurt. Antibiotics. It is probably only a matter of time before researchers make animate matter from inanimate stuff -- life in a test-tube (but then, since researchers were involved, you can say this is also life making life). And we have made some rather remarkable life simulations in computers. But none of this answers Liz's question.

Life makes life, that's part of its definition. But what is it?

The biologist Lynn Margulis with her son Dorian Sagan tried to answer the question in their book What Is Life? They give a terrific scientific accounting of what we know, but when it comes down to answering Liz's question they are reduced to such definitions as: "a material process, sifting and surfing over matter like a strange, slow wave"; "the watery, membrane-bound encapsulation of spacetime"; "a planetary exuberance"; "existence's celebration." None of which get us any closer to the heart of the mystery.

Biologists have long ago given up the idea of a "vital spirit" or "spark of life," which really added no more to our understanding than the gushy exuberances of Margulis and Sagan. We have every reason to believe that "the spark of life" is matter and energy -- in effect, a self-perpetuating, self-catalyzing chemical reaction. But we don't know how the reaction got started and why it sustains itself as it does.

This we do know: It is going on in every one of the trillions of cells of my body even as I write -- each cell a ceaseless hive of activity, each cell a tiny crucible containing a smidgen of that ongoing chemical reaction that has animated the surface of the planet for four billion years, and maybe animates the universe.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Madness and reality

The APOD recently was Van Gogh's Starry Night, painted in southern France in September, 1889. The artist was in an asylum at St.-Remy, following a severe mental crisis. He left St.-Remy on May 16, 1890 for Auvers, near Paris, where he committed suicide two months later.

Some time ago, Harvard astronomer Charles Whitney (now retired) and UCLA art historian Albert Boime (recently deceased) considered several of van Gogh's paintings from the astronomical point of view, especially "Starry Night on the Rhone" and "Starry Night." They used planetariums to reconstruct past skies, and traveled to France to observe the sky from the places where van Gogh experienced it. They found several elements of scientific realism in the paintings.

In the spiraling swirls of "Starry Night" Whitney and Boime see the influence of Lord Rosse's 1845 drawing of the spiral galaxy M51, known as the Whirlpool galaxy. They guess that van Gogh may have seen a representation of Lord Rosse's sketch in the works of the French astronomical popularizer Camille Flammarion.

As Boime makes clear, Van Gogh was keenly interested in astronomy, cartography, and science in general. He was also an exact observer of the night. In a letter to his sister, van Gogh says that "certain stars are citron-yellow, others have a pink glow, or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance"; stars do indeed exhibit these colors, but only to a careful observer. On this and other evidence, Whitney concludes that van Gogh had excellent night vision.

Nevertheless, van Gogh's skies are unlike any I have seen. His stars are whirling vortices of color, not cold points of distant light. Blue-black night yields in the paintings to torrents of yellow and green. Moons burn with the positive vitality of suns. Space seethes with the energy of flame.

Many people suppose that van Gogh's vertiginous paintings of the night are a product of his madness. Art historian Ronald Pickvane rejects this interpretation: "Between his breakdowns at the asylum [van Gogh] had long periods of absolute lucidity, when he was completely master of himself and his art. That his mind was informed and imaginative, interpretive and highly analytical can be seen in the way he assessed his own work."

From the barred window of his room at the asylum, van Gogh had an unobstructed view of the night sky. His insomnia gave him ample opportunity to observe the stars. What he put onto canvas was more than what he saw, and more than what a computer or planetarium can reconstruct. In one of his letters he wrote: "I should be desperate if my figures were great longing is to make these incorrectnesses, these deviations, remodelings, changes of reality that they may become, yes, untruth if you like -- but more true than literal truth."

The painter Georges Braque said: "Art is meant to disturb. Science reassures." The color-splashed, starry vortices of van Gogh's nighttime paintings certainly disturb. They disturb because they evoke something that in our less exalted way we recognize as truer than literal truth. The whirlwind stars of "Starry Night" draw us up into a beautiful, terrifying, uncertain universe -- a universe in which the individual must sometimes struggle to find security and meaning. Knowing that these wildly turbulent images contain an element of scientific realism is only mildly reassuring.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dragon teeth

On a beach in Sidon a bull was aping a lover's coo. It was Zeus. He shuddered, the way he did when a gadfly got him. But this time it was a sweet shuddering. Eros was lifting a girl onto his back: Europa.

How did it all begin? That's the question that Roberto Calasso asks again and again at the beginning of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, his retelling of Greek myths. The book begins with Zeus, disguised as a white bull, carrying off Europa -- a familiar enough story, at least to the Greeks, who often started their stories with the abduction of a beautiful girl by a randy god. The book ends with the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, the Phoenician prince and the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, at which all the gods attend. And then depart. To wherever it is gods go when they are no longer necessary. Cadmus, the Phoenician, had given humans a gift. A gift that meant more than a bevy of gods. The alphabet.

With which the Greeks created western civilization.

Sixteen squiggles. Later expanded to twenty-four. Vowels and consonants. Squiggles that gave their possessors the power to create literature, law, history, science. No wonder the gods absconded. Divine immortality was no longer necessary to insure that human achievements were not forgotten. The twenty-four squiggles conferred their own kind of immortality.

On a beach in Sidon a bull was aping a lover's coo. It was Zeus. He shuddered, the way he did when a gadfly got him. But this time it was a sweet shuddering. Eros was lifting a girl onto his back: Europa.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Milkmaid redux -- from Anne

(Click, then click again to enlarge.)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Through thick and thin

You hear a lot about "thin places" these days, especially in the context of "Celtic spirituality." Thin places are geographical locales where the veil between this world and the otherworld is -- well, thin. Porous, permeable. Places where you are more likely to encounter the Divine. Mostly our lives are circumscribed by the adamant materiality of the natural world. We are enclosed in a prison of "is-ness." But in thin places we need only open our hearts and the wall of Is-ness crumbles and the supernatural is revealed in all of its gauzy grandeur.

Or so say the seekers of thinness.

I've had my own encounters with "Celtic spirituality," and found much to admire -- as readers of Climbing Brandon will know. But I didn't climb Mount Brandon -- one of Ireland's "holy mountains" -- those many dozens of times seeking a thin place. Rather, I was looking for a thick place. A place where the is-ness of the world is rich and deep. A place where one can scratch and dig and uncover more and more layers of is-ness. I wasn't looking for the supernatural; I was looking for more of the here and now.

It has been my general impression that those folks who claim to see beyond the veil to some more transcendent reality are only finding what was already in their heads -- not through a glass darkly, but in a mirror brightly. The Divine they encounter beyond the veil always seems to bear a striking resemblance to themselves.

My own experience is that the more I pull aside the veils, the more I discover of the possibly infinite thickness of things. Maybe I lack the spiritual sensitivity of the thin-place seekers, but -- I keep scratching, digging deeper, uncovering wonders in every strata. Natural wonders. Is-ness wonders. An inexhaustible munificence.

I also believe this: One need not go gallivanting across the planet seeking thick places. Every place is as thick as we make it. One need only pay attention.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Picking and choosing

I watched "Darwin's Darkest Hour" the other night, a two-hour Nova program on PBS. Good, but not great, mainly because it compresses so much of Darwin's life into such a short interval of time, centering around Darwin receiving Wallace's preemptory paper on natural selection in 1858. The story basically unfolds as a long conversation (with flashbacks) between Darwin and his wife Emma. Central to Darwin's "darkest hour" are the deaths of two children, beloved ten-year-old Annie in 1851, and the infant Charles in 1858.

Annie died of what is presumed to have been tuberculosis. Baby Charles of scarlet fever. Both children would almost certainly have lived today. It was, of course, the very same methodology that Darwin used to arrive at his theory of evolution by natural selection that led to the medical advances that would have let his children live. No doubt Emma earnestly prayed for the childrens' recovery.

It was Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton who first compiled data to show that prayer was inefficacious in effecting cures or prolonging life ("Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer," 1872). To this day, not a shred of non-anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of prayer has emerged. Meanwhile, medical science has proceeded by leaps and bounds.

And so it is that the creationists pick and chose their science. They are quick to embrace modern medicine and technology, even though those advances in human knowledge derive from the same methodological apparatus as does our knowledge of the age of the Earth, evolution by common descent, and natural selection.

Darwin consistently followed his methodology wherever it led him, even into a robust agnosticism. Emma remained true to her Christian beliefs. She also remained true to her love for Charles, even as she lamented that his agnosticism might mean their separation in eternity. As the NOVA program indicated, she supported him unflinchingly, even after his death.

This new program is not a patch on the superb seven-part BBC series of 1978, The Voyage of Charles Darwin. Magnificent! Why the BBC has not issued the series on DVD, I don't know. Is it available anywhere on the internet?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Living on Google Earth

I offered a little geography quiz in Comments the other day -- identifying the background terrain in an APOD of the International Space Station. After drawing a blank myself, I posed the question to son Tom. He guessed correctly immediately. Tom is the family's geography whiz.

Forty-seven years ago, when I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, living in graduate housing with my wife and two toddlers, I distracted myself from the long hours of study and research by constructing a 4x8 foot relief map of the world. Out of cardboard and Play-Doh. Yes, Play-Doh. Bad choice. It gets hard, but in high humidity goes soft again. In low humidity it shrinks and cracks.

But never mind. It worked well enough, and the wall-sized map followed us to New England where it hung in the dining room as the kids (eventually four) grew up. We entertained ourselves at dinner by playing highly competitive geography games. Tom was the youngest, and the quietest, but he soaked it all up. And apparently kept soaking it up long after the map was consigned to the cellar and the kids dispersed to lives of their own. When Google Earth came along, he already had it all in his head.

Son Dan subsequently rescued the map from the cellar and beautifully restored it. Here is a photo I asked him to take. Click to enlarge.

Meanwhile, Tom and I enjoy sending each other Google Earth posers. Here is an image he sent me recently. Can you guess where it is? Click to enlarge. And, as Carmen suggested, a book to the first to get it, if he/she wants it.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

That savage of fire, that seed...

Let me say this as simply as I can.

The Sun, like the universe, is mostly hydrogen. An atom of hydrogen is a single proton and a single electron, bound together.

The center of the Sun is so hot -- half-a-million miles of overbearing matter -- that the electrons and protons can't hold together (try holding hands in a surging, tumultuous crowd), so what you have is a hot soup -- a plasma -- of protons and electrons, flailing about independently.

The electrical force between like charges is repulsive, so every time two protons approach each other they swerve away. But protons are also subject to the strong nuclear force, which is attractive, and stronger than the electrical force at very close range. Normally, if two protons approach each other, they are repelled before they get close enough for the strong nuclear force to kick in.

But now heat up the soup. The protons whiz about faster. If they are moving fast enough, they can approach closely enough for the strong nuclear force to bring them crashing together. Fusion. How hot? About 10 million degrees, which is the sort of temperature you'd find at the center of the Sun.

When two protons combine, one flings off its positive charge and becomes a neutron. Then the proton-neutron pair combines with another proton to form a helium-three nucleus -- two protons and a neutron -- which quickly unites with another of the same and throws off two protons to become a helium-four nucleus -- two protons and two neutrons. Got that? Hydrogen is fused into helium.

The ejected positive charges go off as positrons (antielectrons), which meet up with electrons in the soup and annihilate. (There are neutrinos involved too, but let's ignore them.)

Now for the bookkeeping.

Add up the mass of the original particles in each interaction -- six protons and two electrons -- and add up the mass of the final particles -- a helium-four nucleus and two protons. After the orgy of combination, some mass is missing! For each individual interaction as just described the amount of missing mass is miniscule, but in the seething caldron that is the Sun's core it amounts to four billion kilograms of vanished mass every second. Hardly missed by our star -- like a thimbleful of water dipped from the ocean -- but for the Earth it is the difference between day and night. Hydrogen has been turned into helium and the vanished mass appears as energy. A lot of energy. The famous Einstein equation: Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.

The star shines!

The universe blazes with light and life.

And, knowing this -- and just think what a thing it is that we know it -- how is it that we whine and carp and glower? How is it that we snipe and cavil and rue our fates and that of the world? Wallace Stevens answers ironically in his poem "Gubbinal," smothers us in irony actually:
That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

That tuft of jungle feathers,
That animal eye,
Is just what you say.

That savage of fire,
That seed,
Have it your way.

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.
(The image of the Sun's surface is from the TRACE satellite telescope. Click to enlarge. As for that word "gubbinal," your guess is as good as mine.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


I time my arrival at the college every morning to the opening of the dining area in the Commons, 7 AM. Not that there are many students up at this time. I get my coffee and croissant and retire to a quiet corner with my laptop. And so it is that my posts appear at about 11:30 UT.

My walk along The Path from the village to the campus occupies the previous hour, and fall is the best time of year, when my walk coincides with sunrise.

Dawn! Venus blazing in the East. Vees of Canada geese honking over head, half their bellies gilded by the Sun. I walk into that screen of light, that gate of gold.
...Then the sun,
Orange, red, red erupted.

Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,

And the big planets hanging...

(from Ted Hughes, The Horses)
Imagine the Sun as a basketball (actually a million miles wide). On this scale, the Earth would be a pinhead about 26 meters away. The Sun pours out its energy in every direction. Only the part that falls upon the pinhead can we count as ours. It would be nice to think that the Sun burns for us alone, but the vast majority of its bounty is destined for deep space.

All of this we have known for a long time. But knowing and imagining are two different things. One can read this stuff on the page of a book -- or work it out one's self -- and still not grasp its significance. But I have seen those TRACE images, some of them movies. I have seen the scale and the power of those solar storms, those fountains of fire. And now, in this auroral hour, I walk toward the open door of the furnace, dead ahead, into the silent, flung animating fire.

Monday, October 05, 2009


A week or so ago, I wrote about Vermeer's The Milkmaid, now anchoring a mini-show at the MoMA in New York. Whenever I write about a painting, I make it my desktop so that I live with it for a while, at least until the next painting comes along. And so it is with the Milkmaid. I almost feel that I know her. (You can see the painting by following the link above; click to enlarge.)

But what keeps focusing my attention is the stream of milk pouring from the pitcher, a detail I show here. The pitcher is ever so slightly tipped; the milk is precisely horizontal and vertical. And look how the artist has depicted the constriction of the stream just below the pitcher's lip, and how with delicate shading he has indicated the stream's corkscrew twist --- all features of actual liquid streams. This is clearly a man with an exact eye for the world. He has seen what most of us are oblivious to.

Vermeer painted The Milkmaid in about 1658, at the age of 27 or thereabouts. He was born in 1632, the year before Galileo was ordered to stand trial for heresy. He died in 1675, the year Newton published his Hypothesis of Light. Vermeer was the contemporary of his fellow citizen of Delft, Anthony van Leewenhoek, the famed microscopist, whose simple instrument revealed an unexplored universe of the very small.

Fraancis Bacon had recently emphasized the role of exact observaton in the quest for reliable knowledge of the world: "Men have sought to make a world from their own conception and to draw from their own minds all the material which they employed, but if, instead of doing so, they had consulted experience and observation, they would have the facts and not opinions to reason about, and might have ultimately arrived at the knowledge of the laws which govern the material world."

Vermeer's brief lifetime was an age of learning to see. Spectacles, telescopes, microscopes: In all of this the Dutch excelled. I wonder to what extent the widespread manufacture and use of eyeglasses was a driving force of the Scientific Revolution. I like to imagine that constriction of the milk stream in Vermeer's painting -- precisely observed and touchingly rendered -- as the axis on which the Scientific Revolution turned.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Surfaces and depths

On Friday, Anne sent me this pic called "After Monet." As it happened, I was at that moment writing my Monet post of yesterday. A sibling psychic synchronicity? Click to enlarge.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Into the deep

Recently, I mentioned Monet's "Water Lilies" on the same day the APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) was a spectacular panorama of the region of the constellation Orion between the belt and the scabbard. It occurred to me to juxtapose the two images. (Click to enlarge.)

The one, on a scale of meters. The other, on a scale of tens of light-years. A difference of 17 orders of magnitude.

Monet said of his work: "Everyone discusses [my art] and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love."

He shortchanges understanding.

The first question of the old catechism asks: "Why did God make me?" The answer: "To know, to love, to serve." Understanding is a prerequisite to love, and love is an invitation to greater understanding. The two are inseparable. The naturalist John Burroughs, who was Monet's almost exact contemporary (and late-life look-alike), said, "To know is not all, it is only half. To love is the other half."

The painting of the pond at Giverny and the Orion photograph invite us into the depths of nature, there to encounter as through a glass darkly the source (or sources) of our wonderment. Anyone who looks at Monet's water lily paintings (of which there are many) or the Hubble photographs of the universe, say, and is not stuck dumb with love is simply not paying attention. But to love without understanding is only half. Art and science are our left foot and our right foot as we go praising through the world.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The rural Pan

When Mole and Rat are rowing on the night river in search of the lost baby otter, and listening to the wind in the reeds, they have a vision -- exhilarating, terrifying -- of the great god Pan, helper, healer, with his panpipes and horns and cloven feet. Pan, who embodies all that is beautiful and dangerous about the natural world. Who vanishes with the first rays of dawn, leaving Mole and Rat wondering what it was they saw.

In 1891, seventeen years before the publication of The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame published an essay titled "The Rural Pan," in which he lamented the violation of the English countryside by railroads, steam launches, and the buzz and bother of modernity. A few haunts remain, he wrote, where "the rural Pan is hiding, and piping the low, sweet strain that reaches only the ears of a chosen few." In these places "Pan and his following may hide their heads for yet a little longer, until the growing tyranny has invaded the last common, spinney, and sheep-down, and driven the kindly god, the well-wisher to man -- whither?"

Well, a little while longer yet. In recent years I have twice walked a hundred miles across England, first solo along the Prime Meridian, and then this past spring along the Ridgeway with sons Dan and Tom. Grahame took his inspiration for his chapter on "The Open Road" -- in which Toad takes Mole and Rat for an excursion in a horse-drawn gypsy wagon "over grassy downs and along narrow by-lanes" -- from his own walks along the Ridgeway. As you can see from the Gallery pics of our Ridgeway walk, much of the English countryside remains pretty much as Grahame knew it, due to the remarkable preservation efforts of the Brits.

Little did Grahame know when he wrote his "Rural Pan" essay that in only a few years the first motorcars would begin their invasion of his beloved countryside. By the time The Wind in the Willows appeared in 1906, a motorcar ("Poop-poop!") was there to drive Mr. Toad's gypsy caravan into the ditch, an event that led the irrepressible Toad to rush out and buy his own machine.

Both of my walks took me over grassy downs and along narrow by-lanes, along the banks of reedy rivers and canals, through wild woods dense with bluebells. My hat is off to the British, who against a surging tide of technology-obsessed humanity, have preserved those commons. spinneys and sheep-downs where the rural Pan can still find refuge, piping the low, sweet strain that reaches the ears of those few who seek it.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Such music I never dreamed of...

You may remember the wonderful chapter in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In the Willows -- The Piper at the Gates of Dawn -- when Rat and Mole go rowing on the night river in search of the young otter. As first light tints the horizon, Rat hears a delicious piping: "O, Mole!," cries Rat. "The beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us." And Mole, greatly wondering, obeys. "I hear nothing myself," he said, "but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers."

If the previous paragraph sounds familiar, it is because I am quoting an earlier post. It comes back to me now because I am reading Annie Gauger's just-published The Annotated Wind in the Willows, a big, beautiful doorstop of a book that will tell you more than you ever wanted to now about the children's classic.

We learn from Gauger that Grahame had a hard time finding a publisher; editors thought the book tedious and silly. If he had not already had a few big publishing successes it seems unlikely that The Wind in the Willows would ever have seen the light of day. So what is the appeal of the book? Why did it succeed lavishly and why does it endure? Perhaps it is nostalgia for a world that has passed away, a world of rivers and wild woods and willow beds and reedy islands -- "the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping." Mole, and Rat and Badger, as anthropomorphized by Grahame, connect us to our childhood innocence, to a romantic landscape that can only exist outside of the time and space of our actual lives.

I wrote yesterday of Humphry Davy, one of the most creative scientists of the early 19th century. Davy associated his love of science with his early fascination with stories. "After reading a few books [as a child]," he wrote, "I was seized with the desire to narrate...I gradually began to invent, and form stories of my own. Perhaps this passion has produced all my originality. I never loved to imitate, but always to invent: this has been the case in all the sciences I have studied" Then he added: "Hence many of my errors."

Albert Einstein said something similar: "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking." The best time -- perhaps the only time -- to acquire the gift of fantasy is childhood.

Remember? Remember the piping that Rat heard on the river? We heard it as children, until the adults closed our ears by filling our heads with useful sense. We heard the piping, which is the unfathomable mystery of the world, beautiful and distant, until our parents and teachers and pastors stopped up our ears with answers. What they did was necessary, I suppose. We can't go through the world in a dreamy reverie, not this world, with its rush and certainty and bother. Soon we were made to understand that the magical music we heard as children is only the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.

Only! The piping that Rat hears on the river is indeed the wind in the reeds, but it is not only. Nothing is only. When we get caught up in the only we cease to wonder. And when we cease to wonder, we might as well not be on the river at all.