Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Pandora Kid

I watched the film Avatar last evening. Mainly because I wanted to see what sort of thing is going on in animation these days. I'm so far out of the loop that I'm not even sure what CGI stands for (although I can guess).

The film was a long slog. Shock-and-awe meets Pocahontas. All those pretty blue people sitting around their holy shrine grooving on cosmic vibrations gave me the creeps. New-Agey schlock and aww. But I gotta admit the animation (if that's what you call it) was mightily impressive.

Again, that just shows how far I am behind the curve. The last computer game I played was Pong.

You want to see how far behind the curve? Here's the animation that registers among my earliest memories, Mickey Mouse as The Klondike Kid (1932). I must have seen it a hundred times, silently projected onto the silver screen in our living room in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by my Dad's 8-mm Keystone projector. And -- lo and behold -- I can watch it now on YouTube, with sound, no less.

And here's the kicker: I remember every scene -- vividly. Seventy years later it's as faithfully recorded in my synapses as it is on YouTube.

Mickey drinking beer! Besting "Pegleg" Pete. Smooching Minnie. If I may say so, it's a minor work of genius that Avatar, for all its CGI glitz, doesn't approach. Now that I think of it, it's pretty much the same plot, although Avatar's female lead Neytiri takes a rather more active role in besting the villain than did Mickey's Minnie.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Wright stuff

Many years ago I wrote a Globe column debunking astrology. A letter to the editor took issue with my conclusion. The author wrote: "Raymo's argument against astrology is the usual one: astrology can be done away with by simply declaring it irrational. In other words, if we cannot understand why it works, it must not work. The same flawed argument could be used against electromagnetism, particle physics and the force of gravity, with equally senseless results."

It's true. I don't understand in any ultimate sense why electromagnetism, particle physics, or gravity works. No one does. But the point is this: Electromagnetism, particle physics, and gravity do work, in a way that astrology does not. Experiments of the most exquisite sensitivity can be devised to test the former theories, experiments that can be performed by believers and skeptics alike with identical results. Radio communication, nuclear power, and the space program are testaments to the fact that electromagnetism, particle physics, and gravity work. Astrologers can offer nothing but anecdotal and irreproducible evidence for the effectiveness of astrology.

I regret to say that Robert Wright uses something of the same flawed argument in the last chapter of The Evolution of God, in his sincere but ultimately fruitless attempt to salvage some shred of the traditional divine from his own demolition job.

Physicists have only the vaguest idea of what an electron really is, says Wright. A particle? A wave? A quantum quandary? They believe there is somethingthere, but conceive of it only imperfectly.
Yet what exactly is the difference between the logic of their belief in electrons and the logic of a belief in God? They perceive patterns in the physical world -- such as the behavior of electricity -- and posit a source of these patterns and call that source the "electron." A believer in God perceives patterns in the moral world (or, at least, moral patterns in the physical world) and calls the source "God."
Wright then goes on to flesh out the analogy, tying himself in knots as he does so.

Electrons, as we imperfectly conceive them, may or may not exist, but something makes a picture on our TV screens, something is flowing or not flowing through the silicon gates of our computers, and it's something that we (believers and skeptics alike) can repeatedly, reproducibly measure the mass and charge of to an impressive degree of precision. The moral order? Wright himself admits that natural selection might be enough to account for empathy and altruism (he wrote a book on the subject). Miracles? Answered prayers? Zippo evidence that a skeptic can observe, much less reproduce.

To Wright's credit (and this is a good book), he knows his argument is weak. In fact, he is his own best critic. His final sentences are these:
You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn't have to be crazy to say it,

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The evolution of God

I had promised myself not to read (or write!) any more books on science and religion, and here I am plowing through Robert Wright's The Evolution of God. Wright is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades -- journalist, editor, teacher, blogger. In previous incarnations of my own life I read and favorably reviewed his three previous books, The Moral Animal, Three Scientists and Their Gods and Nonzero. He's sharp, knowledgeable, balanced, insightful. I decided to give his new book a go.

He pretty much does what I suggested last week as the course of my own intellectual development: Go back to the evolutionary roots of religion and bushwhack one's way to the present. And so he begins with tribal anthropomorphic gods, and follows the evolution of the divine from the animistic spirits of hunter-gatherers, to the pantheons of the first empires, and on from polytheism to "monolatry" to the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Wright sees these developments in a positive light, as movement towards a notion of the divine that is more compatible with science and with interfaith tolerance and understanding. Robert, good luck!

So what is the God he ends up with? It's not anthropomorphic. It doesn't answer prayers or jigger the course of history. It's…

Well, it's hard to say. Wright dismisses "ultimate reality" and Tillich's "ground of being" as uselessly vague. So how about "God is love"? That has the advantage of crediting God as the source of the moral order, and imbuing "Him" with an aura of metaphorical personhood. But Wright has already established to his (and our) satisfaction that the qualities of human love -- empathy, attachment, altruism, and so on -- are readily explained by natural selection, and are shared to some extent by other species. So what's the point? "God" then becomes just another word for something that already has a perfectly adequate name. After 450 pages of demolishing anthropomorphic notions of the divine, we are right back where we started.

To be fair, Wright is aware of these criticisms. In his last chapter he tries to pull God out of his (Wright's) own fire by a single hair of the Old Fellow's head, but his argument collapses into such a stew of equivocations and qualifications that an agnostic, or even a hard-boiled atheist, can close the book with a smug smirk.

Still, it's a good read. Wright has the skepticism of Dawkins, et. al., without the hostility. His interpretation of the history of religion is one of optimistic progress towards the true and good, with science and the Golden Rule as his useful guides.

Monday, September 27, 2010


In one of his always delightful essays, Stephen Jay Gould traced the "evolution" of Mickey Mouse from the time of his creation by Disney, in 1928, to the mouse we know today. The early Mickey was a bit of a rascal -- mischievous, occasionally cruel. And he looked more or less like a real adult mouse: small head in proportion to body, pointy nose compared to cranial vault, beady eyes, spindly legs. As time passed, Mickey's personality softened and his appearance changed. Head and cranium became enlarged, eyes grew to half the size of the face, limbs got pudgier. Gould elucidated the evolutionary principle behind Mickey's transformation: It is called neoteny, or progressive juvenilization.

Mickey became a national symbol, and Americans like their national symbols cute and cuddly. Mickey's chronological age did not change, but he developed babyish features. To explain these perhaps unconscious developments on the part of Disney's artists, Gould referred to the work of animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz, who believed that juvenile facial and body features release "innate triggering mechanisms" for affection and nurturing in adult humans. The adaptive value of this response is obvious, since the nurturing of young is necessary for survival of the species. According to Lorenz, evolution has provided us with a caring response to juvenile features, a genetically-programmed reaction that apparently overflows onto other species.

If Lorenz is right, teddy bears and Andy Pandas are beneficiaries of our innate nurturing response to big eyes, round craniums, and pudgy limbs. Mickey Mouse evolved juvenile features in response to our evolved preference for all things cute and cuddly

Sunday, September 26, 2010

After Descartes

A reprise from Anne. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Under the golden bough

These days I spend my time with my laptop in a comfy chair in a quiet corner of the college library. It's my idea of heaven, I suppose: a pension, a comfy chair, and two-hundred-and-fifty thousand books.

Like most libraries, our two floors of stacks consist of three-foot-wide shelving units arranged in long rows. If I had to reduce the collection to just one of those units, which would it be?

I would have to think of the students the library is meant to serve. My own personal choice might be something in the QHs or PSs, natural history or American literature. But thinking back on my own intellectual adventure, I'll nominate that unit of shelves that begins with Bob Park's rollicking, thumb-in-your-eye Superstition: Belief in an Age of Science (BL240.3.p37) and ends with Karen Armstrong's foundational work on the history of religion The Great Transformation (BL430.A76).

There's some neat stuff among these 163 books. Nineteenth-century classics like Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology and Sir James Fraser's The Golden Bough. Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God and The Hero With A Thousand Faces.. Claude Levi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked. Mircea Eliade's Myth and Reality. Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend's Hamlet's Mill. Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers. A. N. Wilson's God's Funeral.

Which is to say: It doesn't make much sense thinking about where we are unless we know how we got here. Just as you and I are products of the cultural milieu in which we were raised and came to maturity, so that cultural milieu has a history. How many American Christians, say, who are convinced they have the truth ever stop to consider what religion they would espouse with equal ardor had they been born in Qom or Delhi? My own default agnosticism was no doubt nourished by some of the books listed above, which I fell into more or less by accident as a young man. Not a bad thing, I think. Why not start with the roots of things and bushwhack a self-made path to the present?

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Know thyself"

The ancient Greek aphorism, attributed to Socrates and others. Good advice, I'm sure. If only we knew what it means.

Is it the same as the "examination of conscience" we were asked to perform as young Catholics? "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." Well, yes, it is good to ask ourselves if we have lived up to our highest moral aspirations. But surely "Know thyself" means more than that.

Does it mean to be aware of our self-awareness? That is to say, not to act impulsively, but reflectively. Thoreau's "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Or perhaps it means to apply the method of scientia to the problem of consciousness, treat the mind like a fish that can be dissected at the lab bench, watch the brain flickering on the display of a scanning machine as the subject is stimulated with love, sex, fear, music, pain. Neuroscience. Daniel Dennet's book audaciously titled Consciousness Explained.

There is a line from a poem by Jane Hirshfield, in which she questions herself: "A knife cannot cut itself open,/ yet you ask me both to be you and to know you."

Is it hopeless then? Is there an essential absurdity in a thing knowing itself? Does knowing necessarily imply a knower more complex than the thing known? Is it possible that we might fully understand, say, the neurology of the sea slug Aplysia, that favorite subject of experimental neurobiologists with only 20,000 central nerve cells, big nerve cells, ten times bigger than human neurons, but not the workings of the human brain, with its 100 billion nerve cells, each one connected to thousands of others?

Hirshfield's poem is titled "Instant Glimpsable Only For An Instant." Perhaps that is the best we can do. To know ourselves in those fleeting moments of recognition than come now and then, often unbidden, sometimes as the result of a chance encounter with beauty or with ugliness, sometimes bidden out of the silence and solitude of meditation -- a flash upon on one's inward eye that is, perhaps, all the ancients were asking for when they asked us to "know ourselves."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Under the surface

Somewhere, in something I have written, I recall quoting with approval this passage from Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire:
For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces -- in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child's hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl's thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind -- what else is there? What else do we need?
Pleased enough with surfaces. Yes, I know what I meant. Pleased enough with this world, here and now, this world of light and matter. Not wanting or needing that other world that occupies so many people, a world of supernatural agencies, spirits, disembodied presences. Give me a world I can see and hear and touch and taste. Give me a world with heft and substance, a world with surfaces that shine and shimmer. What else is there? What else do we need?

Well, maybe not.

Today I was scanning the current issues of Science and Nature, with their usual illustrations of the molecules of life, the nuclei acids and the proteins. The elaborate machinery that unseen, under the surface, endow the apple's flavor, the silk of skin, the abrasion of sand. Think of it. Atoms that are mere whiffs of resonance, binding into molecules, twisting and turning into endless shapes, fitting together like hand and glove, endlessly spinning and weaving, all without the slightest conscious participation on our part. Abbey's world of surfaces spun out of the mysterious, endlessly active, subsurface stuff of the world.

Pleased enough with surfaces? Not really. I want to know what's under the surface, that world of molecular frenzy that cannot be touched or seen, a world that in its own way is as beautiful and as meaningful as the macroscopic world we consciously inhabit. We don't need to know it. We can live a fulfilling life without knowing it. But I want to know it. I want to know what goes on behind the curtain of the senses. I want to hear that silent and ceaseless music of creation.

(The illustration is from M. Swierczek, et. al., "An Electronic Bus Bar Lies in the Core of Cytochrome bc1," Science 23 July, 2010.)

(P.S. Re: yesterday's post. I know there are ruby-throated hummingbirds in New England, but I have never seen one on campus, or along the Path. I thought you might enjoy this photo of a hummingbird nest and my thumb from our place in the Bahamas.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In the red

In the 1940s, the New York Botanical Garden asked a thousand North American botanists and naturalists to list the most conspicuous and interesting wildflowers in their region. More than 500 people responded and the cardinal flower ran away with the show. Who can resist that color, a red beyond red? Prince-of-the-Church red. Fire-engine red. Chili-pepper red. There's nothing else quite like it, at least not in my neck of the woods.

Which is why I'm pleased to discover a new colony of cardinal flowers strung out along the drainage ditch behind the college library (thanks, Sue). Not quite sure how they got there. They love to grow alongside streams. The flowing water spreads their seeds, but I don't know of any plants upstream of this particular colony. A few other places on campus, yes, but not here.

For plants, green is the color of making a living, harvesting energy from the sun. Green is nine-to-five, nose-to-the-grindstone, earning one's keep. Red is the color of reproduction -- something to attract hummingbirds and moths, those necessary partners in cardinal flower sex. Red is the color of lip-sticked lips, long-stemmed roses and valentines. Brazen, scarlet-letter red. I've never seen hummingbirds hereabouts, so the pollinators must be daytime moths with long mouth parts, although I have never seen a moth at one of our rare blossoms. What a clever sexual apparatus! Every cardinal flower blossom has first a male stage, then a female stage. The blossoms have a long tube containing nectar. When a moth or hummingbird stops by to drink, its forehead touches the overhanging male organ, a brush covered with yellow pollen. Then, on to another blossom, in the female stage, where the overhanging organ has a sticky tip to mop up pollen off the pollinator's forehead. And the red? Come hither. Sip. And inadvertently play your role in the unending dance of sex that makes the world go round.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Today Jupiter is at opposition -- exactly opposite the Sun in our sky. That is to say, the Earth is passing Jupiter in our respective orbits. We are hearing in the media that Jupiter is closer and brighter than at any time in 50 years. I've been asked by half-a-dozen people what to look for and where to look, as if tonight (or last night) is a once in a lifetime event.

The buzz is rather like the "Mars as big as the Moon" emails we get periodically.

Jupiter has been big and bright all summer. It will not look any different tonight to the unpracticed eye than it did than a month ago. And it looks pretty much the same every 13 months as we overtake Jupiter in our annual orbit.

If the (nearly circular) orbits of Earth and Jupiter were centered exactly on the Sun, Jupiter would look equally big and bright every 399 days.

But they are not perfectly centered, and Jupiter's orbit takes it sometimes a bit farther from the Sun (aphelion) and sometimes nearer (perihelion). Since Jupiter takes 12 years to orbit the Sun, it passes through perigee once every 12 years. And if Jupiter is at perigee when the Earth overtakes Jupiter in its orbit (opposition), then we make the closest possible approach. Which is nearly the case today.

Meanwhile, September nights are lovely. Step outside at midnight and look south. You won't have any trouble spotting Jupiter. It's brighter than any star. And if tonight is cloudy, try the next night, or the next, or the next. It will be almost as bright, though slowly fading.

And as you look, imagine what you can't see with the unaided eye, the swirling clouds of gas. Here is an image of Jupiter's surface taken by the Hubble in 2008, of the long-enduring Great Red Spot, the smaller "Red Spot Jr.", and a new red spot to the left of the big one. The Earth would fit neatly inside the Red Spot Jr. at lower left. Mark Rothko meets Georgia O'Keefe.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Half sick of shadows

Who is this woman? Her name is on the prow of her boat: The Lady of Shalott. (Click to enlarge.)

Yes, it's Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, from the poem of 1842, here illustrated by John William Waterhouse in 1888. By some unspecified curse this lovely maiden was confined to a tower…
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
…near Camelot, where, forbidden to look out the window, she observed the world in a mirror and wove what she saw into a tapestry.

So what is she doing in the boat, with her hand-stitched creation?

One day, Sir Lancelot rode by her tower alone. She saw him in the mirror and -- "half sick of shadows" -- couldn't resist turning to see him unreflected.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
His coal-black curls as on he rode…
The mirror cracked. She left her loom, descended from the tower, found a boat, inscribed her name on the prow, and…
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right --
The leaves upon her falling light --
Thro' the noises of the night
…cast off to drift downstream to Camelot ---and to Lancelot.

But curses are not to be foiled.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
We are all of us in a way the Lady of Shalott, all of us who seek to create an image of the world, artists, poets, scientists. We perceive the world through the filter of our limited senses, our biologically evolved brains, our nurtured preconceptions. We weave our tapestries, knowing that our creations are a reflection removed from reality. Our "curse" is to be in love with the real, yet never able to embrace it except in the cold glass of conceptualization. Our legacy? To be found in a boat lodged among the reeds, our tapestry draped across the thwart, with Camelot yet somewhere further down the stream, glistening, beckoning, inescapably out of reach.

But, ah, there's that gorgeous tapestry.

There is another curse, self made, and that is to mistake the mirrorworld for the world outside the window, to fail to recognize the contingency of our conceptualizations, to forego an honest seeking for the falsely found, and -- most ominously -- to want to impose our own mirrorworld on others.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book of Tea

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday pic.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A few more words on May Sarton

The poems of I quoted yesterday were written when May Sarton was about my age, 74. She lived to 83. Her last volume of verse, published in 1995, the year before she died, is called Coming Into Eighty.

I read them as if they are notes from the future.

The poems were mostly written in the dark hours of the night, forming themselves in the poet's head, written down in daylight. They are as slight as slips of paper, but weighty in their simplicity. They are, all of them, about death, even the one's that make no mention of that inevitable hour -- the deaths of friends, the increasing alienation of her own body, the pain. "These days/ Everything is an effort," she writes.

Melancholy? Yes. The poems are drenched in melancholy, the tidal waves of memories that come unbidden, overwhelming. The past closes in on the present, squeezing it down to a few essentials -- her cat, the birds at the feeder, the moon with Venus, a fall of snow. Call it, if you will, sanctifying grace. "That gift beyond our will,/ Makes earth a holy place."

She turns to the window, catches in her dazzled eye a scarlet tanager in the cherry tree:
I have travelled so far
Through time
To arrive at this moment

Friday, September 17, 2010

A 74th birthday musing

Time for a change,
Let silence in like a cat
Who has sat at my door
Neither wild nor strange
Hoping for food from my store
And shivering on the mat.
A stanza from a poem of May Sarton, written at just my age, and published in her collection The Silence Now. Silence is a theme -- the cat -- that stalked Sarton throughout her career as poet and novelist. Strange, for one so prolific with words, to be constantly looking over her shoulder at the wordlessness that followed, silently, on cat's paws. But I understand. Those millions of words I have written in nearly twenty books, hundreds of columns, essays and reviews, and here in this online journal for half-a-dozen years, seem now to be echoing back and forth, reverberating. I've written them all before. You've read them all before.

How many ways are there to say, as Sarton says, "I am suddenly transported here/ Into the always saving joy and thrust/ Of pure creation…"? And why say it when it has been said before, again and again? And all the while, silence waiting there. Clear time. Clear space. Apprehension -- grabbed by the hair, rung like a bell -- uncluttered by the felt need for expression.
It is the transient that touches me, old,
Those light-shot clouds as the sky clears,
A passing glory can still move to tears,
Moments of pure joy like some fairy gold
Too evanescent to be kept or told,
And the cat's soft footfall on the stair
Keeps me alive…
Sarton, by the way, was the daughter of the eminent historian of science, George Sarton.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cuddle and cudgel

Click on the image above to make it as big as you can on your screen. It's pretty, is it not? It is, in fact, an image of something invisibly small, so small and so beyond apprehension by the unaided senses that it can only be represented schematically, in his case as a TinkerToy construction of balls-and-sticks (upper right) and, more abstractly, as a multicolored ribbon (left).

Whasit? The stick-and-ball construction is the "cuddle" hormone, oxytocin. 43 carbon atoms, 66 hydrogens, 12 nitrogens, 12 oxygens, and 2 sulfurs: the basic TinkerToy set of organic chemistry. It's all in the way they go together; it's all a matter of shape.

The ribbon is the carrier protein neurophysin, that links with oxytocin and carries it from its source in the hypothalamus to receptors. Oxytocin mediates many responses, having to do with sexual arousal, lactation, mother-infant bonding, and so on. It is perhaps best known for promoting bonding between groups of individuals in many animals, including humans. Hence, "the cuddle hormone."

Research reported in a recent issue of Science (June 11) by Carsten De Dreu of the University of Amsterdam and colleagues confirmed that nasally administered oxytocin does indeed enhance altruism within parochial groups. More surprisingly, it also promoted defense mechanisms against those outside the group. Not just cuddle, but "tend and defend."

The study, by the way, involved only male participants; it would be interesting to repeat with female subjects.

It is increasingly apparent that humans have evolved the biochemical basis -- including oxytocin -- for cooperative behavior within local groups, and for defensive and aggressive behavior toward those outside the group. Which raises the question: How much of what we read in the newspapers is mediated by biochemistry over which we have little or no conscious control? How do we achieve a world of universal harmony when we have hormones kicking around in our brains that had a head start of tens of millions of years? That is to say: How can we get the tend without the defend?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A walk in the woods -- Part 2

Writing yesterday about a walk in the woods with my granddaughters, reminds me that I am currently reading British environmentalist Roger Deakin's Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, the posthumously published celebration of woods worldwide. Deakin's is a writer who should be better known in the States. He came to acclaim with Waterlog, a personal account of swimming the rivers and waterways of Britain. He was an ardent advocate of keeping the countryside and waterways of Britain open to ramblers and water enthusiasts. He died in 2006 of a brain tumor at age 63.

I am not so far into the book, and was reading this morning his chapter on bluebells, flowers that in the spring carpet the woodlands of England. Last year, on our Ridgeway walk across England, Tom, Dan and I were blown away by the beauty of the bluebell woods. The individual flowers are lovely, but in their thousands, with sunlight streaming through the canopy, one would think he had entered Fairyland. (Cllick pic to enlarge.)

Deakin's has much to say about Gerard Manley Hopkin's affection for the bluebell woods. "They came in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the land with vein-blue," the poet wrote in his journal. We walked the brows and slacks, mile after mile of sun-splattered blue, through countryside and woodlands that have been kept open to walkers through centuries of tradition and the advocacy of people such as Deakins. The notion that traditional right-of-ways through private land, many dating back to the middle ages, should be kept open to the public by law is utterly foreign to Americans. I suppose this is an aspect of the "Euro-socialism" that many Americans object to. If "Euro-socialism" means countryside like we experienced in England -- footpaths everywhere and not a strip mall in sight -- I say bring it on.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A walk in the woods

Out for a walk in the woods on Sunday with my two youngest granddaughters (nine and ten) and their mother. We were especially thrilled to discover lots of interesting mushrooms and lichens, and some lovely stands of Indian pipes. In a sun-struck sassafras grove I pointed out the curious fact that the sassafras tree has (uniquely?) three shapes of leaves, all on the same tree. I call them "hand," "mitten," and "glove," although I have heard New Englanders call them "lemon," "mitten," and "ghost." Boo! My daughter asked a question no one has asked me before, nor had I ever asked of myself.

Why three shapes of leaves?

I don't know. I can't imagine any selection advantage. Possibly some quirk of gene expression. When I got home I made a quick visit to the net, without success. Maybe bromegrass, our master surfer, can unearth the relevant biology. In any case, the three-shaped leaves endow the woods with one more story to share with grandkids.

Why is the plant called sassafras? That's easier. The name comes from the Latin, saxum fragans, "stone breaker"; the plant was a traditional remedy for kidney stones. Curiously, nearby we found some pipsissewa, a small evergreen plant of the forest floor, with its own string of esses, The name comes from the Native American (Cree) words for "it-breaks-into-small-pieces," another reference to kidney stones.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The hall of the flat beasts

As long time readers here will know, the Natural History Museum in London has a special place in my heart. For a year (1968-69) I lived next door and that great Victorian pile on the Cromwell Road, with its endless corridors and nooks and crannies, with free admission, was a constant playground for me and my young family.

Things have changed a bit since then. The place has leapt ahead into the 21st century. Animatronic dinosaurs now stalk galleries once given over to musty stuffed animals. I suppose the changes are all to the good, but a museum visit is now more akin to a Disneyesque theme park experience than to a expedition with Humboldt into the wilds of the Orinoco.

But the last time I was there, one thing hadn't changed: the galley of the ichthyosaurs. They are still swimming from left to right, as they were dug out of the rocks by Mary Anning and her 19th-century contemporaries. One ichthyosaur specimen contains six unborn young inside its body, and another has three unborn young with the almost perfect impression of a fourth being born tail first just as the mother died. A specimen from Anning's Lyme Regis has bits of another ichthyosaur between its teeth, part of the creature’s last meal. To move along the gallery from specimen to specimen is like being taken back two hundred million years to vanished seas teeming with Loch Ness monsters -- eating, being eaten, mating, bearing young.

Today, in an adjacent room, an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex does its best at roaring a welcome, no doubt to the delight of visitors. Me -- I chose to sit with the flat, unanimated ichthyosaurs and imagine that I was with Mary Anning as she clambered the cliffs at Lyme Regis in her voluminous skirts, challenging the all-male geological establishment to recognize the significance of her finds -- finds that confirmed the yawning chasm of geological time.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Last spell

Click, and again, to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Returning to the States from a summer in Ireland, I'm jet-lagged for several weeks. I wake at 4 AM no matter how late I try to stay up in the evening. There's nothing to be done but get up, shower, dress, have a bowl of Honey Nut Flakes, and walk to college.

Once I'm up, I count myself lucky. My walk takes me through woods and meadows in the care of my town's Natural Resources Trust and, for a few jet-lagged weeks in September, I have those dawnlit acres all to myself.
Mist pools in the hollows of the meadow. The water in the brook slips under the bridge with a dreamlike languor. There is always the possibility that I'll see a grazing deer or two in the meadow; they'll bound into the underbrush at my approach, white tails flashing.

The world holds its breath.

At dawn, the atmosphere empties out its bag of optical tricks -- reflection, refraction, scattering -- to great effect, spilling sunlight over the horizon, parceling out components of the sun's white light in pale washes of color. The reeds along the pond and the trees at the back of the meadow are daubed like stage sets, eerie tints of rose and violet that are exquisitely sensitive to the quantity and kind of water vapor and pollution in the air.

A dozen twilight effects of air and light are listed by Fred Schaaf in his useful book, Seeing the Sky. Belgian astronomer Marcel Minnaert piles on more things to see at dawn in his teeming compendium, Light and Color in the Outdoors. These books make me realize that I go through life half-blind, with tricks of radiance occurring all about me. The auroral hour is prime time.

Jupiter dissolves in the west. At last the sun breaks the horizon and pours molten gold through the trees, across the meadow, and down along the path. Suddenly the sky is blue, the trees and grass are daytime green, and the world of human commerce wakes up with a bang. Early-rising joggers come loping along the path, earplugs connected to sound machines at their waist. As I reach the campus an ROTC platoon thunders by, voices and steps in cadence.

Friday, September 10, 2010


If this blog has a theme, it is this: Maintaining one's sense of the miraculous in a world without miracles.

Funny word, "miracle." The dictionary has as its primary definition "marvelous event due to some supernatural agency," which is how most people understand the word. To be canonized a saint, for example, one must be credited with three interventions (from the beyond) that cannot be explained by natural means. The agent of the intervention is God, who sets aside the laws of nature at the request of the saint, in answer to an earthly petition. The history of religions is pretty much a history of miracles in this sense, of a deity's interventions in the world. Never mind that for the skeptic not a single one of these supposed transgressions of the natural course of events stands up to scrutiny.

Enough! Let's don't beat that dead horse. Let those who want miracles in the supernatural sense have them.

It is the second dictionary definition that concerns me here: "remarkable occurrence." The word "miracle" derives from the Latin for "wonder." And that has been my goal in life: learning to stand astonished. Astonished at the ordinary. The commonplace. The everyday.

Carved into the pediment over the doorway of the Physics Building at UCLA when I was a graduate student there were words of Michael Faraday: "Nothing is too wonderful to be true." By which I take him to mean "miracles in the first sense don't happen." One could equally reverse the words: "Nothing is too true to be wonderful." The meaning is more or less the same, but now the difficulty is more apparent: How do we maintain a sense of wonder in the face of the commonplace? How do we learn to see the most ordinary of events shot through with mystery?

Many years ago, before I started writing for the Boston Globe, I had a column in the college newspaper called "Under a Skeptical Star." The phrase came from a line of the Scots poet/scholar William MacNeile Dixon: "If there be a skeptical star I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment." Let others have their miracles in the first, supernatural sense. To my dying hour I will struggle to keep alive my sense of astonishment at the "remarkable occurrence " of the ordinary.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Sic transit gloria mundi

I believe that once before I posted a photo here of my father and the model Spanish galleon he constructed at age 18. Here is another, which Tom has just unearthed in my aunt's trove of photos, the "Charchive." (Click to enlarge.)

I was not yet a twinkle in his eye, although maybe he already had his eye on the pretty girl across the street. But I see in the photo the father I knew -- the mischievous smile, the white shirtsleeves and baggy trousers, the aspiring mechanical engineer, the gift of handiness.

What you can't see in the photograph are the tiny cannons on their wheeled carriages, the hinged covers of the gun ports, the ladders between decks, the cabin doors, the intricate rigging. As I was growing up, the galleon sat in the basement of our home in Chattanooga, slowly disintegrating. I was always puzzled why he didn't take better care of it, keep it in a glass case perhaps. But no, it gathered dust. It listed to one side. It was battered by the storms of six children who touched it, sometimes carelessly, in awe and admiration. Rigging went slack, carriages lost their wheels, gun-port covers fell into the sea.

As I recall, the galleon sank into oblivion at about the time my father died at age 64. I have no idea of its final fate. How sad that it is not still with us, in an honored place in some grandchild's home, white sails billowing, prow faced gamely into the future. Humans, like empires, come and go. Genes and love endure.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Cn u rd ths?

I'm told I have a Facebook page, although I have no idea where it came from. I don't text. I don't Twitter.

This is not, I believe, because I'm a Luddite or an old fuddy-duddy. I enjoy, for example, the discipline of writing a mini-essay here each morning, and relish the idea that people from a dozen countries are kind enough to read, thanks to Goggle Blogger and the internet.

No, my antipathy to the new technologies of constant and instant communication has to do with language -- with respecting the wholeness and fullness of the mother tongue, its lush fabric of grammar and syntax, its etymological riches, its concatenations of sound. I cringe when I see or hear language being squeezed through a wire, its nap sheared, its soft tissue crushed. Communication is about more than the transfer of information. A thought well expressed is a thought well dressed (as Alexander Pope said in words to that effect). I love seeing ideas go into the world in a dandy suit of clothes.

In transit tomorrow, west across the Atlantic. Back on Thursday.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Honey from the hill

Peig Sayers' An Old Woman's Reflections is one of the classics in the Irish language. Peig married into the Blasket Island, a few miles off the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula in 1892, and lived within that tiny Irish-speaking community for 50 years. On the penultimate page of her book (translated by Seamus Ennis) she recalls happy times gathering turf on the high backbone of the island:
It was like honey for my poor tormented heart to rise up on the shoulder of the mountain footing the turf or gathering the sods on each other. Very often I'd throw myself back in the green heather, resting. It wasn't for bone-laziness I'd do it, but for the beauty of the hills and the rumble of the waves that would be grieving down from me, in dark caves where the seals of the sea lived -- those and the blue sky without a cloud travelling it, over me -- it was those made me do it, because those were the pictures most pleasant to my heart….
It was no easy life in that hard place, gathering sods for the smoky hearth where the woman of the house must cook the potatoes and warm the tea. In winter the island might be isolated from the mainland for weeks at a time.

Today, fast boats ferry tourists back and forth across the strait, and a museum/interpretive center on the mainland celebrates the remarkable contributions the islanders made to Irish literature. A few mainland farmers still cut turf, although they have tractors to get themselves to the bog and back with the sods. Every now and then we get some local turf to burn in our fireplace; it doesn't give much heat, but I'm told it smells deliciously sweet.

Peig is right about this: After a sweat it is particularly sweet to lie back in the heather and savor the beauty of the landscape. For me, that mostly means a hard climb up Mount Brandon or into one of the trackless corries on its flanks. What Peig and her fellow islanders did to stay alive, I and my walking companions do for the bone-aching challenge alone -- and for the pleasure that comes when we at last collapse on a sunlit summit or beside a rushing mountain stream and savor in our weariness "what is most pleasant to my heart." The harder the access, the sweeter the repose.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Porch light

Click (and then again if you wish) to enlarge Anne's musing.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

This knowing that unknows

It is one thing to say that all there is is the natural world, the universe of space and time, the myriad galaxies that astound us with their multitude -- as does our commenter Paul, whose robust agnosticism I greatly respect. Yet there remains the ever-nagging why.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are the laws of nature what they are? Why does the contemplation of this tiny spider mite crawling across my desk excite a sense of something deep and mysterious beyond my knowing?

The why has no answer, at least none that we yet know, and perhaps none that we will ever know, the universe being perhaps infinite and our brains (and their artificial extensions) finite.

So we are left with only the questions.

And they are the same questions that from time immemorial, in every culture, have given rise to the gods of myth. So universal has been our thrall to the gods that the very word -- god -- can be taken as a placeholder for the answers that lie beyond our reach.

To evoke the word "god" then -- for a naturalist -- is to assert a continuity with the history of our species -- the impulsive curiosity, the ceaseless questioning, the wonderment in the face of the sheer gratuitousness of existence.

Paul is certainly correct that the word comes burdened with such encrustations of anthropomorphic myth and sectarian certainty that its use requires careful annotation. But to forego the word entirely means cutting the threads that bind us heart to heart, mind to mind, with the first Homo sapiens who looked into the night sky or into an infant's eyes and asked "Why?"

I'll take the risk of being misunderstood in order to draw upon the best of the traditions that made me what I am. My book Honey From Stone, published 23 years ago, was subtitled "A Naturalist's Search for God." The g-word appears only once in the book, in the final paragraph (I have been musing on the star Vega):
A grainy stuttering of light on a photograph -- knowledge condensing from a sea of mystery, extending the shore along which we might encounter God. (Can that ancient, much abused word still have currency in an age of science? Perhaps not. But let it stand, like a distant horizon, like a foreign shore.) Este saber no sabiendo, "this knowing that unknows," is what John of the Cross called it, the knowing that takes place just here on the surface of the eye where Vega and the thought of Vega are one. Photons of radiant energy stream across the light-years, wind-whipped whitecaps of visible light and the longer swells of the infrared, to fall upon the Earth out of the dark night -- denying, revealing, hiding, making plain. I am soaked by starlight; I am blown by a stellar wind. I am bent low in that downpour of revelation.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The widening gyre

For a few months I have viewed my country from afar, through the lens of the European press, and I am reminded of a few lines William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919 about the troubles in his own land:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And, I admit, loving my country as I do, I teeter towards despair. And so I turn to Jupiter blazing there outside my bedroom window, and the burgeoning tomato plants that have slowly filled my window sill these three damp months, and the daddy-long-legs spiders that have kept me company at my desk. And I think of the very last poem Yeats wrote, at exactly my age, 73, in 1938, the world teetering on the brink of a great and awful cataclysm.
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Desert places

If there is a cognitive disconnect in contemporary culture it is between cosmic space and time and human space and time.

Those folks who can seriously grasp the scale and age of the universe, with its tens of billions of observable galaxies and billions of years of evolutionary time, and still believe the universe (or its Maker) attends to them personally -- well, they are more daring thinkers than me. Or more credulous.

Which is why, I suppose that nearly half of Americans believe the universe is less than ten thousand years old -- which is to say, that cosmic history and human history are the same. As for the physical scale of the universe, most people simply put it out of their minds. Conceptually, they choose to live in the cozy cosmic egg of Dante, as if half a millennium of science never happened.

And why not? The vast empty, silent spaces can be frightening. And it's not just that. It's also being cut adrift from our historical moorings, thousands of years of animistic and anthropomorphic tradition, thousands of years of living cheek-by-jowl with the gods. As the Roman Catholic priest Thomas Berry said, the older stories have become dysfunctional, but we have not yet contrived an equally satisfying new story to take their place.

Berry tried, valiantly and well. Teilhard de Chardin tried. But they were fighting an uphill battle against the light-years and the eons, against Robert Frost's exterior and interior "desert places."

But maybe the story we are looking for has been here all along, in the mystical tradition of the absconded god, the god who is not this and is not that, who hides in a cloud of unknowing, who eludes even the personal pronoun "who." "What makes the desert beautiful," said Antoine se Saint-Exupery's Little Prince, "is that somewhere it hides a well."

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Mystery and beauty

You may remember something said by Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince: "What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well."

One could ponder this line for a long while, but I will interpret it thus: It is what we don't know that infuses the world with beauty.

The sudden and unexpected lover's touch that comes out of the blue. The extravagance of a sunset that seems to overwhelm the laws of reflection, scattering and refraction. The exquisite aerodynamic perfection of the dragonfly that lands on a fingertip. Even the perception of beauty itself, which, so far at least, defies the neurologist's understanding.

The usual, the well-understood, the commonplace, seldom move us to ecstasy. It is the inexplicable occurrence, if benign, that warms the heart and drops the jaw.

Mystery is the mother of beauty.

In his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence of Belief, Francis Collins tells us how he found God:
On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.
I don't want to belittle Collins' epiphany. Many of us have had similar experiences, moments when the inexplicable overwhelms us. It is the response that separates us. Collins gives the experience a name, a personhood. One might argue that he transfers the experience of his own personhood onto the mystery. He is confident he has found the well in the desert. In effect, he has replaced the mystery with the commonplace.

The Little Prince might say that the beauty of the waterfall arises precisely because its source cannot be named, that it eludes every metaphor.

The greatest discovery of science is ignorance, an awareness of how little we know. Every extension of knowledge -- such as the sequencing of the human genome, which Collins led -- extends the shore where we encounter the sea of unknowing. What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.