Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who are we?

I wrote here recently about the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble, now under construction. It will have a mirror three times the diameter of the Hubble, providing unprecedented views of the cosmos.
If it's ever successfully deployed. The initial cost estimate of $1.6 billion has soared to $6.5 billion -- and counting -- and I've written before about the hair-raising difficulties of putting the scope on station. Even the biggest fan of the project might have qualms about making such a risky bet that could cost $10 billion of the taxpayer's money, and this in the face of a rising tide of right-wing sentiment for blinkered anti-science and minimal government.
Tracy Vogel of the Space Telescope Science Institute sent me the following description of the Webb, a longer (and slight edited) version of the script for a video.
The Webb telescope’s primary mirror is 21.3 feet across, with about seven times the collecting area of the Hubble Space Telescope. Webb’s resolution will be three times more powerful than Hubble’s at infrared wavelengths. This is particularly important for science, enabling Webb to probe much farther and much more clearly into the early universe than Hubble.

Building the mirrors called for a Herculean task carried out by hundreds of people. Entirely new mirror technologies were invented to give Webb its far-reaching vision. This task involved some of the best and brightest engineers in high-tech industries and universities around the world.

The Webb’s mirror odyssey began in the Topaz-Spor Mountains of Utah. Each mirror segment is made from beryllium, mined from deep within the Earth.

Beryllium is more lightweight and stable that glass, which is traditionally used for telescope mirrors. Webb’s mirror needs to be light but also extremely strong in order to hold its shape, especially in excruciatingly cold temperatures. To collect the faint infrared light from distant galaxies, the mirror must be kept at temperatures of minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit.

The mined beryllium was converted into a powder and shipped to the Brush Wellman facility in Elmore, Ohio, where it was cast into five-foot wide hexagonal segments. The segments then traveled to Axsys Technologies in Cullman, Alabama, where they were milled to remove excess weight. This process creates a honeycomb structure on the back of each mirror.

Each segment was precisely polished to a complex curve that allows it to work in unison with the telescope’s 18-mirror array. Precise computer modeling guides the grinding and polishing of the mirrors so that they will snap into the proper curvature once placed in frigid space.

The polishing took place at Tinsely laboratories in Richmond, California. Each mirror segment was made smooth to within 1/1000th thickness of a human hair. If a segment were the size of the continental United States, the tallest “mountain” would be only an inch above the mean surface.

At NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama the mirrors were placed into a giant thermal vacuum chamber that replicates conditions in space. Engineers precisely measured the performance of the mirrors at very cold temperatures and verified that all met optical perfection.

The fully tested mirror segments are now being coated with a very thin layer of gold. Gold is needed to efficiently reflect infrared light to the telescope’s detectors. This was done at Quantum Coating Inc. in Moorestown, New Jersey.

The mirrors will next be sent back to Boulder, Colorado, to be finally mated to the mechanical actuators that will precisely control their positioning aboard the Webb telescope.

Like gluing tiles onto a wall, the mirrors will all be positioned on a giant skeletal frame at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Cameras and other instruments will be added to the rear of this “backplane.” The complete telescope optical assembly will be tested in Houston, Texas, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

It will then be rolled into the giant thermal vacuum chamber that was built to test the manned Apollo moon spaceships. In a giant eye exam, the performance of the entire mirror array will be checked while experiencing the conditions found in space. The tests will ensure that the telescope has picture-perfect vision.

The optical telescope assembly will then travel to Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California, where a tennis court-sized sunshade will be attached to it. This giant beach umbrella will shield the telescope from unwanted infrared light, keeping the telescope mirror at low temperatures once it is placed into space.

After travelling back and forth across the United States, the telescope will be launched from French Guiana aboard the European Space Agency’s Arianne rocket to make its one-million-mile journey into space.
Anyone who is half-way curious about the universe cannot but feel a shiver up the spine and a gush of pride. The description makes it all seem fool-proof, but of course it isn't. As we learned from the Hubble, even the best-laid plans can go awry, and this time there will be no astronauts to pull a fix. Still, what a grand adventure. What a thrilling affirmation of human curiosity, the desire to know. The great gothic cathedrals consumed even larger proportions of the resources of the communities that built them; would we wish they had never been built?

Yes, $10 billion could build a lot of hospitals and schools in impoverished parts of the world. It can also build weapons of war. Every great civilization has splurged on one extravagant symbol of its greatness -- the Pyramids, the Parthenon, the Great Wall, Chartres. The Webb Telescope will no doubt be more ephemeral than those other monuments, if it succeeds at all, but it suits me fine as a symbol for a scientific civilization focused on the journey rather than the destination.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


In Chekhov's play The Three Sisters, sister Masha refuses "to live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars are in the sky. Either you know and you're alive or its all nonsense, all dust in the wind." Why? Why? The striving to know is what frees us from the bonds of self, said Einstein. It's the striving, rather than our knowledge -- which is always tentative and partial -- that is important.

I've been living with grandchildren for the past few weeks. They seem to me to spend an inordinate amount of time with smart phones, iPads, and computers. In this, I'm sure, they are like most of their contemporaries, immersed in virtual realities, flickering pixels. I sometimes feel the urge to drag them outside for some reality reality. Let them see an eclipsed moon rising in the east, a pink pearl. Let them stand in a morning dawn and watch a slip of comet fling its tail around the Sun. Let them admire the stars of Orion on a sparkling winter evening -- red Betelgeuse, blue Rigel -- and shiver in the thrall of cold and beauty.

Ah, yes, I know. Kids are kids and they'll turn out OK. They'll probably end up in a better place than I find myself at 75. I suppose I spent an equal amount of time sitting next to the radio listening to Tom Mix and Sky King. Still, it's as Masha says: "Either you know and you're alive or its all nonsense, all dust in the wind." So let the children know. Let them know that nothing they will find in the virtual worlds of e-games, television or the internet matters half so much as a glitter of stars on an inky sky, drawing our attention into the incomprehensible mystery of why the universe is here at all, and why we are here to observe it. The summer Milky Way arches across the sky, a hundred billion individually invisible points of light, a hundred billion revelations of the Ultimate Mystery, conferring on the watcher a dignity, a blessedness, that confounds the dull humdrum of the commonplace and opens a window to infinity.

Monday, August 29, 2011

On miracles

Saint Augustine was a complex fellow, both loving the world and hating it, and he bequeathed something of that love/hate to Roman Catholicism in particular and to Christianity in general. I have seldom had good words for him in these posts, preferring instead the more enthusiastic embrace of nature that characterized his Celtic nemesis Pelagius.

But then there are these words from Augustine's City of God:
Nor are those to be listened to who say that the invisible God does not perform visible miracles; for even according to them he made the world, which surely they cannot deny to be visible. Indeed, whatever miracle may occur in this world, truly it is far less than the whole of the world, heaven and earth and all things that are in them, which God certainly made. But just like the Maker himself, even so the mode of his making is hidden and incomprehensible to man. And so, although those who constantly behold the miracles of visible nature hold them in small regard, nevertheless, when we consider them wisely, they are greater than the rarest and most unheard of things.
I was thinking of this the other day as I watched the YouTube life-cycle of a monarch butterfly linked by Paul. Here is something that happens all around us every day, so common that we hold it "in small regard" -- the metamorphosis of creepy-crawly leaf-eating caterpillar into nectar-sipping winged angel -- yet, when we consider it wisely, it is a thing of far greater wonder than the supposed "miracles" of Lourdes or Fatima. Why do we go looking for divinely-instigated exceptions to nature's laws when nature itself is a miracle, day in and day out? Why this hunger for the efficacy of magic?

The answer, I think, applies even to Augustine. We want to believe that the universe (or its Maker) pays particular attention to each of us individually. We want to believe that we have efficacious commerce with the gods by spells, incantations or petitionary prayers. In short, we want to extend into adulthood the experience of the child with the parent.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

My Sargent

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

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Morning stars -- a Saturday reprise

For some years this William Blake watercolor hung in my living room, blown up photographically to enormous size (that was back in my darkroom days). An illustration from The Book of Job: "When the morning stars sang together..." The original watercolor is small, not a lot larger than what you will get if you click on the image here.

That's Job and his family at the bottom, enclosed by the thickest clouds, representing the flesh. Under the Lord's left arm is the Moon goddess Diana, the heart or feeling, delicately holding the passions in check. Under his right arm is the Sun god Apollo, the intellect, pushing back clouds of ignorance. Above the thinnest wisps of cloud, a choir of singing angels, representing the imagination.

Here, then, is Blake's vision of fourfold human nature, as imagined in his mystic dreams, and which Job presumably encountered in the whirlwind. Binding all together is the Divine Imagination.

When I was young I took this image as a guiding icon, a promise to myself to keep flesh, intellect, heart and imagination in balance, and to always aspire to the stars. At some point, early in the fuss of marriage and family, the big photographic reproduction of Blake's watercolor got shifted to the attic, where presumably it still resides amid dust and cobwebs and the discarded detritus of a lifetime.

Has my understanding of the human self changed in the forty intervening years? I have more respect for the flesh now than then. I cannot think of the unceasing activity of the DNA in every cell of my body without esteeming those trillions of tiny whirlwinds. I am less confident than in my idealist youth that Apollo can hold back the clouds of unknowing and that Diana can keep human passions in check. But I still choose optimism. That at least has remained constant since this, one of Blake's most optimistic images, hung on my wall.

Blake roiled between optimism and pessimism, shaken by his visions (oh, the mystery of that unquiet mind), steadied by his art (he died with a pencil in his hand), and bouyed by his beloved wife Catherine (imagine being married to such a soul on fire?).

(This post originally appeared in November 2006.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

The fire in the head

I've been here in the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland now for two months. During that time I have drifted 4 millimeters farther from my primary home in Massachusetts. Four millimeters, about the thickness of the flashdrive of my computer. The Atlantic widens. Europe and North America drift apart. Out there on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge lava oozes up from below and fills the cracks where the crust is ripped and pulled asunder.

Four millimeters. Not something you'd notice, not in a summer, not in a lifetime. But run the film in reverse and in 200 million years the floor of the Atlantic Ocean would be squeezed back into the toothpaste tube and the continents would snuggle together, like pieces of a jig-saw.

Everyone knows this now. Plate tectonics. Continental drift. But I remember when it was a thrilling new theory, bang, apparently (but not quite) out of the blue, back in the Sixties. It was so beautiful, so concise in its ability to explain so much, that we knew at once that it must be true.

And the infinitesimal widening has been subsequently measured, directly, with millimeter accuracy, using a method called Very Long Baseline Interferometry, recording radio signals from distant quasars, reaching across the universe to reveal the drift of continents on Earth.

Two millennia ago, an Irish poet wrote (or recited) what is traditionally considered to be the first verse made in Ireland:
I am the wind on the sea.
I am the ocean wave.
I am the sound of the billows.
I am the seven-horned stag.
I am the hawk on the cliff.
I am the dewdrop in sunlight.
I am the fairest of flowers.
I am the raging boar.
I am the salmon in the deep pol..
I am the lake on the plain.
It is a thoroughly pantheistic poem, in keeping with the druidic nature of early Celtic spirituality. To which we might seamlessly add new verses:
I am the lava in the sizzling rift.
I am the scattering of continents.
I am the wet sea filling the gap.
I am the measuring quasar.
I am the abyss of years.
And give the final lines back to that unknown Irish poet:
I am the meaning of the poem.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Who are we?

In March, 1967, the historian Lynn White Jr. published an essay in the journal Science called "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." Ecology and environmentalism was just coming to public consciousness and the essay caused something of a stir.

White blamed our environmental crisis on Christian theology.

He called the victory of Christianity over paganism "the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture." According to White, Christianity offered a progressive, rather than cyclic, view of history that emphasized man's dominion over creation: "No item in the physical universe had any purpose save to serve man's purposes."

The pagan spirits of trees and brooks were banished by Christianity, said White. By destroying pagan animism, humans were set free to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings or rights of natural objects.

In the long Christian tradition, White found only one exception to the theology of divinely-sanctioned exploitation of nature: St. Francis of Assisi. The key to understanding Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility, said White, not merely for the individual but for humans as a species.

He wrote: "Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God's creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul towards union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his."

In place of humanity's exclusive dominion over creation, Francis proposed an equality of all creatures, including humans. For his efforts, White proposed that Francis be honored as patron saint of ecologists. The roots of our ecological troubles are religious, White claimed, and the remedy must also be religious, whether we call it that or not. We must reestablish ourselves as part of the fabric of nature.

Did Lynn White Jr. get it right? Christian theology is perhaps not as uniformly anti-nature as he claimed. Nor is Francis so pure an ecologist; in the traditional story of Francis preaching to the birds, the saint gives the birds permission to leave at the end of his sermon -- not exactly what you'd expect in a democracy of equals.

Nevertheless, White was right that a solution to our ecological crisis must be essentially religious, whether you call it that or not; we must rethink who we are in the cosmic order, what we want, and how we might get it.

(Meanwhile, our island of Exuma is being battered by Hurricane Irene. If anyone on the island is reading this, let me know what's going on.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reaching for the stars

Here is a spectacular detail of the Eagle Nebula, a gassy star-forming region of the Milky Way Galaxy, about 7,000 light-years away (click to enlarge). This particular spire of gas and dust was recently featured on APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). The Eagle lies in the equatorial constellation Serpens.

If you went out tonight and looked at this part of the sky -- more or less midway between Arcturus and Antares -- you might see nothing at all. The brightest star in Serpens is of the third magnitude, perhaps invisible in an urban environment. No part of the Eagle Nebula is available to unaided human vision. How big is the nebula in the sky? Hold a pinhead at arm's length and it would just about cover the spire.

I like to think about things not mentioned in the APOD descriptions.

If the Sun were at the bottom of the spire, Alpha centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor, would be about halfway up the column. Sirius, the brightest star in Earth's sky, would be near the top.

Let's say you sent out a spacecraft from the bottom of the spire that travelled at the speed of the two Voyager craft that are now traversing the outer reaches of the Solar System. It would take more than 200,000 years to reach the top of the spire.

The Hubble Space Telescope cost a lot of money to build, deploy, and operate. It has done a lot of good science. But perhaps the biggest return on the investment is to turn on ordinary folks like you and me to the scale and complexity of the universe.

The human brain evolved, biologically and culturally, in a universe conceived on the human scale. We resided at its center. The stars were just up there on the dome of night. The Sun and Moon attended our desires. "All the world's a stage," wrote Shakespeare, and he meant it literally; the cosmos was designed by a benevolent creator as a stage for the human drama.

All of that has gone by the board. Now we can travel in our imagination for 200,000 years along a spire of glowing, star-birthing gas that is only the tiniest fragment of a nebula that is only the tiniest fragment of a galaxy that is but one of hundreds of billions of galaxies we can potentially see with our telescopes.

Most of us still live psychologically in the universe of Dante and Shakespeare. The biggest intellectual challenge of our times is how to bring our brains up to speed. How to shake our imaginations out of the slumber of centuries. How to learn to live purposefully in a universe that is apparently indifferent to the human drama.

How to stretch the human story to match the light-years.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


For centuries, it was a common belief in rural Ireland that white butterflies were the souls of the departed and that they were to remain in this form until Judgment Day. We have our share of whites, Small Whites, mostly, Pieris rapae. All those souls, flitting through our garden, waiting, waiting, for the End of Days. It was considered unlucky to kill a butterfly, especially a white one.

With one exception. A red butterfly was thought to be the Devil, in pursuit of those flittering white souls. Red butterflies were killed. We have reds in our garden, Peacocks and Painted Ladies. I let them be.

Those enchantments have gone by the board. We caught just the end of them when we arrived here 40 years ago. Among the older generation of country people the fairies and were still very much alive. Holy wells were tended. Sacred trees fluttered with brightly colored rags, communications with the shadow world. Everything held a secret meaning, defined by tradition. Rural Ireland was still the land of the Golden Bough.

Then, overnight, it vanished. Ireland joined the European economic community, farmers prospered, and that was the end of faerie.

Now there is another shadow world. It permeates every nook and cranny of creation. It is as immaterial and invisible as the world of faerie. I am speaking, of course, of electromagnetic radiation, bearing into hearth and home Hollywood's own brand of fairyworld, another kind of make believe, no less a figment of imagination, no less fulfilling (or unfulfilling) of our longing for more to life than meets the eye.

For myself, I look for yet another kind of enchantment.

When I see the butterfly, I imagine in my mind's eye the extraordinary chemical machinery of life, the winding loom of he DNA, the proteins linking like lock and key, the ceaseless hubbub of molecular commerce that goes on behind the scenes, from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult. Surely, no land of faerie is more magical than the transformation that occurs in the chrysalis, when a creepy-crawly caterpillar curls up in a self-made sack and rearranges its molecules to emerge as a winged beauty.

Monday, August 22, 2011


There was a moment yesterday evening when the elements conspired to evoke these few lines, spoken by Macbeth:
        Light thickens,
And the crow makes wing to the rooky woods,
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse.
The fading light. The crows gliding down the fields to the trees in Ballybeg. :
        Light thickens,
And the crow makes wing to the rooky woods,
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse.
It's all there, in those few lines -- the mysterious power of poetry to infuse the world with meaning, to anoint the world with a transforming grace.

One could spend an hour picking those lines apart, syntax and sound, sense and alliteration. The t's of light thickening, tongue against the teeth. The alar w's making wing. The owl eyes of the double o's. The d's nodding into slumber -- day, droop, drowse.

The poet Howard Nemerov says of poetry that it "works on the very surface of the eye, that thin, unyielding wall of liquid between mind and world, where somehow, mysteriously, the patterns formed by electrical storms assaulting the retina become things and the thought of things and the names of things and the relations supposed between thing." It works too in the mouth, in the physical act of speech -- tongue, teeth, those d's gliding deeper into the darkness of the throat.

I stand in the gloaming garden and the black birds glide, down, down to Ballybeg, and I marvel that with so few syllables Shakespeare can -- across the centuries -- teach me how to see.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bad bunnies

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

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Eve -- a Saturday reprise

A remarkable carving, long a favorite of mine, usually called "The Temptation of Eve" (click to enlarge). It resides in the Musee Rolin near the 12th-century Cathedral of Saint Lazare at Autun, France, of which it was once a part. The sculptor did many of the wonderful decorations of the cathedral. On the west tympanum are carved the words Gislebertus hoc fecit, "Gislebertus made this," traditionally assumed to be the sculptor's claim to authorship at a time when religious art was almost universally anonymous.

Whatever the sculptor's name, there is something hauntingly original about his work -- especially Eve. Lithe and sensuous, she seemingly swims through the garden, delectably naked, She is about to pluck the forbidden fruit, and her hand is at her blushing cheek as if she knows she is doing something naughty. She could be any young woman about to embark upon her first misadventure, her very own original sin.

This Eve is a part of nature, her body as sinuous as the twining plants. The stem is about to snap. The luscious fruit will be eaten, and Eve -- lovely Eve -- will bear the burden of innocence lost. And look! Look at her expression. She doesn't know we are watching. But we are watching. And we recognize what's going on. Who has not shared this delicious moment, the first post-adolescent sin?

Science has long since rendered unliteral the story of Genesis. It has given us instead Mitochondrial Eve, the matrilineal most recent common ancestor, who apparently lived in East Africa about 140,000 years ago, and who contributed her mitochondrial DNA to every human now alive. She was not alone with a single partner in whatever passed for her garden. She was part of a population of other human ancestors, one twig of a family tree with a long ancestry of her own. Can we assume she already bore within her evolutionary heritage some mix of the emotions we see in Gislebertus' Eve -- the anxious stirrings of the flesh, the will to be wayward, the headstrong disobedience? And, yes, maybe guilt too.

The new story, like the old one, grounds much of human nature in an ancestral past. The difference is this: In the new story there is no prelapsarian Eden, no world without the pain of childbirth, without thorns and thistles, without the sweat of the brow. We are and always have been like Gislebertus' Eve entwined in a living web. What we are seeing in the Autun sculpture is the dawning of moral consciousness, a moment of singular significance for each of us individually and for our species.

(This post originally appeared in March 2008.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hocus pocus

Writing yesterday about the "alphabet stone" at Kilmakedar prompts me to make note of the fact that antiquities are thicker on the ground on the Dingle Peninsula than any other place I know of, almost certainly any other place of comparable size in northern Europe. Back in the mid-1980s, the antiquities of the peninsula were cataloged by a team of archeologists. The result is a thick illustrated book with several thousand entries: shell middens, pre-bog field systems, megalithic tombs, stone alignments and standing stones, rock art, cairns, ring-barrows, inland and coastal promontory forts, ring forts, souterrains (underground chambers), ogham stones, early ecclesiastical sites, holy wells, castles. Within a five minute walk of our house are artifacts spanning thousands of years of human history -- from a hilltop megalithic tomb to the ruins of a medieval castle. An afternoon walk is like a visit to a museum.

It is instructive to live with so much history, spanning so many thousands of years. The central lesson, I suppose, is humility, the recognition that our own beliefs and prejudices are conditioned by when and where we are born. No doubt the builders of the iron-age ring fort I can see from my window were as certain of the truth of their religion as were the medieval Christians who built the castle inside the ring.

Scientific knowledge clearly advances, as is evidenced by our greater material prosperity, longevity, and technologies. Religion, by contrast, remains caught up in magical thinking and supposed revelation. The builders of the ring fort and the castle, separated by millennia, were equally convinced of their power to influence the gods by rite and supplication. The Roman Catholic religion of my youth was no less magical than the faith of iron-age druids.

And yet, we live with a sense of mystery, a sense of the precariousness of existence; all of that we have in common with our stone-age ancestors. Empirical knowledge advances; mystery endures. The trick is to know the difference between mystery and magic.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


The other day I took house guests to visit the early ecclesiastical site of Kilmalkedar, just over the hill from our house here in Kerry. There is a mid-12th century Romanesque church, roofless, but with some lovely interior and exterior detail. Other artifacts date back to the 6th century, including a standing stone with ogham script, a sundial that shows the canonical hours, and a large slab cross beautifully fashioned from Old Red Sandstone. I wrote about this site extensively in Honey From Stone.

My favorite thing at Kilmalkedar is a stone now standing inside the church, although predating the church by six centuries, that has two crosses inscribed on its front face and another on the reverse. Nothing special about that; in this corner of the world, stones inscribed with crosses are a dime a dozen. But along one edge of the stone, presumably at a later date, someone inscribed a Latin alphabet: a, b, c, d, etc. If there are other such "alphabet stones" in Ireland, I haven't heard of them.

The Latin alphabet was delayed coming to Ireland. The Irish had developed their own version of Latin letters, the ogham alphabet of slashes across a central line, well suited for stone inscriptions. Perhaps the Kilmalkedar alphabet stone was created as a teaching tool, as ogham gave way to the Latin symbols. I like to imagine young boys (girls?) tracing the letters with their fingers, discovering the miracle of written language.

Up, down and around, the fingertip guided by the groves in stone. Each letter an incantation -- a, b, c, d -- abracadabra. With five letters one can make the earth, with three the sky. And there, on the same edge of the stone, are the letters dni, a contraction of Domini. "In the beginning was the Word," wrote the evangelist John, "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

And now, with the same symbols, I sit at my MacBook, evoking the child moving his finger across the chiselled icons -- a, b, c, d -- abracadabra, the magical incantation that opens doors -- that lets the mind transmute the world into poetry and science, as an alchemist transforms lead to gold.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mystery, not miracle

When I was writing Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain I read a little book on Celtic spirituality by the Irish priest John J. O Riordain, called The Music of What Happens. O Riordain takes his title from an old Irish fairy story of the hero Fionn, who asked his fellow champions what was the finest music in the world. They offered their choices: the song of the cuckoo calling from the hedge, the ring of a spear on a shield, the laughter of a gleeful girl, and so on. Then they asked Fionn his opinion.

"The music of what happens," said the great Fionn, "is the finest music in the world."

I'm not altogether sure what is the meaning of the story, but it seems to reflect the pantheistic nature of pre-Christian Celtic thought. Certainly here in the west of Ireland some of that druidic "music of what happens" lingers beneath a veneer of imported Mediterranean dualism -- matter/spirit, body/soul, natural/supernatural,. O Riordian tries hard to reconcile Christianity with the Celtic reverence for "what happens," but I fear it is a lost cause. The important thing in Christianity, as I experienced it, is not the patterns of nature, but the interruptions of the patterns -- the miracles, the mortifications of the body, the transubstantiations, the rejection of the material world with all its works and pomps. The goal is to get out of here as soon as possible, to another more spiritual place, to be saved, raptured.

And then I read Peig Sayers' Reflections of an Old Woman, one of the books that came out of the Blasket Island, just there, over the hill:
It was a lovely night, the air was clean, full of brilliant stars and the moon shining on the sea. From time to time a sea-bird would give a cry. Inside in the black caves where the moon was not shining the seals were lamenting to themselves. I would hear, too, the murmuring of the sea running in and out through the cleft of the stones and the music of the oars cleaving the sea across to Ventry.
The birds. The seals. The waves. The oars. The music of this world, this world of flesh and blood and sea and stone. Saint Augustine said it was a waste of time to attend to such things, because they are of no use in reaching blessedness -- and so it was in the Christianity of my youth. Not so for Peig Sayers. For her, it was all blessed. The birds, the seals, the sea, the oars. In this she was closer to her druidic ancestors than to the theologians of the south, those dour men with their Greek abstractions and Roman legalisms. She heard the music of what happens. For her, it was the voice of God.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Up, up and away

My spouse has more birds than ever at the feeders this year. Green finches, chaffinches and coal tits, mostly, with robins (tiny European robins, a different bird altogether) and wrens cleaning up on the ground. I swear she spends more money feeding the birds than setting our own table.

Still, the birds provide endless hours of entertainment. And envy too. How lovely it would be to fly. The dinosaurs figured out how to do it. Some mammals too.

I sometimes dream of flying, vividly, but always wake up firmly affixed to the bed. Freud believed the flying fantasy is a disguise for the infantile wish to be capable of sexual performance. He buttressed his case by compiling instances of words in various languages that associate birds and flying with sexual organs or sexual activity. For example, the commonest expression in German for male sexual activity is vogeln, "to bird," and in Italian the male organ is called l'uccello, "the bird." What this has to do with my flying dreams I'll leave for you to decide.

As some of you may recall, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the Beatles, was into levitation. I remember a "yogic flying" competition staged by the Maharishi's followers in Washington, D.C.. They demonstrated their mastery of Stage 1 of levitation, a bounce from the lotus position called "hopping." Not surprisingly, they failed to move on to Stage 2, "hovering," and Stage 3, "free flight."

In 1977, when the Maharishi went to India with his disciples, an Indian skeptics group offered him 10,000 rupees (about $1,000) to fly from Old to New Delhi, a distance of about two miles. He agreed, but then backed out when the time came to soar up or shut up. Yogic transportation is a spiritual activity, he claimed, not for secular demonstration.

Levitation has a long mythic association with the spiritual life. Holy men and women of many religions have been reputed to levitate, including hundreds of saints of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps the most consistently airborne saint was Joseph of Cupertino, who reportedly made dozens of flights in or about his church, once landing amid lighted candles and becoming badly burned. Many people claimed to have witnessed Joseph defy the law of gravity, but since it all happened a very long time ago there's not much we can do to check the reliability of their reports.

I'll stick with the laws of physics and leave levitation to the birds.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The bright boroughs, the quivering citadels

I know that, like me, some of you regularly check out APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day). As often as not it is a telescopic photograph of a star-birthing nebula or supernova remnant, some swirling splash of color on the dark sky. Who could have guessed, before the invention of the telescope, that the dome of night was awash with color, huge canvases of pink and green -- pigments of hydrogen and oxygen -- an all-enclosing gallery hung with the Creator's far-fetched dreams?

Who could have guessed? Dante guessed. Blake too. And Van Gogh. They saw the many-hued majesty of the universe with their mind's eye.

The rest of us are more or less relegated to a universe of black and white -- pinpricks of light in the dome of night. There are two kinds of light receptors in the retina of the human eye: rods and cones. The cones are the color sensors, but do not respond to faint illumination. The rods are more finely attuned to dim light, but do not discriminate colors. When we look into the night sky, it is the sensitive, color-blind rods that do most of the seeing.

And so we are given only fleeting intimations of cosmic grandeur. "The night does not come with fruits and flowers and bread and meat," wrote the naturalist John Burroughs; "it comes with stars and stardust, with mystery and nirvana." The best observers of nature have the capacity to take a hint, said Burroughs. Just as well then that we have such fragmentary glimpses of the night. "To have it ever present with one in all its naked grandeur would perhaps be more than we could bear," he wrote.

Imagine that we could see the night with eyes the size and sensitivity of the Hubble Space Telescope. How paltry then would seem our terrestrial gods, our shabby deities with human faces. How ridiculous our intolerances, how hollow our claims to have privileged access to the mind of God.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dog days

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

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Work of the heart -- a Saturday reprise

In 1914, at age 39, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke had a substantial body of published work behind him. "Work of sight is achieved," he wrote; "now for some heart work."

That's more or less what I have been doing on this site for the past three years: heart work. For seventy years it was sight work: looking, reading, teaching, writing books. Now I'm more interested in trying to discern the contours of the journey, the shape of the landscape I have traversed. How did the things seen fit together? How did the fit determine what things were seen? Heart work.

It's a pleasant task, and these daily posts are part of it. It is, as you have suggested, the sort of work that takes place on the porch of life. I imagine a broad summer verandah, perhaps in the south, with cicadas singing and constellations of fireflies mimicking the stars. A pink moon rising in the east. From afar off, the flicker of heat lightnin'.

In Letters To A Young Poet, Rilke advises: "Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." Good advice, and I would like to think that now is that time far in the future when whatever answers might be found will reveal themselves. But they will come, I am sure -- if they come at all -- in solitude and silence and love. A meteor streaks the mirroring sky. An alignment of planets in the west. Listen! A whisper. A calling into the thick of things.

(This post originally appeared in May, 2007.)

Friday, August 12, 2011

In a bubble?

During the half-year I live in New England I read two newspapers every day: the Boston Globe and the New York Times. Both liberal in their general outlook, intelligent, and comprehensive. Just like me, in other words.

OK -- wink, wink -- I'm being facetious. Those are my legitimate reads. I sneak around a bit, too. In the college library, I slum with the columnists in the Boston Herald, a right-wing tabloid. And I daily rendezvous with a politically conservative upscale mistress, the Wall Street Journal.

That's something I picked up in science, I suppose -- wanting to know the other side of the story, testing one's ideas against the alternative. Of course, one is naturally predisposed to what one already believes. Early nurturing and education is not to be discounted. One might even have a genetic nudge toward liberality or conservatism. Still, it behooves one to approach alternative views with an open mind, or at least as open as one can manage.

Some fixity of thought is essential. If all ideas are equal, then there's no such thing as "truth." I've suggested here before that a proper scientific attitude is to be radically open to marginal change and marginally open to radical change. So I read the Wall Street Journal and let it nibble at the loose threads in my core beliefs.

And now I read Sue Halpern reviewing books about the internet in the New York Review of Books (June 23-July13), and in particular Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. I discover what I suppose I already knew and didn't think much about, that since December 2009 the Google search engine -- which I use regularly -- contours every search to fit the profile of the person making the query. That is to say, Google knows quite a bit about me -- a "Chet" profile resides in some massive server in (I'm guessing) California -- and its search algorithm ranks its "hits" according to what it thinks I want to see.

Halpern writes:
Among the many insidious consequences of this individualization is that by tailoring the information you receive to the algorithm's perception of who you are, a perception that it constructs out of fifty-seven variables, Google directs you to material that is most likely to reinforce your own worldview, ideology, and assumptions…In this way, the Internet, which isn't the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.
That is to say, a Google search is less like a visit to an encyclopedia, dictionary or public library than it is like spending all one's time exclusively with either Fox News or MSNBC.

Google is a fabulously useful tool, but it is good to know it is using me while I am using it. Meanwhile, I'll continue my assignations with the Wall Street Journal, and balance Richard Dawkins, say, with Karen Armstrong, carefully parsing what I already believe against other possibilities, fishing as best I can for unexamined predispositions and delusions.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Property rights

We started with an acre of scrub pasturage. Some scrappy gorse and heather, but nothing of sufficient substance to impede the wanderings of sheep or cattle. Back in the 1920s, when the Land Commission took over the vast properties of Lord Ventry and parceled it out among the peasantry, each family in the village got a few fertile fields on the gently sloping land below the road, and four or five acres of rough grazing on the hill. That was our land: rough grazing.

But it had one advantage that appealed to me greatly on that sun-drenched day thirty-three years ago when I bought the land: the view was eye-popping. Our neighbors, however, could not understand what we were up to. "Only crazy Yanks would live on the hill," they said. The hill was wind, and cold, and loneliness, and maybe worse. Our narrow unpaved lane was called "the fairies' road."

We picked out the flattest patch of land and built a cottage. My wife scraped together a few hundred pounds and had a local gardener plant two-hundred trees -- a hundred willow sticks jabbed into the earth, and a hundred tiny evergreens and hardwoods more firmly planted, as they would need to be to survived the battering winter winds that roared in from the Atlantic.

Enough trees survived to transform our scruffy acre, now multiplied to three, from rough grazing to just plain rough. We have beaten back the encroaching tangle from the immediate environs of the house. Each summer, it's me and the strimmer against nature green in frond and thorn. The trees -- those that survived -- give us some protection from the wind and the gift of shady bowers. Elsewhere, the gorse, bracken and nettles grow rank and wild.

So wild that we fear if the hill catches fire the house will go with it. And so this summer I hired a neighbor to come in with his tractor and cut a fire break around the outer perimeter of our land. I did so with misgivings. I'm a planter, not a cutter. "In wildness is the preservation of the world," said Thoreau. Certainly, wildness is the preservation of my little world. I love the rough chaos that nature has enveloped us with, of her own accord, our very own tangled bank. I weep to look up the hill behind the house and see the bare, churned-up earth left behind by the tractor.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

When God is gone, everything is holy

Patiently, silently, on the window sill as I sleep at night, at my elbow as I type, unobserved when I'm out and about, my lettuce seeds turn soil, water and air into billowing sprays of succulent leaves.

The outdoor garden is a disaster. By this time last year I was eating peas and radishes. This year, nothing. The coolest summer on record. Back in June, rows of tiny seedlings poked their noses out of the ground and went no further. Even the baby lettuce plants I bought in town to give the garden a head start faltered.

But here, in my big south-sloping window, with M's rich compost to feed on and our body heat to keep them warm, my indoor plants burgeon. That miniscule fuse in the seed. That foot-long twist of DNA whispering its age-old song, GTACGGGTACCAT. Rearranging the universe.


I look at the APOD every morning, the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Star-birthing nebulas. Galaxies and clusters. Supernova remnants. Thermonuclear engines forging atoms, spewing them into space. Every carbon and oxygen atom in my lettuces was assembled in a star, spilled into the interstellar abyss, stirred by waves of radiation, gathered by gravity. Looking at the APOD each morning is like looking into the furnace of creation, into something out of a Blake watercolor -- the Pleiades singing hosannas.

A lettuce seed rearranging the universe. "Earth cannot escape the sky," wrote the 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart; "let it flee up or down, the sky flows into it, and makes it fruitful whether it will or no. So God does to man. He who will escape him only runs to his bosom."

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Time travel

In May of 1503, on his fourth voyage to the New World, after many trials and adventures, Christopher Columbus sailed with two ships from Panama, intending to stop at Hispaniola for refitting before returning home to Spain. Crippled by storm and riddled by worms, the little fleet was run ashore on the north coast of Jamaica. Columbus sent twelve men in canoes to seek rescue from Hispaniola, 200 miles to the east. Then, for months, he waited with the remainder of his men.

To obtain food, the Spaniards bartered beads and mirrors with the Jamaican natives. Eventually, the Jamaicans tired of trinkets and balked at providing provisions for the stranded sailors. Columbus saw a solution to the problem. He had with him a copy of Regiomontanus' Ephemerides, which contained a prediction for an eclipse of the moon at moonrise on the leap-year night of February 29, 1504. Columbus called a meeting of the local chiefs and declared that if food were not forthcoming he would cause the moon to rise "inflamed with wrath." As he predicted, on the appointed night, the moon rose the color of blood.

I told this story before, in The Soul of the Night. That was a long time ago, in 1984, before the advent of powerful personal computers. I came across the Columbus episode as I wrote yesterday's post, and I thought, "Hey, I can watch that moonrise and see what the Jamaican natives saw."

And so, to my Starry Night Pro astronomy software.

And yes, at about half-past seven on the evening of February 29, 1504, I watch on my computer screen as the full moon rises almost due east, the color of blood as the sky gets completely dark. It climbs the sky for an hour or so, halfway between Regulus and Spica, stained a spooky red by sunlight refracted through the Earth's atmosphere. Then, as the Jamaicans watched and at Columbus' feigned command, the moon slowly reverts to its usual brilliant white.

Neat! How lovely that the night sky for millennia into the past and future is available to me with the stroke of a few keys. I am there with Columbus and his hungry, stranded men. Perhaps the Spaniards were as awed by the spectacle as the Jamaicans. I'm a little bit awed just watching it on my computer.

And now I see something that I did not know about when I wrote the Columbus story back in 1984, and which as far as I know has not been mentioned in the historical record. On the night of the blood-red lunar spectacular, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were gathered in a lovely conjunction in Gemini. That, of course, would have been something the sailors and natives too had been watching during the preceding nights and would continue to watch in nights to come, as the three bright planets performed a slow magical waltz in the body of the Twins.

Monday, August 08, 2011


When The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage was published, those many years ago, it was for me a special moment, not my first book, but the first that gave full vent to a part of myself that had been waiting forty years for release. My publisher seemed to share my joy. For one thing, they printed up thousands of promotional broadsides on art-quality paper with one of Michael McCurdy's wood engravings from the book and the following excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 4:
Who goes abroad at night? The glowworm, trailing phosphorescence. The whippoorwill and the cuckoo, self-announcing. The bullfrog and the cricket, contrapuntal, out of tune. The owl and the moth are abroad at night; one is the other magnified. The hedgehog is abroad, with spikes tipped by stars. The woodcock, in flirtatious circles. The slug and the snail, on threads of slime. Into collied night, sable-vested night, go specters. And incubi and succubi, with sinister intent. Werewolves transfigure. Vampires seize and suck. Spars of sailing ships are struck with St. Elmo's fire. The fata morgana beckons. Poets go abroad at night: "This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. The trees of the mind are black." And astronomers. When the sun goes down, astronomers rise into their element like shades and badgers.
Over the top? Perhaps. I was young and more inclined than now to dress up in purple prose. Still, 26 years later the book remains in print, in a beautiful matched edition with Honey From Stone.

As I just now typed out the above passage from the book, Word underlined in green the sentence fragments, of which there are half-a-dozen, gently chiding me for my grammatical lapse. I recall that when the original manuscript came back from Prentice-Hall's copy editor -- 26 years ago -- every one of the hundreds of sentence fragments in the book had been given a verb. I was devastated. It was early in my career as a writer. I was excited that my book was being published. And here the publisher was telling me to strip my prose of what seemed to me essential. Pedantry versus art. I decided to take a stand. The fragments remain, I insisted, or I withdraw the book and return the advance.

The fragments were restored.

And now, I get "corrected" again by Word.

The Soul of the Night was written in pencil on a yellow legal pad, then rendered digital with the first computer I ever used in writing, a Radio Shack TRS-80, with its tiny five-line LCD screen. That sweet little machine did not protest my fragments. Even my egregious misspellings and typos passed muster. And now my MacBook Pro watches over me like a grammatically-fixated school marm, amending my every lapse.

I believe I mentioned here once before my spouse's concise method of editing my work, which served me well over the years. Three words: yuk, yipe, and yow. "Yuk" means -- well, yuk. "Yipe" flags something egregious. And "yow" means she likes.

Word does OK with the yipe, but still has a long way to go before it can recognize the yuk and yow.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Being light

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

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The human soul -- a Saturday reprise

What is it about this painting that holds my attention? (Click to enlarge.) OK, I'm from Boston, or close enough. Everyone from Boston has heard of John Singleton Copley even if they don't know who he was. Copley Square is the hub of the Hub, and in the center of the square is a statue of the artist himself, the first American painter to achieve transAtlantic fame.

The subject of "The Boy with the Squirrel" is Copley's half-brother Henry Pelham. (The squirrel is a northern flying squirrel, once common in New England and popular as pets, although I have never seen one in the wild.) The painting was done in 1765, when Copley was in his mid-twenties. It is, I think, on a different level from the artist's other work of the time, which was mostly a matter of cranking out rather prosaic portraits of his A-list clients. What a difference, say, from this cliched, bone-stiff portrait of Sam Adams painted a few years later.

Yes, the technical perfection of "The Boy with the Squirrel" is complete. The composition. The light and shadow. The silky hair. The texture of wood, cloth and skin. But that's not the secret of the painting's appeal. Young Henry Pelham looks dreamily away, his lips lightly parted, his soul alight with an adolescent boy's wistful anticipation. Look at the delicacy with which he holds the squirrel's gold leash. See how the squirrel's posture echoes the boy's. Posture, yes, but not spirit. This is more than just another workaday portrait, more than just a few more pounds in Copley's pocket. The artist is showing us what it means to be human.

How is that possible? How is it possible that mere oil on canvas can capture the ineffable thing that separates us from brute creation? Science can count the cells in Henry Pelham's body, match his genes to those of his half-brother, or, for that matter, compare his genome to that of Glaucomys sabrinus, the northern flying squirrel. But science cannot distill the thing that is a conscious organism of 100 billion neurons in interaction with an essentially infinite environment. We turn to artists to catch a glimpse of the soul.

John Singleton Copley complained that in colonial America painting was considered just one more useful trade, like carpentry or shoemaking. And practical Benjamin Franklin opined: "To America...the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement is of more importance than a masterpiece of Raphael." And yet, and yet -- at the remove of almost two-and-a-half centuries, we look at Copley's portrait of young Henry Pelham and know that what is not materially useful can be utterly essential to knowing who and what we are.

(This post originally appeared in June 2008.)

Friday, August 05, 2011

The origins of morality -- Part 2

If Heinrich Hoffman meant to teach moral lessons with his "Merry Stories and Funny Pictures," he didn't succeed. The terrible torments that befell his youthful miscreants merely entertained. The long-legged scissors man may have caused nightmares for a particularly sensitive child, but for most of us toddlers he was a figure of fun. A little blood on the floor made the story all the more delicious.

Anyway, we Roman Catholic youngsters had more serious things to worry about.

We were never let to forget that a possible fate awaited us far more serious than snipped thumbs.

In the catechism, the soul was represented by three circles. A white circle was a soul in the state of grace. A splotchy circle was a soul besmirched by venial sin. A black circle was a soul in mortal sin. Die with a mortal sin on one's soul, unrepented and unforgiven, and one spent all eternity roasting in hell.

An elaborate conceptual apparatus kept the fragility of salvation constantly in mind: venial sin, mortal sin, examination of conscience, confession, repentance, penance, Acts of Contrition, indulgences, heaven, hell, purgatory. All meant to instill the fear of God and keep our souls sparkling clean. Who worried about the quick snips of the long-legged scissors man when a few "bad thoughts" might merit an eternity of fire and brimstone tended by cloven-foot fallen angels?

It all seems unbelievably silly now -- the Church's own "merry stories and funny pictures" -- but at the time we took it deadly serious. And when it all fell away, that whole shabby, moth-eaten brocade, guess what? One didn't automatically lapse into sin. It turns out that people around the globe are equally good or bad with or without religion. Humans would appear to be moral animals, with innate inclinations towards altruism. We have other instincts too -- thumb-sucking, day-dreaming, playing with matches, violent aggression -- that may or may not require social conventions to keep in check.

In that picture with yesterday's post, the real miscreant is not the child, but the sin-obsessed intruder with the scissors. The Church has a lot to answer for.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The origins of morality

My grandmother's house had a strong German flavor. She married into the Dietzens, not long from the old country. One German influence I encountered at a very young age was Heinrich Hoffman's book for children, Struwwelpeter, first published in Germany in 1845.

My English version was titled Slovenly Peter, and had a picture of the eponymous Peter on the cover. The subtitle was "Merry Stories and Funny Pictures", although the stories were anything but merry and the pictures more horrific than funny. Ten verses about children who had some fault -- paying with matches, being cruel to animals, daydreaming, etc. -- that invariably led to a dire, sometimes mortal fate. For example, here is Augustus (I'll let you imagine the "funny pictures"):
Augustus was a chubby lad;
Fat ruddy cheeks Augustus had:
And everybody saw with joy
The plump and hearty, healthy boy.
He ate and drank as he was told,
And never let his soup get cold.
But one day, one cold winter's day,
He screamed out "Take the soup away!
O take the nasty soup away!
I won't have any soup today."

Next day, now look, the picture shows
How lank and lean Augustus grows!
Yet, though he feels so weak and ill,
The naughty fellow cries out still
"Not any soup for me, I say:
O take the nasty soup away!
I won't have any soup today."

The third day comes: Oh what a sin!
To make himself so pale and thin.
Yet, when the soup is put on table,
He screams, as loud as he is able,
"Not any soup for me, I say:
O take the nasty soup away!
I WON'T have any soup today."

Look at him, now the fourth day's come!
He scarcely weighs a sugar-plum;
He's like a little bit of thread,
And, on the fifth day, he was -- dead!
I don't know if Heinrich Hoffman meant these verses to be moral instruction or entertainment. Certainly, I didn't take them seriously. I lapped them up with a child's glee for devilment. If anything, they made me even more morally rambunctious.

Later, I found a copy of the same book for my kids, and I think their reaction was probably the same. I recall toddler Margaret protesting from her high chair, "O take the nah-y oop away," as she flung a spoonful of lumpy oatmeal onto the floor.

Did a literary encounter with the "long-legged Scissors Man" (snip, snip) ever stop a child from sucking her thumb? I doubt it. I suspect kids are pretty much moral animals from the get go, and pretty much impervious to moral instruction from on high, especially if reinforced with the prospect of dire consequences -- snipped thumbs or hell fire. They can also figure out the difference between thumbsucking and playing with matches, and threatening the first with dedigitation (is that a word?) might be more likely to lead to a conflagration. I'd put my money on the environment they grow up in for how they turn out.

Anyway, being a parent or a child is not easy, a long, delicate negotiation between two sets of wants. I'm glad to see that Struwwelpeter is still in print, and that for all its gruesome moral repercussions is still more popular with kids than with parents.

(You can read the book here.)

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


I have been reading Fintan O'Toole's biography of William Johnson, White Savage. Johnson was an Irishman who migrated to the wilds of central New York in the mid-1700s and established himself as a vital link between the British colonial government and the Iroquois.

By the time Johnson appeared on the scene, Native Americans had become dependent upon European manufactured goods. Hawks bells, mouth harps and Dutch pipes replaced ceremonial items the Iroquois had previously crafted themselves. Iron hoes, guns and cooking pots had become can't-do-without items, even though without blacksmithing skills the Iroquois had no way of repairing and maintaining these goods. Alcohol took its toll. From being a self-sufficient people, the Iroquois had become a consumer society, spending long hard hours trapping furs to pay for "necessaries" their ancestors had done without.

Of course, their fate was sealed.

There is a temptation to draw analogies with our own consumer culture, and see in our present fate something of the Iroquois. I think of our first decade here on the hill in the west of Ireland, without electricity, telephone or internet. Making our own furniture with hand tools. Furnishing the house with local crafts. Creating what we needed as we needed it. Eating local produce. Writing with pencil on paper. A richly rewarding life, full of creativity and the satisfaction of making do.

Now we are in possession of a multitude of can't-do-without items manufactured in China or Indonesia that we have no way of fixing when they break. Our food comes from Germany or Chile, our wine from Australia or South Africa. We produce obscene amounts of trash, mostly plastic, that must be hauled away. And this in a little green house that is almost primitive by the standards of the developed world.

I can't think of an alternative. It's easy to be pure when you are young. Old age needs its creature comforts. But still I feel that something of me has been lost, something that had to do with the products of my own brain and hands, something that had an organic connection to this particular place.

I sit here typing on my MacBook, totally dependent upon the convenience and reliability of a machine that is complicated beyond my understanding and cost more than all the local arts and crafts that together make this room such a pleasant place to be. Organic it is not. But maybe I can tease a few words out of it that are uniquely my own. At my elbow my lettuces are growing on the sill. The sun is shining.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


Another little natural history excursion this morning.

In August, the hedgerows along our bothareen (little road) become botanical gardens to rival Kew. Montbretia, fuchsia, meadowsweet, loosestrife, bramble, bell flower, herb Robert, clover, purple vetch: A glorious display. And there amidst the splendor, the giant hogweed, an ugly, unwelcome interloper, a swaggering oaf among the genteel masses.

But never mind, the hogweed can be interesting too, in particular in that its broad white umbrels are invariably covered with dozens of common red soldier beetles, Rhagonycha fulva, about the size and shape of the American firefly. This past week I noticed that almost every beetle on the plants was paired off, male mounted on female, going at it doggie style.

I lingered to see how long these copulations might last. Indefinitely, it seems. No pair desisted while I watched. They went about their business of feeding on the blossoms locked in a lover's embrace.

One big Roman orgy of beetle sex.

When I got home I went to the internet to find out more about what was going on and discovered that this randy species is commonly known in Britain and Ireland as the hogweed bonking beetle. (Ah, the uninhibited internet; not something I had learned from my insect guidebook.) The red soldier beetle is apparently the most conspicuously promiscuous insect in these isles. They are even known to fly in copula.

I said above that it was male on female, but I can't actually distinguish the sexes. I seem to remember a report in Nature or Science some time ago about a species of beetle of which two females will pretend to mount as a way of attracting the most aggressive males, one of whom will jealously try to push away what he thinks is a weaker rival and have the damsel for himself. Discovering the ruse, he mates with one or the other of the sneaky gals. Ah, the wonderful stratagems of natural selection.

(My camera is not so good at close-ups. You can click to enlarge the pic.)

Monday, August 01, 2011

Keeping time

I have a new watch. A Timex. $29.95. It keeps perfect time.

There was a time when my el cheapo watch would have been the dream of empires, a timepiece that keeps good enough time to solve the problem of longitude. Where in the world are you? Latitude is easy. Shoot the sun or stars with a sextant. East-west is trickier. Compare local time -- the sun on the meridian at noon -- with home time. Every hour difference is 15 degrees of longitude. But how do you know home time? You set your clock as you leave home port and you don't reset it.

You know this story. How John Harrison created the first timepieces that kept good enough time to satisfy the British navy. All four of Harrison's clocks are now on display in thick plexiglass cases in a museum room of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, near London. They are referred to collectively, simply, as The Harrisons. If you ever get a chance to see them, do. They are historic. They are beautiful.

The first of Harrison's clocks, H-1, completed in 1735 (with the help of his brother James), looks nothing like what we expect a clock to be. It is undeniably gorgeous, its shape eerily evocative of the observatory building itself. The clock's original case is lost, so H-1 sits, like H-2 and H-3, with its innards exposed for all to see, a Rube Goldbergish contraption of spindles, bars, knobs and levers. It gleams of brass, but the main gears are wooden. The clock's face, with four dials, is elaborately engraved; the rest of the timepiece has a no-nonsense look about it, as if it were a miniature model for some fantasy factory cranking out interchangable parts. And in a sense that is what it is, the products being interchangable instants of time. The clock still runs. It is wound each morning by a member of the museum staff. Two oscillating pendulums, with brass balls at their ends and connected by coil springs, rock back and forth with a two-second rhythm. It is hard to imagine this thing in a captain's cabin on a ship at sea, the ship heaving and groaning in a storm, but such was H-1's fate. Harrison was ordered by the Admiralty to accompany the clock on a voyage to Lisbon and back. He suffered terribly from seasickness, but the clock kept almost perfect time.

Still, Harrison wanted better. He sought perfection more than he sought the 20,000 pounds promised by the 1714 Act of Longitude. So here in their cases at the Royal Observatory are H-2 and H-3, each one somewhat more compact than its predecessor, each incorporating new inventions intended to make its pulse independent of grit, grime, heat, cold, moisture, dryness, tossing, turning, tightly-wound spring, run-down spring. H-2 and H-3 beat in unison with H-1, all three clocks keeping the same two-second rhythm. There is something hypnotic about their goings; one soon finds oneself rocking or nodding in time with the clocks. H-2 and H-3 have no wooden gears; they are contrived completely of brass and steel. In retrospect one wonders how Harrison could ever have imagined that these exquisite but complex monsters could become standard issue in His Majesty's navy.

Then comes H-4. It is as if suddenly it dawned upon Harrison that he had for decades been chasing a folly: A small, high frequency oscillator (five beats per second) might keep better time at sea than a big, clunky, brass contraption ever could. H-4 looks like a familiar pocket watch, although much larger in size, about six inches in diameter. Its works are hidden in an exquisitely engraved case, but inside are extraordinary innovations: jeweled pivots, a balance wheel, a bimetallic strip to compensate for temperature change, a miniature remontoire that rewinds eight times per minute to maintain a constant force from the driving spring. Unlike its companions, which tick and tock and spin and nod with not a little pomp, H-4 is inert. Although capable of running, it is so compact, so exquisitely put together with so many tiny parts, the museum authorities do not risk the abuse of cleaning and lubricating that would be required every few years if the clock were active.

The performance of this last artifact of Harrison's genius was three times better than the standard stipulated by the Longitude Act of 1714. It has been called "the most important timekeeper ever made," and it was not long before every ship went to sea with a direct descendent of H-4, the original marine chronometer, and every chronometer in His Majesty's navy kept Greenwich time. When Captain Fitzroy set sail aboard H. M. S. Beagle in 1831, to map the coasts of South America (and to bear young Charles Darwin to new realms of intellectual adventure), he carried with him twenty-two chronometers -- some his own, some borrowed, some officially issued by the Admiralty -- with which to ascertain the longitudes of distant shores.

My el cheapo Timex would have done the trick.