Friday, September 30, 2011


I am seventy-five years old. I have never watched another human die. On only a few occasions have I seen animals other than insects die. It's not that death hasn't been happening all around me. Loved ones and friends have passed away. Generations of wild creatures have flourished in my presence, then met their demise. But the act of dying has been mostly invisible.

I have been spared the grim harvestings of famine, plague and war. Death, therefore, is a kind of abstraction. I know that it happens in equal measure to the replenishments of birth, but, for me, it has mostly happened in secret. "I suppose it is just as well," wrote Lewis Thomas, in one of his essays; "If the earth were otherwise, and the dying were done in the open, with the dead there to be looked at, we would never have it out of our minds."

So I'm stopped in my tracks by this mortal tableau, this slip of a snake, called from hiding by one of the last hot days of summer, culled by a car on the college drive that is part of my Path (click to enlarge). Sylvia Plath has a poem about a dead snake, called Medallion. Suddenly I understand her title. The tableau has the sinuous quality of an engraving, mortality cast in bronze.

The blood, the flies. The unhinged grin. The death's mask. The twist of flesh leaking crimson. The slither frozen in time. The lop-sided valentine from the other side, the love knot.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Of things as they are

What was it I said here the other day? If history teaches us anything, it is that history is messy.

I tend to avoid books that purport to offer bullet explanations of broad historical trends. How the Irish Saved Civilization, for example. Or any of the dozens of books in recent years with the subtitle "How X Changed the World."

Now comes Harvard Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt's new book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.. According to early reviews, Greenblatt argues that the 1417 rediscovery of Lucretius' 1st-century BCE philosophical poem On the Nature of Things ignited a brushfire of innovation that became modernity. I enjoyed Greenblatt's previous surprise best-seller, Will In the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. And, as readers of Valentine will know, Lucretius, and his inspiring predecessor, Epicurus, are close to my heart. So do I overlook the hubristic subtitle and read Greenblatt's book? Or do I trust my instincts that the Renaissance was a conflagration of cultural change that would have happened with or without Lucretius?

But this much is almost certainly true: Modernity grew out of the historical tradition of which Epicurus and Lucretius were a part.

What did they espouse? That the only guides to reliable truth are reason and observation. That mind and spirit are inseparable from the material body, and are extinguished when the body dies. That the gods, if they exist, do not interfere in the affairs of humans, nor do they reward or punish. That the goal of life is to seek happiness and avoid pain. True religion, said Epicurus, is the contemplation of things as they are in a spirit of repose.

The Valentine of my novel is an Epicurean. He has read Lucretius. I wrote the novel, set in the 3rd century of the Christian era, to explore the contrast between an empirical tradition that was already well established in antiquity and the otherworldly Christian tradition that would soon come to dominate Western culture. The two traditions are still in conflict, each presumably appealing to some aspect of the human psyche. Valentine quotes Lucretius to his Christian friend Antonius:
…men are afraid because they see things
On earth and in the heavens that they cannot explain,
And so suppose them to be caused
By the will of gods…
In a sense, then, nothing has changed. Yet everything has changed. Reason and empiricism have transformed the world. Even the most ardent believers in miracles, revelation, and immortality enjoy the benefits of technology, scientific medicine, and Enlightenment politics, all of which have sprung from the tradition of which Epicurus and Lucretius were part -- in this much Greenblatt is surely right. However, no one book or person is responsible for modernity. We owe our present health and material well-being to a long tradition of men and women -- Lucretius and my fictional Valentine among them -- who advanced the claims of reason and empiricism against the arbitrary dominion of the gods.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Thank God, it's Doomsday"

OK, folks. Here's what's awaiting you. The End Times. The Apocalypse. The Rapture. The Final Reckoning.

Oh, I could pick any one of a thousand representations of the Last Days from centuries of Western art. This one is Luca Signorelli's The Damned Cast Into Hell, in the Capella Nuova chapel of Orvieto Cathedral, painted around the year 1500 (click to enlarge).

Why were these scenes of souls in extremis so common? Exhortations to be good? A reminder of what awaits us if we don't contribute to the Sunday collection? A local bishop trying to scare the bejesus out of his rebellious flock?

Or were these scenes of tribulation just plain old popular with ordinary people, early versions of a Hollywood blockbuster armageddon movie? A pre-modern equivalent of the hugely popular Left Behind books of LaHaye and Jenkins?

We love Doomsday. I don't know why, but we seem to have a built-in fascination with the end of the world. Yeah, I watched the movie Deep Impact. Loved it when that comet smashed into the ocean, sending a tidal wave over New York. The good guys survived. The sheep and the goats.

One Christian group or another has been anticipating the Apocalypse virtually every decade since the Guy himself went up into heaven. And it's not just religious folks. Today we have a secular doomsday genre. Cosmic catastrophe.

Google "Nibiru." Eight million hits. A rogue planet that swings by Earth every 3600 years. The Sumerians named it. And the time is nigh. The winter solstice, 2012. The end of the Mayan calendar. This time it's gonna hit. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Or not. But I wouldn't be surprised if a film called Nibiru is not in production. Meanwhile, we can enjoy the approach of the rogue planet even though it doesn't exist, just as the good folk of Signorelli's Orvieto presumably took a vicarious pleasure at seeing the winged demons drag their less virtuous neighbors down to hell. A suspension of disbelief. A bit of cognitive dissonance. That's entertainment.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Final exam

When I started teaching at Stonehill nearly half-a-century ago, there was a history professor who gave true/false final exams with questions like "The main cause of the French Revolution was such-and-such." Fortunately, his tenure was short. If history teaches us anything, it is that history is complicated.

So, I'm reading previews of Steven Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, that will be out in October. Apparently, Pinker compiles data from the research literature to show that humans -- in the developed world, at least -- are becoming less violent. Even the gross butcheries of the 20th century do not negate the overall trend, he claims.

Well, we'll wait to see if the data is convincing, but I don’t doubt it for a minute. Compare the widespread indignation over the recent execution in Georgia with the almost daily public hangings and quarterings of just a few centuries ago.

Nor is the thesis new. When I was an undergraduate I remember Margaret Mead telling us that the progress of civilization is the ever-widening circle of those whom we do not kill.

If our better angels are indeed in the ascendancy, what's the reason? According to previews of his book, Pinker cites Enlightenment values -- reason, literacy, secularism, internationalism, science.

The trend towards non-violence is either real or not; that's a matter of data. The cause of the trend is more speculative. I would like to believe that Pinker is correct. I've often offered the same interpretation here: globalism, science and secularism vs. tribalism, tradition and dogmatic religion.

But maybe the deeper cause is self-interest after all. Maybe the "better angels of our nature" are motivated by avarice and a desire for what money can buy. Maybe the primary analysis should be economic.

Maybe it was a matter of figuring out -- or learning by trial and error -- that reason, literacy, secularism, internationalism and science are conditions conducive to the building of personal wealth, not just for the few, but for the many. Maybe the Enlightenment is all about standard of living.

Maybe we widen the circle of those whom we do not kill so we will have broader markets for our goods and services.

True? Or false?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Universal constants, universal consensus

I received a book in the mail last week, as I sometimes do, for potential review on this blog, James Stein's Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe.. I often write here about books I read, but I don't review. I did glance at Stein's book, however. It has an audience, but it's not for me; been there, done that.

The subtitle is provocative, however. The idea that a dozen or so numbers "define the universe." That's a mind-blowing concept.

The gravitational constant. The speed of light. Absolute zero. Planck's constant. The Hubble constant. And so on. Familiar to every introductory physics student. Built into the very structure of the Earth. And every other earth in the universe.

Look again at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field photograph. Those myriad of galaxies. Those yawning light-years. That infinitude of worlds. And, as far as we know, the fundamental constants are the same everywhere,

The human mind has thrown a net across the cosmos.

And as we have brought the galaxies into our ken, so have we come to realize that we too are part and parcel of the fabric of cosmic space and time.

Exceptional clarity. Impenetrable mystery.

So what do we make of the news so breathlessly reported in the media of neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light? This is surely a bit of heroic physics, pitting what we believe to be true against the refining fire of experience, but I wouldn't make too much of it yet. Tom suggested that perhaps the researchers unwittingly measured the distance from CERN in Switzerland to Gran Sasso in Italy with greater accuracy. That's the kind of whimsy the result calls for now. The real story -- for the time being -- is as an illustration of the way the engine of scientific knowing grinds inexorably toward consensus.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Bonnard

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

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Oh, to live always in it!" -- a Saturday reprise

A few years ago, when I was in England for Walking Zero, we lived within a short walk of London's Highgate Cemetery. I can't imagine that there is another cemetery in the world where are interred more famous people. The grave to which I made special pilgrimage was that of Michael Faraday, the great 19th-century electromagnetic experimentalist and a man of inexhaustible childlike wonder. He laid the foundations for our electric civilization, but never lost his delight in discovering the secrets of nature. "Nothing," he famously said, "is too wonderful to be true."

But everything wonderful need not be true. At the time of Faraday's 1853 Christmas lecture to children, England was in obsessed with spiritualist and pseudoscientific fads. "Oh, how wonderful!" people no doubt exclaimed when a table levitated at a seance. Faraday cautioned the youngsters:
Study science with earnestness -- search into nature -- elicit the truth -- reason on it, and reject all which will not stand the closest investigation. Keep your imagination within bounds, taking heed lest it run away with your judgment. Above all, let me warn you young ones of the danger of being led away by the superstitions which at this day of boasted progress are a disgrace to the age, and which afford astonishing proofs of the vast floods of ignorance overwhelming and desolating the highest places.
(Quoted in Alan Hirshfeld's The Electric Life of Michael Faraday.)

(This post originally appeared in June 2006. Faraday's message is as timely today as ever.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

A pot of crickets?

Yesterday I quoted the poet Hayden Carruth on writers: "Our heads are full of language like buckets of minnows." A few hours later, I came across a similar expression expression: A head like "a pot full of crickets."

It is, I think, a phrase most commonly used in Spanish-speaking countries -- olla de grillos -- for any confusing or cacophonous situation. I came across it in an essay by the Spanish writer/philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) called "My Religion" (1907). I can't say that I know much about Unamuno, but I was impressed by his essay, which carved out a territory familiar to some readers of this blog at a time when such views were few and far between.

The essay is available in translation here.

Apparently, Unamuno was attacked from the left and the right. Scientific atheists thought him religiously mushy and mystical. Religious dogmatists accused him of spiritual anarchy. Both sides considered him a fool whose head was "a pot full of crickets."

"My religion," writes Unamuno, "is to look for truth in life and life in truth, even knowing that I may never find them while I am alive. My religion is to struggle constantly and tirelessly with mystery; my religion is to wrestle with God from the break of day until the close of night, like they say that Jacob struggled with Him...I want to reach for the inaccessible."

His methodology is applied skepticism: "To be skeptical does not mean that one doubts, but that one investigates or searches without the need to find definite conclusion or affirmation."

His religion, then, as a thinker and poet, consists of "cries of the heart," with which he tries to make "the heart-strings of others vibrate." If others have no heart-strings, or if their heart-strings are so rigid that they won't vibrate, well, so much the worse for them. It is the journey, not the destination, that is the essence of Unamuno's faith. But a journey requires a direction, a sought-after Ultimate, even if that Ultimate cannot be named and is forever inaccessible.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A bucket of minnows

The 4 August issue of Nature had this teaser on the cover: "LUNAR COLLISION: Did lost second Moon leave its mark on the dark side?"

The story inside presents a computer simulation that suggests the highlands on the Moon's far side may have been caused by the accretion of a smaller second moon that collided some tens of millions of years after both moons formed early in the history of the Solar System.

So back to the teaser. Why is the "lost second Moon" capitalized? Presumably the capital goes with the Moon as we presently know it.

And rather more embarrassingly, what's this business of "dark side"?

Granted, "dark side of the Moon" is a commonly used phrase for the face of the Moon that is permanently turned away from the Earth, the face we never saw until the dawn of the space age. But it's only "dark" at the time of the full Moon, when the familiar face is illuminated by the Sun.

At the time of the new Moon the so-called "dark side" is fully illuminated. Those mysterious lunar highlands bask in sunlight.

Thankfully, the article inside the journal foregoes the capitalization and speaks only of the Moon's "far side."

Tsk, tsk, Nature.

Am I making lunar mountains out of a linguistic Molehill? Maybe. But it's a good excuse to reflect on the difference between scientific language and poetry.

Scientific language strives to avoid ambiguity. Sometimes this can lead to what the layperson might take as jargon. The botanist, for example, has dozens of ways to say a plant is not smooth: aculeate, aculeoate, asperous, bristly, brillate, canescent, chaffy, ciliate, coriaceous, and so on. I could settle for bristly and chaffy, but presumably the botanist recognizes finer distinctions than meet my eye. As for the choice between "far" and "dark" -- the first is unambiguous and accurate, the second reinforces ancient anthropocentric prejudices. If I quoted here from the technical paper in Nature on the proposed origins of the lunar highlands, the typical non-specialist reader would be bewildered. Poetry it's not.

Rather different, say, than these lines from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses:
The moon has a face like a clock in the hall;
She shines on thieves on the garden wall,
On street and fields and harbor quays,
And birdies asleep in the forks of trees.
The moon has a face like a clock in the hall. The bright-sided, dark-sided Moon/clock telling time. Just there, watching me as I watch it. Yeah, that worked for me as a kid. Science it's not.

“What crazies we writers are, our heads full of language like buckets of minnows standing in the moonlight on a dock,”
 wrote the poet Hayden Carruth. You can make a poem of a bucket of minnows. You can't make science.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Imagine that

In my last post I mentioned that there is an arm's length of DNA in (almost) every cell of our bodies. Several people expressed incredulity.

An arm's length of anything in a space too small to see with the naked eye! As I said in Skeptics and True Believers, it strained my credulity too. So I did the calculation. I didn't include the calculation in the book, but I once posted it here.

Here goes again.

We know from X-ray diffraction studies that a strand of DNA is 1.5 nanometers (1.5 x 10 to the -9 meters) in radius. Assume a cylinder 1 meter long (the arm's length) with a radius of 1.5 nanometers and work out the volume (length x pi r-squared). A typical animal cell is about 8 micrometers (8 x 10 to the -6 meters) in radius. Assume a spherical cell and calculate the volume (4/3 pi r-cubed). Do it yourself. You will see that the DNA fits easily inside the cell, with plenty of room for all of the rest of the cellular machinery.

The human imagination is hobbled by the limitations of the senses. Mathematics allows the imagination to go where the senses have not strayed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011



The first string of letters above represents an actual sequence of amino acids on human chromosome 10.

The second string is the corresponding sequence for an elephant.

I copy the strings from a New Yorker article on Neanderthals by Elizabeth Kolbert. She tosses them in more or less at random just to show what a DNA sequence looks like. Still, they jump off the page. Humans and elephants. A four-letter code.

Four molecules called neucleotides, arranged in pairs along a spiraling ladder, the double-helix -- adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine, represented by the letters A, T, G and C. A always pairs with T, G with C.

The complete human genome is a string of something like 3 billion As, Ts, Gs and Cs. Ditto for the elephant. Some 30,000 sequences, of variable length, are genes. Most of the strings are apparently non-functional; so-called "junk." Give the sequence to a genomist and she can tell you if it belongs to a human or an elephant. Or, for that matter, to an Asian elephant, and African elephant, or an extinct woolly mammoth.

Or a modern human or a Neanderthal.

There have been some pretty exciting discoveries in science in my lifetime -- plate tectonics, for example, or the cosmic microwave background radiation -- that have revolutionized our understanding of the Earth and the universe. But to my mind nothing has been more stunning than the recognition that we share with all of life an elegantly simple four-letter code that determines what we are as a species. And not only our species, but the color of our eyes and the dimples in our cheeks. An identical arm's-length of DNA in every one of the trillions of cells of our bodies (except red blood cells).

And somewhere in that sequence of 3 billion As, Ts, Cs and Gs is presumably the variation that let modern humans prosper at the expense of our Neanderthal neighbors.

Monday, September 19, 2011

In the meadow

Before I set out on my walk to college each morning, I eat my corn flakes and read the Boston Globe. This morning, a front-page story about a new Audubon Society statewide census of birds that indicates a precipitous drop in the numbers of many species. Among the birds with the steepest decline in population is the eastern meadowlark.

This comes as no surprise. Meadowlarks used to be a constant part of my walk along the Path. From their hiding places in the meadows they awakened my spirit with their endearing, but melancholy call. In The Soul of the Night I tried to render that call for my readers:
The Golden Field Guide provides a very scientific "sonogram" of frequency versus time. The song, I can see from the graph, is about two seconds long and ranges from three to four octaves above middle C. That is of no use at all. Peterson's Guide is a little better: "Two clear, slurred whistles, musical and pulled out." Tee-yah, tee-yair, tries Peterson, striving for objectivity, and that gets us close to the sound but not to the strange, sad music. As usual, one has to go back to the older guidebooks for something closer to reality. Chapman's classic Handbook of the Birds, published in 1895, catches a bit of it: "The meadowlark's song is a clear, plaintive whistle of unusual sweetness." Ah, that's better -- the sweet and the sad. But in this matter, as in all things pertaining to bird song, F. Schuyler Matthews' seventy-five-year-old Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music does it best. The song, says Matthews, is "unquestionably pathetic, if not mournful." And with his characteristic extravagance, Matthews transcribes the meadowlark's call as the first two bars of Alfredo's song in La Traviata, but sung (of course) the way Violetta sings it when she discovers she must give up Alfredo.
Gone now. It's been twenty-five years since I heard a meadowlark. This morning as I walked through the meadow I whistled the meadowlark's song, as if I might magically resurrect the bird, whistle it up from the grass with its dapper yellow gown and black chevron vest. I whistled into the wind and had no answer.

Does it matter? Is the loss of the meadowlark a matter of consequence? In Soul of the Night I said, "From his hiding place in the crumpled grass he lectures on existential philosophy and discourses on roses and thorns." I miss those avian disquisitions.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

After Blake

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

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The marriage and heaven and earth -- a Saturday reprise

Two beautiful women look out at us across half a millennium. Two women painted at almost the same time -- 1482 or thereabouts -- by the same artist, Sandro Botticelli, who clearly had an eye for beauty. (Click to enlarge.)

On the left, a detail from Virgin and Child with Eight Angels, one of a number of wonderful madonnas painted by Botticelli. She looks towards us with modestly unfocused attention, as if she knows that we will never understand the role she has been asked to play in the drama of salvation. She hardly understands herself, but accepts her fate dreamily. She is the quintessential faithful wife and loving mother. Her face is framed with the lilies of purity.

On the right, the goddess Flora, a detail from Botticelli's famous Primavera. A very different woman this. Her hair and dress are laced with spring flowers -- daisies, violets, cornflowers and wild strawberries -- her girdle is of roses, her collar myrtle, the tree of Venus. She looks directly at us with lidded, come-hither eyes. Her lips are parted in a sultry smile. She is framed by trees burgeoning with luscious fruit.

The two faces of the male fantasy.

But there is more here than the old wife/mistress, virgin/whore dichotomy, more than the bifurcated itch of male desire. Botticeilli was painting on a cusp of history. The Middle Ages were ceding to modernity. A preoccupation with the Otherworld was giving way to a reborn interest in the world of Nature. Secularity and curiosity were in the air. It was the eve of the Scientific Revolution.

The power brokers and guardians of tradition knew that something was slipping from their grasp. The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478. The witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum was printed in 1487 (Flora beware!). In 1497, Botticelli's fellow citizen Savonarola had his bonfire of the vanities, a last desperate attempt to crush the new emerging humanism. Soon thereafter Savonarola himself went up in smoke in the same Florentine square.

Botticelli was torn both ways. His art swung back and forth from the sacred to the profane, from religious themes to pagan myths. The guilt-monger Savonarola owned part of his soul; the Renaissance ideal of natural beauty owned the rest.

The Virgin and Flora are part of everyone's soul -- male and female, gay and straight -- part of our human nature. We are spiritual and we are sensual. We cherish stability and we long for the fling. The religious naturalist wants to morph the two images, erase the duality, celebrate Flora's profane natural beauty without forgoing the sacred mystery we see expressed in the Virgin's eyes. Is it possible?

(This post originally appeared in April 2008.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A deep shyness

The hidden God. My God is no God shining on an altar in a nimbus of gold-painted spikes, but the hidden God, the God who waits to be disclosed, as we wait -- to find him. Between Him and me what silence, what long preparations and rehearsals, what a deep shyness.
What are we reading here? It might be something by a medieval Christian mystic -- John of the Cross, say, or Richard Rolle. But no, it is from the just-published journals of the eminent critic Alfred Kazin, as quoted in the New York Review.

Kazin was Jewish -- he died in 1998. His reviewer says of the journals: "He has no interest in literal or supernatural beliefs. His messianic faith is his belief in the invisible reality of value and meaning."

I grew up with a God shining on an altar in a nimbus of golden spikes. The consecrated host, the very substance of divinity, displayed in a marvelous gold-spiked contrivance called a "monstrance." As a child I fixed upon the similarity between "monstrance" and "monster." My God was a fearsome thing, who would not have the least hesitation to send my soul to hell if it suited his purpose.

Well, that's all gone now, but not a lingering belief in "an invisible value and meaning." Kazin appears comfortable with the word "God" as the source of these elusive qualities. And why not? The word comes loaded with anthropomorphic baggage, but it bears a handsome pedigree too. The hidden God has a long history among searchers of a more "mystical" bent -- the Deus absconditus.

Clearly, we have an appetite for value and meaning. That appetite may be as much a part of our evolutionary natures as our appetite for food and sex. How we act on that appetite is a matter of personal choice that lifts us out of the evolutionary dynamic. Kazin says as much:
I am more and more convinced that this dimension of personal freedom…is decisive. Only this individual sense of good and evil can abolish the pathetic sense of being a disappointed spectator and onlooker, a reader of historical fortunes.

(Tomorrow I will be in transit to New England. Back on Friday or Saturday.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The word and the flesh

Here is an old story, told in these parts, of the coming of Cristianity to Ireland. I told the story in Climbing Brandon.
Saint Brendan and his brethren are erecting a church at Cloghane, at the foot of Mount Brandon. They ask the local pagan chieftain, Crom Dubh, for a contribution. He volunteers a bull, knowing full well that the bull is wild and dangerous. Brendan's monks attach a halter to the bull's neck and lead the animal placidly away. Crom Dubh is furious and demands the bull's return. Brendan writes the words Ave Maria on a slip of paper and suggests to Crom Dubh that the paper weighs more than the bull. Nonsense, asserts the pagan chieftain. A scale is arranged and, sure enough, the paper outweighs the bull. Crom Dubh is so impressed that he submits to conversion, along with all of his tribe.
A clash of cultures. The bull represents the untamed nature of Europe's Celtic fringe, a place dramatically sensitive to the diurnal and annual cycles of the Sun, to light and dark, heat and cold, battle and strife, sexuality and fecundity. Until the coming of Brendan and Patrick, Crom Dubh and his people lived up to their necks in nature, their gods were multiple and randy, their animals fierce, their sustenance precarious. Then along came the Word, scribbles on a slip of paper. A new way of living in the world, from southern latitudes where the solar cycles are not so pronounced. A faith of city residents -- shoemakers, tax collectors, tally clerks, potters, tailors, weavers, bakers, surveyors. All flesh is grass and its glory is like the wild flower's; the grass withers, the flower falls, but the Word of the Lord remains forever.

The word outweighs the bull. Brendan and his early Christian contemporaries bring to the North a new religion of the word, abstract, immaterial. The Book becomes supreme, given from on high. The wars of the pagan Irish tribes were fought over cattle, women; the stories that come down to us are of passionate love affairs, elopements, abductions, feats of arms. The wars of the Mediterranean will be fought over words, legalisms, nuances of meaning, revelations written down and endlessly dissected. The new deity from the South is supremely aloof to the comings and goings of the Sun, sweating beasts and growing plants, sex and procreation. The new deity enters the world in the guise of his desexualized son, the offspring of a virgin. His message is clear: The world of nature is a base and fallen place, to be abandoned as soon as possible for the transcendent and immaterial advantages of heaven. In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God.

Monday, September 12, 2011


The blackberries were late this year. Moreover, they are sparse, small and bitter. The Met Office says it has been the coolest summer in twenty-five years. The blackberries confirm it.

Here in Ireland, blackberries are the one fruit still widely gathered from the wild. When we first came here almost forty years ago, some folks gathered mushrooms from the fields. It's been a while since I've seen anyone mushrooming. It's been a while since I've seen mushrooms.

But the lanes are still edged with bramble, and for the past few weeks we have joined our neighbors trying to fill a bucket or bowl with enough blackberries to make a crumble. I've been able to gather barely enough for my spouse to dress her breakfast cereal.

Why do we do it? Richard Mabey, in his wonderful big compendium Flora Britannica, says: "It is not just that blackberries are delicious, ubiquitous and unmistakable. Blackberrying, I suspect, carries with it a little of the urban dweller's myth of country life: harvest, a sense of season, and just enough discomfort to quicken the senses. Maybe the scuffling and scratches are an essential art of the attraction, the proof of satisfying outdoor toil against unruly nature."

Or maybe we are feeding our inner hunter-gatherer, some resilient impulse inherited from our pre-agricultural ancestors. Blackberry seeds have been found in the stomach of a Neolithic man dug up in a British bog.

Here is a drawing of blackberry bramble from an eleventh-century herbal, probably compiled at Bury St. Edmunds Abbey in Suffolk, England, and now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The herbal contains some of the earliest naturalistic plant drawings, with information on the plants' medicinal uses. A very William Morris-y design. And a precursor of the coming Scientific Revolution.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My Guston

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

Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 + 10 -- A Saturday reprise

(I post today something I wrote a decade ago for the Orion Magazine website, as one of a number of invited responses to the events of 9/11.

I slipped out of bed early on the morning of September 15, 2001, to see a conjunction of Venus and the Moon. The sky was clear, a crisp autumn tang in the air. The two celestial object blazed in the east. The crescent Moon was eyelash thin, the rest of its orb more brightly lit by Earthshine than I had ever seen before.

I wondered what it would it be like to be viewing Earth from the Moon at that same moment. Our planet's face would be almost fully lit by sunlight, a huge blue-white ornament in the Moon's sky. No sign of human strife or turmoil. A placid sphere wisped with water and air, afloat against the silent deeps of space.

In the presence of that morning's beauty, I almost forgot the terrible events four days earlier when terrorists smashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I thought to myself: Why must human violence disturb nature's peace?

But, of course, I had it exactly backwards.

It is nature that is violent. Astronomers point out how few places in the universe are sufficiently calm for life to exist. Massive black holes at the centers of galaxies gobble gas and stars. In the arms of galaxies, suns explode with a violence that shatters surrounding worlds. Comets and asteroids smash into planets. Galaxies collide.

The TRACE satellite telescope has recently provided us with stunning photographs of our Sun; they are epics of fire and frenzy. The Chandra X-ray telescope shows us a universe of ferocious tumult. Paleontologists find fossil evidence of planetwide extinctions.

We now understand that violence and death are corollaries of life. To persist, living creatures must take matter and energy from their environment. As life proliferates, competition for resources becomes inevitable. Aggression is advantageous, even necessary. Genetic variations that confer a competitive advantage are favored in the struggle to survive. If nature were not cruel, conscious creatures such as ourselves would never have evolved.

It is as Loren Eiseley wrote: "Instability lies at the heart of the world." The criminals who wreaked havoc on New York and Washington were acting out an ancient biological script.

Yet there is ground for hope. Our brains are of sufficient complexity to give rise to that mysterious thing known as self-awareness. Our genes may predispose us to act in certain ways, good or bad, but they do not constrain us. We are effectively free to choose good over evil. Humans alone, of all the things we know about in the universe, can escape the bipolar logic of evolution.

To a cheering extent we have done so. As Margaret Mead pointed out, the circle of those whom we do not kill has steadily expanded throughout human history. The optimists among us imagine that the circle will ultimately embrace the entire planet.

From nature's point of view, there is no such thing as the Problem of Evil: order and disorder, life and death, cooperation and competition are the twin principles of nature's creative force. What humans uniquely face is the Problem of Good: How to create on this tiny planet an oasis of unalloyed peace.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The joy of unbelief

In a recent New Yorker, James Wood reviews a new collection of essays called The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, edited by the literary scholar George Levine and published by Princeton University Press. Wood doesn't mention, as I recall, the play on the title of The Joy of Sex, but apparently Levine's book has something of the same theme: You'll have more fun in life if you shed your theological inhibitions and let it all hang out.

Well, I'll have to read the book when I get back to my nook in the college library, but as a reasonably joyful secularist I'd have to say that I haven't noticed secularists are generally any happier than religious believers. If the goal of life is to be joyful, then religious people might even have an edge. At least they can anticipate future happiness to make up for present woes.

No, my reason for being secular is purely intellectual: In 75 years of reading and reflection I haven't found a shred of evidence to convince me that all that stuff I was taught as a child is true. The vast majority of religious people believe in the truth of the religion into which they were born, which should give any such person pause for thought. Rather, I find far more compelling the painstaking development of empirical science as a guide to reality, especially as supplemented by the principle of parsimony. I'm a secularist because my head tells me to be that way, not because I want to be happy.

Head trumps heart.

Still, like anyone else, I'd rather be joyful than sad. And part of being happy is having a story that gives meaning to a life. Theists, of course, have such stories. Their stories have ancient origins and are generally codified in scriptures and traditions, fixed in stone. Contemporary secularists have a story too, an evolving story that reaches across cosmic space and geologic time. The secular story provides a firm armature on which to hang a life, but it doesn't do much to affirm the cosmic significance of an individual life. There is nothing in the scientific story of the world that offers the equivalent of the believer's conviction that the Creator of the Universe has him or her uniquely in mind.

So we scratch out our happiness as best we can -- from love, from physical intimacy, from poetry and art, from the feel of earth underfoot and wind on the skin, from a cold beer and anchovy pizza, from doing good and resisting the crasser temptations of greed and power, from courage in the face of oblivion.

In all of this, we are pretty much just like everyone else.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Hanging on

I have a soft spot in my heart for the duck-billed platypus. Fisrt, because Platypus Multimedia is the name of my son's business. Second, because who cannot love so improbable a creature? Which may be why Dan picked the platypus for his name and logo.

A goofy mix of mammalian and reptilian DNA. Furry and egg-laying. It's like a creature slapped together on the eighth day of creation from whatever parts were left over after the first seven days. Its very weirdness "argues for an independent history running to tens of millions of years," says paleontologist Richard Fortey, in his new book Survivors: The Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind.

I think I've read everything Fortey has written. To my mind he is the best science popularizer writing in Britain today. Not as well-known as Dawkins, perhaps, or as firecracker brilliant, but he doesn't waste his considerable intellectual gifts on people too adamantine to recognize a fact if they see one. I love this photo of Fortey, which I have posted before. Looks a little platypusian himself, slapped together and adorable.

In his new book Fortey hops around the world visiting creatures that have survived the transforming impulse of evolution pretty much unchanged for long periods of time. They are generally as low-key and unflashy as the platypus and Fortey himself. Slow and steady; that's the secret. Lay low. Keep a finger to the wind.

The ferns are among Fortey's greatest survivors. They've been around for 345 million years, far longer than flowering plants. And still doing very well, thank you. I mentioned here earlier this summer that we had a twelve-foot-wide firebreak cleared around our property. And look what's first to resettle. Not the showy fuchsia or gaudy montbretia. Not the blackberry bramble or sprawling Rosa rugosa. That's right. Old slow and steady.

Keep it going, Fortey. You da best.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Asperges me

Hurricane Irene chased me across the Atlantic. Not finding me at home in the Bahamas, she tore a few shingles off the house and headed for New England, looking for me there. Again disappointed, she knocked down our power lines, sniffed the air to catch my scent, and headed for Ireland, where, as I write, she is lashing the windows with rain and washing the gravel out of the driveway.

I don't take it personally. Irene's gotta do what she gotta do. "Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another," wrote John Muir.

And Lord knows it's been that kind of summer. No two settled days in a row. A rip-roaring front sloshing in from the Atlantic every 48 hours. Then interludes of sun. With rainbows to separate the acts.

The great churning earth engine, whirling, flowing, building and pulling down. Hurricanes, Tornados. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. Nothing we can do about it. Fleas on a dogs back.

Sit back and try to enjoy what we can. Do you remember that episode in one of Muir's books where he gets caught in a furious blizzard in the High Sierras? He climbs up in a tree so that he can more intensely experience the force of the storm, hanging on for dear life as the tree lashes back and forth. One endless song after another, he says. One beautiful form blowing into another.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


Philosophers of the Middle Ages, following the Greeks, imagined the world was made of four elements; earth, air, fire and water. Here, in the cottage on the hill in western Ireland , that formula seems altogether adequate.

We hang in air, anchored to earth. The sea spread out like a silver shield. Fire in the hearth.

Water, water, everywhere. One can drink it from the air. Taste the sea salt on the wind. Sopping. Sodden. The ground squishes beneath the boot. The ditches run.

The fire in the hearth. Dancing, lively. The rain lashing against the windows. Earth. Air. Fire. Water.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Natural religion

It was his shattering experiences in the First World War that led Henry Beston to seek the solitary repose of a tiny cabin on the outermost beach of Cape Cod. His off-and-on two-year residence there is recorded in the book The Outermost House, published in 1927, a classic of nature writing that influenced many of us who have plied that genre. A photo of Beston from about that time shows a fellow who looks rather more like a Hollywood matinee idol than the scruffier hermit of Walden Pond, but the two men had much in common. "On its solitary dune my house faced the four walls of the world," wrote Beston, and we hear echoes of Thoreau.

What were the two men thinking? Beston wrote to a friend:
The principle thing I stand for is, I suppose, not a "return to nature," which is a phrase capable of a quite childish interpretation, but the return to a poetic relation to nature. Man is out of relation to his background…When man is in a poetic relation to his background, he achieves a religious sense of life, and this is the sense that makes him Man.
My children sometimes chide me for my use of the word "religious" in these posts and in my books. They fear, I suppose, that I'm lapsing into a kind of magical thinking that characterizes most people who call themselves religious. But I use the term as Beston uses it, as a way of describing a poetic relationship to the world. And what do I mean by "poetic"? First, awareness. Trying to live as best I can aware of the world around me, a world that is as thick with mystery wherever I am as on the shore of Walden Pond or Nauset Beach. And with awareness, to cultivate a sense of wonder, reverence, and gratitude, qualities that can unabashedly be called "religious."

Our lives are lived so much in artificial environments that they end up being what Beston called "only a ghost of the human adventure." He continues: "It has always seemed to me that a normal range of physical sensation, a sense, for instance, of the fabric of earth underfoot and the sudden cold of a change of the wind, is not only a part of the discipline of life but also its reward."

I don't need magic. Or immortality. The only rapture I'm waiting for is the feel of earth underfoot and the caress of the wind.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

My Vincent

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

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The mundane and the miraculous -- a Saturday reprise

In the current issue of Nature there is a paper called "A lever-arm rotation drives motility of the minus-end-directed kinesin Ncd." A kinesin is a microtubule-based motor protein. The old mechanical metaphor.

It's probably fair to say that if the four authors of this paper hadn't done the work, someone else would have, perhaps not today, or tomorrow, but eventually.

But what about that mechanical metaphor of Mary Oliver in yesterday's post [describing the hummingbird]? "...the brisk motor of his heart/ singing/ like a Schubert..." It is probably also fair to say that if Oliver had not written those lines, they would never exist. Ever. Imagine writing: "...the hummingbird comes/ like a small green angel, to soak/ his dark tongue/ in happiness ---"

And here we have the difference between science and art. Even the greatest science -- Darwin's theory of natural selection, say, or Einstein's theory of relativity -- is inevitable. If Darwin hadn't done it, then someone else would have (indeed, someone else did, simultaneously). Likewise for Einstein.

But those lines from Shakespeare's Sonnet 16 in Anne's valentine the other day? Only Shakespeare. And only Anne.

It is the great strength of science that it relies on consensus. In Bacon's words, scientific understanding "is extracted...not only out of the secret closets of the mind, but out of the very entrails of Nature." Darwin or Einstein may have dreamed up their theories in the secret closets of their minds, but it was the collective measuring of their ideas against nature that makes natural selection and relativity reliable public knowledge. Out of the closets into the light.

When the hummingbird motor sings Schubert, we are invited to journey in the other direction: out of the light of common experience into the secret closet of a single, unmatchable, individual mind.

(This post originally appeared in February, 2006.)

Friday, September 02, 2011

How knowledge progresses

This morning, instead of reading me, watch this video my daughter put me onto. Thanks, Mo.

Thursday, September 01, 2011


I see in the Irish Times that the life and work of the Connemara-based writer and cartographer Tim Robinson is to be celebrated this month with a series of events -- symposia, lectures, readings, exhibitions -- at the National University of Ireland Galway, the University of Exeter in England, and Dublin. Robinson was one of the best things I discovered in Ireland -- his maps and books -- and I'm pleased to have played a small role in getting him included in the Norton Book of Nature Writing. His exquisite maps of the Aran Islands, the Burren, and Connemara remain endless sources of pleasure. His books on the same regions never stray far from my hand.

Robinson is a Yorkshireman who went to Ireland's Aran Island in 1972 to write, think, and otherwise jolt his life out of an urban rut. In 1984, he moved across Galway Bay to Roundstone, Connemara, where he remains.

I can't remember what, if anything, I have written about Robinson on this blog, but he was acknowledged as an influence in my book The Path: A One-mile Walk Through the Universe for his concept of the "adequate step." The "adequate step" is a step worthy of the landscape it traverses. It takes note of the geology, biology, myths, history, and politics of the landscape, as well as the state of consciousness of the walker. I've tried to make of my life a journey of adequate steps.

On the day when Tim Robinson first arrived on the Aran, he met an old man who explained the basic geography. "The ocean," he said, "goes all around the island." By the time Robinson had stepped along every shore, cliff, field and boreen (little road), the physical and human geography of Aran in space and time filled two fat volumes and a big-sheeted map.

Even that, he knew, was not enough. No step or series of steps can be fully adequate. "To forget the dimensions of the step is to forgo our honor as human beings," he writes, "but an awareness of them equal to the involuted complexities under foot at any given moment would be a crushing backload to carry."

When I read Robinson's first book, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage 20 years ago, I was blown away by the intensity of attention that he paid to the landscape. A crushing backload , indeed; exhausting -- and exhilarating -- to follow in his footsteps.

There's one other notion of Robinson's that you will have encountered here. Miracles are explainable, he says in one of his books; it's the explanations that are miraculous.

Thanks, Tim. And congratulations.