Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Speaking of shooting birds

In the spring of 2002, I spent a couple of weeks solo walking in Malta, an island in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia. I based myself in the marvelous fortified city of Valletta, and each day took a bus to walk a stretch of the coast, eventually circling the island. The island was a paradise of spring wildflowers and burgeoning gardens, stirring coastal paths, picturesque villages, antiquities of every age, and friendly people.

And the ever-present pop, pop of shotguns.

Malta is smack on the middle of a north-south flyway for European songbirds, and a sizable proportion of the male Maltese population seems intent on blasting every bird out of the sky. Every cliff face, every field, every open stretch of land is chockablock with the paraphernalia of massacre. Netting grounds for trapping songbirds. Hides (blinds) for hunters. Traylike stands for holding live decoys in cages. And along every path and lane expended shotgun shells, the ubiquitous, and only, litter.

The walking was splendid -- and profoundly depressing.

When I returned to the States I wrote a column for the Boston Globe decrying the killing. A day later I got an email from my host at the tiny Valletta hotel where I stayed; he linked me to the website of the Malta Times, the island's main newspaper, that had picked up and reprinted the story.

A year or so ago, the novelist Jonathan Franzen, an avid birdwatcher, had a long essay in the New Yorker on the same topic -- the slaughter of songbirds on the Mediterranean flyways. He called Malta "the most savagely bird-hostile place in Europe." He traced, in rather more detail than I had been able to do eight years earlier, the escalating clash between an ancient tradition and conservation efforts by the European Union.

In the Globe I opined that the Maltese slaughter might be partly genetic: Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, boys gotta shoot birds out of the sky. But surely cultural too, a phallic enterprise, a way of asserting macho masculinity by making a big bang with a loaded gun. Certainly, in Malta the killing is strictly a male affair.

Franzen ends his piece in Assisi, at the shrine where Saint Francis is said to have given his Sermon to the Birds. Franzen is right that our relationship with other creatures has a religious component. Nobody since Jesus has lived a life more radically in keeping with the gospel than Saint Francis did, wrote Franzen: "Francis, unburdened by the weight of being the Messiah, went Jesus one better and extended his gospel to all of creation."

(Franzen's essay is reprinted in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2011.)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Now thin the membrane between himself and the world

After almost twenty years on the island, it is not often than we see something new. You will have heard about many of our regulars here. The hummingbirds. The geckoes. The boas. The bat moths. The free-toed frogs. The ospreys that patrol the beach each afternoon. The termites. And you will have heard too about a few one-time visitors. The giant stick insect. The hummingbird nest. The pod of dolphins.

It helps to go walking with my neighbor Dwight, who has almost preternatural powers of observation. There's not much, if anything, he misses.

And so it was that he was the first to see the pelican, cruising low off shore, settling onto the swell, cocking its head, flashing its cocky grin.

Then, rising, effortlessly, it swings our way, graciously nods, that tote-bag beak, that streamlined neck of white and chestnut brown.

And off he goes.

Yes, I know, brown pelicans are not uncommon. They teem in Florida, and surely in places in the Bahamas too. But here, on our beach, this was a first. A gift. One of those epiphanies that lift each day out of the rolling swell of time.

I always admired Audubon's brown pelican. (My spouse gave me the big two-volume collection from the New York Historical Society for our tenth anniversary.) Painted in the Florida Keys in 1832. Sitting on a mangrove branch. Its beak as big as its belly (as every rhymester knows). Blue-vested. Yellow-crowned. Pterodactylian.

Audubon no doubt shot the bird to paint it, as was his practice.
Their footless dance
Is the beautiful liability of their nature.

Their eyes are round, boldly convex, bright as a jewel,
And merciless. They do not know

Compassion, and if they did,
We should not be worthy of it. They fly
In air that glitters like fluent crystal
And is hard as perfectly transparent iron, they cleave it
With no effort. they cry
In a tongue mulititudinous, often like music.

He slew them, at surprising distances, with his gun.

Over a body held in his hand, his head bowed low,
But not in grief.

He put them where they are, and there we see them:

In our imagination.

What is love?

One name for it is knowledge.

From Robert Penn Warren's wonderful extended poem Audubon: A Vision, as is the title of this post.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


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

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A sense of place -- A Saturday reprise

(It would be hard to find two writers more different than Eudora Welty and Edward Abbey. Welty was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of stories and novels who lived all her life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house in which she was born, the beloved spinster aunt of American letters. Abbey was a hard-drinking, butt-kicking nature writer and conservationist best known for his books on the American Southwest. Both writers are favorites of mine. Both were great champions of place. I always wondered what it would have been like if they got together.

As far as I know, that never happened. But let's imagine a conversation. I have taken extracts from Welty's essay "Some Notes on River Country" (1944) and from Abbey's essay "The Great American Desert (1977) and interleaved them. This post originally appeared in June 2006.)

"This little chain of lost towns between Vicksburg and Natchez."

"This desert, all deserts, any deserts."

"On the shady stream banks hang lady's eardrops, fruits and flowers dangling pale jade. The passionflower puts its tendrils where it can, its strange flowers of lilac rays with their little white towers shining out, or its fruit, the maypop, hanging."

""Oily growths like the poison ivy -- oh yes, indeed -- that flourish in sinister profusion on the dank walls above the quicksand down those corridors of gloom and labyrinthine monotony that men call canyons."

"All creepers with trumpets and panicles of scarlet and yellow cling to the treetops. There is a vine that grows to great heights, with heart-shaped leaves as big and soft as summer hats."

""Everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks. You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry and fierce as the animals."

"Too pretty for any harsh fate, with its great mossy trees and old camellias."

""Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity."

"The clatter of hoofs and the bellow of boats have gone. The Old Natchez Trace has sunk out of use. The river has gone away and left the landings. But life does not forsake any place."

""In the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix will get you if the sun, snakes, bugs, and arthropods don't. In the Mojave Desert, it's Las Vegas. Up north in the Great Basin Desert, your heart will break, seeing the strip mines open up and the power plants rise..."

"The Negro Baptist church, weathered black with a snow-white door, has red hens in the yard. The old galleried stores are boarded up. The missing houses were burned -- they were empty, and the little row of Negro inhabitants have carried them off for firewood."

""...the highway builders, land developers, weapons testers, power producers, clear cutters, oil drillers, dam beavers, subdividers."

"Eventually you see people, of course. Women have little errands, and the old men play checkers at a table in the front of the one open store. And the people's faces are good."


"To go there, you start west from Port Gibson. Postmen would arrive here blowing their horns like Gabriel, after riding three hundred wilderness miles from Tennessee."

""Why go into the desert? Really, why do it? That sun, roaring at you all day long. The fetid, tepid, vapid little water holes full of cannibal beetles, spotted toads, horsehair worms, liver flukes. Why go there?"

"I have felt many times there is a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me. A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out. Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen."

""Why the desert, when you could be camping by a stream of pure Rocky Mountain spring water. We have centipedes, millipedes, tarantulas, black widows, brown recluses, Gila monsters, the deadly poisonous coral snakes, and the giant hairy desert scorpions. Plus an immense variety of near-infinite number of ants, midges, gnats, bloodsucking flies, and blood-guzzling mosquitoes."

"Much beauty has gone, many little things of life. To light up the night there are no mansions, no celebrations. Wild birds fly now at the level where people on boat deck once were strolling and talking."

""In the American Southwest, only the wilderness is worth saving."

"There is a sense of place there, to keep life from being extinguished, like a cup of the hands to hold a flame."

""A friend and I took a walk up beyond Coconino County, Arizona. I found an arrow sign, pointed to the north. Nothing of any unusual interest that I could see -- only the familiar sun-blasted sandstone, a few scrubby clumps of blackbush and prickly pear, a few acres of nothing where only a lizard could graze. I studied the scene with care. But there was nothing out there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the silent world."

"Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure."

""In my case, it was love at first sight. The kind of love that makes a man selfish, possessive, irritable..."

"New life will be built upon these things."

""...an unrequited and excessive love."

"It is this."

""That's why."

Friday, January 27, 2012


I'm sure I have written here before about Caenorhabditis elegans, a tiny worm -- about the size of this letter i (without the dot) -- that has become one of the most thoroughly studied animals in biology. Its habits are humble. It is nonpathogenic, noninfectious. It breeds prodigiously. It is transparent. It can be frozen and thawed alive. And heaven knows what else makes it the darling of the wormologists..

More than anything else, it is about a simple an organism as you can find with a nervous system. C. elegans (of the dominant hermaphrodite variety; there are also a few males to enliven the mix) has just 959 cells, which have been individually mapped, exactly the same from worm to worm. Think of that! Less than a thousand cells and it eats, defecates, wiggles from place to place, lays eggs, and otherwise lives a rather full and robust life. Contrast that with the tens of trillions of cells in the human body.

More. C. elegan's genome programs not 959 cells, but 1090. Of these, 131 are slated in advance to die, rather like the cells that die between the webbed digits of a human embryo to give us our useful fingers. Apoptosis, it's called. Programmed cell death. The 2002 Nobel Prize in physiology went to Sydney Brenner, Robert Horvitz and John Sulston for their work on programmed cell death in C. elegans. Tens of billions of cells in our own bodies die each day by apoptosis. We are dying all the time, in bits and pieces. Death is always with us, holding hands with life, hitchhiking in our genome. Whispering in our ear: "I'm here." Nibble, nibble. Waiting, waiting, for the full feast, the final meal.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Last week's New York Times Book review highlighted the ten bestselling non-fiction books of 2011. Here, I thought, is a good snapshot of America.

Let's start with #10: Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, the story of the presidential assassination and its aftermath. Sounds like the kind of story I'd like to read, except the primary author puts me off. Unfair? Maybe. But I prefer my history from historians without a political ax to grind.

#9: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Read it and wrote about it here. A smart, honest book by an unbiased historian. Three cheers for Jobs; three cheers for America.

#8: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Don't know why I haven't read any of Gladwell's books; he seems to define a genre all by himself. I suppose I should slip one or two on the bottom of the pile, just to be au courant.

#7: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Seems like I read this book a decade ago, and here it is still on the best-seller list. As an author, of course, I'm madly jealous. Give this to Walls; it's a compelling read.

#6: A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard, the girl who was kidnapped at age 11 and held prisoner for 18 years. I'll skip this one, but I'm glad she's getting something to compensate for her lost youth.

#5: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, the story of the US ambassador to Germany and his daughter during the run-up to World War II. Read this on the recommendation of my spouse, and because I'd read and enjoyed Larson's previous outings. A smart book that fumbles to a close.

#4: Bossypants by Tina Fey. I'd probably like it. If Tina had been McCain's running mate last time around, I might have voted Republican. (Just kidding.)

#3: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Blogged this here. A generous, big-hearted book that recounts the history of cell research during the past half-century, along with the story of Henrietta. Amazing, and heartening, to see it here, #3, two years later.

#2: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, "an Olympic runner's story of survival as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II." I know nothing about this book, but like the others above, it suggests that the American reading public has nothing to be ashamed of.

And then, after 50 weeks on the bestseller list, we come to #1: Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent, "a boy's encounter with Jesus and the angels." I've taken note of this book before. Where's Tina Fey when we need her?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Staying connected

Visitors here will know that I'm an early riser, and the first thing I do -- after coffee and sunrise -- is post a musing. You will also have noted that a few times since I arrived on the island the posts have appeared late in the day. This is a small island, in an unwealthy country, and my connection to cyberspace is not always ready and waiting. If anything goes amiss during the evening or night, it's not likely to be fixed until someone arrives at work the next morning.

Other utilities are equally dicey. One memorable day last week, the internet, telephone, water and electricity all went out separately during the same 24-hour period.

I'm not complaining. That's why we are here. And things are infinitely better than when we first arrived nearly 20 years ago. What attracted us to this place was precisely its tenuous hold on modernity. Here were a cheerful people not yet caught up in the rat race, who still preferred an extra hour of leisure to an extra hundred bucks, who knew how to relax, make do, improvise, grow a cabbage, sip their coffee and watch the sunrise. When the electricity went off, well, you just stopped what you were doing and waited till it came back on. If the water slowed to a dribble, you probably didn't need that shower anyway. If there was no fresh milk at the market, you opened a packet of Parmalat and waited till the weekly mail boat arrived.

I don't want to sound like a happy-go-lucky Robinson Crusoe, or a condescending affluent American. I am grateful for the privilege of being here, and I am glad to see the island catching up with the times, especially as we get older and less resilient. But I know too that something is being lost, not least because of the homogenizing influence of American cable television. The kids at the high school are losing the gracious courtesy that used to astonish us when we picked them up along the road. They didn't have cell phones, but they had impeccable manners.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Raptured by fact

Why are the ancient stories so resilient in the face of the overwhelming practical success of science?

An obvious answer: Because the ancient stories promise that death is not final.

Then there's the possibility of habituation: We adhere to the traditions we grew up in. The overwhelming number of Christians, for example, would almost certainly be Muslims had they been born and raised in Qom, Iran. Once a story of "how things are" gets tangled in the neurons of the brain, it's a devil of a time to shake it free.

Add to this the solace of believing that the creator of 100 billion galaxies has me -- yes, me personally -- in mind. It's like getting a birthday card from President Obama ("Good luck, Chet. I'm thinking of you on your special day."), except in spades.

And so on. All of this against a one-size-fits-all scientific story of how things are that is hard to understand in its details and sets us adrift in an (effectively) infinite universe with no one to man the oars but ourselves.

But let me put a more congenial spin on it. We are curious creatures by nature. We want answers to the Big Questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? (That is to say, why are the laws of physics what they are?) How did life begin? What is consciousness? These are fair questions. They are among the biggest questions we can ask. The fact that we ask them is a defining characteristic of our species.

The ancient stories of how things are provide answers -- anthropomorphic, animistic, artificialist -- stories that are satisfyingly easy to understand because they mirror our sense of self.

The scientific story doesn't provide answers, at least not yet and maybe never.

Which brings me back to Ursula Goodenough; "The realization that I needn't have answers to the Big Questions, needn't seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany," she writes. It is, in fact, a kind of liberation -- freedom from thrall to the Big Questions -- liberation to revel in the pure "is-ness" of creation, the inexhaustible miracle of the here and now. But "is-ness," in all of it depths and dimensions, requires attention, study, and a certain poetic openness to particulars -- the flower in the crannied wall, the grain of sand. Which is why the scientific story of how things are will not replace religious myths that are there for the effortless taking.

Monday, January 23, 2012

How things are

Any global tradition needs to begin with a shared worldview -- a culture-independent, globally accepted consensus as to how things are. From my perspective, this part is easy. How things are is, well, how things are: our scientific account of Nature, an account that can be called The Epic of Evolution. The Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the origin and evolution of life on this planet, the advent of human consciousness and the resultant evolution of cultures -- this is the story, the one story, that has the potential to unite us, because it happens to be true.
I quote from the Introduction of Ursula Goodenough's wonderful book The Sacred Depths of Nature. Readers will know of my admiration for Ursula and her book (if you want a concise introduction to biology, you can't do better). However, I would take gentle exception to one statement in the above passage: "because it happens to be true." I would have said: "because it is the most reliable story we have at the moment."

Actually, I think Ursula would agree. Science is not an infallible body of doctrine. It is an always evolving approximation of "the way things are" based on the widest possible consensus among scientists at any given time. Is it true? It is as true as you can get until it isn't.

Scientists are constantly holding the scientific story of how things are against the refining fire of experience. Generally this means tinkering here and there on the edges of "truth." Occasionally it means a wholesale revamp of fundamental ideas. One could write a book on the confirming characteristics of scientific "truth": empirical consistency, economy, beauty, parsimony, and so on. But if you want the most impressive confirmation of the reliability of the scientific story of how things are, look around you. Science is a truth system that has given us the entirety of modern technology and medical science. As the old Rheingold beer commercial used to say, "We must be doing something right."

It's a story that has the potential to unite us, as Goodenough says, and in practice it does (we all fly airplanes, use the internet, and rely on penicillin). But only in practice. I fear Ursula is too optimistic if she thinks the scientific story of how things are is about to replace any of the other stories of how things are that dominate the lives of the vast majority of humans -- and set us at each other's throats, story against story.

Why are the ancient stories so resilient, in the face of the overwhelming practical success of science? A suggested answer tomorrow.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

My art history

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

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Under the el -- a Saturday reprise

A few words of appreciation for English-born artist Rackstraw Downes. (Click pic to enlarge.)

I am not generally a fan of photorealism in painting, preferring some element of abstraction in my landscapes, such as in the work of Wayne Thiebaud. But there is something compelling about Downes' meticulous renderings of urban, industrial and scrubby country environments. He has been called "a bard of weeds." He might equally be called a bard of rust, or crumbling concrete, or dirt.

But no. That is to ignore a delicacy of light and shadow, of water and air, of stainless steel and glistening glass.

You can visit some of his work here.

There is more going on in these paintings than composition, color, and technique, more than disquisitions on the visual perception of three-dimensional space and its representation on two-dimensional surface. Downes wants us to see something that is so commonplace that we seldom see it al all, something that is all around us on every side -- the human-made environment. A world made willy-nilly by human artifice. A world that in some eerie sense overwhelms its makers, ignores us even, mocks us with its own disturbing inorganicity.

But beauty too.

Very little of what Downes chooses to paint was contrived to be beautiful. Its purpose is almost exclusively utilitarian -- a vast untenanted space in the World Trade Center, for example, redeemed from total artifice only by shafts of winter sunlight. But there is a beauty in these paintings that the artist's eye discovers. Or does the artist's eye impose the beauty?

One has to look carefully at Downes' paintings to find the occasional human presence, diminutive doll-like figures going about their business. But there is one human presence that can't be ignored -- that of the artist, the eye that beholds, and through his "being there", we are there too.

Because these images were made brush stroke by brush stroke over an extended timespan, and not by the click of a camera's shutter, we stand there with Downes, watching, watching, watching as he painstakingly applies paint to canvas, forced dab by dab to see the world we have made, a world in which utilitarian artifice has squeezed the organic into graceless nooks and corners. What is required, the artist seems to be saying, is a new esthetic, one that -- for better or worse -- makes room for the patently artificial.

Friday, January 20, 2012


OK, I've done it. I've lost my innocence. I've slept with the devil. I've sold my soul in a Faustian bargain. I've bartered paper for e-ink.

Yep, I've now read three books on a Kindle.

Son Dan gave my spouse a Kindle for Christmas. He knew better than to give me one. But M.? She promptly downloaded the complete Agatha Christies and Eric Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, and off we went to the Bahamas.

I snorted in derision.

But then here we are, on this tiny island with its tiny library, which I have long since read my way through, and which has no budget for buying books, and so relies on the occasional contribution from passing patrons, which consist mostly of airport paperbacks, Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson, say.

What's a guy to do? A guy who spends most of his life blissfully ensconced in a book-crammed college library.

So anyway, I read In the Garden of Beasts on M's Kindle. Then Bakewell's Montainge and Massie's Catherine the Great. And I'll give it this: If you are marooned on a desert island (with access to cyberspace), Kindle is a godsend, like a good knife, a box of matches, or packets of antibiotics.

But otherwise it stinks.

I won't mention the difficulty of accessing footnotes and illustrations. If I read a book, I want to digest it, think about what I read, and write about it. Which means making marginal glosses as I read, and notes in the endpapers. When I read a book I want it to look read -- dog-eared and penciled-scratched -- like my father's wood-handled hammer that eventually took the shape of his hand. Then I want it there on the shelf, as part of an ever-growing personal library, a reminder of where I've been, something I can return to when the spirit moves.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


In the deep winter of 1744, Sophia, a fourteen-year-old minor German princess, was on her way to Russia. She had been summoned, with her mother, by the Empress Elizabeth, as a potential bride for the fifteen-year-old heir to the Russian throne. Somewhere along the way, about halfway between Berlin and St. Petersburg, she viewed the Great Comet of 1744 (now designated C/1743X1). "I had never seen anything so grand," she later wrote in her memoirs. "It seemed very close to earth."

Lovely, spunky young Sophia later became Catherine the Great, empress of all the Russias, and I glean the fact of her observation of the comet from Robert Massie's new best-selling biography. The comet she watched was the sixth brightest in recorded history, and the brightest of her century. It reached an apparent magnitude of -7, as bright as a crescent Moon. In early March, it dazzled in the morning dawn, six tails reaching up from the horizon like a Japanese fan.

Two centuries earlier, or even a century, such an apparition might have been considered a portent or sign from God. By 1744, every educated person in Europe -- and Sophia was well educated -- knew that comets were natural celestial events. In 1705, Newton's friend Edmund Halley had applied Newton's physics to these occasional visitors, and shown that many comets are periodic, including the comet that bears his name. He predicted its return in 1758, but did not live to see it, dying in 1742 -- also just missing the comet that so thrilled Sophia.

And my lifetime? The brightest comet so far was Ikeya-Seki in 1965. I have lovely memories of Comet West in 1976, and Comet Hyakutake in 1996, both of which I have written about in one place or another. But perhaps the biggest thrill was a comet that wasn't nearly so bright (this time around), Comet Halley in 1984, for which Sky & Telescope magazine sent me off to Australia to record what I saw. What a privilege to be in the shadow of Ayers Rock with several dozen other people so bedazzled by comets that they would travel half-way around the world to peek at a fuzzy spot in a dark, dark sky.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I used the word "prayer" in the last two posts, which always causes some mild dismay among those close to me, who think I am lapsing into transcendental delusion. And they have a point. The dictionary defines prayer almost exclusively in terms of a petition or act of communication with God or other transcendental object of worship.

Believe me, I understand prayer in the dictionary sense. I spent the first twenty years of my life in transcendental prayer. Masses. Benedictions. Penances. Novenas. Litanies. Acts of contrition. Rosaries. Night prayers. School prayers. Private petitions of every sort ("Oh, God, let cute Carmen look my way."). In retrospect, it seems as if prayers were never far from my lips. And, in retrospect, I can't say that any one of my prayers was unambiguously answered.

But perhaps I did learn something from all that celestial exercise. How to sit quietly. How to compose my spirit. How to pay attention.

And that, of course, is another definition of prayer, one not so likely to appear in the dictionary. "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul," wrote the 17th-century philosopher Nicholas Malebranche. "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work," agrees the contemporary poet Mary Oliver. "I don't know exactly what a prayer is," she writes in another poem; "I do know how to pay attention."

Thus, my sunrise exaltations.

Which reminds me of a story, perhaps apocryphal, told of the octogenarian Voltaire. It seems he climbed with a friend to a hill near his home in France on the Swiss border to see the sunrise. At the top, overwhelmed by the a spectacle of purple, red and gold, the old pantheist/deist fell to his knees and exclaimed, "Almighty God, I believe!" Then standing up and casually dusting off his breeches, he said to his companion, "As to Monsieur the son and Madame his mother, that is another matter."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Do the people who live on this tropical island year round become oblivious to the sunrises and sunsets? Are these glorious Maxfield Parrish skies just part of the background, like the wallpaper in a child's bedroom or the bugle that blows a soldier's taps and reveille? Pewter and bronze. Rose and gold. Indigo blue and deep purple. A dozen shades of yellow. Just enough clouds to pick up the palette and splash it from horizon to horizon, not so many as to wash the color from the sky.

Being away for nine months of the year is enough to make one forget, to sharpen the senses, to put an edge on wonder. I step onto the terrace and that old Monet, the Sun, daubs and spatters. Brushstrokes of pure thermonuclear fire.

I hope I never become oblivious, jaded, deaf and blind. I think of a few lines from a poem of Grace Schulman, in a different context, describing a different kind of theatrical experience:
My father said: "It helps us bear God's silences,"

and I knew watching was a kind of prayer,
a make-believe you play by looking hard.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Morning prayer, at sunrise (after Donne)

Batter my heart, four-seasoned god,
Breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
O'erthrow me, and bend your force;
Break, blow, burn and make me new.
Reason, your viceroy, proves weak and untrue;
Untie or break that knot, take me.
Except you enthrall me, never shall I be free,
Nor chaste, except you ravish me.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


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

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cupid's dart -- a Saturday reprise

What is it about the martyr Saint Sebastian? He has perhaps been represented in art more than any other minor saint, young, lank and handsome, usually naked except for a loincloth, always with a benign and dreamy visage. Sometimes is is shown pierced by one arrow, often near the groin; sometimes he is as prickly with shafts as a porcupine.

I suppose my description hints at an answer: perhaps he is a homoerotic icon, an irresistible subject for artists with homoerotic inclinations. A Google image search would seem to confirm this interpretation.

But maybe that's too simplistic. Straight folks too are apparently drawn to these images, both men and women. Maybe it is the juxtaposition of nudity and mild violence, all those arrow shafts with hardly a drop of blood. "Prick me, stick me, just don't kill me." Whatever is going on, it's got something to do with bare flesh and penetration. Time to call in the psychologists.

For myself, I prefer a subset of the Sebastian theme: The wounded Sebastian tended by Saint Irene, a Roman widow. Here, for example is the representation by Georges de la Tour, suffused with light and tenderness, the candle and the arrow, the hand on the knee, blessedly humane and intensely erotic at the same time. Surely there's a love story here about to develop.

Oh, wait. There is a love story. It's called Valentine (another early Christian martyr who may or may not have existed). And at my suggestion the jacket art of the novel is another representation of Sebastian and Irene, by Hendrick Ter Brugghen, equally tender and and sexy.

Maybe I'm revealing too much of my personal psychoses, but I think it is rather more universal. After all, doesn't Cupid always carry a quiver full of arrows. And think of Bernini's Saint Teresa. Sebastian in Bugghen's painting is pierced through the heart. Irene touches a less fatal arrow as if it were the bow of a violin, as if she were playing on his heartstrings. Look at the composition of the painting: X marks the spot, and the spot is Sebastian's heart, wounded with eros and longing, dead center.

(This post originally appeared in March 2009.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

I sing the body electric

No, wait. I'm not quite ready to let go of Verghese's Cutting for Stone.

Let me quote just one paragraph, more or less at random, not having to do with the story, per se, but with the human body:
If the beating heart is pure theater, a playful, moody, extroverted organ cavorting in the chest, then the liver, sitting under the diaphragm, is a figurative painting, stolid and silent. The liver produces bile, without which fats are not digested, and the liver stores excess glucose in the form of glycogen. In the silence and without outward signs, it detoxifies drugs and chemicals, it manufactures proteins for clotting and for transport, and it clears the body of ammonia, a waste product of metabolism.
One might say something similar, I suppose, for the kidneys. Or the stomach. Or any of the other silent organs, those essential partners that don't beat, pulse, churn, squirt, or otherwise call attention to themselves -- except, of course, when something goes wrong.

Who thinks about the liver? Who even knows where it is or what it does? Yet it is as much a part of our Self as the heart, lungs, or brain. Or the hands, nose, eyes, mouth, ears, or genitals. We are all of a piece, a smoothly functioning, robust, resilient machine. A sloshing mass of chemicals, a tingling tangle of electrical impulses. Verghese give a stunning account of the long apprenticeship necessary for a physician to gain even a rudimentary knowledge of the body, and the lifetime necessary to become a specialist in malfunctions of the liver, for example.

Intelligent design? Was this miracle that is us worked out in a drawing room in the sky? I mean, the plan is all there, in the parental DNA. The liver. The fingernails. The chambers of the heart. The sloshing juices. Oh, it was worked out, OK. One tiny modification at a time, in the long workshop of the eons.

As I write, a gecko sits on the deck outside my window. It has a liver, as I can quickly verify from the internet. And eyes. And nose. And heart. And toes. Our sloshing juices are pretty much the same. It's been a long, long time since we shared an ancestor, but we have more in common that we humans are generally inclined to admit. How much more flattering to our sense of unique self-importance to imagine an angel rushing into the executive office from the heavenly R&D with a plan for the human body, shouting, "Hey, Boss, wait'll you see this one. I've solved the excess ammonia problem. It's our best design yet."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The dominion of the flesh

I have just finished reading Abraham Verghese's best-selling novel Cutting for Stone, a young man's account of growing up in Ethiopia during the revolutionary 1960s, the son of an Indian Catholic nursing sister and an Indian-born-and-raised British doctor.

I won't recount the story here; it is a splendid read. Let me only mention one thing I liked about the book.

It is a story of doctors, their assistants, and surgery, swimming in blood, pus, and viscera. In the course of the novel's 658 pages we follow the surgeon's knife into every recess of the body -- gut, spleen, liver, heart, genitals, womb, breast, lungs. We are awash with bodily liquids -- amniotic fluid, siliva, urine, semen. The effect is grim, gruesome -- and beautiful.

Make no mistake: this is a story of souls, some magnificent, some imperfect, some diabolic. But never have I read a book where souls are so intimately embodied, so inextricably expressed in flesh, so steeped in the juices of the physical self. OK, Walt Whitman's I Sing the Body Electric, maybe, but Whitman's poem doesn't delve like Verghese's novel into the very bowels and hidden bowers of the body.

This book could only have been written by someone who has been there, a physician who has lived his life on the cutting edge where body and soul hang together by the slenderest of threads and only the surgeon's deft hand can hold them together. And if the thread breaks? The body to the morgue. The soul to oblivion.

No, not to oblivion. That too is part of the novel. Souls linger. Lives affect other lives, for good, for bad. Every life leaves the world a little bit transformed, jiggers the trajectory of history, rattles the universe. Cutting for Stone is a deeply moral book, which makes a powerful case for living with moral integrity and compassion, as best we can as souls whose roots and tendrils extend to every corner of the vulnerable flesh.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Thinking about molecules on a lazy afternoon

I was sitting on the beach yesterday with my pal Dwight, just sittin', watching the waves roll in, all that beautiful turquoise water reaching to the far horizon, lapping our toes. And I suppose I was still thinking about Lucretius, because I said, apropos of nothing, "All those molecules of H2O."

That silky, continuous liquid -- made up, said Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius, of tiny indestructible particles. And of course they were right. Was it a brilliant intuition? Or a lucky guess? In The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt quotes the Spanish-born Harvard philosopher George Santayana, who called this idea -- the ceaseless mutation of forms composed of indestructible particles -- "the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon."

Well, that's a big claim. It may not be the greatest thought, but it's surely near the top.

"All those molecules," I said to Dwight, as I gazed dreamily out to sea.

And I remembered a calculation I did here last year while on my voyage through the Panama Canal.

"There are as many water molecules in a thimbleful of water as there are thimblefuls of water in the Atlantic Ocean," I said.

It's not a hard order-or-magnitude calculation. Mass of a proton. Radius of the Earth. Average depth of the ocean. That's all you need. Still, it's a mind-blowing result. Sitting there on the beach looking out at all those thimblefuls of water in the Atlantic Ocean, of which we were seeing only the tiniest fraction -- a good way to visualize the teeming numbers of particles that the ancients intuited.

Those hydrogen and oxygen atoms are, as the ancient guessed, permanent, forged in the big bang and the cores of stars, flowing, flowing, through interstellar nebulas, gathered by gravity in proto-stars, spun out in a planetary disk, condensing as liquid on a planet with just the right temperature, just the right distance from a star of just the right size. Oceans come and go. You and I come and go. The atoms endure.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hummingbird and heron

We have two regular visitors to our yard, a hummingbird and a heron.

We sit on the screened porch and watch them.

The hummingbird comes to the feeder like a tiny lightning bolt, darting so fast we can hardly follow its flight with the eye. It hovers, its wings a blur, dipping, again and again, its long curved beak into the sugary elixir. Dip. Dip. Dip. And then it's gone. Zip. Into the sea grape, or to its favorite perch on the telephone wire.

Can its heart really beat as fast as its wings flutter?

And the heron.

The hummingbird is as small as my pinkie; the heron is as tall as my arm.

It moves with a regal grace. Across the sand. Or along the railing of the guesthouse porch. Lifting its feet and putting them down with a studied nonchalance, as if it were walking across stepping stones in a pond.

Its head turns this way. And that. It fixes us with its laser eye. Then turns away as if to say, "I can't be bothered."

As different as electricity and molasses. Yet related. A common ancestor. In my mind's eye I follow their shared avian DNA back in time, tens of millions of years. The hummingbird and the heron.

And deeper still, to that branching in the family tree of life where our own lineage and that of Aves intersect. I think of the Jesuit scientist/mystic Teilhard de Chardin: "We humans cannot see ourselves completely except as part of humanity, humanity as part of life, and life as part of the universe." And I whisper with my microbiologist friend Ursula Goodenough: "Hosannah! Not in the highest, but right here, right now, this."

Monday, January 09, 2012

Coming ashore

Among the greatest inventions of the human mind is doubt.

Doubt of received truth. Doubt of the infallibility of ancestors. Doubt of the shaman, the prophet, the priest. Doubt of majority opinion.

Who was the first person who said "Maybe it's not true what they say"? Who was first, when asked "Why?", replied, "Gee, I don't know"? Who was the first to question the gods?

Among the Greek Epicureans and Skeptics doubt was an indispensable philosophical tool. But somehow that principle was lost in Europe with the rise of institutional Christianity. Dogma reigned paramount. At the time Montaigne was writing his Essays people went to the rack or the stake for the expression of doubt. In Montaigne's France, Catholics and Protestants fought long and barbaric wars over their respective versions of truth.

Somehow Montaigne survived it all. He was a nominal Catholic and theist, but (according to Sarah Bakewell) his essays do not indicate much interest in religion or the afterlife. If he had a religion it was this: Pay attention to everything and doubt all claims to certain knowledge.

But can we live without certainty, or at least some scaffolding of reliable knowledge? Is all-embracing doubt a practical philosophy of life? Can we live comfortably in a shoreless sea of ambiguity? I would guess not.

As it turned out, as Montaigne wrote in his tower, a lad was growing up in Tuscany, Italy, who would marry doubt to reliable knowledge. First, use doubt to clear away received opinion. Then, painstakingly build a new structure of knowledge on the basis of quantitative, reproducible experiment.

If anyone deserves to be called the Father of Modern Science it is Galileo.

Galileo rolled a ball down an inclined plane and observed that the distance traversed went as the square of the time, an experiment that every introductory physics student can repeat today. The rest is history. Out of so simple a beginning came all of the physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy we enjoy today, not certain knowledge, to be sure, but wonderfully reliable -- a sturdy scaffolding on which to build a skeptical life.

(Internet down this morning.)

Sunday, January 08, 2012


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

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Care of body and soul -- a Saturday reprise

Our Carmen has blessed us recently with insightful comments. Let me reprise another Carmen (or at least I think she is not the same).

In the 1940s, the Medical Arts Building on McCallie Avenue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was one of the tallest buildings in town. My father would park the green Ford (born in 1936, the same year as me) in the parking lot at back and my mother would whizz me up in the elevator to Doctor Starr's office on the fifth floor. This was at a time when doctors still made house calls for serious afflictions, but for minor ailments my mom insisted on dragging us downtown.

The doctor probed my skinny chest with his cold-nosed stethoscope. He prodded my white belly with his rubbery fingers. He peered down my throat with the help of a shiny reflector attached to a strap around his head. "Hmm," he said. Then, "Hmm, hmm." He tilted toward my mother. "He'll be fine in the morning," said Doctor Starr.

And I was.

My soul too needed tending.

The nuns at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School lined us up two-by-two for the march to the church and every-other-week confession. I stood in line outside the confessional, between Billy and Carmen, waiting my turn, and wondering what exactly were my sins. I knew that my acute awareness of cute Carmen was fraught with significance, and possibly sin, but I would have had no idea what to confess. A year or two later I would have a name for it: impure thoughts. "Bless me, Father, I have had impure thoughts 4623 times." Except I wouldn't give the exact number. I usually rounded off at five, a nice compromise between "goody-goody" and "depraved."

But in 1945 it was the usual roster of made-up sins we all confessed: disobedient (four times), told lies (twice), selfish (three times), disrespectful to my parents (twice). That seemed about right. I stepped into the box and the little wooden window slid open, and Father Shea said, "Hmm?" And then, after a silence, "Hmm." I rattled off my sins, received my absolution and penance (five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys), and left the box in a state of grace.

Only to pass cute Carmen going in.

Friday, January 06, 2012


Bakewell distills Montaigne's philosophy of life to this succinct statement: "The trick is to maintain a kind of naïve amazement at each instant of experience."

Oh, she has more than that. She has her twenty answers from Montaigne to the question "How To Live": Pay attention. Question everything. Be convivial. Live temperately. Be ordinary and imperfect. Don't fear death. And so on.

But I'll settle for the naïve amazement.

Nearly fifty years ago, as a young prof, I had a short column in the college newspaper called "Under a Skeptical Star." I took the title from a quote of the Scots poet/scholar William MacNeile Dixon: "If there be a skeptical star I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment." Even then, I suppose, although I didn't know it, I was a disciple of Montaigne.

Skepticism and astonishment. Doubt everything. Marvel at everything. Go through life drop-jawed. Pay attention to things that seem ostensibly insignificant. Run like hell from anyone who wants to sell you the meaning of life.

Make no mistake: I'm not selling the meaning of life here. I speak for myself alone. I have my hands full managing my own life without trying to proselytize others. If I thought I knew the meaning of life, I hope I would have the good sense to doubt it.

(Doubt everything? Surely we need some firm footing to stand on. More on Monday.)

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Question everything

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) read Lucretius, and practiced a Lucretian style of life, at least after he retired from politics to become a gentleman farmer and writer. By all accounts, his Essays have been enormously influential on modern writers. I found strands of Montaigne's DNA in almost every writer I came to admire.

I will admit to never having read the Essays.

I tried once, as a young man. I gave it a real go. But did not get far. As I recall, I found the essays too much of a jumble, too indecisive, too filled with "I think," "perhaps," it seems to me," "I don't know." Back then I was looking for something more assertive, more focused, more sure of itself. I was a young man looking for a young man's book.

I don't know why I never gave Montaigne another try. He remains a lacuna in my reading, even though the tentativeness that put me off as a young man would suit my temper now. But I have been reading Sarah Bakewell's How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which has been garnering prizes and good reviews. It seemed an appropriate follow-up to The Swerve.

I would imagine that Montaigne's essays might now seem rather unexceptional. The best-seller lists are filled with "how to live" books. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of pop paperbacks purporting to guide us to health, happiness and peace of mind, all of which I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. New Age bliss has never been a goal of mine.

Apparently, there is one great difference between the current proliferation of "how to live" books and Montaigne. Certainty. Most contemporary authors are quite certain they know the path to bliss, in far less than twenty steps, and for only $12.95. Montaigne is not so prescriptive. His subject is himself. Question everything, he says, including whatever it is he has to say.

And context. Montaigne lived during the horrendous religious wars that racked France following the Reformation, wars characterized by their viciousness and arbitrary brutality. Catholics and Protestants alike were convinced they possessed the Truth, and had the right -- duty, even -- to impose the Truth on others, by fire, sword and rack. Meanwhile, there was Montaigne, sitting in his tower, surrounded by his books, counseling peace, temperance, and "I think," "perhaps," it seems to me," "I don't know."

(More tomorrow.)

Wednesday, January 04, 2012


One last reference to Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve.

Greenblatt quotes a description of the Dominican nuns of Colman, penned at the turn of the 14th century by a sister named Catherine von Gebersweiler who had lived at the convent since childhood:
At Advent and during the whole of Lent, the sisters would make their way after matins into the main hall or some other place devoted to their purpose. Here they abused their bodies in the most acute fashion with all manner of scourging instruments until their blood flowed, so that the sound of he blows of the whip rang through the entire convent and rose more sweetly than any other melody to the ears of the Lord.
This was the world into which Lucretius fell with his subversive message: Seek pleasure and avoid pain

Which is not to say that here weren't lots of folks seeking pleasure. But even the most hedonistic had to sit in church on Sunday and listen to threats of fire and brimstone. And, after all, there was always he possibility of a last minute absolution of sins.

By the time I came along in the 1940s and 50s, heretics were no longer being burned in the town square, and the nuns in the convent of my parochial school surely didn't collectively lash themselves. But heresy was still a matter of interest to Rome, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the nuns didn't practice their own private bodily mortifications. Acts of contrition and plenary indulgences were always on our minds -- a clean wipe of the slate.

Now, I know this series of posts may come across as Raymo working out his Catholic hang-ups, but I think it is rather more a matter of nostalgia. I don't resent the religion of my youth; we all come from somewhere and my childhood was as happy as anyone has a right to expect. And there was much I took from my childhood faith that I treasure today.

An awareness of the deep and abiding mystery of the world.

A sacramental sense that even the most seemingly insignificant part of the material world -- a hummingbird, a beach pebble, a young Moon gleaming in the western sky-- can evidence the unity of all.

An idea of grace -- that there is something flowing through the fabric of nature that can touch and resonate with the fabric of our conscious selves.

An affection for the material universe -- the universe of water, fire, bread, wine, wax, chrism, color, smoke, candlelight, shadow.

All very Catholic, this stuff, and I carry it with me yet, into a firmly agnostic Lucretian naturalism. Which I am not ashamed to call a religious naturalism.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The way things are

It is remarkable how closely Lucretius intuited ideas that would in the fullness of time become foundational to modern science. Greenblatt lists them in detail; I will summarize more succinctly here.

Everything that exists, on earth or in the sky, is composed of invisible particles -- atoms. The forms of things change; the atoms are eternal. They are infinite in number, but limited in shape and size. Their limited characteristics determine how they attract, repel, and hook up with others.

There is no predetermined design to the universe. There is, in fact, a random "swerve" to things. Nature ceaselessly experiments. Some forms are well adapted to survive and endure. Others pass away. Humans are not unique; they are part of a universal material process that links them to all other forms, organic and inorganic. We are made of the same stuff as stars, "a small part of a vast process of world-making that Lucretius celebrated as essentially erotic" (Greenblatt).

The soul is a manifestation of the body. It dies when he body dies. There is no afterlife.

We are curious by nature. Understanding the nature of things is a well of deep wonder, and ultimately a source of happiness and freedom from fear.

These are ideas that have become foundations of modern life, says Greenblatt, at least for those who are likely to be reading his book. They are certainly ideas that are foundational to modern physics, chemistry and biology, and therefore their acceptance -- at least tacitly -- was essential to the development of modern technology and medicine.

And here we reach the great cognitive dissonance of modern times.

Almost everyone embraces the technological and medical gifts of science, the longer life spans, the economic affluence. But only a minority will follow Lucretius to his naturalistic conclusion. The great majority of people in the "modern" world choose to live their lives in thrall to the pre-modern gods.

Of course, the majority -- including some of my closest friends -- may be right. Maybe the gods do watch and listen, and consign immortal souls to eternal reward or punishment. Who am I to say?

(Tomorrow: Lucretius and religious naturalism.)

Monday, January 02, 2012

Bonfire of the vanities

Seek pleasure and avoid pain. Nothing could contrast more with Botticelli's Lucretius-inspired paintings that the preaching of his fellow Florentine, Savanarola. Forego worldly pleasures, said the fire-breathing Dominican friar. Keep your eye on the prize. Life is a preparation for eternity. Prayer and penance should dominate one's life; all else is vain distraction.

Savanarola organized the infamous "bonfire of the vanities," urging the citizens of Florence to throw onto the flames mirrors, cosmetics, secular art, gambling equipment, musical instruments, fine clothing, and, especially, the works of classical (pagan) authors such as Lucretius. Of course, a year later, Savanarola was himself consigned to the flames on the same site by a citizenry who had grown weary of his grim asceticism.

Botticelli's Primavera vs. Savanarola's bonfire. Lucretius vs. Augustine. I discovered them at about the same time, as a university student, and found myself strangely attracted to both.

But most influential in my life at the time were the works of European Catholic intellectuals, for example, Georges Bernanos's novels, Diary of a Country Priest and Under the Sun of Satan, and Robert Bresson's film The Trial of Joan of Arc These were not happy documents, dark and ascetic, but they gave an intellectual cachet to my childhood Catholicism. For a while I put sand in my bed and pebbles in my shoes, and did the Stations of the Cross on my bare knees along a cinder path. I was living in a world of gods and demons with my eye on eternity, the very world Lucretius proclaimed an illusion.

It all seems rather embarrassing now, but I wonder what it was that I found so attractive about self-denial and pain, and why it is that such practices are so universal among the world's religions. Is there some quirk in our biological nature that relishes the body in distress? Or is it a persistent cultural meme, a Lucretian "illusion"?

Whatever were the "swerves" that directed my life, the dark night of the soul led eventually into light. The study of science gave me the intellectual tools -- empiricism, Ockham's razor -- to doubt the central tenets of my former faith, most prominently belief in an afterlife. And, just as Lucretius said, the effect was liberating. Seek pleasure and avoid pain. Craft, as best one can, a life of modest beauty. Love, family, art, nature. And wonder.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions of Lucretius, along with English, Italian and French translations. In his last paragraph, Stephen Greenblatt tells us that a correspondent asked Jefferson his philosophy of life. Jefferson replied: "I am an Epicurean."

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy New Year -- to one and all

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