Friday, August 31, 2012

A few last thoughts on the general and the particular

As I suggested yesterday, we all make our way through a lifetime of particulars guided by generalizations.

It is the particulars that make each life unique, that are the building blocks of a self. Generalizations give a course to steer by.

We don't always choose our particulars. To a large extent, they find us. Some are welcome, some aren't. Right now I am fighting off a particularly nasty cold.

And what about the generalizations? Where do they come from?

Some we are perhaps born with, such as an innate distrust of the "other." Some we grasp from elemental experience: The sun will come up tomorrow. Some we learn from family or school: It is better to give than receive.

Generalizations can be morally complicit. We have a roster of names for morally suspect generalizations: racism, ageism, sexism, Islamophobia, and so on.

Which brings me to science.

Science is the best way humans have yet devised for sifting the general from the particular. Not perfect, to be sure, but reliable. Reproducibility is one way to identify the general. Quantification is another. Peer review, citation, and consensus put generalities to the test.

Science is not just an arbitrary hodgepodge of "facts" and "theories." It is a program for discovering the constants that hide in a world of particulars. It is also a way of exposing particular prejudices -– yours and mine -- posing as generalities.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


After posting yesterday's meditation on the "irreplaceable solicitude of the particular," it occurred to me that it's time to pull up stakes and return to New England. Here, in this little village on the westernmost fringe of Europe, it's all particulars. Which suits me fine, but must surely make for excessively idiosyncratic reading for those of you who are kind enough to visit.

But then again, perhaps not. Each one of us navigates a life with attention to the general and the particular. A sailor needs a sextant and a star. He also keeps his eye on that streaming ribbon at the top of the mast that indicates the unpredictable vagaries of the wind. Which is to say -– oh, never mind, you know what I mean.

There is a line from a poem of Robert Pinsky: "I live in the little village of the present." Our townland here in Ireland is named Ballybeg, "little village." A half-dozen houses suspended in time. Sitting here in my studio on the hill, wrapped this morning as most mornings this summer in mist and rain, there is only the present. The morning glories on the sill. The steaming mug of coffee. My companion, the cellar spider, Pholcus phalangioides, under the bookshelf. The shenanigans in Tampa and Charlotte, and the murderous turmoil in Aleppo, hardly exist. On Mars, Curiosity zaps rocks and sniffs atoms, confirming the universal constants of nature. Here, in Ballybeg, there is only the present and its gathering of particulars.

So bear with me. In two weeks time I will be back in New England, in the house on busy Main Street, television blaring, three months of science journals waiting to be read, and a view that extends from the big bang to forever. Pinsky, whose poems dote on particulars, confesses in the poem quoted above his longing for "The great metropolis where I can hope/ To glimpse great spirits as they cross the street,/ Souls durable as the cockroach and the lungfish."

The cockroach and the lungfish, those living fossils, that like so many protein-building segments of our DNA insinuate our "little villages" –- yours and mine -- into the great metropolis of universal space and time.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The general and the particular

Of the fundamental particles of which the world is made, each one is identical to all others of its species. Every electron is a clone of every other electron. Every proton is interchangeable with every other.

And the laws by which the fundamental particles interact and bind are fixed and immutable. Physics would not be possible if there were not an elemental sameness to the world, a concrete block redundancy.

As a young man I was trained as a physicist. I was taught to revel in the general, to see through the particulars to the sameness, to admire constancy, to focus on the letters of the world's alphabet, the notes of the scale.

And it was exhilarating! To discover the oneness of things, their commonality under the skin. This was not only a mathematical revelation; it was a social awakening too, a release from a host of parochial prejudices, a shattering of those artificial boundaries that box us into the particulars of our birth.

To solve Schrodinger's Equation for the hydrogen atom, say, was a privileged glimpse behind the curtain of particulars that obscure the singular focus of creation.

I mention this now because as I sit here at my desk looking out into the Irish countryside through a screen of saucer-sized morning glory blossoms, it occurs to me that the emphasis in my life has swung from the general to the particular. Every blossom emerges from the same seed, the same DNA, but every one is different, and it is the difference that electrifies and illuminates my morning.

I've spent too much of my life studying and teaching science to be unappreciative of the general, but now, in these so-called golden years, it's the particulars that give the glisten to my life. Not the alphabet, but the poem. Not the notes of the scale, but the sonata. Not the astonishing four-letter language of the morning glory's genome, but the way those two-dozen individually unique translucent blossoms share my hopeful gaze out the window toward a pale, wayward sun.

The irreplaceable solicitude of the particular.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Of an evening blackbirds congregate in the tree below in Ballybeg. Flocks of blackbirds. We can hear their raucous disquisitions here on the hill. In their black academic gowns, their fluttering sleeves. What are they debating? The Summa Theologica? Pascal's Pensees? Newton's biblical arcana?
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime
Those solitary desert fathers, the corncrake and the cuckoo, in the field and on the heath, are gone, victims of mechanical agriculture, with their elemental messages "Repent" and "Praise."

And in the trees by Lizzie's barn the gregarious blackbirds gather, in their hundreds, like chattering students flocking around Abelard at the medieval University of Paris, contesting finer points of rhetoric, splitting hairs, defining terms, their black gowns flapping in the wind.
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
There are only, really, those two messages –- "Repent" and "Praise." Repent what we have obliterated. Praise what remains.

The blackbirds lift up en masse from Lizzie's trees, cry out their syllogisms, then settle again, mortar boards half-cocked, hoods askew. Chapter and verse. Objection and refutation. A cacophony of contentious cogitation.
I know noble accents
And lucid inescapable rhythms;
But I know too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
And I listen, when the blackbirds have gone home to roost, for the plaintive cry of cuckoo, content to whisper its self-deprecating name, and the corncrake, hiding in the tall grass, hazarding a guess in its raspy voice.

Monday, August 27, 2012


Yesterday, Paul gave us a link to a Scientific American article on the death of mathematician William Thurston. In a sidebar was a link to a video of the hatching of the Lord Howe Island stick insect. Please watch the video, as this sizable insect struggles to emerge from a tiny egg case.

I can't quite tell you why, but this clip affected me deeply. It's not that I haven't watched birthings before, butterflies from chrysalises, for example, or the birth of my own son. Once I was commandeered to help pull a calf from a laboring cow.

But there was something solitary and brave about the stick insect's struggle, all that heaving and squeezing, inflating and unfolding. So much insect from so small a package. When it finally pulled that last leg free, I wanted to cheer.

I don't mean to be overly dramatic, but I took this little video as a metaphor for my life, all 76 years of it. So many struggles along the way, from the moment that fertilized egg took root in my mother's womb and began to grow, multiplying cells -– tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, billions, trillions -- inflating, unfolding. Then the struggle to accommodate myself to a culture, and the even more difficult struggle to at least partially extract myself from the culture of my birth. Even now, at this late date, I feel a bit like that stick insect pulling its last leg free.

It's more than a metaphor, of course. We are all of a piece, the insect and I, the same biochemistry, shaped by the same forces of natural selection to survive in a hostile world. But take it as a metaphor. A metaphor of humanity's not yet finished hatching. A line from Yeats comes to mind: "A terrible beauty is born."

Sunday, August 26, 2012

In the cloud

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

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Living in the little world -- a Satrday reprise

(This post appeared in October 2009.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 24, 2012

Life: A Manual

I quoted the Bible in a post the other day, 2 Kings. Looked it up to get it right. Then found myself spending an hour reading the Old Testament.

Catholics are not big Bible readers. We are supposed to take our revelation direct from Rome. No need for the Bible; the man with the ruby slippers will tell you what you need to know.

As a kid, then, I got my Old Testament from the movies. Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward as David and Bathsheba. Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr as Samson and Delilah. Rita Hayworth as Salome. Good, sexy stories. Or at least as much sex as the Legion of Decency would let us see. Those Old Testament movies didn't seem to have much to do with religion. Religion was for Sunday. Movies were Saturday.

Anyway, I suppose by now, at one point or the other, I have read the entire Old and New Testaments. Except for the Song of Songs and the Sermon on the Mount, they still don’t seem to have much to do with religion. A lot of sex and violence, but that's what the movies are for.

Do we need a user's manual to get through life? And, if so, what would it be? The Torah? The New Testament? The Bhagavad-Gita? The Koran? The Book of Mormon?

I remember with fondness my Boy Scout Handbook. Handy advice on how to tie knots, treat snakebite, build a signal tower out of pine saplings, and deal with wet dreams. That was useful info at the time, certainly better than the Bible, but less useful now.

So what would it be?

As a secular New Englander, I suppose it would have to be Thoreau's Walden. I'm still building things with hand tools. I'm still planting beans. I'm still listening at the shores of ponds. I would still rather sit on a pumpkin than a velvet cushion. I still want to live deliberately, even as I fall short.

So let others have their divinely-inspired user's manual. I'll settle for one inspired by the sound of winter ice groaning on the pond or the sweet two-note call of the chickadee.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The view from Pooh-sticks Bridge

There is a marvelous book by Oliver Rackham, first published in 1986, called The History of the Countryside. The countryside in question is England in particular, and the U.K. in general. The book is technical in its details, and profusely illustrated with maps and diagrams. It was an indispensible preparation for my own long walks across England in recent years, along the prime meridian for Walking Zero, and along the ancient Ridgeway with my sons.

The book might have been called The Making of the Countryside, because it is really about the human impact on the landscape -– the woods, the meadows, the ponds, the hedges. Hardly a square centimeter of England can be called wild. It is a wholly artificial landscape, but beautiful to walk through and uplifting for the human spirit. It is the landscape of The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, and Winnie-the-Pooh.

English nature writing is generally imbued with the spirit of a made landscape. It is comfortable with a human presence.

American nature writing has in recent decades been dominated by westerners. Its dominant theme has been the unmaking of the countryside, the ravishment of wilderness, and the burden of guilt we bear for putting our hand to the ax or plow.

Both kinds of nature writing have their place. I align myself with the English mode, maybe because I am an easterner who spent most of his adult life walking through an artificial landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, not far from Walden Pond. I am comfortable with a human presence.

In fact, I think it's high time we all got comfortable with a human presence. The wilderness is gone, except in so far as we construct it. There is not a square centimeter of planet Earth that is not in some sense artificial. North America is a big, raw continent, and may need a more muscular conservation ethic than England. But this I know: As an American, walking the English countryside, I was constantly impressed by the English conservation ethic at work. Towns were built up, densely, and then just stopped. One step you were in a suburb, the next step in unspoiled countryside. No American sprawl. No strip-malling of the margins. And the English countryside is criss-crossed with right-of-ways for walkers and protected by right-to-roam laws. No wilderness, but a gentle, welcoming caress of nature.

I fear that the American emphasis on untrammeled wildness and morally-culpable human trespass will in the end leave humans bereft of more of what we sorely need –- the solace of the natural.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


You may have seen this computer animation on APOD of DNA packing and replication. If so, it really doesn't need any comment. It speaks for itself more eloquently than I could.

Still, let me add a few words.

All this is going on in almost every cell of my body as I sit here at my laptop. All of this is going on in the nucleus of cells that are 100 times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. All of this molecular activity is going on continuously without any conscious participation on my part. Without any awareness by me.

And yet I would not be, I would not exist, without this unceasing activity.

My body is a whirlwind. Even when I sleep my cells seethe -- spinning, weaving, winding, compacting, unwinding, copying. This is what it means to be alive, this invisible stirring, this wind of atoms blowing through my body, this wind of connectivity built into the very foundations of the universe. All the rest -– falling in love, eating ice cream, watching a sunset, awareness of self –- is gravy.

And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Chimney smoke

Again with Mr. Moriarty. What can I say. There is a bewildered fascination with his two big books, Nostos and What the Curlew Said. In a curious inversion, I feel like Beatrice being led by Dante through a multilayered universe of the poet's own invention.

"There is the moment when we see something otherwise quite ordinary," writes Moriarty, "such as smoke rising from our chimney, and we know, seeing it, that the universe is stranger, maybe queerer, than we can suppose."

To which I say amen. To which most scientists would say amen. The question is: What do we make of the unsupposed queerness?

"The unknown modes of being that Wordsworth talked about are in things, not beyond them, and it is for that reason that modern science is a premature closing of our account with reality," says Moriarty, some pages later, a simple statement that both gets it and doesn't get it.

Gets it in that, yes, whatever as yet unknown modes of being exist in the world of our perceptions, they are in things, not beyond them. That is, they are at least potentially available to our tentative suppositions. We need not have recourse to the supernatural; or, at least, there is no compelling empirical reason to invoke a supernatural agency of our own devising.

Doesn't get it when he says that "science is a premature closing of our account with reality." Science closes no accounts. The story of science has been a story of unfolding wonders, and there is no reason to suppose that the wonders will not continue.

In Michelangelo's Creation, there is that famous gap between the out-reached fingertips of God and Adam. Science plies its trade in the gap, a gap that may be narrowed but (very likely) never closed. Occasionally, as when observing chimney smoke, the gap may seem to crackle with a divine spark, but the spark may just as well emanate from within things, not beyond them.

The greater presumption, it seems to me, is not science prematurely closing the books on reality, but in supposing that humans can -– through the grace of chimney smoke, or revelation –- reach across the gap and touch the finger of God.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The unpredictable strangeness of the world

Let me return this morning to my post of last week contrasting two Irish-based writers –- the late poet John Moriarty and the naturalist/cartographer Tim Robinson.

Moriarity the all-embracing mystic, Robinson the laser-focused empiricist.

What the curlew said (the title of volume two of Moriarty's autobiography), and the curlew.

The maybe and the is.

I suggested that I identify with Robinson, the evangelist of ordinary things, the exact observer of the commonplace.

But I don't dismiss Moriarty; why else would I slog through two fat volumes of misty-eyed, airy-fairy ruminations?

Just as Moriarty does not dismiss Robinson. Or science.

At one point in his autobiography, Moriarty refers to Durer's drawing of a patch of grass and Leonardo's drawing of a hand holding a herb. "On a bad day such miracles of exact observation would save my soul," he writes.

But he adds: "As well as the Linnaean eye there is the perduring folk mind. That mind and its needs. So I would also want the paths to be folktales, attesting in a way that science very often doesn't, to the unpredictable strangeness of the world."

I would not want to be so fixated an empiricist as to forget the unpredictable strangeness of the world. And that's why we need our poets and artists, as well as our naturalists and cartographers. That's why we need Anne's Sunday illuminations, which are close in spirit to Moriarty's eclecticism.

The trouble comes, it seems to me, when we mistake the folktales for literal reality, turning the unpredictable strangeness into a graven image, a plaster god. Moriarty, I think, comes dangerously close to doing this.

By the same token, maybe I stay too close to the kick-the-stoniness of what is, appreciative of the curlew but not allowing myself (as Moriarty says) to become the curlew. Well, maybe. But, as Popeye says, I yam what I yam, happy to be me and let the curlew be itself.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


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

Saturday, August 18, 2012

He wishes for the cloths of heaven -- a Saturday reprise

(This post appeared in May, 2007.)

In my Skeptics and True Believers, I talk for a bit about the 1996 apparition of Comet Hyakutake. In particular, I recount the events of one special night:
Best of all was the evening of April 3, when we forsook the observatory for a broad dark field where we watched the Moon rise in full eclipse, a spooky pink pearl. The comet was in the northwest, showing a degree or two of tail. Venus had joined the Pleiades, a blazing beacon. Meteors streaked the firmament. I was with a group of young people, students at the college. I was impressed by their reverence, wonder -- and especially by their intense desire to know. I described the physics of cometary motion and produced a three-dimensional model of the orbit that I had previously constructed. We talked about the chemistry of comets and the chemistry of life. Knowledge, wonder, and celebration played off one another in perfect harmony. I thought: How sad that such experiences are not part of our formal religious traditions. It was at that moment, in that field, watching that comet, that I decided to write this book.
In a sense, just about everything I have written during the past decade had its origin in the inspiration of that special evening and those special young people. Knowledge, wonder, celebration: Those have been my themes.

Now, a reader of Skeptics and True Believers, Jeff Pickens, has sent me a re-creation of that evening, using Starry Night software, which is the same program I use to plan my skywatching. He sends two views, one to the west (above), with Hyakutake and Venus with the Pleiades, and another to the east (below), with the moon rising in eclipse. You will have to click on the images to see them properly.

And it all comes back -- the chill of the night air, the cloudless sky, the intense pleasure of being in possession of knowledge that my young companions yearn to hear. In that same chapter of my book, I quoted a verse from a poem of William Butler Yeats:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet.
I spread the cloths. The long ellipse of the comet. The planet 20 million times closer than the stars of the Pleiades. The moon slipping though the rapier-thin shadow of the Earth. But sharing the dark cloths meant nothing without my eager companions.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Dent de lion

"Momma had a baby and the head popped off."

Remember the childhood chant? The dandelion caught between finger and thumb. The flick of the thumb. The yellow flowerhead sent flying?

Ah, talk about the flower of youth. What would kids have done without dandelions?

Remember dandelion clocks? Blowing at dandelion flowers that had gone to seed? The number of breaths it took to blow away all the parachutes was the time of day.

In another variation, the number of breaths was the number of kids you would have when you grew up.

And -- how deliciously diabolical! -- dandelion radar. You asked an unsuspecting friend to hide a piece of dandelion stem on her person. The dandelion radar -- a downy puffball -- would find it. "Radar says it's in your mouth." "Nope." "Radar says it's in your mouth." "Nope." "Come on, I'm sure of it. Radar says it's in your mouth." "No, see!" Mouth opens. In goes puffball. A gagging mouthful of parachutes.

What mother of yesteryear did not relish receiving a dandelion bouquet from a child? What child of yesteryear did not make dandelion chains, or dandelion wreaths? Do they still do it today?

The plant with Crayola-yellow flower. Popsicle-sticky sap. Puffable parachutes. Dandelions were pickable. Dandelions were plentiful. Dandelions were available for summer games all summer long.

And now they are my enemy. Give them an inch and they'll take over our grassy terrace, carpet it with carotene. Their appetite for existence is unrelenting. The tooth of the lion.

Me against them. Get 'em in ones and twos before they go to seed. But gotta be quick. Turn your back and they'll make a flower. Lightning fast – overnight! -- they will arrange 100000000000000000000000 atoms (by my rough calculation) into a yellow blossom, and then – equally fast -- rearrange them into a parachute regiment of seeds. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower! The ubiquitous, unceasing, irresistible force of life!

Me versus the driving engine of evolution.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The voice in the whirlwind

I loved this computer-generated fly-through of the universe that was the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) recently. Click the llnk to take the tour. It begins by soaring through a large nearby cluster of galaxies, then circles the universe at about 2 billion light-years from Earth. Every "snowflake" you see is an actual galaxy, part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

A snowstorm of galaxies. Every galaxy with upwards of hundreds of billions of stars. Stars with planets. How many stars in a typical galaxy? As many stars as there are grains of salt in 10,000 one pound boxes of salt.

In every snowflake!

I'm not sure most folks appreciate just what sort of universe we live in. I'm not sure I grasp it myself. And this just the universe as we presently conceive it, as we presently observe it empirically.

I could make the usual comments here, about the hubris of those who think they know when and how it all came to be, who (yes, who) made it and why, how he (yes, he) pays particular attention to me (yes, me), and so on. But no need to. The snowstorm speaks for itself, in a language we are painstakingly learning to understand, the voice of the hidden, unknowable God.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In praise of what is

I've mentioned the Kerry-born poet John Moriarty several times in recent days. That's because I have been reading his big two-volume autobiography, Nostos and What the Curlew Said. Perhaps, I shouldn't say "reading." It's not so much a book to read as to dip into, a big grab bag of a book -- you reach in at random and don't know what you'll pull out for your nickel. Moriarty is certainly learned. But, my lord, he's hard to pin down. Philosophically, he's all over the place -– Heidegger, Buddha, Jesus, Vishnu, Dylan Thomas. One minute he's in the Garden of Gethsemane, the next he sitting under the Bo tree, all the while roaming the hills of Connemara. His sources and enthusiasms are so eclectic it's hard to get a fix on substance. Myth, magic and reality are all jumbled up together.

Moriarty was friends with Tim Robinson, whom you have met here on several occasions, another writer living in Connemara, a naturalist and cartographer. Robinson too is best known for a teeming two-volume work, The Stones of Aran, one of the best works of natural history I have ever read. Robinson tramped over every square foot of the Aran Islands, the Burren, and Connemara, absorbing every scrap of natural (and human) history through the soles of his feet. His books are monuments to exact observation and dispassionate (although exquisite) description. And he produced gorgeous award-winning maps to boot.

Moriarty captures Robinson precisely: "Tim quite simply believes that it is our highest calling and exercise to pay sustained, unprojective attention to things as they naturally are." And that is what I have long admired about Robinson. The keyword in Moriarty's description is "unprojective." Robinson is content to let things be themselves, not what we would have them be. Things do not have to mean, they can simply be. Or perhaps I should say, their isness is their meaning.

Robinson strikes me as the sort of person who has no need (figuratively speaking) to sit under the Bo tree; the crab apple tree in the back garden will suit him fine. Moriarty calls Robinson an "evangelist of ordinary things." To which I say, Amen.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dirty dancing

A passage from Bearnard Ó Lubhaing's memoir of growing up in Ventry village:
A little way outside the village was Mickey Martin's house. Mickey, his wife Kate, and his young family returned from America during the depression and he built a fine stone house, two storeys over a cellar with a dance hall beside it. A new age had arrived, jazz and foxtrots and the luxurious music of the saxophone in the Ballroom of Romance.
When we arrived from America with our young family in 1972 we lived briefly in Mikey Martin's house, except it didn't belong to Mickey any more and the dance hall was now a café. Young people held their céilís next door in the new village hall, and the old folks danced Kerry sets on Sunday evenings in Quinn's pub.

It was a different story in the 1930s. As Ó Lubhaing tells us, the clergy wasn't happy with what was going on in Mickey's dance hall, all those un-married young people dancing to (what the priests called) "jungle music." "Now the young boys and girls had a place to meet free from sanction and life was bold and reckless," writes Ó Lubhaing. "The roads were speckled with people going to the dance hall."

All the railing from the pulpit couldn't stop the tide of modernity that was washing against the shores of Ireland, all that traffic back and forth from America: pious Irish priests, brothers and nuns going west to Brooklyn, Iowa and Tennessee with their message of renunciation; saxophones and shiny suits coming east. The Church had won Ventry back from the Protestants in the 19th century. It would lose the generation of Mickey's grandchildren by its stubborn refusal to admit even a few rays of joyful frolic into the lives of the people.

Monday, August 13, 2012


In Quinn's pub there is a photograph of Ventry village as it was a century ago. The road is unpaved and there is a single donkey cart instead of a fleet of tourist automobiles whizzing by, but otherwise the place looks remarkably like the village of today. Same pub. Same post office/shop. A century ago, there were three blacksmiths, a shoemaker, a tailor, a dressmaker, a carpenter, a cooper, fishermen and farmers living and working in this tiny enclave of houses. Today's replacements for the products of their labor -– the shoes, the clothing, the automobiles, the food -- as likely as not come from China or Detroit.

In my photo above, you see part of the "Colony," a string of tiny cottages stretching away from the village green, built by Protestant missionaries in the mid-19th century to house locals who converted to the Protestant faith (most now have porches and extensions on the back with indoor plumbing, etc.). The village became a lively outpost for Protestant proselytizing, supported by Lord Ventry, who owned most of the land hereabouts. The idea was to bring the light of the True Gospel to the poor deluded Catholics living in dark servitude to Rome, the Whore of Babylon.

More than a cozy stone-built cottage awaited those who converted. Food too. The rent of a generous plot of ground to till. A place in the Protestant schoolhouse for your children. And, according to the missionaries, a fair crack at Heaven. Trade your faith for a bowl of soup; that was the deal. "Soupers," they were called, those who abandoned Rome.

With the passage of time, the Famine, and emigration, the Catholic Church rebounded. There remain a few Protestant families in the village, but by the beginning of the 20th century most folks were at least nominally Catholic. The Protestant church was leveled to the ground in the 1960s.

By the time we arrived here in the early 1970s, and built our cottage on the hill above the village, Ventry was sending out its own Catholic missionaries to convert the heathens. I remember a donation box on the bar in Quinn's, from one Catholic missionary society or the other, pleading: "Support the missions in Los Angeles." Thus does the wheel turn and Truth marches on.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


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

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Shagweed -- a Saturday reprise

(It's that time of the year again.)

Another little natural history excursion this morning.

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

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

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

One big Roman orgy of beetle sex.

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

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

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

Friday, August 10, 2012


At one point in his autobiography, the Kerry-born poet John Moriarty writes: "Out of felt need, fighting Christ in this, I had struggled for the sanctity of inclusion and integration, that as distinct from the sanctity of exclusion and repression."

Forget for the moment whether any of us can or should aspire to "sanctity." Still, it is easy to identify with what he says. Some of us here on the porch who were raised as Roman Catholics, or in a similar religion of exclusion and repression, made the same struggle towards inclusion and integration.

We were taught as children that the road to sanctity was by way of negation -– no meat on Friday, surrendering our dearest pleasures during Lent, self-denial, abstinence, mortification of the flesh. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out. If thine hand offend then, cut it off. Strip away the beauties and enticements of the world, exclude, repress.

There is a strain of exclusion and repression in every religion, a monastic ideal, an idealization of the cloister. Abnegation is purification. Renounce the world and gain eternity. "It is not difficult to forego human comfort when we enjoy that of God," wrote Thomas Á Kempis, in that little book The Imitation of Christ we took as our road map to heaven.

"There is no peace in the heart of a worldly man," said Thomas, and there is certainly some truth in that, if by "worldly" one means avarice and dissolution. But our task, as recovering Catholics, was to learn to love the world, to revel in its beauties, to accept its pleasures, to marvel at its diversity and complexity -- in short, to include and integrate.

It meant, along the way, surrendering the idea of immortality and the Beatific Vision. But in return we discovered the consolations of human love, the joy of sex, the ravishment of the senses. We exulted in the electric tingle in the spine that accompanied each new act of integration, each new piece of the puzzle of the world that fell into place, fitting hand-in-glove with its neighbor. We welcomed the bonds of implicit fellowship that came with each inclusion of the other, each expansion of the circle of us.

Our little lives may be rounded by a sleep, but for the interim we are such stuff as dreams are made on -– the inexhaustible realness of what is.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Gott mit uns

Deus lo volt! shouted thousands of people assembled in a meadow near Clermont, France, in the year 1095. Pope Urban has appealed for the liberation of the Holy Lands from the infidels. Deus lo volt! the crowd shouts in unison. God wills it!

What followed, of course, was several centuries of horrendous slaughter, by one side and the other, in the name of their respective gods. The streets of Antioch and Aleppo and Tyre and Damascus became rivers of blood. Deus lo volt! the crusaders cried as their flashing swords lopped off the heads of men, women and children. God wills it!

And now today, as we read in the papers, in some of those same cities warriors gun down each other in the name of God. Allahu Akbar! they scream in unison as they brandish their AK47s. Allahu Akbar! God is greater!

One need not believe in God to have a fondness for violence. Humans manage mass murder very well all on their own. But how comforting it must be to have an omniscient, just, benevolent God on one's side when one pulls the trigger.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Sail on! sail on! and on!

Almost as incredible as the safe landing of Curiosity on Mars was the image of the craft parachuting to the surface by the Mars-orbiting HiRISE satellite.

Let's put this in perspective.

In recent years we have got used to a new kind of warfare, drone warfare –- a controller sitting at a console in Utah (or wherever) guiding a rocket-armed robotic plane that takes out a truck, say, on a rural road in Afghanistan. Pretty amazing, when you think about it, but nothing like sending Curiosity to Mars and having it land on a dime. Or taking a picture of its descent.

Let me drag out my old analogy.

Imagine the Sun as a basketball on the 50-yard line of an American football field. The Earth would be a pinhead on, say, the home team's 20-yard line. But of course it's not just sitting there; it's revolving on its axis and moving in a big circle that will take it in half a year to the opposing team's 20-yard line.

Mars is an even smaller pin head -- a grain of salt say -- on the 5-yard line, also spinning on its axis and circling the basketball Sun in a big orbit that pretty much encloses the field.

A pinhead and a salt grain orbiting a basketball, filling a stadium with their orbits, spinning on their axes, one taking a year to circle the Sun, the other almost two years!.

Humans on the pinhead Earth contrive a machine that they send on a nine month journey across the vast emptiness of the stadium, its target an oval (about the size of New York City) on the floor of a particular crater on the spinning salt grain.

The physics and mathematics to do this have been around for a long time. But the calculations for so precise a feat of navigation would not be possible without powerful artificial brains, brains that for this sort of thinking are faster and more powerful than our own.

But let's not give the credit to computers. It was a young human genius sitting under an apple tree who gave Curiosity its genesis. And the collective smarts all of those men and women at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who built the machine and programmed the computers that guided it to its destination. Human curiosity hurled across the universe, sitting down in a dusty desert, on site, on time.

If we hadn't watched it happen –- that billowing parachute –- we would hardly believe it was true.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The cosmography of myself

It was a common conceit of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to think of the human self -– body and soul -– as a microcosm, a little world made cunningly of elements and an angel-like sprite, a miniature version of the macroscosm, the universe.

So-called "correspondences" linked the microcosm and the macrocosm. For example, each of the seven holes in the human head corresponded to a celestial body -- Sun, Moon, or one of the five known planets. Astrology articulated a vast system of correspondences between the peregrinations of stars and human life.

In his book Religio Medici, Sir Thomas Brown gave full homage to the microcosm:
I could never content my contemplation with those general pieces of wonder, the Flux and reflux of the Sea, the increase of the Nile, the conversion of the Needle to the North; and having studied to match and parallel those in the more obvious and neglected pieces of Nature which without further travel I can do in the Cosmography of myself. We carry with us the wonders we seek without us: there is all Africa and her prodigies in us; we are that bold and adventurous piece of Nature, which he that studies wisely learns in a compendium what others labour at in a divided piece and endless volume.
We are inclined these days to dismiss the idea of the microcosm as a quaint superstition, but it was not such a conceit after all. In a very real way, we contain within ourselves "all Africa and her prodigies."

The DNA in every cell of our bodies recapitulates 4 billion years of evolution of life on Earth. I share anatomical identities and biochemistry with African elephants and giraffes, 98 percent of my DNA with chimpanzees. My body is a biosystem for bacteria as lush and teeming as the African veldt.

More, every elemental atom in my body, except hydrogen, was forged in a star that lived and died before the Earth was born. We are the very stuff of stars, the detritus of the big bang, the residue of cosmic burning.

We are indeed compendiums. The flux and reflux of the sea echoes in our monthly cycles. The conversion of the needle to the north guides the migration of birds. The Sun controls the increase of the Nile and our diurnal cycles of sleep and wakefulness. The Curiosity rover on Mars, 160 million miles away, churns up with its wheels the dust of the Sahara.

Monday, August 06, 2012

The titan and the dolphin

When we bought this site 34 years ago, it was just a couple of acres of nondescript Irish hillside, covered with low gorse and heather, grazed by cows and sheep. It had one thing going for it: a spectacular view, over Ventry Harbor, Dingle Bay and the Atlantic.

There was no big decision about where to put the cottage: a single flat spot in the middle of the site. And so we did. It was, as we moved in, a rather grim wind-swept demense of weeds and mud.

In his autobiography, the Kerry-born poet John Moriarty, who worked also as a gardener, writes of the two ways we can relate to nature, which he calls the way of Prometheus and the way of the dolphin. In the Promethean way we shape nature to suit us; in the way of the dolphin we let nature shape us to suit it. Everywhere, he says, we see evidence that we have chosen wrongly.

Nevertheless he knows that as a gardener he must necessarily embrace something of the Promethean. "I saw genius everywhere I looked in Nature," he writes, "but that didn't mean that it was everywhere benign."

Our philosophy on this hillside was to be as dolphinian as possible, letting nature dictate how the site would evolve. Early in the game my wife spent £200 to plant 200 trees, mostly willow twigs stuck in the ground, but broadleafs too, and a few conifers. Nature decided which would thrive and which would wither. The trees in turn directed the wind. The wind orchestrated our garden plantings.

Today the site is mature. Mostly a wild tangle of bracken, bramble, heather and gorse –- nature having its own way. But also around the cottage and subsequent earth-covered studio a multi-leveled domain of domesticated plants, stone walls and steps, benches, bowers, nooks and crannies –- an oasis of benign Promethean suitability pressed closely on every side by a wild dolphinian sprawl.

We hewed close to Moriarty's philosophy: "The compromise was to live as though it mattered to not make too much noise in the world and to continue surrendered to Nature in places deeper within me than my grip on scythe or spade."

Sunday, August 05, 2012


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

Saturday, August 04, 2012

In praise of the local -- a Saturday reprise

(Last Sunday was one of the few bright days of the summer, and luckily the day of the Ventry Regatta. This post is from last year)

This past weekend was the Ventry Regatta, the big event of the year for our little village at the end of the Dingle Peninsula. Two days of running, biking, traditional Irish dancing, horseshoes, sand-castle building, races for kids on the beach, poetry writing, and pints at the pub. But the centerpiece of the affair is the naomhog racing on Sunday afternoon, when teams from all over the peninsula gather to race traditional boats in Ventry Harbor.

Naomhogs, or curraghs, have been the traditional craft of the west of Ireland from time immemorial. They are constructed of thin wooden laths, tacked together in a resilient frame, then covered with tarred canvas. As you can see from the photo of an uncovered skeleton, these boats look fragile, but they are surprisingly supple and strong. They are propelled in the races by teams of two or four with the traditional bladeless oars.

This is the sort of craft in which Saint Brendan supposedly sailed to America centuries before the Vikings or Columbus. It is the kind of boat in which Tim Severin and his crew repeated Brendan's feat in the mid-1970s, departing from Brandon Creek just over the hill from here and successfully crossing the wild North Atlantic.

It is the rare naomhog these days that is put to a practical use. Fiberglass and steel are better suited to modern pursuits. But naomhogs are lovingly built and cared for, as art and sport.

There was a period in the latter part of the last century when traditional crafts like stonework and boat-building seemed heading for extinction. Here, as elsewhere in the world, vernaculars were being erased by globalization. Who needs the skills of traditional stonework when you can have a lorry load of concrete blocks dropped off at your doorstep? Who needs to go all that trouble building a naomhog when you can buy a fiberglass skiff in Tralee? Be quick. Be modern. Catch up with the world.

But the extinction didn’t happen. The concrete blocks are still here, but increasingly they are covered with a facing of traditional stone. Why? Because stone is beautiful. Because of pride in traditional forms. Fiberglass boats ride at anchor in the harbor, but more and more young people are seeing to it that the boats of lath and canvas remain a viable part of local culture.

Globalization is everywhere to be seen. Kids here look and dress like kids everywhere else, talk on the same mobile phones, listen to the same music, idolize the same pop stars. But among my neighbors there are potters, poets, artists, weavers, woodworkers, stonemasons, musicians and boat builders who seek to preserve the traditional forms. Globalization is the necessary instrument of prosperity. But even in prosperity, and perhaps because of it, we resist homogenization.

Friday, August 03, 2012

My cup runneth over

The Bible got one thing right about the creation: Humans are made of the same stuff as the earth. The same stuff as the beasts of the fields. The plants. The rocky substrate. Humans and humus. We come from the soil.

If we resonate with the creation -- through mathematics, science, art, poetry -- it is because we are the same stuff as the creation. The same atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and all the rest. You could take the stuff in the storeroom of a chemistry lab and make a me. Or a you. It wouldn't be easy if you started from scratch, but in principle it is possible. No animator from outside is required; it's all on the shelf.

That is probably the greatest scientific discovery of my lifetime: There is no ghost in the machine.

Or rather, the ghost is ubiquitous. The ghost is in the soil, in the stuff of creation itself. The human is in the humus.

When the stars coalesced out of the fierce fire of the big bang, the ghost was there. Even then, the spirit was moving on the face of the waters. Not some airy-fairy immaterial soul, but matter with a rage for complexity, for combination. If humans have souls, so do atoms of carbon and oxygen. As stars fuse heavy elements they sing Te Deums. All over this universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies –- perhaps an infinity of galaxies –- matter is burning itself into new and wondrous forms.

It is humankind's grandest conceit to imagine that we are the point of it all.

We are part of the burning. Part of the material flame. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; I share my DNA with grass. He leadeth me beside the still waters; the light from the Orion Nebula is mostly the radiation of doubly ionized oxygen (green) and the alpha radiation of ionized hydrogen (red). The universe gurgles with the waters of repose. It –- we –- are all of a piece.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Fruit and flowers, bread and meat

In the days when I used to entertain students in the college observatory, the Orion Nebula was one of the showpieces. On a clear, dark night one can just make out with the unaided eye a patch of blurry white light in the sword of the Hunter. In a moderate-sized instrument the nebula glows with a faint green light and the eye can discern a hint of shape -- a knarly fist clutching a few white stars.

The art of viewing the universe through a telescope is 10 percent vision and 90 percent imagination. Which means I would stand at the side of the clutch of students patiently waiting their turn at the eyepiece and tell them what they were looking at: a seething cauldron of gas and dust in which stars are even now being born, enough gas and dust to make 10,000 stars like the Sun, with attendant planets; the four stars you see -– like newly-hatched chicks in a nest -- may be less than half-a-million years old, making them among the youngest stars we view in our universe.

Here is the Hubble Space Telescope's composite view of the Orion Nebula (click to enlarge), the sharpest view yet. Squint at your computer screen with almost-closed eyes and you'll get an idea what we saw through the scope. Now walk to the other side of the room and look again with almost closed eyes and you'll get an idea what you can see with the unaided eye on the best of nights.

"The night does not come with fruits and flowers and bread and meat," said the naturalist John Burroughs; "it comes with stars and stardust, with mystery and nirvana." Just as well, he said. "To have it ever present…in all its naked grandeur would perhaps be more than we could bear."

Fill your screen with the image above. Here is the tiniest corner of our Milky Way galaxy in all of its naked grandeur. No, not "all." Only the best we have yet. There will be better images to come, more revealing glimpses into infinity, more nakedness, more grandeur. We have learned –- achingly, haltingly -- to bear it. There is more yet to learn.

"To know is not all, it is only half," said Burroughs. "To love is the other half."

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Happily ever after?

I promised to tell you whether Kemal finds happiness.

Kemal, as you will recall, is the scion of a wealthy Westernized Turkish family, and the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk's newest novel The Museum of Innocence. When we left him, he had just become engaged to the aristocratic Sibel, although madly in love with young shopgirl Füsun. He dreams of happiness.

A blurb on the jacket of the book, from the Financial Times, opines: "Pamuk has created a work concerning romantic love worthy to stand in the company of Lolita, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina." I think not.

Pamuk is (or can be) a writer of the first order, but Humbert, Emma, and Anna have more compelling stories to tell. Kemal spends the 400 middle pages of the book and eight years of narrative time moping about like a lovesick schoolboy, penduluming from elation to despair. One just wants too kick him in the rear and say, "Get on with it." He's a hard character to sympathize with. What Sibel and Füsun see in him I'll never know.

His last words (the last words of the book) are "Let everyone know I lived a very happy life."

And so, from a 728-page novel whose theme is happiness, what do we learn about that much sought-after goal in life?

Kemal says that "Happiness is being close to the one you love, that's all." "Propinquity," my father used to say, is the basis of love, and Kemal certainly cultivates propinquity. But when he hasn't contrived to be in Füsun's presence he's sitting around in a lonely bachelor apartment sniffing her purloined hairpins and cigarette stubs, which strikes me as the affliction of a seriously unbalanced man. If this is happiness, who needs it?

Kemal's wealth doesn't make him happy. Nor does his physical health. Is it contentment, then? Is happiness being content with what one has, with whatever life throws one's way? Maybe. But contentment seems to be a personality trait, something that to a large extent one is born with. We all know people who skip through life with a smile on their faces and take everything in stride, and others who are chronically glum.

Kemal and his friends drink a lot, presumably because it makes them happy. One would hate to concede that happiness is chemical, but surely that's part of it, innate or imbibed. And that's about all we learn from Pamuk.

And what do we learn from Nabokov, Flaubert and Tolstoy? That happiness is elusive. That stories without pathos seldom rise to the level of great literature.