Thursday, January 31, 2013

The storeroom

In 1926, the parish of Saints Peter and Paul opened a new elementary/high school on 8th Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was state-of-the-art. Science lab, cafeteria/gymnasium, library. Staffed by Dominican Sisters of the Nashville motherhouse.

Among the first students of the new high school were my parents, Chester and Margaret. Dad was a few years ahead of Mom. They lived across the street from each other, and got married after university. I followed them to Notre Dame High School in 1949.

By then, the school was not so much state-of-the-art. The neighborhood had gone downhill; the school was a little ratty. The science lab was physically OK, but the science teaching was spotty. Behind the teacher's demonstration table at the front of the room was a storeroom with physics and chemistry equipment, but only the most basic contents were ever used. Still, that storeroom was a source of endless fascination for me.

I was thinking about it yesterday while writing about Thomas Edison. The stuff in that storeroom could have been right out of Edison's lab.

They don't make demonstration equipment like that anymore, all glass, shiny brass and varnished hardwood. Spindles beautifully turned, bases handsomely routed. Induction coils. Hand-operated vacuum pump. Geissler tubes in a dazzling variety of shapes. Telegraph keys. Electromagnet door bells. Bell jar. Pairs of bar magnets in wooden boxes. All that wonderful stuff that probably came with the school, just sitting there mostly unused because no one knew what to do with it.

But not without pedagogical effect. Every chance I got, I slipped into the storeroom and fed my imagination. Then I went home to Dad's basement workshop and wound my own electromagnets, set my own sparks flying. Made motors. Sent signals along wires. Found a dozen uses for a clapper doorbell –- without the bell.

Is that why I went off to study electrical engineering and physics? Must have been part of it. Not just the intellectual stimulation, but also the tactile beauty of the equipment. There was an aesthetic dimension to the fascination. If the demo stuff in the dusty storeroom was so beautiful, what about the hidden beauty in nature itself.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


If as I graduated from high school you had asked me who were the three greatest Americans, I would have probably said Washington, Lincoln and Thomas Edison. Yes, Thomas Alva Edison, the "Wizard of Menlo Park," the inventor of the modern world. Certainly our teachers put him in the highest pantheon of secular heroes.

I have just finished reading Randall Stross's 2007 biography of Edison, called, naturally, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. For someone who didn't know much about Edison but what I learned in school, it was a revelation. The sub-title should have been How Thomas Alva Edison Invented Thomas Alva Edison.

He was a master of self-promotion. His best selling product was his name.

Which is not to say that he wasn't clever, and a prolific inventor. But he was a rotten businessman, and made technical decisions that were colossally wrong. He invented the phonograph to spectacular acclaim, then stuck with cylinders rather than disks while Victor (and the Victrola) ran away with the market. He came up with a practical incandescent light bulb, then clung stubbornly to direct current as Westinghouse captured the future with alternating current. He doggedly pursued a battery-powered car while his friend Henry Ford correctly foresaw the advantages of internal combustion. The beat goes on.

If truth be told, Edison spent a very short part of his career in Menlo Park, having early moved his lab and factories to Orange, New Jersey. Many of his inventions had antecedents, and most were perfected by others. But for all that, he indelibly etched his name into our historical consciousness as the embodiment of the American genius for "Yankee" ingenuity. The consummate tinkerer. The inspiration of every boy like me who had a workbench in the basement. My father's patron saint.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Blessed are the poor in spirit

There was a time as a young man when I -- and many others of my generation of young Catholics – got swept away with enthusiasm for French intellectual Catholicism. Bernanos, PĆ©guy, Bloy, Mauriac, Maritain, Teilhard de Chardin, and all the rest. There was one writer who didn't quite fit in, who was irresistibly attractive but bafflingly mysterious, the lone woman in our pantheon –- Simone Weil. I dabbled, but I can't say that I ever made heads or tails of her writing. She just was out there, a saint, a mystic, somewhere out of reach.

Weil was the daughter of secular, assimilated Jewish parents who fiercely rejected her Jewishness. She was drawn to Catholic Christianity, but resisted baptism until the end, put off by the authoritarian structure of the institutional Church and its claim to be the exclusive path to salvation. Still, we adopted her as a Catholic icon. She died young, during the Second World War, having in effect starved herself to death, ostensibly out of sympathy with those who had less to eat that herself.

Anyway, I quickly left my ascetic bent and Catholic icons behind, having discovered the consolations of empirical knowledge and the crisp beauty of philosophical skepticism. But here I am, a half century later, having just finished a biography of Simone Weil. I must say I read it as much for the author –- Francine du Plessix Gray, a writer I admire –- as for the subject. As for Weil, she is as baffling as ever.

This much is clear: She was brilliant, and she was anorexic. She was a saint, and she was -- uh -- extreme. Which is what makes the biography interesting: Are saints and mystics in touch with a transcendent reality, or are they acting out a script dictated by their own biology and psychology? On the evidence of du Plessix Gray's admiring, yet critical biography, it's easy to assume the latter. A clinical psychologist or expert on eating disorders would have little trouble diagnosing Weil's behaviors.

Does it make a difference? In a sense, no. Her obsessive concern for the poor and oppressed was real, as was her saintly compassion for all in the human family. And in another sense, the difference does matter. Not for her, but for us. It matters because it's important to know what is real and what is not. God, or brain chemistry?

Monday, January 28, 2013


The poet Erica Funkhouser has a poem called "Malus domestica" in which she simply lists, line by line, forty-one varieties of the ordinary (!) apple.

A few:
Bell's Early
Sops of Wine
Crow Egg
Back-door Sweet
Silken Leaf
Rome Beauty
Sheep's Snout
Evening Party
What are we to make of this? Are we writing a poem, or reading a seed catalog?

Both. Funkhauser is a wonderful poet, who sees the poetry that is all around us. We swim in poetry, yet we live mostly prosaic lives. We live prosaic lives because we are insensitive to nuance, inflection, consonance, degree. I have a shelf of poets. I need my poets. I need my poets to transmute the leaden prose of day-to-day into the spun gold of poetry.

Funkhauser has another poem called "Waiting to Cut the Hay." She is sitting in the heart-shaped seat of a tractor in a farm shed. Just sitting there. And the farm tilts toward her. The timothy grass. The hay. The stones beneath the fields. The far pasture with its sumac and cow-parsley. The road to the river. The river itself. All titling toward her heart-shaped seat. All present. Pooling beneath her seat. She can dip her toes in them.

I need her heart-shaped seat. I want the world to tilt in my direction. I want all those apples to roll downhill to the place where I wait.
Red Gilliflower
Northern Spy
Aunt Hannah

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Radio Flyer

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A commercial break

If you have not already given your sweetie a copy of Valentine, now is the time to order for Valentine's Day.

Friday, January 25, 2013

-- . --. .- .--. .-.. . -..- .. -. --.

Thomas Alva Edison rose to national attention and became an American icon with the invention of the phonograph in the late 1870s –- a machine that talked. Later, of course, came a raft of inventions, including a motion picture camera and electric light bulb, that solidified his reputation as the Wizard of Menlo Park. But it was earlier, in the early 1870s, that he may have made his most historic (and least known) contribution to the future –- a way to send two telegraph messages along the same wire at the same time, something (almost) everyone thought was impossible. Duplex telegraphy it would be called. Then he figured out a way to send four messages simultaneously, two in one direction along a wire, two in the other -– a quadruplex system.

A pioneer of multiplexing.

Packing more and more information into whatever communication channels are available.

We hardly think about multiplexing today. One little wire connects this house on a small island to the pole at the end of the driveway, and then -- who knows where? The wire serves the telephone and access to the internet. Simultaneously. There is virtually nothing in the world of information we don't have access to. Tom has been visiting. He subscribes to a service –- Spotify -- that streams any music he wants to his iPhone, which plugs into our music system, so for the duration of his visit we had access to the world's musical repertoire.

Who knows by what route, in what packets of digital data, along what multiplexed optical, cabled or electromagnetic channels that music went winging from some faraway server to our speakers. Our hummingbird likes to perch on our telephone wire, a Bach cantata whistling at the speed of light under its feet, an entire cantata in a flash.

A far cry from Edison's dots and dashes.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Blue sapphire

Something different this morning. Doug Christie was kind enough to respond to my posts of the past few days. Since the topic is central to this blog, I thought I would share his remarks, with his permission of course. Doug is Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in California.



Thanks so much for your comments on The Blue Sapphire of the Mind. How interesting to hear you engaging my work in this way, almost in real time. And how happy I am to have warmed (or at least not cooled) your skeptic's heart. It means a lot to me to know that you could read this book with both feeling and regard and to recognize some of your own cherished values in its pages. I know we have traveled different paths. But I feel (and felt from our first meeting all those years ago in Boston) that there is something kindred in our sensibilities. Your feeling for the Christian mystical tradition, for example, and your sense that this tradition has everything to do with the kind of wonder we feel in the face of the great mystery of existence. For starters. Anyway, I appreciate so much your attention to the book and your thoughtful response to it.

I am delighted and challenged by what you have written. It is appreciative, honest, and open to the questions raised by the book. What more can an writer ask for? And there is also this: I do not really know what I have wrought in this book. It emerged over such a long period of time and came together so intuitively that when all is said and done I cannot really say (at least not very clearly) what it amounts to. So it is very interesting to me to hear you say what it amounts to for YOU, at least in these initial remarks. And the fact that you find it meaningful amidst your hard won skepticism (that is also laced, I might add, with a kind of faith of its own) is heartening to me. Of course, you are going to read the book through your own ideas and sense of things and perhaps tease out questions or notice implications that could not have done myself. This is all to the good.

I wanted to respond to a couple of things you mention in these posts. One has to do with how we speak of faith at all (often juxtaposed—and too simplistically--with reason, rationality, or science). The other has to do with your sense of how central the idea of the Word is to the book.

On the first note, I appreciate so much your sensitivity to the way I use apophatic language (unknowing; darkness etc.) to acknowledge the way faith can exist and become deepened in a more or less constant condition of uncertainty. This, I think, is one of the great contributions to the apophatic spiritual traditions: the reminder that we can sense and affirm presence even in absence. Sometimes nowhere more powerfully than in absence. And that the presence need not be named, perhaps can never be named, at least not fully. This is part of the beauty of this tradition also. Yes, it is true, often there is an intuition of God of the divine at the heart of such experience. But if you probe the accounts carefully, you often begin to realize that the sense of the divine expressed there is so encompassing and so mysterious that it can absorb almost everything. It is not the over-determined God of so much contemporary theological or religious discourse. Or the God that enables us (or so we think) to explain everything or justify everything. It is rather the great silence or darkness into which we humbly enter in a spirit of awe and gratitude.

All of this you seem to appreciate on your own terms (which is no surprise to me really). At the same time, I noticed how in a couple of places you distinguished what you imagined might be our two different responses to encounters with the 'sacred' or 'numinous' in the natural world.

In one place you say: "I would gladly accompany Doug to a monastic retreat. While he would –- on the evidence of his book -– hope to catch a glimmer of the Divine or a whisper of the eternal Word, I would be content with the darkness and silence itself, as qualities facilitating attention to the here and now. I suspect we would not be so far apart."

In another place you say: "Doug hears the voice of the Word. I hear a moth beating against the curtain. I'm not sure the difference is as important as the hearing –- for us and for the moth."

Now this is fascinating to me. Here I sense you articulating both what you feel to be our kinship (or shared sensibility) and perhaps our differences. I am listening for a 'whisper of the eternal Word'; you for 'darkness and silence itself.' In looking at the moth, I 'hear the voice of the Word'; you 'hear the moth beating against the curtain.' In both cases, you note: we seem not so far apart. Or there seems not to be so much difference between these responses. I believe you and agree with you (mostly). But I also sense (correct me if I am wrong) that you DO see important differences between us, mostly due to my hunger for the ‘Word’ (a theologically specific way of understanding experience) and your willingness to reside in darkness. This may be. But what I would say about my own experience is this: I am myself as often as not 'content with the darkness and silence itself.' And I too am listening to the 'moth beating against the curtain.' Or the White-Crowned Sparrow. Period. Its not that I preclude the possibility of this experience being woven into a larger sense of the sacred in the midst of things. Not at all. But neither do I rush to do so. Part of my own contemplative practice is to let things be what they are. Out of respect for the particular life of things. My reticence to assign meaning (theological or otherwise) is in part born of that fundamental respect. It is part of my own practice of apophasis. Still, it is true, when I move from those moments sitting on the cliffs along the Lost Coast listening to the White-Crowned Sparrow to the experience of sitting in Redwoods Monastery chapel listening to the silence or the chanting of the Psalms (sometimes this happens in the same day), it is increasingly difficult for me to separate these experiences, these practices of attention and listening. They have become woven into a single continuous fabric for me.

So: when I hear you make these distinctions, one response is to say: no, I am not sure we really are so far apart.

Which leads me to the second idea, your sense of the centrality of the Word to the book as a whole. Now this is interesting to me. Honestly, I have not considered that this notion (and the chapter devoted to it) might turn out to be the linchpin of the book. Certainly it is important. But more important than 'topos' or 'eros' or 'kenosis' or some of the other main thematic questions of the book? I am not sure. My reflections on Kenosis in particular (chapter eight) lead me to an awareness of an emptiness and silence so radical that it becomes difficult to imagine any word ever having been spoken. So, for me, this has to be taken into account in any attempt to ask what Word might be spoken in and through the world. And in any effort to consider how to reconcile that sense of the beautiful ‘song of the world’ (Jean Giono’s wonderful image) with our experience of its seemingly inscrutable silence. If I have left you with the impression that everything in the living world must be apprehended first and foremost through the Word, well that is fascinating to me. And I must surely reflect on that further. But for me it will always be important to honor the silence, the unknown, the darkness as fundamental parts of our experience of the world.

How different would our experience of a monastic retreat or an encounter with a moth really be? I wonder.

So, there are some ruminations of my own in response to your probing thoughts on The Blue Sapphire of the Mind.

Thank you Chet.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Out of the silence

A few last words about Douglas Christe's The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, the title of which is drawn from the 4th-century monastic writer Evagrius of Pontus: "When the mind has put off the old self and shall put on the one born of grace, then it will see its own state in the time of prayer resembling sapphire or the color of heaven."

It is a beautiful image, although I am not at all sure what it means. We are separated from Evagrius by centuries, by a Scientific Revolution, by the Enlightenment. I am not suggesting that we have nothing to learn from the ancients, or that certain of human longings and concerns are not so deeply ingrained in our biology as to resist cultural modification. Only that the metaphors we use to describe our most profound experiences are drawn from the times in which we live, and it is difficult for a person of the 21st century to enter into the mind of a 4th-century monk.

Doug's book is about the Word, which I take as an expression of the Divine as revealed though the world. The Word graces and redeems the world; we have only to listen. Which, in Doug's view, is the importance of the contemplative tradition. His wonderful book is an extended hymn on the art –- or grace –- of listening.

But what are we listening for?

Doug quotes the early monks of the desert, who lived in a world of ghosts, dreams and spirits, physical deprivation, and (presumably) sexual sublimation. He also quotes (for example) the modern poet Theodore Roethke:
Voice. Come out of the silence.
Say something.
Appear in the form of a spider.
Or a moth beating the curtain.
Doug's book is about the art and grace of listening, which as many poets and saints have suggested is the highest form of prayer. It is his contention that listening is a prerequisite for love, and we will only save what we care for. I imagine his "blue sapphire" is also the Earth, suspended like a jewel in the deep darkness and silence of space.

Doug's book speaks, I think, to both believers and agnostics. In the moth beating against the curtain, Doug hears the voice of the Word. I hear a moth beating against the curtain. I'm not sure the difference is as important as the hearing –- for us and for the moth.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Another Mo link, in today's New York Times.

Darkness and silence

Doug Christie is a man of faith. He is not adverse to using words like Other and Holy One and God, confident of their referent. But he is my kind of man of faith, never straying too far from that fine line between skepticism and belief.
Silence. Stillness. Emptiness. Darkness. Desert. These are among the images that the apophatic tradition employed to grapple with the question of how the Divine is encountered in the space beyond images, beyond language, even beyond the Word…For Christian contemplatives, this apparent negation of the Word was both necessary and challenging. There was an abiding conviction that the divine mystery –- the presence of which the Word was believed to mediate and make present -– was so immense and vast that no image, no language could ever encompass or express it; hence the need to fall silent and enter what Gregory of Nyssa and others called "the divine darkness." But there remained the question of how to attend to and cherish the incarnate Word alive at the heart of the world if that Word ultimately recedes into darkness and silence. What kind of silence is this? And what knowledge of the Word, and the world, is possible in such silence?
And here, of course, is the paradox of faith, at least for the man or woman of faith who follows in Christie's apophatic tradition (God is not this, God is not that…). To affirm that God escapes or transcends any human image or language is to fall into darkness and silence. And yet Christie has written a very big book –- and a very good book it is –- affirming not only faith, but the efficacy of faith for saving the world.

Christie not only evokes the Christian monastic tradition, which I have always been attracted to, he also draws upon many of the same secular sources that I have evoked here –- Thoreau, Darwin, Annie Dillard, Loren Eisely, Mary Oliver, Rilke, and so on. What's not to like?

For the religious naturalist, darkness and silence are not the paradox, they are the resolution. The apophatic tradition ends in effective negation (God is not this, God is not that, God is not). Not only do we fall silent in the face of the Word, the Word itself dissolves into silence. We too walk a fine line; not between skepticism and faith, but between skepticism and cynicism. We try to stay firmly on the side of skepticism, open to whatever winds of wisdom blow our way, and as for knowledge of the world, we cherish the scientific way of knowing -– tentative, partial, evolving.

I would gladly accompany Doug to a monastic retreat. While he would –- on the evidence of his book -– hope to catch a glimmer of the Divine or a whisper of the eternal Word, I would be content with the darkness and silence itself, as qualities facilitating attention to the here and now. I suspect we would not be so far apart.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Scroll to end for daughter Mo.

Word and world

I have mentioned here before my friend Douglas Christie's fine book The Word in the Desert, a study of early Christian monasticism. Doug has a new book out, his magnum opus, published by Oxford University Press, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes For a Contemplative Ecology. Again he draws on the Christian monastic tradition, but contemporary secular resources too. If I can dare to summarize: How to live with hope in a broken world, and why it matters.

I'll have more to say in the next few days. But this morning I'm smiling and musing about the two epigraphs with which Doug begins one of his sections: "Perfect silence alone proclaims God," and "Seee sitli-sitli te-te-te-te-te-zrrrr."

The first is attributed to an early Christian theologian named Maximus the Confessor. The second to the White-crowned Sparrow.

The first has the quality of a Buddhist koan: a bit of contradiction masquerading as wisdom. And maybe there is wisdom there. If there is an agency worthy of our worship -- an agency sufficient to have created this universe of hundreds of billions (perhaps an infinite number) of galaxies -- surely it escapes the parochial categories of human language. I'm always astonished when I hear preachers or theologians going on and on about the attributes of God, as if they had just come back from having tea with the Deity. Better silence. Better to cultivate silence, and if God has anything to say, perhaps we will hear it.

Which brings us to the White-crowned Sparrow.

"Seee sitli-sitli te-te-te-te-te-zrrrr." It is revelation enough. The sheer is-ness of existence, whose ultimate source and meaning (if there is one) is forever mysterious, forever slipping though human or avian vocabulary like water through a sieve.

Even my agnostic reflections here, forgoing the existence of a knowable God, are saying too much. Better silence. And listening.

"Seee sitli-sitli te-te-te-te-te-zrrrr."

(Don't miss this evening's splendid conjunction of the Moon and Jupiter. An occultation in much of South America.)

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sacred time, holy places -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in August 2006.)

I retired from full-time teaching five years ago, but in subsequent fall semesters the college allowed me to mentor small, informal groups of highly motivated students. Our text (among other more spontaneous things) was the Norton Book of Nature Writing. We spent our collective time outdoors, learning what we could about the flora, fauna, and geology of our local area. We journaled. We wrote essays. I'm not sure what the students took from the experience, but it was of a huge benefit to me. My young colleagues helped me see things that would otherwise have passed by in a blur of familiarity.

What was the point of our endeavor? To read, of course, To write. To love words, to let the language enfold us like a lover. To be silent. To embrace solitude. To ascertain our kinship with the muskrat, the Indian pipes, the poison ivy, the geese sculling south on cadenced wings. The students wrote beautiful essays, which, when perfect, we read aloud, sitting in whatever holy places we could find. I am grateful to them, and now that it is over will miss them more than they know.

Miss them especially in this anxious time when the news each day brings more evidence of a fractured world. I'm an optimist. I believe the future will outshine the past. But having access to the idealism of good-hearted young people was a salutary boon. (Click to enlarge.)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Beautiful evidence

You will perhaps be familiar with the big, beautiful, self-published books of Edward Tufte, Professor Emeritus at Yale, on the visual presentation of data. The books are perfect examples of their subject -- the beautiful and effective transmission of information. Tufte has been justly called "the Leonardo of data."

The fifth of his series, Beautiful Evidence recently appeared at the college library, although it was published in 2006, so I'm late getting around to it. I'm pleased to note that he gives considerable space to Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius, or The Starry Messenger, published in 1610, an account of the great Italian scientist's first telescopic discoveries -- the mountains of the Moon, the starry nature of the Mlky Way, and the moons of Jupiter. It is a short little book, more an announcement than a treatise, establishing Galileo's precedence as a telescopic observer of the heavens. As for its place in the history of science, it reminds me a bit of Watson and Crick's paper announcing the structure of DNA.

What attracts Tufte's attention is the beautiful mix of text and illustrations -- 78 of Galileo's own drawings taking up 30 percent of the 60 printed pages. Tufte writes: "And that is the grand forever consequence of Sidereus Nuncius: from then on, all science, to be credible, had to be based on publicly displayed evidence of seeing and reasoning, and not merely on wordy arguments."

And it's true enough that Galileo stands as the pivotal figure in establishing the precedence of reproducible empirical evidence over metaphysical reflection. But that role embraces the whole of his life, his other two great books, and his ultimately tragic encounter with the keepers of dogmatic knowledge.

Galileo had predecessors as graphical recorders of close observation; think of Leonardo, or Andreas Vesalius. What makes The Starry Messenger special, I think, is the refreshingly honest glimpse it gives us into a mind slowly coming to recognize a truth for which there is no precedent. Galileo's day-by-day record of the tiny "stars" near Jupiter that he reluctantly but excitedly decides orbit the planet is as thrilling as any story I know about in science.

In Beautiful Evidence Tufte has a chapter called "Corruption in Evidence Presentation." He mentions effects without causes, cherry-picking, overreaching, "chartjunk," and the rage to conclude. Give Galileo this: He neither cherry-picks his data or overreaches, and his conclusions are open-ended enough to incite a Scientific Revolution.

Here is a page from The Starry Messenger showing on the nine stars of Orion's belt and sword visible to the unaided eye and those many more visible to the telescope. Galileo uses the phrase oculata certitudine, "visual certainty," with which he strikes a blow against the idle disputations of the philosophers and theologians.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A life sentence

We each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words…in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand.
Where did that come from? A review by David Kirby of poet Mary Ruefle's new book, quoting Ruefle on a thought that Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa.. OK, OK, forget the provenance, or who the heck is Ernest Fenollosa. It's that lifelong sentence I'm interested in, the one that begins with ma-ma and ends with…

Well, we'll have to wait and see.

I'm writing that sentence now. Every period in these nine years of posts could be replaced by a semicolon. It's a sentence that has been unspooling for more than seven decades, a long thread of words, sometimes landing in a tangle, sometimes blessedly stitched into a half-way decent fabric.

I loved diagramming sentences in grammar school, and there was a time as an adult that whenever I came across a long, complex sentence I couldn't resist trying to diagram it in the old way. (Even now, I'm tempted to diagram the flawed sentence I just wrote.) It's part of having been trained as a scientist, I suppose –- taking something apparently chaotic and revealing its underlying structure.

And what would it look like, that lifelong diagrammed sentence? It would cover a football pitch, even in 4-point type. But from the Goodyear blimp, overhead, what would it look like? I know what I would want it to look like. Deep in the bowels of London's Victoria and Albert Museum are several splendid 15th-century wall-sized tapestries, the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (click to enlarge). I've spent a long time in that otherwise almost empty room, dazzled that mere thread could be woven into such intricate beauty, hugely complex, yet glowing with an underlying unity, themes folding back upon themselves, sometimes new themes floating up by surprise, sometimes old themes receding into the background.

Words, tumbling forward, leaping like a hart, rooting like a boar, tumbling like a hound, soaring like a falcon, whinnying like a steed. Words, words, millions of words, woof and warp, the shuttle flying. Ruefle writes: "If you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows you and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Stoking the imagination

Now is a good time to go looking for the constellation Fornax, the Furnace, especially if you are as far south as I am, here on the Tropic of Cancer.

Except there's not much to go looking for. Two or three stars of the 4th or 5th magnitude, which means you won't see anything at all unless you have a clear, dark night, just a bare bend in the river Eridanus, which itself is nothing much to look at. When we peer into Fornax, we are looking down out of the pancake-shaped Milky Way Galaxy, away from the most exciting star-rich parts of the sky for visual observers.

But if you have a telescope and you are interested in the universe beyond the Milky Way, then Fornax is a good place to stalk, because there won't be much local stuff in the way. The Hubble Space Telescope turned its big eye to Fornax to make the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image. The most distant object ever seen in the universe is in Fornax (and in the Hubble UDF).

The cluster of galaxies in the above image is in Fornax, one of the closest clusters to our own, only about 40 million light-years away (click to enlarge). Every blurry object in the photo is a galaxy, including the lovely barred spiral in the lower left-hand corner, every galaxy with tens of billions of stars, every star (well, we don't know this for sure) with planets.

And what about the thousands of sharp little dots in the image? Those are stars in our own galaxy, between us and the flat edge of the pancake. The 100,000-light-year-wide Milky Way Galaxy is about 2000 light-years thick where we are, and we are more or less in the middle, so between us and the edge there's a sprinkling (sprinkling!) of neighbors. And then –- empty (?) space.

. If the Milky Way were a frisbee, the Fornax cluster of galaxies would be other frisbees and tennis balls and softballs at the other end of a football field.

So, anyway, I look into the dark furnace and know that its actually alight with galaxies and stars, and I think of Thoreau, who thought it would be well if poets and saints did not spend so much time under roofs.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

One last reflection about "the middle ground"

I have been reading again Karl Iagnemma's collection of stories On the Nature of Human Romantic Attraction. At the time my paperback edition was published (2004), Iagnemma was a research scientist in mechanical engineering at MIT. The stories in the collection all involve scientists of one sort or another trying to negotiate the bewildering no-man's land between the analytic and the romantic.

You've got to live a little, take a little
And let your poor heart break a little

Is there a middle ground between the analytical and the romantic? Between reductionist science and affairs of the heart? Not likely on the evidence of Iagnemma's stories.

You've got to laugh a little, cry a little
Until the clouds roll by a little

Which is not to say that science can't tell us anything about romantic attraction. The growing acceptance of gay marriage in the secular west can be attributed to the influence of Enlightenment science as much as anything -- to the empirical separation of the biological from traditional prejudices.

As long as there's the two of us
We've got the world and all its charms
And when the world is through with us
We've got each other's arms

Contraception, child bearing, infant mortality, infertility, erectile dysfunction, the prevention and cure of sexually transmitted diseases: In all of this science has eased the pains of love. But of love itself, falling in love, falling out of love, making hearts, breaking hearts, living on the boulevard of broken dreams –- of all of this science has nothing to say. There's no middle ground, only a muddle ground.

You've got to win a little, lose a little
Yes, and always have the blues a little

Iagnemma the scientist enters the impossibility complicated arena of romance with no more assurance than you or I. He is, however, an assured storyteller, and…

That's the story of,
That's the glory of love.

Monday, January 14, 2013


When I used a line from Hopkins as a title on Friday, in quotes, I knew that someone, Paul probably, would track it down.

As I typed the line –- the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation -– I remembered a few lines from a poem of Grace Schulman:
I thought of Hopkins and his praise today
When I studied the pure symmetry
Of cross-stitches on an oak leaf's underside
And knew that love is nothing less than accuracy
What does she mean?

She does not say that love is accuracy, only that it is nothing less. Perhaps more, but nothing less.

The cross-stitching on an oak leaf's underside. The way the gecko's dewlap pulses with surprise. The boa curling into the rock wall, like a silken scarf up a magician's sleeve. The thin green shoot that breaks the coconut's adamant shell.

Accuracy would seem to be a prerequisite to love, seeing a thing as it is, not as we might wish it to be. Or at least a prerequisite for love that lasts. And so, I practice attention, drawing still on my early training as a scientist, which was all about seeing things as they are, not as we might wish them to be.

She stands at the kitchen sink, doing dishes, and I watch with a practiced eye.

Nothing less, but more. Surely more.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Moving image

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

On offering it up -- a Saturday reprise

I provided here yesterday a religious naturalist's reading of Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical Spe Salvi, "in hope we are saved." I have no delusions that my critique will satisfy or convince the majority of people. The hope for something better than we find in this vale of happiness and tears is part and parcel of the attraction of Christianity and other religions. In the latter part of the encyclical, the pope comments at length on suffering as a school for learning Christian hope. "It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed," he writes, "but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love." Offer it up, he advises.

I think of old Tom Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, the archetypal religious naturalist and coiner of the word "agnostic." The year is 1887. His beloved daughter Mady slips towards dementia and death. His adored wife Nettie has a tumor to be surgically removed. The poor are rioting in the streets. The kingdom is apparently destined for political and social anarchy, and Huxley's dream of lifting the mass of men and women out of their grinding poverty seems futile. He comes close to despair.
You see a meadow rich in flower & foliage and your memory rests upon it as an image of peaceful beauty. It is a delusion...Not a bird that twitters but is either slayer or [slain and] every hedge & every copse battle murder & sudden death are the order of the day.
Both Thomas and Nettie must have been sorely tempted to place their hope in an otherworldly salvation.

But the old scrapper was not done yet. He was not yet ready to throw in his lot with the ecclesiastical and political establishments who advised the masses to be content with their lot and look for a better life in heaven. He was not ready to "offer it up." Yes, nature is red in tooth and claw, but it is the sublime human task to detach human ethics from the evolutionary law of death, he believed, not to endure suffering, but to use the power of knowledge and public education to alleviate human misery. And he held fast to his conviction that "the cosmos remains always beautiful and profoundly interesting in every corner," worthy of study, celebration and praise.

Agnosticism is not a creed, said Huxley. It is a method, a Socratic questioning, a demand that every person "give a reason for the faith that is in him" -- a reason tempered in the fire of empirical experience. And in keeping that faith "a man...shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face."

(This post originally appeared in December 2007.)

Friday, January 11, 2013

"The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation"

Yesterday morning I stepped out onto the terrace at 6 AM with high hopes.

For several days I had been watching the waning Moon creep ever closer to Venus in the re-dawn sky. The morning promised a near conjunction, low in the east, just before sunrise. A sweetly slender Moon, a day from being new, only a few degrees from the blazing planet.

Would the clouds cooperate. Yes! Just enough cloud to add drama. The Moon and Venus, hanging in a crystalline gap, bracketed by palms. It was one of those rare sights that meant waking up my wife. "Come out on the terrace, you gotta see this," I urged. She rolled over and groaned. "It better be good," she said.

It was.

The clouds performed as if choreographed. The palms swayed. The crescent Moon was eyelash thin, the rest of its orb faintly lit by Earthshine. We stood together, agog.

One advantage of having been married for 54 years is I have a pretty good idea what's worth waking her up for. In the early days, I sometimes missed. A planetary conjunction half-hidden by haze. A sniff of comet you had to squint to see. "You got me up for THIS?" she'd say.

Which brings us back to that middle ground, between "classicism" and "romanticism." Or to give it another twist: Between knowledge and love.

Knowledge is half, said the naturalist John Burroughs; love is the other half. Each is a glass half empty. Of which I will have more to say on Monday.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The middle ground?

A few more words about the "middle ground" between classicism and romanticism.

There is indeed a middle ground between reductionist science and romanticism; that is, a synthetic, non-reductionist way of knowing that claims to be science. It is inhabited by the likes of Deepak Chopra, Lyall Watson, and Rupert Sheldrake. What's on offer are grand synthetic theories that pretend to explain the world in a way that "preserves the wealth of living reality" (Luria's phrase). The theories generally borrow vocabulary from classical science – "quantum," "indeterminacy," "resonance," and so on. They are human-centered and easy to understand. They sell books.

Which is not to say that they are not clever. Clever, yes. But not science.

Goethe was exceedingly clever. He tried mightily to create a synthetic science. But you won't find Goethe in science textbooks today. And I'd bet my bottom dollar the textbooks of the future will take no note of Chopra, Watson, Sheldrake, and their like.

Reductionist science is successful because it lends itself to experimental verification. Variables can be isolated. Isolate A and B on the lab bench. Twiddle A; see what happens to B.

Synthetic theories do not lend themselves to experiment. How do you do a meaningful experiment on a system in which everything is connected? We may prefer butterflies flitting in a meadow to a dissected insect on the lab bench, but it's the latter that has led to modern medicine and technology. Reductionism may not be pretty, but it works.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Do we murder to dissect?

This from a NYT review of Oliver Sacks' Hallucinations, by Siri Hustvedt. Hustvedt is describing the Soviet neurologist A. R. Luria's distinction between "romantic" and "classical" science:
"Romantic scholars" he wrote, "do not follow the path of reductionism." Instead they strive "to preserve the wealth of living reality." Classical scholars work piecemeal toward the formulation of abstract laws, and in the process they sometimes "murder to dissect." Romantics may err in the other direction when their "artistic preferences and intuition" take over. Luria sought a middle ground -– a science that preserves the part without losing the synthetic whole.
It's an old distinction, certainly not original with Luria or Sacks. Blake and Wordsworth protested the reductionist agenda. Goethe tried to create a romantic science and got nowhere. Stuart Kauffman and others among our contemporaries struggle to create a synthetic science, so far without notable success. As far as science goes, reductionism swept the field and maintains its dominance.

I'd go so far as to say there is no such thing as "romantic" science.

Which is not to say that there are not romantics. I am one. I have devoted my life as a teacher and writer to "the wealth of living reality." I don't pretend to be a scientist. I don't claim a "middle ground." I stand aside from science and its reductionist agenda. I ply my "artistic preferences and intuition."

But unlike Blake and Wordsworth, I don't push science away. Quite the contrary, the knowledge science acquires by dissection vastly enriches the synthetic whole I try to inhabit. I can't imagine living in a world ignorant or dismissive of the galaxies and the DNA.

"Classicists" and "romantics" are not in opposition, and science should not seek a middle ground. Reductionism continues to bear generous fruit. But "classicists" and "romantics" need each other –-the former to spin the thread, the latter to weave the cloth. New Ager romantics who eschew science live in an impoverished reality. The same can be said for scientists who never leave the lab.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Ding-dong the witch is dead

The other evening, while dining at an outdoor restaurant on the back side of the island, we were visited by a money bat. It flapped about our table, attracted I suspect by the sweetness of my daughter's margarita or my wife's white wine.

Ascalapha odoraata. The nocturnal black witch moth. As large as an adult's hand.

Here on the island they are often called "money bats," because of the intricate bill-like markings on their wings. "Bats" because anything black that flies at night is a "bat."

Most places in Central America and the Caribbean their local names are associated with "witches," "devils" and "death." They are supposed to embody the souls of the dead. Everywhere, including here, they are –- or were -– encountered with dread.

That superstitious folklore is vanishing. And so is the money bat.

When we first came here 20 years ago, money bats were common. The perched on the rims of our wine glasses as we sat on the terrace. They plastered themselves against the walls under the eaves and against the window screens. They were beautiful, mysterious and welcome.

It's been two years since I've seen a money bat around the house. Our own little extinction event. Our own loss of biodiversity. And who is to blame? I must accept my share. My coming here was part of the beginning of the end.

Traditions, lore, indigenous species, dark skies: the very things that drew us here are our victims. We tried to treat the environment gently, but even gentle touches, multiplied in sufficient numbers, can destroy. Not even the spirits of the dead can survive development.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Letting go

We all know that Charles Darwin's five-year voyage aboard HMS Beagle in 1831-1836 planted the seeds that eventually led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. Less well know is his explanation of the atoll islands of the warm Pacific by a combination of volcanic action, erosion, subsidence and coral growth, also inspired by the voyage. On observing the isle of Mauritius on the homeward leg of the circumnavigation, he wrote of the corals:
We feel surprise when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals! This is a wonder which does not at first strike the eye or the body, but, after reflection, the eye of reason.
This was the great contribution of Hutton, Lyell, and Darwin –- to stretch our imaginations over vast reaches of space and time which human thought had not yet effectually followed. Even today, after two-centuries in which their theories have been extensively confirmed, we struggle to grasp the eons and the light-years, reflexively holding fast to the human-centered cosmic egg of our more ancient ancestors, framed on a human scale.

Divide us, then, into two tribes: those who retreat for comfort and security into the eye of the body, and those, a minority to be sure, who prefer to live in the eye of reason, where microscopic organisms can build mountains that rise out of the sea, where bacteria can evolve into great blue whales, and where galaxies teem in incomprehensible numbers.

Darwin is our teacher -- as the young, insatiably curious observer who devoured everything that presented itself to his bodily eye, and the sedentary philosopher in his study at Downe, who pondered with his mind's eye what it all meant, following his reflections wherever they led, even to a place where the vast majority of his contemporaries were unwilling to go.

Sunday, January 06, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

A wildly seething power -- a Saturday reprise

I read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling at about the same age as Kierkegaard was when he wrote it -- thirty. The young philosopher was wrestling with his demons, including the death of his father, a sternly religious man who demanded absolute obedience from his son. He had jilted the woman he loved, a self-inflicted wound that perhaps not even he understood. He was torn, in my opinion, between the demands of faith and reason. Like many before him, he turned to the story of Abraham and Isaac as a way of understanding his own endangered faith.

The book begins with four retellings of the biblical story, each slightly different. In yesterday's post, I added my own naturalistic retelling, suggesting what can go terribly wrong when one mistakes the voice in the head for the voice of God. Abraham's dilemma is this: He believes the sacrifice of his son is required by God. What then is more important: Obedience to God or loyalty to his only son by Sarah? Heaven or earth? The unseen or the seen? What is it that gives meaning to a life?

Kierkegaard opts for faith -- a leap of faith in the face of doubt.

He writes:
If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all -- what then would life be but despair? If such were the case, if there were no sacred bond which united mankind, if one generation arose after another like the leafage in the forest, if one generation replaced the other like the song of birds in the forest, if the human race passed through the world as the ship goes through the sea, like the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless activity, if an eternal oblivion were always lurking hungrily for its prey and there was no power strong enough to wrest it from its maw -- how empty then and comfortless life would be.
This is what Abraham wrestled with in the empty hours before dawn. This is the fear that drove him to choose heaven over earth, the unseen over the seen. This is the dread of a mindless oblivion that causes so many to choose faith over reason, righteous action over doubt.

No less than the traditional theist, the scientific agnostic needs to believe that we are not poised above a bottomless void. We know -- in our tentative and uncertain way -- that our consciousness is ephemeral. And, yes, we know that one generation replaces another like the leaves of the forest. But we exalt in the leaves of the forest, and the song of the birds, and the wind in the desert. We stand in awe of the "wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant," and we struggle to understand that power through reason and observation, and in doing so we have come to know of the whirling galaxies, the stars that forge elements, the helices that spin out proteins in every one of the trillions of cells in our bodies. And in the darkest hours of the night, if we are lucky, we look across to Sarah sleeping beside us, and to Isaac lost in his young man's dreams, and we understand that love and loyalty are blessings that well up out of the void in mysterious ways. We feel no need to make that terrible journey to Mount Moriah when every jot and tittle of creation, here and now, is filled -- with sanctifying grace.

(This post originally appeared in October 2007.)

Friday, January 04, 2013

Let's fall in love

Here is a passage from Julia Whitty's book Fragile Edge, an account of her diving adventures in the South Pacific. She is at the Rangiroa atoll in French Polynesia.
Stimulated by the onset of a waning moon…the surgeonfish cluster, rise, bump, then drop back to the reef, disperse, circle, regroup, and rise again. A dozen times they practice, each round taking them higher into the water column, further from the safety of the coral. The foreplay culminates in what scientists call spawning and what the French divers I'm with charmingly refer to as lovemaking –- a pair of surgeonfish detaching from the crowd and exploding upward in an impossibly fast arc, then ejecting their sperm and eggs into the open water in a burst of milky smoke. Never breaking stride, the pair shoots back to the reef at speeds nearly unrecordable by the human eye. Other pairs follow. And others. At the apex of each upward burst, the ejaculated white puff-balls hang still, yet riotously mobilized as the chemistry of conception begins, sperm seeking eggs with only a moment for the microjourney to succeed before the gametes are caught in the outflow of water from the pass, torn apart, and carried out to deep water.
Ah, sex.

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. In shallow shoals English soles do it, goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it.

Surgeonfish in atolls do it.

I observe the snails that cling to the rocks along our shore, each one nestled into its own private cavity, and I wonder how they do it.

But mostly I wonder about the chitons, a mollusk that clings so tenaciously to the wave-washed rocks that they are almost indistinguishable from the rock itself. They have separate sexes, and they do it. Somehow.

Out there on the reef the massively shell-armored conchs do it. Like two Sherman tanks copulating.

There are more ways of doing it than you and I could imagine, God's own Kama Sutra. Let's do it. Let's fall in love.

(A tip-o-the-hat to Cole Porter.)

Thursday, January 03, 2013

A mind free to roam

Joseph Priestly, the English scientist best known as the discoverer of oxygen, expressed to Thomas Jefferson his hope that "politics will not make you forget what is due to science."

Not much chance of that. A keen scientific curiosity was a central part of Jefferson's makeup. In his best-selling biography of Jefferson, Jon Meacham writes:
Jefferson, in fact, saw [science and politics] as connected. A politics of personal liberty created a sense of free inquiry. A man liberated from monarchical or hereditary limitations stood a greater chance of possessing a mind free to roam and to grow and to create and to innovate in a climate in which citizens lived together in essential harmony and affection. This was Jefferson's ideal republic –- and he was committed to making it real.
It is an unending battle, keeping Jefferson's ideal alive. The "hereditary limitation" of religion, especially, threatens free inquiry when it tends towards dogmatism, as is the case in many parts of the world today, including, sadly, Jefferson's own country. Keeping the political arena free of dogmatism is a Jeffersonian principle to which all of us who love free inquiry remain committed. We would not wish to suppress anyone's religious belief, but neither do we want the stultifying influence of dogmatic belief to become dominant in political or social discourse. We do not forget "what is due to science," in both directional senses of that phrase.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


When his friend James Madison's betrothed broke off their engagement, Thomas Jefferson wrote in sympathy. "Of all machines," he said, "ours is the most complex and inexplicable."

Would beautiful Kitty Floyd, Madison's intended, have appreciated being called a "machine"? Would you?

But, of course, Jefferson is right, we are machines. Hugely complex and still largely inexplicable biological machines, at least by the evidence of the biological papers I read weekly in the journals Science and Nature, which profusely invoke the mechanical metaphor. "Cellular machinery." "Molecular machines." "Molecular motors." "Replication mechanisms." "Mechanisms for maintenance of DNA ends." And so on.

It's the rare paper that does not invoke computer modeling for biological molecules and processes. Computers are machines. Machines helping to understand machines.

Many people recoil from the mechanical metaphor for life. They cling to the notion that there is something magical, irreducible and transcendent about human life, especially, something that will forever escape the grasp of the molecular biologists with their computer models of chemical structures.

Two things to keep in mind:

1) "Life is a machine" is only a metaphor. All understanding is metaphorical -- in science, in poetry, even in theology. No one mistakes the gray-bearded man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for God, but Michelangelo's powerful metaphor evokes awe and understanding of something essential to the believer's idea of God. In science, too, we use the metaphors that most fruitfully advance our understanding of nature.

2) The mechanical metaphor for life does not so much reduce the miraculous to the mundane as it elevates the mundane to the miraculous. "Mundane" comes from the Latin mundus, meaning "world." The more we understand the staggeringly complicated and apparently inexplicable molecular machinery of life, the more truly miraculous the world seems. Kitty Floyd included.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year

Anne sends me this morning as a New Year's gift this photo of her little casa on a mesa in the West. I hope she won't mind if I share it. It suggests the peace, beauty and intellectual curiosity I wish for all of you in 2013. Click to enlarge.