Thursday, October 31, 2013

Out of Eden

The Maori of New Zealand imagined the original man with his head planted firmly in the earth, an ocean issuing from his mouth, in his groin a gum tree, clouds on his feet. What are we to make of this upside-down Adam? No head-in-the-clouds this fellow. His tattooed noggin is fixed in the soil like a tuber. Arms spread like an ocean-going outrigger canoe. Heart and lungs smoldering in the hearth of his chest. Penis sprouting branches. Only the soles of his feet keeping the sky from crushing him out.

Looks good to me. Humankind as integral to nature. Earth, water, fire, air. The spindle on which the world is spun. Compare this to Adam in the Judeo-Christian myth, breathed into a world already formed, almost as if he were an afterthought. Lord and master of the whole affair. His dealings are with God alone.

Of course, no one who is at all cognizant of the last 400 years of science believes in a literal Adam, or a literal Maori man for that matter. The stories are interesting from an historical point of view, and they can serve a metaphorical purpose, but we don't take them seriously. We have our own creation myths, and some of us take them very seriously indeed.

Here is John Haught, a theologian I admire, in a recent issue of Commonweal, offering his own take on how it all came to be:
It is the presence and lure of infinite being, wisdom, truth, and goodness that grounds both the world's intelligibility and our own intelligent life. Through natural processes the inexhaustible love of God evokes an anticipatory restlessness that we call evolution and, in our newly emergent minds, an unrestricted desire to know. Such a theological vision not only makes the world a favorable place for scientific inquiry; it also provides good reasons for entrusting ourselves to the mind's spontaneous quest for understanding and truth.
Well, yes. Give Haught this: He doesn't dismiss science as a way of reliable knowing. And he espouses a faith that doesn't stand in stark opposition to science. But the story he proposes is no less a myth than Adam or the Maori man. For that matter, so is the myth of the scientific materialist, evoking chance and non-teleological emergence. At least the latter has Ockham's razor on its side.

We spend a lot of time contesting each other's myths, as if they had an objective foundation. We have a hard time saying, "I don't know."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Walk of life

In the year 1867, John Muir, age 29, put his feet in his boots and walked solo from Indiana to the Florida coast. Put one foot in front of the other and didn't stop walking until the foot out in front met saltwater. A couple of million steps, I figure. "My plan," he said, "was simply to push on in a southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least-trodden way I could find." In his satchel: a change of underwear, his journal, a bar of soap, comb and brush, a botany textbook, the New Testament, Milton's Paradise Lost, and the poems of Robert Burns.

I'm reminded of Muir's adventure because the college library has just acquired photographer John Earl's 1975 volume John Muir's Longest Walk, a collection of photographs recreating Muir's journey, with extensive excerpts from the naturalist's own account.

I first read a biography of Muir in the mid-1960s. His walk to the coast struck me as heroic, in an understated sort of way. I was then the same age as Muir was when he set out on his life-transforming trek. I was walking too, although not nearly so dramatically, but at least putting one foot in front of the other in a Thoreauvian-saunterish sort of way -- my daily back-and-forth "one-mile walk through the universe." I guess I had it in my mind that someday I would do a walk as long, spare and spiritually fulfilling as Muir's.

Well, I've had a few good traipses over the years, but nothing that would compare to Muir's 1000-mile journey for shear self-reliance. And it ain't gonna happen now. Even if I still had the physical stamina, I would not be able to reduce my life to few enough objects to fit in a sack. As I write this, I am sitting in the college library. Which four books would I select? An impossible choice.

Still, I'm not too proud to have heroes. And I'm still looking for the "wildest, leafiest, and least-trodden way." Where two roads diverge in a yellow wood, I'll take the quieter path, the one tracked only by shoe or boot, the one that allows the mind to stop, attend, consider. The wind on my cheek. The tip-tip of the nuthatch in my ear. The crunch of dry leaves under my feet. And maybe, just maybe, Muir's account of his 1000-mile walk to the Gulf in my bag.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Principia natura

Now is the season of the thistle's airborne seed,
the tick-trefoil and stick-tights of the beggar-weed,

the spring-steel pods of the touch-me-not that curl
back like hair-trigger catapults to hurl

their pips, the mushrooms with paper-thin gills
pepper-specked with invisible spores that spill

into the wind, the stalked capsules of the broom moss
squirting a pea-green dust, the smuts, the gloss

of molds, the mildew, the rusts, the insect egg-
cases clustered en masse around the twig,

the alga scum that floats on the brown flood
that runs in the ditches, the rank green blood

of the stinkhorn: husks and leavings in our path,
theorems on the identity of life and death.

Monday, October 28, 2013


FAREWELL, thou busy world! And may
We never meet again!
Here I can eat and sleep and pray,
And do more good in one short day
Than he who his whole age outwears
Upon the most conspicuous theatres,
Where naught but vanity and vice do reign.
The first verse from a poem called "The Retirement" by Charles Cotton (1630-1687), a friend of Izaak Walton, about his private fishing retreat on the river Dove. The poem was incorporated into Walton's "The Compleat Angler."

And what do I make of it, now, in retirement? All these hours on hand to eat, sleep and pray all I want? "Good God! How sweet are all things here!" enthuses Cotton, "How beautiful the fields appear!...How happy here's our leisure!...How innocent our pleasure!"

Yes? No?

As I've mentioned, I've been rummaging lately in the junk room upstairs, which has been accumulating the intellectual detritus of my life for 50 years. It seems from the accumulated evidence that I always had sufficient hours on hand to eat, sleep and pray, if by prayer one means paying attention.

I have mixed feelings about retirement. On the one hand I have all these hours of the day to use as I want, to read and walk and meditate. On the other hand, I miss the stimulation of the unending buzz. It is clear as I rummage through the upstairs archive that I got more done that was spiritually and intellectually rewarding while juggling what in effect were three full-time jobs than I do now without a care in the world.
How calm and quiet a delight
Is it, alone
To read and meditate and write,
By none offended and offending none!
To walk, ride, sit, or sleep at one's own ease;
And, pleasing a man's self, none other to displease.
And yet, and yet. Where is the rush and dither of creativity, the frenzy of fantasy and foolishness, the clash and clamor of happenstance? Here I sit now, on the rocking-chair porch of life, with no one but myself to please, grateful for those of you who stop by to visit these increasingly self-indulgent ramblings. Nudge me. Keep me awake. I feel a nap coming on.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The medium

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Once upon a midnight dreary -- a Saturday reprise

Late October. Green fades. Chlorophyll closes down. This is the season of the Grim Reaper. Mushrooms skulk the forest floor like spirits of the damned. Costumed for trick or treat.

Why do so many species of mushrooms have Halloween names? Destroying Angel. Fairy Helmets. Jack-o'-Lanterns. Death Cap. Witch's Butter. The names betray our feelings. We don't trust them. Something deep in our folk consciousness turns away in revulsion.

Is it that some mushrooms are poisonous? Hallucinogenic? Or is it something deeper? Druidical? Are we reminded of the fairy spirits of our forest-living European ancestors? Is this what Shakespeare's Prospero had in mind when he addressed the elves "whose pastime is to make midnight mushrumps"?

Fungi are heterotrophs, which means they require for their nourishment organic compounds synthesized by other organisms, namely green plants. Some fungi are parasites; they take nutrients from a living host. Most fungi are saprobes; they obtain nutrients from non-living organic matter and cause its decay.

Mushrooms are the grave robbers of the plant world, shunners of sunlight, and it is appropriate that they come out in autumn's failing light to prowl with goblins, witches, incubi and succubi, dancing in fairy circles. There is something darkly sexual about them. The phallic stinkhorn. The vulval earthstar. And those wicked little men of the woods, which I have never seen except in foreign handbooks, the Crowned Earthstars, Geastrum fornicatum, marching in lascivious gangs, with open mouths.

Our ancestors roaming the dark forests of Northern Europe may have seen the mushrooms as spirits of the dead in macabre resurrection. Appearing overnight, in garish colors, these Lords of the Flies evoked, somehow, mysteriously, thoughts of malevolence and lust.

This is the week of their final fling -- night-stalking tricksters, ectoplasmic Halloween spooks.

(This post originally appeared in October 2010.)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Golden opportunity

Molten gold.

That's all I could think of as my walk along the path this morning took me directly toward the rising Sun. Liquid metal pouring through the trees, flooding the meadow, spilling a screen of auric light on the line of oaks at my back. And then, the disk broke free of the trees, floated up like an incandescent balloon, and I could swear that I felt the force of its light pushing me backwards. I closed my eyes, spread my arms. The Earth rolled beneath my feet, dragging me sunward.

Starlight. Our star. Lucky old Sun, has nothin' to do, but roll around heaven all day. No wonder our ancestors worshiped the Sun. The wonder is that we gave up so natural and benign a religion for something more abstract, more morally ambiguous, an egomaniacal projection of ourselves.

You want revelation? Try this.

The solar spectrum. Cut out these horizontal strips and connect them end to end to form a long rainbow of colors, from deep red to violet. Apparently, Newton was the first one to pass sunlight through a prism and show that what appears to the eye as yellow is actually composed of all the colors of visible light -- something raindrops had been doing naturally for as long as there had been sunlight and rain. Did Newton see dark bands, missing colors? If so, he made no note of it. It was up to Wollaston and Fraunhofer, a century later, to notice the gaps in the spectrum.

We now know that the dense surface of the Sun emits a continuous rainbow of light. Cooler gases surrounding the Sun absorb certain wavelengths of light -- the very same wavelengths those elements emit when heated as a rarified gas on Earth. Every element has its unique "fingerprint."

The revealer -- sunlight. The revelation -- the composition of the Sun!

And what do we discover? That the Sun is made of the same stuff as the Earth. Hydrogen and helium, mostly. Oxygen. Carbon. Neon. Nitrogen. Iron. Magnesium. Silicon. We are related, the Sun and I. We share the sources of our substance. The Sun animates our lives.

As I walked toward the Sun this morning, I thought of molten gold. Is there gold in the Sun? Among those thousands of dark absorption lines can we sift out the spectrum of gold? Yes! If I had some way of extracting all the gold atoms from the Sun I'd be the richest person on Earth. I'd be richer than everyone else on Earth together. Never mind. I am already as rich as Croesus --

-- on the path at sunrise.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Time will tell

I have been trying again to read Stephen Gaukroger's The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210-1685 (Oxford 2006), not altogether successfully. For the moment, it's the jacket illustration I want to consider, a painting by Francois Lemoyne (1688-1737) called "Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy" (click to enlarge).

Father Time holds his daughter Truth while pushing away Falsehood (unmasked) with the shaft of his scythe. Envy slinks in the background. Truth seems to have her eyes set on heaven. I have no idea what truths were important to Lemoyne. He committed suicide soon after completing the painting.

The issue raised by Lemoyne's allegorical theme is this: Does time inevitably winnow truth from falsehood?

It is an unstated axiom of the scientific world view that the answer is yes. Science makes no claim for Truth with a capital T; there is no Rubensesque lady at the height of her mature beauty to be rescued from her enemies. Rather the claim is for reliable lower-case truth that as time passes approaches ever more closely an idealized but never realized perfection.

Never to be realized? Well, certainly not in its totality. The cosmos we find ourselves living in is effectively (perhaps actually) infinite, and the human mind -- even in its collectivity -- is finite. That the world is reliably knowable at all is a mystery that science itself cannot dispel. Theism is an attempt to plumb the mystery. Agnosticism is a more modest admission of ignorance.

But what of time? The savants of the Scientific Revolution spoke of "the Ancients and the Moderns," those who looked to the past for a truth that time corrupts, and those who look to a future truth that time perfects: infallible revelation versus unrelenting quest. The divide is as sharp today, at least in America, as ever in the past. It works itself out in a Red State/Blue State political polarization that baffles the rest of the post-Enlightenment world, and -- as we have recently seen -- can bring effective government to a standstill.

Let the Lemoyne painting be a litmus test. Do you see Father Time defending an infallible Truth against the corrupting inroads of secularism and science? Or do you see Father Time pushing away myth and superstition so that empirical truth can be lifted onward and upward?

(I will be away tomorrow.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

From so simple a beginning

Anne sent me the pic above from the National Geographic website, a leaf-hopper from the rain forest of Surinam, suggesting that I add it to my Seussian circus, described here and here. It surely belongs.

I won't add a new stanza to my Seussian parody, but Anne knows what I like. I'd go so far as to say that after family, the most intense joy in my life comes from considering the fabulous diversity of life. One inevitably thinks of the last sentence of Darwin's Origin of Species: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Rather than add the shaving-brush leaf-hopper to my circus, since I've been browsing old journals I'll share with you a poem I wrote back in the late-1960s, when I was still young and foolish enough to try my hand at that refractory craft:

In French Guiana the plated armadillo
(or tatou) goes shuffling along at a slow

gait, his donkey-face close to the ground
like a landed fish or a short round

centipede writ large, bristles and scales
shingling off to the neat point of his tail.

He stops to avoid the crossing crocodile
(or cäiman), back-slatted and belly-tiled

like himself but flatter and stretched out
to ten times his own length tail-to-snout;

sidesteps the pin-striped anteater (or tamanoir),
an unlikely bugle-shaped creature, all nose

and tail and a tongue like a dangling string;
detours around a beetle (the scieur de long)

with two rhinoceros-horn protrusions
at the front of its head; turns in confusion

from a fist-sized black tarantula (or matubu)
with huge hairy legs. Dépêchez vous.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The known and the unknowable

Before the blog, before the Globe, before the books, I kept a journal, a new one each semester in black, hard-bound artists' sketch books. There's a shelf of them in a back room upstairs, from the 60s and 70s. I had a look the other day, the first time in many years. It was like entering a time machine.

What most impressed me was the continuity. I find there in embryo all the themes that I spent the rest of my life developing. I've scanned above a sketch from an early volume of my walk to and from college each day, the path that would become "The Path: A One-mile Walk Through the Universe." Even then I realized that any place can be every place, that any thing contains all things. On the first page of another volume I quote John Steinbeck fromLog from the Sea of Cortez:
…And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time.
A one-mile walk through the universe. One might as well say "one step," or "one life." Chain that younger Chet to a tree and give him access to a good library and he'd find ample interests to keep himself occupied. A gnat is made of the stuff of the big bang. A mayfly draws its animation from the center of the sun. Continents drift, ice ages come and go: It's all etched in every particle of earth.

But a human life is long, and the challenge is to stay aware. I flip though my early journals and I wonder where the excitement has gone, when everything was new and fresh, when it was like opening my eyes for the first time. Then, I accomplished more in a day than I do now in a fortnight. The tempo diminishes, the voice repeats itself.

It's not that the complexity of things has been depleted. There is an arc to an individual life that we share with the gnat and the mayfly. Our lives are rounded with a sleep. Life, however, continues unabated, bound to the spinning planets and expanding universe by the elastic string of time.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Loving memory

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Why we need poets -- a Saturday reprise

The other evening the poet Jane Hirshfield referred in a poem to the number of atoms it takes to make a butterfly. Ten to the 24th power, I think she said. I thought I'd check it out.

A typical butterfly might weigh about half a gram. The exact ratio of elements I don't know, but mostly hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Let's assume an atomic weight of ten for a typical atom; that is, an atom with ten nuclear particles (Hydrogen=1, carbon= 12, oxygen=16, and so on). A proton or neutron has a weight of about 1.6 X 10-24 grams. About 3 X 1022 atoms in a butterfly.

If I'm remembering Hirshfield's reference correctly (and I may not be), we are off by one or two orders of magnitude. No matter. It's a very big number. You want to make a butterfly? You will need 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. And every one in exactly the right place.

Now consider the miracle of metamorphosis.

The caterpillar builds a chrysalis. Wraps itself up in its closet. And there, in the privacy of its self-sufficiency, it rearranges those arrangements of atoms. The caterpillar's six stumpy front feet are turned into the butterfly's slender legs. Four wings develop, as do reproductive organs. Chewing mouthparts become adapted for sucking. A crawling, insatiable, leaf-eater is transformed into a winged, sex-obsessed nectar sipper.

This is why we need poets. It's one thing to count atoms, or draw diagrams of the 22 amino acids, or suss out their sequence on the long chains that are the proteins. Or read out the genome that controls the machinery that turns a creeping leaf-cruncher into a winged angel. But all that biochemistry, as wonderful as it is, leaves the essential mystery intact. The hum. The unceasing hum that is life. The inextinguishable continuity.

Sing, poets. Sing your hosannas.

(This post originally appeared in October 2010.)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Trying to be good

A few lines from Mary Oliver's poem "Wild Geese":
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
I've quoted these lines before, if not here, then elsewhere. When I first read them back in the late 80s, they resonated with what I felt at the time. I had spent part of my earliest adulthood walking on my knees, both literally and metaphorically, seeking to tame what I took to be the animal within. Saint Augustine was whispering in my ear, and Bernanos' gloomy country priest walked at my side. I was ready to follow Thomas Merton into the desert; indeed, I once took myself briefly to the monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky, where Merton was in residence.

That was a journey of more than a hundred miles, and I was busy repenting, although of what I don't know.

As I read those lines from Mary Oliver in middle age, I had long been cultivating the "soft animal" within, immersing myself in the is-ness of things, the flesh and blood, the gorgeously sensual. No more walking on my knees, repenting. I walked proudly upright, with my sketchbook and my watercolors, my binoculars and my magnifier, sniffing the world like an animal on the prowl. I was letting my body learn to "love what it loves." Those were the years I wrote The Soul of the Night and Honey From Stone -- the most intensely creative years of my life. The world offered itself to my imagination, if I may borrow another line from "Wild Geese."

And now, another half-lifetime has passed. The soft animal dozes, the body seeks repose. And I think of the first line quoted above: "You do not have to be good." What could the poet have possibly meant by that? Of course one has to be good. In a cell at Gethsemane or on the bridge over Queset Brook, one has to be good. And so one tries, one tries. The soft animal of the body that nature has contrived for us is not fine-tuned for goodness.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Psalm 50:11

I've written here before about Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, that enigmatic triptych that has baffled viewers and scholars alike. Certainly, I don't pretend to know what it's all about. But that's what makes it so much fun; we can all read into it what we like.

Here's a game. Find the figure in the painting that is you. We are all there somewhere. That is the secret of the painting. Its inclusiveness. The way it plumbs our psyches, teases out our souls. Bosch anticipated Freud by four centuries.

Most of us will find ourselves in the ambiguous middle panel, not the prelapsarian Eden at left, or the inferno of the damned at right. The fact that our crowded civilization works as well as it does suggests that natural selection has chastened our passions with poetry, our lusts with lyricism.

OK, I'll go first. That's me in the bubble flower. Making my move on a doubtful female companion. "Hold on, buster. Not so fast." "Oh come on, come on, just a little kiss."

But who's that in the basement of my floral love nest, looking out of the porthole? That must be me too, I suppose, doing my best to keep the rats out.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


My parody yesterday of Joyce Kilmer's Trees was without attribution. I hardly thought it necessary, The original would be almost universally recognized. It may be the worst poem ever written in the English language, but it is wildly popular, as putative "literature" or as a source of ridicule.

It was the first poem I was taught in school, entirely because it was written by a Catholic. Even at the age of eight or nine I recognized it as junk. Soon after, we memorized Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman, another poem by a Catholic writer. I can still quote the first verse.

Things didn't get much better in high school or college. Oh, we got non-Catholic classics like Longfellow and Hawthorne, but I never heard of Whitman. It wasn't until I was out of school and on my own that I discovered a wealth of terrific writing by Catholic authors.

Some years ago, I made some recommendations for Catholic students in the college alumni magazine. Here is what I wrote:


I would guess that most Catholic students who come to Stonehill are only nominally Catholic. The college years are a wonderful time to explore in a deeper intellectual way what it means to be Catholic. Here is a list of ten books that any student could read with profit:

Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions. The Confessions recount Augustine's conversion to Christianity, but the book is deeply shaded by his earlier attraction to Manachaean philosophy -- steeped in guilt and longing.

John of the Cross, The Dark Night. Every journey into faith begins in darkness. John's poetic account of the soul's progress from sense to spirit is gorgeously erotic, evoking the frank sensuality of the Song of Songs.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems. What college student could not identify with Hopkins' earnest search for God -- and the exuberance of his language? The Poems should be read in conjunction with Robert Bernard Martin's superb biography of Hopkins.

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. This sprawling Nobel-prizewinning novel set in 14th-century Norway should be read three times: once in college, once during the travails of family life in middle age, and again in the repose of maturity. But only in Tina Nunnally's new translation.

Georges Bernanos, Under Satan's Sun. The Diary of a Country Priest is generally considered Bernanos' masterpiece, but I prefer this darker account of a priest's struggle with evil. No young Catholic should dismiss Satan without first diving deep into the darkest recesses of his or her own psyche.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton inspired a generation of young Catholics to explore a Zenlike spirituality. This autobiographical account of his journey from unbelief to Catholicism, then to the Trappist monastery, should be read with Michael Mott's The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton.

Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man Is Hard To Find. What could be more incongruous than a Catholic writer in rural Georgia? O'Connor's short stories and novels bring a Catholic sensitivity to the puzzles and travails of ordinary life.

Shusaku Endo, The Silence. If a Catholic in rural Georgia is incongruous, what about a Catholic writer in Japan? Endo's soul-stirring novel tells the story of a young Portuguese Jesuit missionary in 16th-century Japan. The silence of the title is the silence of God in the face of unspeakable evil.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The book was written before Dillard's conversion to Catholicism, but it is already intensely Catholic in spirit -- sensual, sacramental. A year by a creek in rural Virginia. A passionate search for God in nature, and a recognition of God's unknowability.

Andre Dubus, Selected Stories. Ordinary people struggling with ordinary problems, comforted and troubled by their faith. Dubus own life was dogged by tragedy, which in the end brought him deeper into the Catholic faith of his birth.

A personal list. Too short. I might have added Francois Mauriac, Simone Weil, Nikos Kazantzakis (Orthodox), James Joyce, Graham Greene, Dorothy Day, Evelyn Waugh, Mary MacCarthy, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Walker Percy, and any number of others. But enough. What all these books have in common is the struggle of faith with doubt. Whatever the outcome for young Catholic readers, they will have experienced the power and the glory of the tradition into which they were born.


Re-reading this now, I can see that this is a body of literature that would lead one deeper into the faith -- or out. For me, the journey was out, into a robust scientific agnosticism, but having read my way through the great tradition, I know that some part of my soul is marked forever with the chrism of Catholicism.

(I'll be away tomorrow.)

Monday, October 14, 2013


I think that I shall never see
A thing as noisy as a tree.

A tree whose falling leaves are prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair,

But now as Autumn comes around
Drops her foliage on the ground.

The crisp October air resounds
With gasoline-powered engine sounds

As neighbors to a man forsake
The quiet swish of the garden rake,

And instead place their trust in
The infernal din of internal combustion.

Poems are parodied by fools like me,
But only a leaf-blower can ruin a tree.

(With apologies to…etc.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The shape of night -- a Saturday reprise

In Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, the Earth speaks these wonderful words:
I spin beneath my pyramid of night
  Which points into the heavens, dreaming delight,
Murmuring victorious joy in my enchanted sleep;
  As a youth lulled in love-dreams faintly sighing,
  Under the shadow of his beauty lying,
Which round his rest a watch of light and warmth doth keep.
Beautiful words, but beautiful too that the poet has fixed in his mind's eye a geometry that was first imagined by astronomers in the ancient Near East.

Night as a pyramid! A long, skinny cone of darkness. A wizard's cap of shadow cast by the Earth into the illuminated space near the Sun.

Those ancient astronomers conceived of that cone of darkness and used it to explain eclipses of the Moon.

As I watched the eclipse Monday night I tried to imagine the shape of night, as long and skinny as a rapier. And the Moon, as typically happens twice a year, on course to collide with that pyramid of shadow, which at the Moon's distance is a bit less than three times as wide as the Moon. That pyramid of shadow under which he Earth, like a youth lulled by love-dreams, drowsily spins.

Every object in the solar system wears a conical shadow pointing away from the Sun. Even the helmeted head of a spacewalking astronaut wears a wizard's cap of darkness one hundred feet long. The solar system is as prickly as a hedgehog with spines of darkness.

(This post originally appeared in December 2010.)

Friday, October 11, 2013

The time for the tellable

When I first set foot on the plank bridge over Queset Brook forty-nine years ago, I saw a kingfisher. I haven't seen one since.

But I've seen pretty much everything else. The bridge is an emperor's loge, the catbird's seat. If I stand there for five minutes something wonderful is sure to appear. A box turtle. A monarch butterfly. A fleet of whirligigs. The orange flash of an oriole. And there, oh there, among the water lilies where the brook splays into the pond, a heron, watching with its glittering eye.

Forty-nine years and the day is as fresh as yesterday. The spider feasts on midges. The strider does its Jesus walk. The perch lurks in shadows. And we, says the poet Rilke, are here only to say: House, bridge, fountain, gate..

To speak for the mute earth.

Forty-nine years. That's why I'm here on the plank bridge. That's why we're here on this earth. To give the cosmos a voice. A stuttering voice, perhaps, but a voice. Praise the world, this world, to the Angel, says Rilke, do not tell him the untellable.
      …Show him
some simple thing, remolded by age after age,
till it lives in our hands and eyes as part of ourselves.
Tell him things. He'll stand more astonished.
House, bridge, fountain, gate. Redwing. Black snake. Mist. Star.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The narrow gate

Visited my daughter Mo in New York last weekend. She gave us a tour of the core repository at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in Palisades, New York. We had a tour many years ago when Mo was a graduate student. Now she is Director of the Core Repository and a Research Professor at Columbia. It's an impressive collection: many thousands of long sediment cores from the world's ocean floors. You can see a video about the repository here.

While we were there, Mo pulled out a representative core (in three pieces) drilled up from the floor of the Mediterranean. She talked us down through tens of thousands of years of sediments, reading the story of climate in the Mediterranean Basin, a story that included a massive volcanic eruption. It's all there in the muck, written as plain as day, millions of years of Earth history, And it's a consistent story, from ocean to ocean, age-calibrated in a dozen ways. And here, right here near the top of the column of sediments, is the putative Garden of Eden. All the rest, those thousands of cores reaching down into the past, are dismissed by nearly half of Americans as -- as what? A scientific hoax? A planet created by God with millions of years of sediments already in place?

Of course, learning to read the sediments -- geology, mineralology, chemistry, isotopic ratios, fossils, magnetism etc. -- Is more difficult than reading Genesis. Be grateful for the bright young graduate students who come to Lamont to read in the Earth's own library.

(Jodi and Steve in the photo with Mo.)

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Spiders in the mist

We had a stretch of unusually warm weather recently. This generally meant foggy mornings as I walked to college at dawn. And foggy mornings meant spider webs were relieved of their invisibility by beads of dew. "What refinement of art for a mess of Flies! Nowhere, in the whole animal kingdom, has the need to eat inspired a more cunning industry," wrote Jean Henri Fabre in The Life of the Spider. He should know. He spent a good part of his life attending to spiders. Fabre made himself the Homer of insects and arachnids, observing their habits with an unfailing enthusiasm.

On these misty mornings I might say with Fabre:
I do not, thank God, suffer from the melancholy of a cellar: my solitude is gay with light and verdure; I attend, whenever I please, the fields' high festival, the Thrushes' concert, the Cricket's symphony; and yet my friendly commerce with the Spider is marked by an even greater devotion.
I quote from Fabre's The Wonders of Instinct. Wonders, indeed. Each species with its own cunning architecture, inborn. Calatrava in the egg! It's been exactly a century since The Life of the Spider was published in English, and the mysteries of instinct continue to baffle and intrigue. In a sense, they are even more mysterious now that we have learned to read the language of the DNA. Not Calatrava in the egg, but Calatrava in the double helix.

Science is the royal road to humility, Fabre might have said. Maurice Maeterlinck, that other bard of the fields, drew just that conclusion in his Preface to Fabre's The Life of the Spider: "To know how not to know might well be the last word of wisdom."

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Holy, holy, holy

Before we begin, go here and listen to the Sanctus from the original recording of the Missa Luba, a Latin Mass in African traditional style sung by a choir of adults and children from the Congolese town of Kamina in Katanga province, with percussion. It was arranged by the Belgian priest Father Guido Haazen and recorded in 1958.

I'll bet Anne remembers the Missa Luba. We became aware of it sometime in the 1960s, and it became widely admired by the counter-cultural generation. It’s popularity coincided with the Second Vatican Council, and seemed to represent an opening up of the Church to the non-Western world, without condescension. It was also widely admired by many in the Civil Rights movement.

I mention it now because the Sanctus was a significant part of the soundtrack for Lindsay Anderson's If, the film I wrote about yesterday, where it played in striking counterpoint to stately Anglican hymns. Last night I listened to the whole Missa Luba ("Luba" refers to the ethnic people of Katanga).

There is irony in the fact that a Latin Mass should become so popular just as Vatican II was dumping Latin for the vernacular. There is also irony in the fact that the reforms of Vatican II coincided with my leaving the Church.

It seemed to me at the time that the reforms were merely window dressing. Instead of addressing the antiquated theology and culture of hocus-pocus, we got guitar Masses. Instead of embracing science and affirming mystery, we got a watering down of a liturgy that for all of its supernaturalism still resonated with nature. Instead of rooting out the entrenched misogyny, homophobia, and triumphalism, we got a pasty "ecumenism" that amounted to nothing at all.

Against all this, the Missa Luba stood out for what seemed to be a truly universal celebration of mystery and goodness.

Sacred music can still make my hair stand on end, as it did last night. It makes no difference that it's in a language that many do not understand; the music is sacred, not the words. Words are the bane of religion. Strip out the Credo and sing the Gloria twice. In Latin. Celebration, not fabulation.

Monday, October 07, 2013

What if?

Richard Dawkins' account of his days in English boarding schools (in An Appetite for Wonder) included a mention of Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film If. As indeed he should. A cult classic. A surrealist drama unfolding in an Etonesque boys' school. It caught the late-Sixties zeitgeist perfectly. Which side are you on? Stultifying tradition, arbitrary authority and sexual repression, or violent, anarchical revolution.

At the time, I was a young professor caught somewhere in the middle, liberal in my inclinations, cautious in my actions. I was also the faculty sponsor of the film club and sometime, about 1970 I suppose, I watched If with students, a 16-mm print in a darkened auditorium. As I recall, it generated lots of animated discussion.

Sparked by Dawkins' mention of the film, I decided to watch it again. First, I checked my wife's Amazon Prime catalog. Lots of movies available, but no If . Next, the college library's extensive film collection on DVD. Nope. Then the library's stashed away VHS collection. Yes! Into an antiquated VHS machine, to play on a snowy TV screen smaller than my wife's computer.

Only after I had watched the film did I discover that it is available in its entirety on YouTube.

Celluloid, VHS, DVD, Netflix, on-demand: What a sleigh ride! No more film club. Anybody can watch anything, anytime, anywhere.

And what of If? Does it hold up? I think so. It is, however, an allegorical work of its time, and the very revolutionary zeitgeist it articulated transformed the British (and our) educational system. I suspect students today would find the film more inscrutable than provocative. For me it's a historical document of that best and worst of times. As I watched, I might have been back in the darkened auditorium, surrounded by students who were passionately engaged with the great public issues of the time -- pacifism, racism, feminism, environmentalism, Church reform -- treading my own tricky path between rigidity and chaos.

One more thing about the movie: the soundtrack. More on that tomorrow.

Friday, October 04, 2013


Tom and I will be away for the weekend. I leave you in Anne's care. Click to enlarge.


Consumer reviews are one of the positive developments of the internet. Books, movies, hotels, shoes, appliances. We all use them. But are they accurate?

They have sparked two new industries: companies that for a fee will flood the review boards with phony raves, and companies that for a fee will try to weed out the phonies for rating sites that depend on objectivity.

Meanwhile, what are we poor schmucks to do? Believe or not believe?

Writers are the worst offenders. I've encountered writers who have all their friends and relations write raves for their books on Amazon. "A masterpiece!" "Endlessly gripping!" "A page-turner!" I've met writers who compose the reviews themselves.

Chattanooga just hit 100 Amazon reviews. As far as I know, they are all authentic. They range from horrid to enthusiastic. Average a paltry 3 1/2 stars (out of 5). But at least they are real.

Do I read the reviews? For my other books, no, or at least not more that a few. I will admit that I have been following the traffic for Chattanooga. It’s fun to see how people react to the Buffons, our invented family. Like neighbors on the block.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Contingency vs. constraint

Well, hello. Who's this? Funky little animal. Yes, an animal, in spite of that stalk, which is more foot than root. It lived in mid-Cambrian seas, about 500 million years ago. Nothing quite like it exists today (click to enlarge).

Herpetogaster collinsi. Heretogaster means "creeping stomach." That's pretty much what the animal is. A mouth, a stomach, and an anus. The elaborate tentacles are possibly used to bring food to the mouth, but who knows.

Let me say at once that this beautiful imagining of the animal from its fossils is by the artist Quade Paul, and is reproduced in a 7 June review in Science of Douglas Erwin and James Valentine's The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Diversity, which Paul illustrated. The beasty was small enough to hold in the palm of your hand, if you don't mind holding a creeping stomach.

The Cambrian was that period in Earth history when quite suddenly (in geologic time) a burgeoning of multi-celled animals appeared, with diverse body plans, including ancestors of all species extant today. No one is quite sure what caused the "explosion," but there you have it. Not all of the Cambrian novelty gave rise to present-day descendants. Survival or extinction was a bit of a crap shoot.

How much of a crap shoot recalls the divergence of opinion some years ago between Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris. Gould emphasized the iffyness of evolution, and suggested that if the tape of life on Earth were replayed, the world would look very different today, including the likelihood that we would not be here. Morris chose to stress the constraints of environment and the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence to drive natural selection along a narrowly constricted path, leading in every replaying of the tape to a world broadly similar to the one we inhabit today, including (perhaps) a mouth-stomach-anus that is bipedal, impressively intelligent, self-conscious and zips about in jet airplanes. Read Gould's Wonderful Life and Morris's The Crucible of Creation and decide for yourself.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The seeds of contemplation

Do a Google search for "Cuthbert" and you'll get two main hits: a stunning blonde Canadian actress who I never heard of, and the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon monk I was looking for. Make that an image search and poor Saint Cuthbert gets washed away in a sea of unclad sexiness that would probably have rattled the poor abbot/bishop to his core.

Well, we don't really know, do we? We don't really know what was on Saint Cuthbert's mind. Certainly he had an impressive career as a Church administrator, but be seems to have been irresistibly drawn to the life of an anchorite. For a while he was prior at the famous abbey of Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria, then bishop of the same place, but he gave all that up for a solitary cell on the nearby island of Farne. According to tradition, his severe abode had no windows or doors, and no views of scenery or humans. It was circular and open only to the sky. There Cuthbert lived, like a mouse at the bottom of a coffee can.

Was his mouse-eye view of the sky enough to feed his soul? Presumably he didn't see rainbows, since rainbows don't appear near the zenith. He was far enough north (56° 37') not to see the sun at all, even in summer, depending on how wide was the angle of his view of the sky. Only a few bright stars illuminated his night: Capella, Vega, and Deneb (taking into account the 18 degrees of precession since his time). In late summer the Milky Way would have been draped overhead, although -- alas -- the least bright part of the galaxy. The aurora would have entertained him on occasion, and "shooting stars."

How much is enough? Thoreau had his pond, and dinner at the Emersons whenever he wanted. Henry Beston had the whole wide sea crashing outside his "outermost" house on Cape Cod. Annie Dillard's Tinker Creek was in a valley, but her patch of sky was supplemented by woods and fields and the always changing theater of the creek itself. Many of us have longed at one time or another for greater simplicity, for a life lived deliberately, for the intensely-experienced few rather than the trivialized many.

It's all a matter of finding the balance, between the harsh parsimony of the anchorite's cell and the rush and clutter of 21st-century, media-saturated overload.

(I went looking for Saint Cuthbert because of a TLS article on the Lindisfarne Gospels, an 8th-century magnificently illuminated manuscript that has somehow miraculously survived into the 21st-century.)

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Genes and memes

I have just read Richard Dawkins' new book, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, a memoir of the first half of his life, from his birth in Africa during World War II to the publication of the book that brought him to international prominence in 1976, The Selfish Gene. It is, as we would expect, a jolly good read, especially the first half recounting his childhood and adolescence. What makes it good is his graceful writing, brash wit and dash of sass. He beautifully balances, in what can only be called a Dawkinsesque way, self-satisfaction and self-deprecation. He knows he's the sharpest tack in the room, but we forgive him for it because we know he is too. I've read all his books and been inspired by them.

American anglophiles like me will respond with delight to his tales of British boarding schools, and the stiff-upper-lip confidence that marked the declining days of Empire. His journey from infancy in Nyasaland to Balliol College, Oxford, rattles gaily along like a plucky Range Rover bumping across the savannah wrapped in jerry cans of petrol.

The book drags a bit when he gets to describing his early scientific work in animal behavior, involving chicks and crickets (and computers). All very clever, but hardly earthshaking. We are reminded that Dawkins' genius lies in the popular explication of science, rather than in research. Still, he seems to have known all the great biologists of his and the previous generation, and his store of anecdotes is entertaining. He is quick to give credit where credit is due for ideas that he gave common currency, such as those he developed in The Selfish Gene.

At the end of An Appetite for Wonder Dawkins promises a second volume, bringing his autobiography up to the present. That is worth waiting for. Genes may be immortal (as he argues in The Selfish Gene), but you and I are individually fleeting, a message that enflames his recent notoriety. God and personal immortality may be delusions, but they are refractory memes. It will be fun to read Dawkins' take on his role as the genial bane of organized religion.