Saturday, November 30, 2013

Silence and speech -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in October 2010.)

The poet Jane Hirshfield was last evening's guest of the college. As I read her work in anticipation of the visit, I found myself thinking of Rainer Maria Rilke, and in particular of the Duino Elegies, among my favorite poems.

"Does a poem enlarge the world,/ or only our idea of the world?" asks Hirshfield in one of her poems. She wrestles with the central paradox of artistic creation, a paradox that also concerned Rilke.

I recall reading somewhere that the painter Wassily Kandinsky could be transfixed, enraptured, by the sight of a collar button in the gutter. It is the nature of the artistic temperament to be acutely sensitive to the isness of things, what the photographer Edward Weston called "the thing itself." Hirshfield has a poem about a button ("It is its own story, completed," she writes). A button, a spoon, a blue mug. Tapioca, peaches, toast. The enrapturing insistence of the thing that exists independently of the artist who perceives it, even though we know that a thing cannot even be known to exist except in its perception. Still, the painter must paint and the poet must write because that too is part of the artistic temperament, but always there is an awareness of the unbridgeable distance between the thing and the expression of the thing.

"Why is it so difficult to speak simply?" asks Hirshfield in a poem. And in the very next poem she lets another artist answer:
"If you wish to move your reader,"
Chekhov wrote, "you must write more coldly."
Hirshfield continues:
And so at the center of many great works
is found a preserving dispassion,
like the vanishing point of quattrocentro perspective,
or the tiny packets of desiccant enclosed
in a box of new shoes or seeds."
One cannot, however, so easily escape the paradox:
But still the vanishing point
is not the painting,
the silica is not the blossoming plant.
"Only when I am quiet for a long time," writes Hirshfield, "and do not speak/ do the objects of my life draw near." Near, yes, but always that irreducible gap, that disquieting lacuna inviting the pronoun I.

Of course, what Hirshfield is dealing with here is not just the problem of artistic creation, but really the central problem of philosophy. How do we know? And how do we know that we know? What is the relation of the perceived particular -- in all of its redolent, enrapturing isness -- to the abstract general? How can we grasp the thing itself without the intrusion of the transformational I?

Silence and speech: These are the mutually annihilating qualities that define our humanness.

"Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate?" asks Rilke in the Ninth Duino Elegy. And Hirshfield:
I look at my unhandy hand,
Shaped as the hands of others are shaped.
Even the pen it holds is a mystery, really.

Rawhide, it writes,
and chair, and marble.
That is to say, to say. But Rilke adds: "But for saying, remember, oh, for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be."
Praise the world to the Angel, not the untellable; you
can't impress him with the splendor you've felt; in the cosmos
where he more feelingly feels you're only a novice. So show him some simple thing, refashioned by age after age, till it lives in our hands and eyes as a part of ourselves.
Tell him things.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A close shave?

Newton said: "Nature spurns the pomp of the superfluous."

It is a concise summation of Ockham's razor, and if anyone wielded the razor to good effect it was Newton. In one broad swipe he united planets, comets, tides, cannon shots, and apples falling from trees. A few sweet, spare equations. No feathers, no frills. No pomp and circumstance.

I can't remember the name of the professor who taught my graduate course in classical mechanics. But I remember the course vividly. Like a textbook on the blackboard. 1.0, 1.01, 1.02, 2.0, 2.01, 2.02, 2.03, 2.031… Exquisitely organized. Not a superfluous mark of chalk. As spare and essentially furnished as a monk's cell.

As I started teaching, I emulated my professor. I wanted my students to appreciate the way nature could accomplish her manifest ends with a minimum of tools. And so my courses unfolded with an admirable economy, and the students transcribed the notes from the blackboard with the same unblinking fidelity with which I had done so in graduate school. I spurned the superfluous.

They were beautiful courses, if I don't say so myself.

But meanwhile I was changing. I was beginning to doubt Newton's dictum. Nature seemed to love the pomp of the superfluous. Everywhere I looked there was excess, baroque frills -- feathers, finery, variety. Out of sparseness, nature contrives inexhaustible pomp. Where sparrows would do, she adds herons, and nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers, and a rainforest full of species I have never heard of. Her innovations are prodigious.

And slowly my understanding of myself as a teacher began to change. More in line with Booker T. Washington: "Without pay or little thought of it, I taught anyone who wanted to learn anything I could teach him." Classical mechanics, yes. But nuthatches too. Stars and sand. Dark matter and zodiacal light. Spider silk and silken words. Always trying to stay a few steps ahead of my students, saying: "Look, look, look."

Should I have spurned the superfluous? Or was I right to embrace the pomp? My life was richer because of the latter, but my appreciation of nature's fecundity was stiffened by beginning with the former. How my students' lives were affected is for them to say.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


On this Thanksgiving Day, thanks to Anne, for her weekly gifts of art (click to enlarge). And Tom, for inspiring this online journal ten years ago, and making it work.

And especially, thanks to all of you on the porch -- for your wisdom, intelligence, civility and sense of fun.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Criteria for truth

The physicists and cosmologists tell us that the universe consists of 5% ordinary matter (the kind of stuff your chair is made of), 27% dark matter (massy stuff of a yet undetermined nature), and 68% dark energy (also yet unidentified). Dark matter and dark energy are hypothesized to exist because of their apparent effects on luminous objects -- stars and galaxies.

Which is to say, most of what is is invisible.

It's sort of like hypothesizing the existence of poltergeists to account for moving candlesticks.

With a difference. Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) and axions -- the two strongest contenders for dark matter -- will only be admitted to the realm of the real if they can be empirically detected. In both cases, this requires a rather heroic experiment. You can be sure that physicists are doing their best to make the supposed culprits reveal themselves. There are reports on the current state of affairs in the 1 November issue of Science.

Some folks would say that the difference between WIMPs or axions and poltergeists are not as great as I make them out to be. OK, the candlestick moved, but what about the neighbor who reported hearing a spooky sound the same evening, or the "ghost-buster" (reasonable fees) who claims to have captured an aura on his infrared camera? Doesn't that count as empirical verification?

Not quite. Every claim for detection of a WIMP or axion will (or has been) subjected to repeated scrutiny. Every claim must be reproducible by believers and skeptics alike. Consensus is the goal. When the WIMP champions concede to the axioners, or vise versa, then we'll begin to say that nature is revealing the real.

Tentatively. And in the meantime, physicists and cosmologists work to make the bonds that hold experiment and theory together as resilient as possible.

These are constraints that poltergeists – or UFOs, or astrology, or ESP, or petitionary prayer -- have yet to meet.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Memento mori

I read in the paper this morning that a Body Worlds exhibit is opening for the holiday season at Boston's Quincy Market, ground zero for family shopping and tree lighting ceremonies, This is one of those exhibits of flayed and displayed real human cadavers, in lifelike poses, showing muscles, tendons, blood vessels, nerves, organs, bones, and so on, all preserved in infused plastic. Real human corpses. It all seems a little incongruous, with sleighbells ringing and children singing and Santas going Ho, Ho, Ho. Plasticized cadavers and body parts have previously been exhibited at The Museum of Science, which seems a more appropriate venue, but what do I know.

All of which reminds me of an essay in the most recent New York Review of Book on "Man vs. Corpse" by the author Zadie Smith. Smith tries to imagine herself as a corpse and admits failure. "Death is what happens to everyone else..." Oh, we read about mountains of corpses every day: typhoons, tsunamis, collapsing facories in Bangladesh, car bombs in Baghdad, poison gas in Syria. That's them, not me, says Zadie. Even when death strikes closer to home, we tend to shun the corpse and speak of "the dearly departed." Smith has a hard time imaging herself either as a slab of rotting meat or dearly departed for some more permanent shore.

At one point in her essay, Smith make reference to this 1542 portrait by Titian of twelve-year-old Ranuccio Farnese, scion of a famous Italian family (click to enlarge). She writes:
To look into the tender, unformed face…and see a boy whose destiny it was to become a corpse! And this despite his red doublet's intricate embroidery, the adult sword hung about his narrow hips, the heavy weight of inheritance suggested by that cloak his father surely insisted he wear…All the signs of indelible individuality are here, yet none sufficient to stop the inevitable.
Ah, yes. A twelve-year-old boy. Those were the days. Still supported by parents but with the freedom to roam. Feeling the incipient stirrings of sexuality, but not yet faced with any of the complications. And nary a thought of mortality. Who can imagine this boy's sweet, confident face putrefying in the grave?

As it happened, Runuccio died at the young age of 35, which was not unusual for his time. He was created a Cardinal at age 15, a Prince of the Church. I can't speak for his virtues or vices. But inevitable "corpsification," as Smith calls it, can focus a mind on how to live a life "worthy of an adult," as Smith would have it: more present, more mindful of ourselves, and of others.

Monday, November 25, 2013

In search of the sacred

Forty-four years ago, I was camping with my young family (wife, three kids, Tom not with us yet) in our VW camper with the pop-up roof at the base of a solitary mountain in Finland, somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. The mountain was described in the guidebook as "the sacred mountain of the Lapps."

Even then, I was searching for the scared, for some whiff of the transcendent. How could I resist the "sacred mountain of the Lapps." Leaving the family snug in the VW, I set off up the mountain in a cold mist. It wasn't a high mountain and didn't take long to reach the top. As I recall, there was a big cairn at the summit, and what appeared to be an alignment of stones, enough to satisfy my sense of having discovered something holy. I sat there until my fingers and toes went numb with cold, then brimming with pantheistic conceits, turned back down the track.

Half-way to the base, I met a family of Lapps -- a middle-aged couple and their pre-teen child -- climbing the mountain in Sunday clothes and dress shoes. They wore no sign of traditional dress except for a multicolored woven ribbon in the child's cap. They were up from Helsinki, the man told me, for a visit to the ancestral homeland. We chatted for a few minutes. The couple spoke perfect English.

"How much farther to the top?" asked the gentleman.

"You're only half-way up," I replied.

Tottering in her high heels on the loose stones, the woman gave her husband of look of perfect pain. "Oh, shit," she said. "I told you we should have gone to the Riviera."

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thank goodness

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours -- a Saturday reprise

I have often written here before about the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. How could I not be drawn into his orbit? A very Catholic poet. Catholic in temperament, in his sacramental attachment to nature, in his intuition of "inscape." It was this that no doubt drew him to the Church.

His God showed himself everywhere, flashing out of a leaf or hill or starscape "like shining from shook foil." But his was a silent God, who revealed himself teasingly in shimmers of radiance, then retreated into a cold aloofness. Oh, how Hopkins wanted assurance, to put his hand into the wound, to be relieved of his aching existential loneliness.

He needed a lover, God or man.
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
Who has ever written a more heartrending evocation of the night terrors that come to everyone who seeks the unseekable, who loves the elusive, who longs for the unapproachable lover's touch?

I will leave it to others more knowledgeable than me to decide if Hopkins was clinically bipolar. I think he was just a lonely introspective genius with an abiding sense of the mystery of things, who was prevented by his own scrupulosities (and British law) from acting on his homoerotic impulses. He gambled that God would provide a solace for his loneliness, only to discover that the Creator of the Universe makes an unresponsive bedfellow.

Like John Donne before him, Hopkins plowed the ground between the sacred and the profane. He was not as successful as Donne at keeping those two balls in the air at the same time. Donne, at least, had no reluctance to act on his erotic inclinations.

The tragedy of Hopkins is that his deepest intuitions were that the sacred and profane are one, but he was never able to reconcile them in his own mind, no doubt because of the fierce strain of philosophical dualism in Catholic Christianity -- natural/supernatural, matter/spirit, body/soul -- a bipolar theology that tore his soul apart.

Hopkins was a religious naturalist caught in a transcendent deity's terrifying grip. "God's most deep decree/ Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me."

(This post originally appeared in November 2010.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Who could be against solar energy? I mean, it's the original story. Green plants have been doing it since time immemorial. All life on Earth uses solar energy (or almost all).

Here we are on a nice little planet near a big, hot, raging furnace, so let's suck up some of that energy, directly, sunlight to electricity. Solar energy is clean. Getting cheaper. No noise. No smoke. No greenhouse gases. Bring it on!

What’s not to like? ? (We will ignore for the moment the environmental costs of manufacturing and installation.)

Uh oh. What's that going on in the big open field on the west side of the campus, across the highway and behind Facilities Management? That beautiful open space I often walked on my way to and from the campus? A glorious meadow has given way to a sea of pedestals. Photoelectric panels will be coming soon. Acres fenced off.

The meadowlarks are long gone. The monarchs are passing too. Now one more patch of green space is given over to technology. From a nature lover's point of view, one might as well have paved the field with asphalt.

I can't help but feel a twinge of sadness.

But I bite my lip and accept. One can't be for clean energy and wish it all in someone else's field. One can't enjoy a long hot shower every morning and ignore where the energy is coming from. If we want automobiles and airplanes and air conditioning and plastics, we are inevitably forced to choose among energy options, none of which is attractive.

And so my "one mile walk through the universe" now embraces another cosmic story. Nuclear fusion at the core of the Sun and long hot showers for a few thousand college students.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Speaking of mathematics

My father spent his adult life as a mechanical engineer. Here is a picture (thanks Tom) of Dad graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The young woman with him is his sweetheart from across the street in Chattanooga, soon to be his bride, later my mother.

For most of his engineering career, Dad did quality control for the American Lava Corporation, makers of electrical insulators, making of himself something of a pioneer in his field. Retiring at age 60, he took a job at Chattanooga's Notre Dame High School as plant manager and teacher of geometry. This last was dear to his heart.

I have enough of his genes and nurture to know why. Geometry -- yes, high-school geometry -- is a beautiful subject. "Beauty bare," Edna St. Vincent Millay called it. Begin with the obvious and unwrap the wonderful. The subject, of course, began with Euclid, whose book on geometry is still worth reading. Only a century ago Euclid's text was still used in schools. As an adult, I once worked my way through Book I of The Elements, which begins with ten presumably self-evident Postulates and Common Notions (e.g. "If equals are added to equals the wholes are equal."), and ends with Proposition 47, the mystically amazing and not-at-all-obvious Pythagorean Theorem.

Dad wanted to write a plane geometry textbook for high school students. He started with the definition of a point. That was as far as he got. Cancer had a point to make, and the point was final.

His life was Euclidean, in a way. It began with certain givens, axioms and common notions, nature and nurture (the sorts of things apparent in the photographs from Aunt Charlotte that Tom has digitized), then unfolded with a kind of mathematical inevitably. Each event followed from the ones before. He never went off the rails. He never rolled the dice.
         Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once and only then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Surfaces and depths

After reading the comments yesterday, I e-mailed John and asked if he would like to contribute a few words of explication. He replied:
I first became aware of Costa's Minimal Surface when it was mentioned in a book I was reading by Shing-Tung Yau, a past winner of the Fields medal [an international prize for outstanding discoveries in mathematics]. I didn’t understand much of the book. My family give me these tomes to read knowing they’ll keep me quiet for a long time. However, I did know enough to know that his mention of ‘a new embedded surface’ sounded like subject matter for me. This set me on a long journey trying to understand what was happening to this stretching of a torus about three puncture holes. At first glance, the description of what was happening seemed simple enough, though the math was way above my head. I spent the next twelve months or more mentally pulling, pushing, and twisting this doughnut until finally I was able to construct a 3D drawing on my Mac. I gave it some artistic interpretation. I had to. Costa threw the puncture holes out to infinity and infinity tends to use up a lot of costly material and is difficult to get out of the studio door. Anyway, it’s now just about done. Let’s see what my family give me to read this coming Christmas.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I have introduced you before to my friend the sculptor John Holstead, a Yorkshireman transplanted to Kerry. You will know by now that he is fascinated by the idea of representing abstract mathematical and scientific ideas as three-dimensional sculptures. These hugely complex pieces he conceives and designs on the computer, then builds from lamina, hand-shaped and polished -- a hugely labor intensive task.

You have seen his work here, here, and here.

John has just sent me a photo of his latest work as it nears completion, a piece inspired by a mathematical discovery known as Costa's minimal surface. I had never heard of Costa's minimal surface (you can look it up on Wikipedia), and have no idea how John came to know about it, but it's clearly right down his alley.

As I've suggested before, when I see John rasping away in his workshop, I figure that's about as close an image as I'll ever get to the biblical Creator or the Platonic demiurge crafting a universe based on mathematical laws that he understands and leaves for the rest of us to discover.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Finders and seekers

Religious persons can be divided into two categories: finders and seekers.

Finders are focused on dogma, scriptures, revelation. Finders emphasize belonging to a community of like-minded believers. Finders are institutional and hierarchical. Finders are evangelical.

Seekers search inward, as well as outward. Seekers are eclectic in their associations and value diversity. Seekers are loners and levelers. Seekers are less interested in the destination than the journey. Seekers are silent.

The God of finders hears and answers prayers. He is knowable and approachable.

The god of seekers is hidden, revealing himself/herself/itself in fleeting glimpses, out of a pregnant darkness.

Finders are comforted by certainty.

Seekers are ravished by mystery.

The attitude of a finder to her God is obedience.

The attitude of a seeker to her god is awe.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

On the seashore

Instead of the usual Saturday reprise, I'll share with you this morning some real science, by daughter Maureen.


Friday, November 15, 2013

L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle

The poem I shared the other day, "First Frost," employed the rhyme scheme known as terza rima, first used by Dante in The Divine Comedy (ABA, BCB, CDC, etc.). Imagine keeping to so rigorous a design for so long a poem! Easier, I suppose, in Italian, with all those lines ending in -i or -o, than in English. The only English translation I'm familiar with that tries to conform to the original scheme is Robert Pinsky's Inferno; a stunning achievement, even through Pinksy's consonantal rhymes are not as exact as Dante's.

What brings me to Dante this morning? This photograph of a trio of galaxies in the constellation Draco (click to enlarge). It has been on my desktop for a few weeks, begging for comment.

What are we looking at? An edge-on galaxy, an elliptical galaxy, and a face-on spiral, all about 100 million light-years away. Each galaxy contains tens or hundreds of billions of stars. Nothing of what you see in the photo is visible to the naked eye. The photo covers a part of the sky that would be easily covered by the Moon. Most of the objects in the frame are stars in our own galaxy, foreground stars, hot blue stars and cooler red ones. But if you look closely, some of the dots -- the blurrier or elongated ones -- are other galaxies, far beyond the trio.

Three galaxies, three depths of field. A deep, deep pool of night that only the telescope lets us see. The telescope is our Beatrice, out guide to the celestial realms, our Paradiso. What Dante was for his 13th-century contemporaries, giant instruments on Earth and in space do for us.

But who pays attention? Who thinks deeply or long about what these celestial visions mean? Dante gave expression to a world view that encompassed heaven and hell and everything in between. Where is our Dante who will embrace the galaxies, seamlessly with the human heart? Where is the poet who will make us feel at home among the myriads of worlds?

Perhaps it's not possible. Perhaps the source of our ennui is the impossibility of feeling at home in the universe of the galaxies. I choose to think it is possible. Or at least that we have a moral obligation to try. Dante too balked at the challenge of describing what he had seen in the heavens:
O how scant is speech, too weak to frame my thoughts.
Compared to what I recall my words are faint --
to call them little is to praise them much.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Knowing and praising

Before I leave Margaret Atwood and her latest volume of poetry, let me take note of a poem called "Reindeer Moss On Granite." She is observing a cluster of lichen on an outcrop of rock, and writes:
They send up their little mouths
on stems, red-lipped and round,

each one pronouncing the same syllable,
o, o, o, like the dumbfounded
eyes of minnows.
A single sentence plucked from the poem. Even if one has no idea what she is talking about, the lilt of the sentence pleases, which is what poetry is supposed to do. Every word takes note of every other. The poet is praising, in lyrical language, and we are always grateful for praise.

But what is she praising? This is where knowing matters.

Many years ago as a young prof, I set myself the task of teaching myself each semester one aspect of the natural history of our 800-acre campus: birds, trees, wildflowers, fungi, geology, and so on. Perhaps my favorite semester was devoted to lichens, and among the lichens, none were more engaging than the ground lichens: British soldiers, pink earth lichen (I call it bubble-gum lichen), pixie cups, and reindeer lichen (sometimes called reindeer moss). Tiny, faerie-like, one might tramp right over them without noticing, but get down on one's knees and one enters a pixie kingdom. You can see a couple of nice photos here.

And now you know, if you didn't already, about those little mouths, red-lipped and round, and those bubbled syllables o, o, o.

Between knowing and praising there need be no seam. Between science and poetry there need be no seam. Knowing is always the best springboard for praise.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The god of hinges

OK, I suppose this is poetry week. I'm reading the prolific novelist/poet Margaret Atwood's most recent volume of verse, The Door.

Atwood is almost my age, and I resonate with these poems. The door of the title could be any one of several doors that come with our age. The door of memory that opens and closes on the past. The door of insight that in its opening and closing provides glimmers of retrospective understanding. Or, yes, the door of death that opens and shuts to take one by one our friends and lovers.
The door swings open,
you look in:
why does this keep happening now?
Is there a secret?
The door swings closed.
There was a time, of course, when the door swung wide and gave unimpeded vistas on the future. One hardly noticed there was a door at all. Only ten years ago, when I began this on-line journal, the doors were all still permanently ajar. A stanza from another of Atwood's poems:
It must have been an endless
breathing in: between
the wish to know and the need to praise
there was no seam.
Now, ten years on, the wish to know has diminished. Science is no longer as prominent a theme here as it was then. The need to praise, however, has grown stronger. I sit in a storehouse of reliable knowledge, accumulated over a lifetime, and I am not so interested in those pallets of adamantine facts as in nuance, ephemera, gossamer. It's the fragile threads that seem important now, the gauzy web of relationships that holds a life together. A door opens, a door shuts. A whiff of nostalgia, a hint of understanding.
The door swings open:
O god of hinges,
god of long voyages,
you have kept faith.
It's dark in there.
You confide yourself to the darkness.
You step in.
The door swings shut.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Metrical poetry is about: breath. Breath as an intake and a flow. Breath as a pattern. Breath as an indicator, perhaps the most vital one, of mood. Breath as our own personal tie with all the rhythms of the natural world, of which we are a part, from which we can never break apart while we live. Breath as our first language.
The first paragraph from Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. I didn't read those words until recently, but I think I've known all along something about what Oliver is saying. My mother was a great fan of metrical verse. She was inclined to recite by heart long snatches of poetry, mostly from schoolbook American poets like Whittier, Riley, Longfellow, Holmes, Dickinson, and Millay. Rhyme for her was as natural as breath. Even as her final breaths were rationed, at age 92, she could be counted on to remember a line of verse.

So I suppose it was natural that when I discovered modern poetry in my thirties, I would be drawn to metrical verse, to poets like Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anthony Hecht and Marianne Moore, and especially to poems like Plath's Pheasant or Moore's The Fish that set themselves exact patterns of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and syllablization that chimed with the rhythms of the natural world. I knew nothing of iambs, trochees, dactyls and anapests, but I was learning to be a naturalist, learning to match my breath to the cadences and pulse of the planet, and was astonished to discover that poets had been doing it all along.

In imitation, for a few years I tried my own hand at it:
First Frost

This morning the radio said to expect
the first frost. Today we will set out
teepees of newspaper to protect

the last tomatoes and the one stout
watermelon still on the vine;
we have no reason to doubt

the weatherman. On the clothesline
a pair of starlings shiver
in white-flecked winter skin,

with scarves of yellow pinfeathers
flared at their necks. The sun,
trailing a dustcloud of grey weather,

rolls south, stuck to the horizon;
we have finished our second cup of tea
and have the breakfast dishes done

by the time it bounces free.
The starlings follow the sun up
to their midday perch in the big tree

on Harlow's hill, each in a wrap
of fall weather, like a melon
rolled up in a cone of newspaper.

Tomorrow there will be frost on the lawn.
We will drink our tea in a slant
of winter light. The starlings will be gone.
Never got past the imitative stage, but, now, many decades on, I continue to learn from poets about breath as "our personal tie with all the rhythms of the natural world." Maxine Kumin, Amy Clampitt, Howard Nemerov, Pattiann Rogers … oh, forget it, there are too many to thank. For every natural science book on my shelves there is a poet.

Monday, November 11, 2013

That astonishing biographer, memory, contrives a life

On one of those perfect Sundays afternoons that characterize the New England autumn he went for a ride in the country on his son's bike. The 10-speed machine was as light as a feather and moved like the wind, unlike the bulky red-and-white Shelby with horn and bell and luggage rack and 3-inch balloon tires that had been his as a boy.

There were fewer hills here than where he had grown up. Still, the years between his son and himself rolled themselves up into knots at the backs of his knees. His shirt was wet with sweat. He thought of turning toward home. Then, as if by a compensating grace, the wind moved to his back and the bicycle seemed to move by itself.

He saw monarch butterflies and monarch-colored meadows pinned against the roadsides by spikes of tall mullein. He saw goldenrods and asters, and walls of pink granite boulders piled high by Yankee farmers when the land was cleared. At the top of a long, gentle slope he stopped to watch a white-fanned mourning dove beat its way up to the branch of an oak. It made a swoosh-swoosh sort of sound that may have come from the bird's throat or from the thrust of its wings as it shoveled the thick air.

He waited until his heart was still. Then he pushed off and plunged on the graphite slide of his son's bike toward the gathering dusk at the foot of the hill. Pebbles leaped into the ditches, trees did handsprings over his head, the ball-bearings spun in their oiled races.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Painting speech

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

"Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will" -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in November 2006.)

That was the title of an article in the March 18 issue of Science. What, I wondered, is experimental philosophy? If it's experimental -- that is, based on reproducible empirical data -- then it's science. And what new, pray, might philosophy -- experimental or otherwise -- have to say about free will?

I read eagerly.

The author begins by saying that most central philosophical problems concerning free will, morality and consciousness are notorious for their resilience, many of them stretching back to the earliest days of philosophy. In this he is certainly correct. In more than two thousand years, philosophy has contributed precisely nothing to the problem of free will, except to state the problem: Are our actions free or determined, and is freedom necessary for moral culpability?

So what might this new discipline -- experimental philosophy -- contribute?

I quote at random: "According to one hypothesis, the internal motoric signals that cause behavior also generate a prediction about imminent bodily movement, and this prediction is compared to the actual sensory information of bodily motion. If the predicted movement confirms to the sensory information, then one gets the feeling of agency; otherwise the movement is likely to feel involuntary."

Or: If I feel like an action was free, then I think it was free.

At least, I think that's what it means.

In general, this rather long article says virtually nothing about free will. Rather, it compiles data -- using the methods of the social sciences -- on what people think about freedom and moral responsibility. Whether you call this "experimental philosophy" or "experimental psychology" probably depends on which academic department you're employed by.

Anyway, back to the "problem". If I choose at this moment to kick the cat, is that action intrinsically free, or is it determined by some accumulative chain of cause and effect -- including prior mental states -- over which some hypothesized autonomous "self" has no control? And, if the latter, am I morally responsible for my action?

No one knows the answer to the first question. Whatever concantations of causality may determine my conscious actions is far too complex to be amenable -- at this point in time -- to experimental analysis. An outside observer cannot predict with certainty whether or not I will kick the cat, even if that action is in fact entirely determined. There are simply too many undetermined variables. Massively complex causal determination is not what philosophers traditionally meant by free will, but it is indistinguishable from what philosophers traditionally meant by free will. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then -- for all practical purposes -- it's a duck.

And the second question? Moral responsibility is a social construct, not a scientific hypothesis. Humans discovered long ago that living peaceably in groups required a notion of individual responsibility. Responsibility implies freedom, real or effective. Society negotiates responsibility.

If there is such a thing as "experimental philosophy," problems of free will, consciousness and morality are presently beyond its reach. Lots more groundwork will need to be done -- in neurobiology, artificial intelligence, and so on -- before these perennial problems are tractable to experimental solution.

Friday, November 08, 2013

The delicious toy

Found this drawing by Jean Cocteau folded into an old journal. The title, as I recall, is Le Jouet Délicieux, "The Delicious Toy." I can't recall why I saved it. It was a long time ago. From the date of the journal, it would have been at a time in my life when I was discovering the magic of language. I suppose the "toy" might represent creativity of any sort. The gift of fantasy. Of making the imagined real.

The toy is invaluable in science and in art. An apple falls from a tree, the moon is in the sky; Isaac Newton puts his toy to his lips and speaks the Principia. Van Gogh perceives a field of golden wheat; he lifts his toy and speaks a fluttering of terrible black crows. Cocteau breaths into his toy a fluttering of lovers.

Every 14-year-old wants one, or at least they did in my generation. Perhaps in this generation too, although it sometimes seems that all they want is a smart-phone. Will the young social media junkies, obsessively attached to their electronic toys, turn dreams into science and art, fantasies into passion?

Thursday, November 07, 2013

November bloomer

A spray of gold against a grey November sky! It's the witch hazel, that most untypical tree, bursting riotously into bloom when everything else is closing down, thumbing its nose at impending winter.

None of my botanical handbooks explain why the witch hazel blooms in October and November, even as its leaves are falling to the ground. Where are the insects that will pollinate the blossoms? Donald Stokes, who has written a wonderful book on wild shrubs and vines, tells of watching witch hazel in bloom and seeing no visitors but ants. Thoreau records in his journal the visit of a bee to one of these late-blooming trees. Perhaps the witch hazel is nature's "all-night cafe," where the few insects of early winter can find a bite to eat when the regular establishments are closed. The tree has these late-season customers all to itself.

In any other season witch hazel would be inconspicuous. "Witch" in the tree's name may derive from the Old English wych, meaning "weak." The tree is not much more than a sprawling shrub and its blossoms are unkempt tangles of scraggly ribbons. But even this anemic display of color is welcome. Stubbornly out of step with the seasons, the witch hazel is a touch of spring in cruel November, a touch of birth in death. Thoreau, with customary transcendence, called the witch hazel thicket "a faery place . . . a part of the immortality of the soul."

The Halloween-blooming witch hazel is certainly a bewitching tree. Its sorcery cheered my spirits when I saw that yellow thicket at the edge of the woods. Any tree that puts on such a springlike show on the cusp of winter deserves the admiration of all of us who have entered the autumn of our lives.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The ultimate citadel of humanism

Here I go again. It seems lately that these posts drift more and more toward memoir, toward summing up, toward drawing together the raveled treads of a life. What started almost ten years ago as a continuation of my 20 years of science essays in the Boston Globe -- essays that aspired toward a spritely objectivity -- has become willy-nilly an exercise in self-indulgence. That so many of you have stayed for the ride suggests, I hope, that we share certain life-experiences, and that together we articulate a Tao, a way, a common aspiration to "ironic tenderness."

Here is another kind of summing up, one of Rembrandt's many self-portraits, this one painted in 1660, at age 53, towards the end of the artist's life. Its permanent home is Kenwood House in London. (Click to enlarge.)

I could say something here about silence and ironic tenderness. The painting embodies silence, yet speaks volumes about the inextricable tangles of the human condition. But I don't need to say anything. It has already been said by the writer John Fowles on the last page of his own summing-up novel, Daniel Martin, in a passage I copied into my journal sometime back in the late 1970s.

Daniel Martin, the novel's protagonist, has wandered into Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath and finds himself transfixed by the Rembrandt self-portrait:
He could see only one consolation in those remorseless and aloof Dutch eyes. It is not finally a matter of skill, of knowledge, of intellect; of good luck or bad; but of choosing and learning to feel. Dan began at last to detect it behind the surface of the painting; behind the sternness lay the declaration of the one true marriage in the mind mankind is allowed, the ultimate citadel of humanism. No true compassion without will, no true will without compassion.
After a lifetime of relationships, Dan is about to reunite with Jane, the one true love of his life. It is interesting that Fowles uses the word "compassion" rather than "love." It is, of course, what one sees in Rembrandt's face: compassion. Something that springs from somewhere deeper within than love. One can love ice cream; one does not feel compassion for ice cream. Love makes a Hollywood blockbuster; compassion makes a life.

So that, it seems, is what it was all about -- the years, the inextricable tangle. Not skill, knowledge, or intellect, such as they were, but the quiet resolution we see in those soulful Rembrandt eyes. Love happens. Compassion is willed.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Tenderness and silence

It's been a long, long time since I read Justine, the first volume in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandrian Quartet, but one phrase sticks in my mind. As I recall, Justine, the woman with whom the narrator is having an affair, is questioning him as to why he doesn't take seriously their friends' philosophical conversations. You always sit there smiling, she chides, or something to that effect. He tells her that anyone who takes really seriously the inextricable tangle of human thought can only respond with "ironic tenderness and silence."

What she took as condescension or disinterest was actually bemused detachment.

The more passionately the friends debated politics, religion, human relationships, the meaning of it all, the more they became attached to fragments of the whole. The more they saw clarity, the more they missed nuance. The more they corralled truth into mutually exclusive categories, the more the oneness of things escaped their grasp.

I didn't sufficiently appreciate this thought when I was a young man. Perhaps I still don't. The fact that I am writing these posts is an offense against silence, but hopefully they embrace a certain ironic tenderness.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Eyes on ISON

About this time last year the excitement was building that a comet discovered in September 2012 might grow in brightness to become "the Comet of the Century." It was dubbed Comet ISON because it was discovered with a telescope belonging to the International Scientific Optical Network, in Russia. At the time of discovery, it was out beyond the orbit of Jupiter, diving towards the inner Solar System, scheduled for a close approach to the Sun on November 28 of this year.

A month ago, on its inward dive, it passed very close to the orbit of Mars, and Mars just happened to be at that very place in its orbit. Lucky Martians. This past weekend ISON skimmed very close to the Earth's orbit, but we were a quarter of our orbit away. ISON continues to fall Sunward, gathering speed, to zip around the Sun on November 28. If ISON is going to put on a spectacular show, it will be in the week or two that follows.

Alas, I won't be arriving on my dark, mostly cloudless island, with its unimpeded view of the horizons, until December 16. And a full Moon on the 17th.

After its Sun-grazing perihelion, Comet ISON will begin its climb back into the cold, dark attic of the Solar System, making its closest approach to Earth on December 26 (although 40 million miles away), and no doubt fading fast. It will then be high in the northern sky, in the constellation Draco.

Comet of the Century, or a dud? And why, oh why, will I not be at Starlight House, sitting on the warm, dark terrace, as ISON does its screaming roller-coaster loop around the Sun?

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Serve happiness

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Discorruption -- a Saturday reprise

The great foundational poem of religious naturalism is Walt Whitman's I Sing the Body Electric. Not for the first time, of course, but for the first time with a modern voice, a poet sings of the material soul. How long we labored in the Judeo-Christian West with a distrust of the body, seeing in it something verminous and corruptible. How long we dreamed of flying free of the blood and visera and foul excretions -- the immaterial soul like a whiff of luminous vapor, ascending.
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws and jaw hinges...
All those centuries that we lived in cloaks of flesh that dissolved with disease into oozing pustules and suppurating sores. Limbs thinned and belly bloated with hunger. Eyes that ran dark with effluents. Diarrhea.
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean...
Bleeding, leeching, trepanation. The mortal danger of childbirth. The paralyzing pain of cancer. Toothache, nearly continuous. Who would choose to go back to the days before the advent of modern medical science, when the only thing that made physical existence bearable was the dream of leaving bone and sinew behind?
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you and me...
The gifts of modern medicine, sanitation engineering, agronomy. And with them, for the first time in history, the body rises up and claims its own, dispels the phantasm of the immaterial soul -- and sings.
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

(This post originally appeared in August 2007.)

Friday, November 01, 2013

We are the consciousness of the universe

The leaves are raked and bagged. The grass is mowed for the last time. The geraniums smile weak goodbyes. Now, as if by some law of compensation, the curtain opens on the sky. The great starless spaces of autumn fall like a black velvet drape into the west. The show opens. The sky begins.

As the Sun sinks beneath the horizon, the Pleiades rise in the east, heralding the arrival of the spectacular winter stars. Aldebaran, the red eye of the Bull. Sirius, the Dog Star. Rigel and Betelgeuse in Orion. Castor and Pollux, the Twins. Old Capella, the She-Goat, with her Kids. And Jupiter, blazing this winter in Gemini, hanging at the zenith like a celestial lamp when I go out to fetch the paper in the pre-dawn dark.

"For one can always watch," said Rilke in the Duino Elegies, "we, spectators always, everywhere, looking at, never out of, everything."

Rainer Maria Rilke turned often to the stars in his poetry. "There, look: the Rider, the Staff, and that fuller constellation they call Fruitgarland. Then, further, towards the Pole: Cradle, Way, the Burning Book, Doll, Window." New, because he newly named them.

When we have stopped watching, stopped naming, then the things of this world will be only their visible selves, said Rilke. The winter stars will be only winters stars. Those most ancient of our household gods, those experienced lights, will have become indifferent. "The most visible joy," he said, "can only reveal itself to us when we've transformed it, within." It is we who must transform the stars. It is we who must give them an invisible reality, beyond the visible. By watching. By naming: Rigel, Betelgeuse, Capella, Aldebaran. They depend upon us, said Rilke, we are their transformers, "our whole existence, the flights and plunges of our love, all fit us for this task."