Sunday, June 30, 2013

Handmaid


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

While I'm on the subject of trees -- a Saturday reprise



...I can't resist sharing one of my favorites, this magnificent copper beech that overspreads the nun's cemetery in the grounds of the Presentation Sisters convent in Dingle, Ireland.

The convent now stands empty, and no one knows quite what to do with it. The chapel is magnificent, lit by gorgeous Harry Clarke stained-glass windows that take one's breath away. But no more sisters. In one memorable year decades ago, my two daughters were taught here by nuns, and splendid women they were too. Today, girls in the Dingle primary and secondary schools are taught by lay people. Generations of Presentation sisters lay sleeping among the roots of the beech, and few young women are enlisting to take their places.

But back to the tree -- which seems to have adapted its form to shade the sleeping nuns -- a cultivated ornamental variety of the common beech, Fagus sylvatica. If oaks are the rugged masculine icons of the forest, the beeches, with their elegance and smooth skin, have something decidedly feminine about them. Not the spritely femininity of a young girl, but the stately solemnity of a Queen Mother. Just as when one enters a medieval cathedral one senses the predominant spirit of the Virgin, rather than her God-Son, so when one enters a beech grove one feels the spirit of the ancient Mother-goddess of European forests, here in Ireland called Mor-Rioghna, the earthy feminine counterpart of the Sun-deity.

Yes, I'm anthropomorphizing, but why not? Metaphor is one of the ways we bind the world together, solidify our kinship with other creatures. Without some overlay of metaphor this copper beech in the convent garden is just another pretty tree. But as Mor-Rioghna she spreads her purple-green mantle over her sleeping acolytes, women who gave their lives to the teaching of girls, including -- gratefully -- briefly, my daughters.



(Since I wrote this post in June 2007, the convent has been turned into a Center for Irish Spirituality and Culture.)

Friday, June 28, 2013

Church and state


When in 1972 we first came to Ireland to live for a year, my wife brought a year's supply of birth control pills stashed in her carry-on. We knew that in Ireland it was illegal to sell or import contraceptives of any kind, a civil law in conformity with Catholic doctrine that affected Catholics and non-Catholics alike, citizens and tourists.

This was just at the end of the long dominance of President Eamon de Valera and Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid. De Valera imagined the Irish as happy peasants cared for lovingly by Holy Mother Church. McQuaid was there to see that no one, President or peasant, deviated from the dictums of Rome. The only kinds of family planning available were abstinence and the will of God.

McQuaids two great bugaboos were "scientific humanism" and "secular democracy."

The Irish, of course, were neither peasants nor happy, and upon the retirements of De Valera and McQuaid the strictures began to loosen, mainly under the influence of women such as Mary Robinson (later President of Ireland) and Mary Kenny. A 1980 law allowed the dispensation of contraceptives by a qualified pharmacist when prescribed by a doctor. The law was gradually liberalized over succeeding decades. Then came the horrific revelations of widespread, decades-long sexual abuse of children by priests, brothers and nuns, enabled and covered up by the Church. Overnight, the long dominance of the Catholic Church in Irish politics went out the window. Sexual repression and hypocrisy gave way to –- well, to scientific humanism and secular democracy.

And as for condoms -- they are on the supermarket shelves with the toothpaste and deodorants.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A word or two about writing


There's a line from the journals of Katherine Mansfield (from around 1916) that has become something of a staple in writing about writing. As a writer, she tells us, she wants to tell "how the laundry basket squeaked." The point being, I suppose, that if you can get one thing right, you have a chance of getting it all right.

When you think about it, it's a bit of a miracle that these little squiggles on a page can capture and communicate something as elusive as the squeak of a laundry basket. And how will she do it? How will she tell "how the laundry basket squeaked"? Well, she just did it. By putting together three fine words "laundry," "basket" and "squeaked." The phase all by itself has claimed its place in the canon of literature.

The fun of writing is matching words to experience. There are only so many thousands of words in the dictionary, and the world of experience is effectively infinite. But put two, or three, or four words together, and the possible permutations begin to approach the complexity of the world.

Laundry basket squeaked.

The Irish writer Michael McLaverty gave Seamus Heaney a coda to go along with Mansfield's felicitous phrase: "Don't have the veins bulging in your biro." (A biro being a ballpoint pen.) Meaning, don't overwrite. The writing shouldn't get between the reader and the squeak.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Squish


Iris. It lacks only an H to be Irish. Two Hs, actually, and an O.

The yellow iris loves water, and Ireland has lots of that. It hangs in the air. It runs in the ditches. It gathers in the bogs. "The wet centre is bottomless," says Seamus Heaney. The whole island floats like a soggy raft on the billowing Atlantic.

The yellow iris soaks its feet. Here, at the bottom of the muddy bothareen, the water has gathered into a squelchy sponge and the irises have run amok. An acre of irises.

They are beautiful. Yellow flags, they call them here, and forever may they wave. Three gorgeous flopping sepals. Three upright petals, each caressing a sexual spear. And, oh yeah, what appear to be three rather inconspicuous sepals between the bunting. Did I get that right? O say, can you see, by the day's misty light.

Is it a wildflower or a weed? Depends, I suppose, on where you find it. In an Irish ditch it is unmistakably a flower. As a European interloper crowding out native species in North America, it is a weed. I would define a weed as any species of life adapted for prolific colonization of disturbed habitats, often displacing indigenous species. Which, I suppose, makes Homo sapiens the weed par excellence. So we'll cut some slack to the yellow iris.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Battle of Ventry


He was a lusty fellow, Fionn Mac Cumhail (Finn McCool), the leader of the Fianna, the standing army of Ireland. While visiting France, he eloped with both the king's wife and daughter, and hied back to Ireland.

This in about the third century A. D.

The French king, understandably miffed, gathered the support of twenty other kings for an attack on Ireland, including the King of the World, whoever he was. Their gigantic fleet arrived in Ventry Harbor, outside my window. The harbor was choked with vessels.

The Fianna, arms glistening, waited on Ventry Strand.

The battle raged for a year and a day, with many a tale of heroics and breathless romance. Finally, when hardly a man of either side was left standing, and lovers had wooed, Fionn slew the King of the World. Yes, the whole grand saga, the Irish version of Helen and Troy, down there at the bottom of the hill.

I tell the story because I want to share with you a panorama that the students of the village elementary school painted on the wall outside the schoolhouse. They did the painting several years ago, but it is as bright as ever (although a few bushes have grownup in front of it). Herewith, my gift this morning, the Battle of Ventry.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The fourth seal


Immediately, another horse appeared, deathly pale, and its rider was called Plague, and Hades followed at his heels.
It has been nearly 20 years since I read Laurie Garrett's hair-raising The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, a big book, impressively researched by a first-rate science reporter. It was a book that made you want to wear a mask over your mouth and nose, and avoid airplanes and crowded places. Especially airplanes.

Now comes David Quammen with another big book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Another pale horse, another pale rider. Time to break out the masks again?

In between, we had SARS, which infected eight thousand people and killed nearly eight hundred. A 78-year-old Canadian grandmother carried the virus by air from Hong Kong to Toronto. A few weeks later a man with a cough flew from Hong Kong to Beijing. By the time the plane landed, twenty-two other passengers and two crew members were infected. ACHOO!

And I've had a cold since I got off the plane at Shannon nearly two weeks ago.

Colds we aren't worried about, at least not yet. A sniffle isn't going to kill me. Highly lethal viruses, like Ebola, kill off their hosts quickly before the virus can spread too far; the virus is in that sense its own worse enemy. A virus that spreads easily and widely, like flu, sickens its hosts but kills few. The viruses that Garrett and Quammen are worried about find the lethal sweet spot, burning like a slow-moving grass fire, rather than a raging inferno, keeping their hosts alive just long enough to insure transmission.

If a cough or a sneeze is a virus's way of getting around, maybe you could say the same thing for airplanes. Who runs the world anyway? Us? Or the viruses and bacteria? Natural selection does not just work for our benefit.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Guiding wave


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

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Though summer turns to winter -- a Saturday reprise


At the end of A Natural History of Love, Diane Ackerman draws an analogy between the collections of the Natural History Museum in New York, especially an exhibit of glass models of microscopic organisms, and the heart. She writes: "The heart is a living museum. In each of its galleries, no matter how narrow or dimly lit, preserved forever like wondrous diatoms, are our moments of loving and being loved."

And it's true. The memories that are most reliably preserved in my own fading recollections are those related to affairs of the heart. A touch. A smile. A glance across a crowded room. A whispered endearment.

And heartache and heart break, too.

Of course, it has nothing to do with the heart. The heart is down there in the museum basement, with the lungs, stomach and the rest of the machinery -- pumping, burning, keeping the museum warm. The collection galleries are upstairs in the brain, those infinitely mazy corridors, the myriad tendrils reaching out, almost touching, sparks leaping from axon to axon like that archetypical synapse between the fingers of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

I have only the haziest memories of some of the biggest events in my life, but I can remember as if they were preserved in unbreakable glass a first kiss, a glimpse of flesh, a forbidden touch.

Why is that? Is it because the original potentiations of the synaptic connections were stronger? Are memories of the heart preserved in more nonvolatile sectors of the brain? Is there a capacity of the brain assigned to the refurbishment of those memories that assure us we are not alone?

"Ransack the museum of your heart for love-sappiness," says Ackerman, "and you'll find it for sure." And there they are, shelf after shelf of the seemingly inconsequential memorabilia of love.

(This post originally appeared in July 2010.)

Friday, June 21, 2013

As time goes by


Is time something that is defined by the ticking of a cosmic clock, God's wristwatch say? Time doesn't exist except for the current tick. The past is irretrievably gone. The future does not yet exist. Consciousness is awareness of a moment.

Or is time a dimension like space? We move through time as we move through space. The past is still there; we're just not there anymore. The future exists; we'll get there. We experience time as we experience space, say, by looking out the window of a moving train.

Or is time…

Physicists and philosophers have been debating these questions since the pre-Socratics. Plato. Newton. Einstein. Most recently, Lee Smolin. Without resolution.

What makes the question so difficult, it seems to me, is that time is inextricably tied up with consciousness. We won't understand time until we understand consciousness, and vice versa. So far, consciousness is a mystery, in spite of books with titles like Consciousness Explained.

Will consciousness be explained? Can consciousness be explained? If so, will it require a conceptual breakthrough of revolutionary proportions? Or is the Darwinian/material paradigm enough? Are we in for an insight, or for a surprise?

As I sit here at my desk under the hill, looking out at a vast panorama of earth, sea and sky, filled, it would seem, infinitely full of detail, so full that my awareness can only skim the surface, I have that uneasy sense that it's going to be damnably difficult to extract consciousness, as a thing, from the universe in its totality. I think of that word "entanglement," from quantum theory, and I wonder to what extent consciousness is entangled, perhaps even with past and future.

Who knows? Perhaps consciousness, or what I think of as my consciousness, is just a slice of cosmic consciousness, in the same way that the present is a slice of cosmic time. As a good Ockhamist, I am loathe to needlessly multiply hypotheses. But time will tell. Or consciousness will tell. Or something.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Foreground, background


On Sunday, December 23, 1973, as he lay dying of cancer in a hospital bed, my father filled 37 pages of his journal with notes! At 12:05 AM he notes that his face is 12 inches from the side rail of the bed, he hopes for sleep, and his water pitcher is empty. Almost 24 hours later, at 11:58 PM, he records "Chet has gone to the washroom" (it was my turn to spend the night in his room), a "degas" (flatulence), and a drawing of the positions of his legs, rendered with an engineer's precision. In between, 37 pages of mostly trivial details, the sorts of things that are usually the unconscious background of a life. As his foreground life recedes into a fog of pain and medication, the background moves forward. Reading these 37 pages is a reminder of how much our foreground lives are sustained by a background that runs more or less on autopilot.
3:01 AM. Can hand roll both legs to maximum position, 5 degrees from horizontal.
Family. Work. Play. The tastes and aromas of a good meal. The mellow daze that comes with a stiff drink. News, sports, books, entertainment. A pretty woman, or handsome man. Sex. A sunset. A starry night. These are the things that fill our foreground days. The background fades. Heartbeat. Breathing. Digestion. Elimination. All utterly crucial to maintaining the foreground, but they require not a single conscious thought. Until. Until death raps on the door.
7:06 AM. Nurse came in to read temp & pulse. She said "What time do you want me to make your bed?" I told her I could not even think yet.
Our brains are separated from the world by the permeable membrane of our senses. Attention flows outwards. Impressions of the outer world flow inwards. Of this two-way traffic -- attention, awareness -- we create a soul. My father was aware. He paid attention. Everything was of interest. And now pain and immobility had scrubbed away the world out there beyond the membrane. Now everything became focused on what was previously background. Even the marrow in his bones calls out for attention.
10:20 AM. It is quite a feat to log roll whole body from middle of bed to right rail and hold for 2 or 3 minutes then roll back when you are in the UP cycle or DOWN cycle of the "ENERGY CYCLE"
Continuous awareness: It can be exhausting. Which is why, I suppose, we sometimes wish for the mind to go blank, for the windows of the soul to close, for darkness to fall. Fortunately, the one thing we don't have to attend to is awareness itself. The brain does its thing without the least bit of conscious control on our part.
4:04 PM While wait for Up cycle I was rock head side to side. Shooting "pain" in spine right behind navel. I feel sleepy but I am not. Degas.
Continuous awareness when displayed on the screen of a scanning brain monitor can look like a grass fire exploding across a prairie. As I read my father's journals, I know I am in the presence of continuous awareness, but it's an awareness that is profoundly unnatural, inward turning, examining in excruciating detail what shouldn't need examining.
8:28 PM End of energy cycle. Called Mom. Explain next energy cycle to her. Since tomorrow is Christmas Eve Chet will stay with me tonight & Mom tomorrow night.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Morning meditation


Crows roost in the trees of Ballybeg, down there at the bottom of the hill. Their raucous chorus reaches me at my desk, here in my burrow under the gorse. I look out over the parish, and now and then a solitary crow drifts into the frame, riding an uplifting wind, taunting me with its proprietary ownership of the landscape. And I think of Ted Hughes' poem "Littleblood", from that haunting volume Crow:
O littleblood, hiding from the mountains in the mountains
Wounded by stars and leaking shadow
Eating the medical earth.
I'm not sure who or what Littlebood represented in Hughes' imagination, but for me crow, certainly, and his shadows in this landscape, at once thousands of years under human cultivation, still wild and wounded with some more ancient power, as thorny and primal as the gorse.
O littleblood, little boneless little skinless
Ploughing with a linnet's carcase
Reaping the wind and threshing the stones.
I'll spend the next several months beating back the gorse and bracken and bramble and stone and wind and rain that always threatens to engulf the cottage, the singsong of the stars at night, keening.
O littleblood, drumming in a cow's skull
Dancing with a gnat's feet
With an elephant's nose and a crocodile's tail.
That crow out there rising on the wind, the heron and the coal tit, the kestrel and the wren, the blackberries bleeding their August juices into the earth. This land doesn't belong to me. I just roost on it, temporarily, until crow's shadows rise up at night and eat me.
Grown so wise grown so terrible
Sucking death's mouldy tits
I wait. I roost. And as I write a clear blue sky has given way to an all-enveloping cold Atlantic mist that has rolled in through the Windy Pass.
Sit on my finger, sing in my ear, O littleblood.
Sit. Sing.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Good Book


Growing up Catholic, I didn't have much contact with the Bible. I don't recall a Bible in our home, nor did I encounter one in parochial school. Strange, that the foundational document of our faith was so little in evidence, but that's what made us different from the Protestants -- they had the Bible, we had Holy Mother Church.

However, one of my earliest books was a collection of Bible stories -- illustrations on the right, stories on the facing pages. Adam and Eve and the Serpent. Noah and the Ark. David and Goliath. The Parting of the Red Sea. And so on. (Perhaps Anne can help me here, although she was several years younger.) Of course, there was no hint of the murder, rapine, incest and sexual shenanigans of which the Old Testament was so replete. Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, and all that, would be supplied later by Hollywood.

Two stories made a particular impression on my young memory: Abraham's almost sacrifice of his son Isaac, and the wisdom of Solomon. I have a memory of Solomon holding up an infant boy by the leg, a sword in his other hand, and telling the two contending women that they can each have half. At that tender age, I didn't make much of a distinction between Solomon and God, or Abraham and God. The God of the Old Testament was a mean son-of-a–gun, who would as soon slice me down the middle as look at me. There was never a doubt in my mind that Solomon would have done the deed had not one of the women surrendered her claim.

Perhaps the main lesson I got from my Bible stories was just how hard it is to get a Creation right. The first go-around was a botched job. "God saw that the wickedness of man was great," and so he sent a flood to almost erase the board and started over. Things were no better the second time round.

I finally got around to actually reading the Old Testament as an adult, although by that time my understanding of divine revelation had been muddied by the revelations of Hedy Lamarr and Susan Hayward. It made jolly good reading: enough sex and mayhem to keep Hollywood occupied forever. The lesson still seemed to be just how hard it is to make a half-way decent Creation. Even throwing in the New Testament hasn't helped.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Shrinking planet


It takes about an hour, depending on traffic, to get to Boston's Logan Airport from our house in the suburbs. For an international flight, we try to get there a couple of hours early. In Ireland, our home in Ventry is a two-and-a-half-hour taxi ride from Shannon airport. Which means we spend less time in the air crossing the ocean than we do on the ground.

Small world.

The first time I traveled to Europe, in 1968, we went by sea, aboard the U. S. S. United States, which was one of the fastest ocean liners of its time. It took five days. Five sea-sick days in rough seas. As far as I was concerned, it might have been a famine ship. Now, I get on a plane, have a few drinks, a semi-nice meal, a nap, and I'm there. The flight is so short I can almost overlook the fact that we are packed in like African blacks on an 18th-century slaver. The only time I've ever had aspirations to wealth is when I pass those first-class folks sprawled in their spacious recliners.

Small world.

From my window here in Kerry I look out across Dingle Bay to Valentia Island, where the first Atlantic cable came ashore. There is a nice little museum at the old cable station celebrating the event. I think of those dots and dashes zipping back and forth under the sea, connecting Europe and American in a matter of minutes with news of wars and alarms. Dots and dashes. Now I tap "Post" and Mark in Fiji might as well be sitting here in a chair next to me in Ireland.

Small world.

When asked how he stayed married for so long, my father would answer, "Propinquity." We are all "propinked" today, but there is no sign yet that we are destined to live in harmony, or even in mutual tolerance. Still, our little global community here on the porch has been remarkably free of strife, which may offer a slender hope for a peaceable future.

Small world.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The prayer


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

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Grace -- a Saturday reprise


My daughter and granddaughter have been visiting with us on the island for Christmas week. They both have MacBook Airs.

This is one sweet machine, an iconic artifact of our time. My granddaughter takes it as a given -- after all, she grew up wireless. For me, holding the Air in my hands is breathtaking.

In graduate school, I worked on an IBM 1620 and a Univac, computers that had whole rooms to themselves, sucked up huge amounts of power, and were "down" as often as they were "up." A contemporary laptop is a vastly more powerful machine. And the Air, with its flash memory and sleek, minimalist beauty, silently humming away flawlessly day in and day out, well --

I said to my gals, "This is to the Computer Age what the Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale was to the Industrial Revolution."

Huh?

"You were there," I said to my daughter. "I took you there when you were ten years old."


The bridge was built in 1779-81 by the grandson of Abraham Darby, the man who perfected the smelting of iron with coke. Lithe and graceful, it arches the gorge of the River Severn in Shropshire, England, a stunning demonstration of the potential of iron.

The MacBook Air will surely end up in the Museum of Modern Art, if it's not there already. The Iron Bridge is an outdoor museum by itself. The Iron Bridge and the Air -- technological wonders, each a perfect marriage of form and function.

(This post originally appeared in December 2010. I now have my own Mac Air,)

Friday, June 14, 2013

The pushcart


A memory. I am 9 years old. My uncle Buddy, my mother's brother, is 11. Buddy has decided to build a pushcart.

Buddy lives on 9th Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a fine old house that has seen better days. I go there often. Buddy is my hero.

Why a pushcart? Buddy's house is no longer in a fashionable part of town. It backs up on an alley. On the other side of the alley, blacks have taken up residence. Up and down the alley go black men with pushcarts, collecting scrap metal, rags, whatever might make a dime.

Buddy and I are fascinated by the pushcarts. They are dilapidated things, jerry-rigged, rolling along on mismatched wheels. We can do better, we decide.

And so we do. Some boards from the garage. Two wheels off an old bike. We bang it together. We paint it bright colors. It looks swell.

But we are not finished. We collect hundreds of bottle caps. In dozens of hues. We tack them onto the front and sides of our pushcart in glorious, gaudy designs. Our pushcart is a thing of beauty. The pushcart of pushcarts.

We roll it up and down the alley, to downtown and back.

As I recall the episode now, it might seem racist. It was, of course, a racist place and a racist time. But I don't think race had much to do with it, or even class. The intent was not to show up the pushcart men, but to show off. We admired their pushcarts. It was the idea of a pushcart that was our motive. We wanted to perfect the idea. I suppose in some unconscious way we wanted to separate the idea of the pushcart from race, from poverty, from utility. If the blacks we passed took offense at our youthful insensitivity, they had the dignity and grace not to show it.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

ATOD -- Astronomy thrill of the day


This stunning image of the Orion Nebula was an Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) last week. It reminded me of my long and continuing relationship with this cosmic object.

"Object"? Is that the right word for a swirling maelstrom of gas, dust and stars, 40 light-years wide, 1500 light-years away? A stellar nursery! "Object" seems so passive, so final, so -- so, uh, blah. We need another term, something more Blakeian, more incendiary, more theological.

It was my father who first pointed out the Orion Nebula to me, as we stood on the badminton court in the back yard of our house in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was teaching me to recognize the constellation, and helped me to see that the middle "star" in Orion's sword was fuzzy, not a star at all but a bit of hazy luminosity. A nebula! A new word. A new concept. What we saw was just the brightest region of the cloud you see here.

Later, much later, when I finally gained access to a good amateur telescope, it was my turn to share the nebula with students. Through a scope the blur becomes a distinct mass of greenish gas, with four infant stars cradled in the nebula's center like eggs in a nest. "Like eggs in a nest"! How many times did I use that metaphor! How many times did I try to instill a sense of cosmic consciousness. There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who grasp, even dimly, the dimensions of cosmic space and time, and those who don't.

My first book, 365 Starry Nights, was rather prosaic. "There is enough hydrogen, helium, and other materials in the cloud to form at least 10,000 stars similar to our Sun," I wrote, hoping to impress by sheer numbers.

In The Soul of the Night I waxed more poetic, perhaps purple, evoking Moby Dick no less. The nebula was "the face of Leviathan, wrenching us into a space as deep and as terrible as the bowels of the sea. It is God's sturdy hand, the fist that grips us in its clenched infinities. This is the power that hides in the colorless night like the rocks in foaming breakers that crack a ship, or the white whale that drags all who seek him to black oblivion." Whew!

I calmed down for An Intimate Look at the Night Sky, but Orion is on the cover with its winking nebula. It won't leave me alone.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Snakes alive


A week or so ago, still in the U.S., I was swimming with the grandkids in the pool at son Dan's house. And swimming along with us was a snake.

Mind you, this was no anaconda. It was a tiny snake, about ten-inches long and as thin as a shoelace. Still, it was enough to make the kids jump screaming from the pool.

As far as I could recall, I had not seen this species of snake before. It was distinctive: brown with a bright yellow ring around its neck. Easy to identify. I typed "ring-necked snake" into Google and there it was, Diadophis punctatus. Slightly venomous, but non-aggressive and of little threat to humans. Secretive and nocturnal, which probably explains why I had not seen one before. Dan says they occasionally end up in his pool, unable to get out.

We gave it an assist.

The neck ring has a role to play in Diadophis sex, according to Wikipedia: "Once the male finds a female, he starts by rubbing his closed mouth along the female’s body. Then, the male bites the female around her neck ring, maneuvering to align their bodies so sperm can be inserted into the female’s vent."

Why did the kids jump screaming from the pool? No one likes snakes, no matter how small. Or almost no one. Snakes and humans have a long myth-wrapped mutual history, which Ramona and Desmond Morris cataloged nearly fifty years ago in a book called Men and Snakes. Our fear of snakes is deeply cultural; it may even be genetic.

Way back in the mid-17th century, the Italian physician and scientist Francesco Redi wrote a book on vipers. He begins: "Every day I find myself more firm in my intention of not trusting the phenomena of nature if I do not see them with my own eyes and if they are not confirmed by iterated and reiterated experience, since I realize always more what a difficult thing it is to pry into the truth often obfuscated by falsifications." A more apt description of the spirit of the Scientific Revolution could hardly be found.

Redi assembled everything that had previously been written about vipers and subjected that "knowledge" to experimental observation, shredding serpent myths in the process. Most men are sheep, he said, choosing to believe what they have been told is true.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Dear Suzi


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

The sea grows old in it -- a Saturday reprise


The poet, like the electric [lightning] rod, must reach from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects down to the earth, and down to the dark wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures, his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen, and smelled and handled.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ah, Mr. Emerson. This seems about as good a description of poetry as one is likely to find. I love the image. Not a hand reaching up to grasp the hand of Zeus, the hurler of bolts, but merely a pointed rod that reaches higher than any surrounding objects. A pen-point, scratching the firmament. Not a conductor reaching down to the earth, but deeper, into the wet inkpot of the soul.

Not lofty thoughts, airy philosophies, gnostic arcana. Rather, ideas that come wrapped in the stuff of the senses. Ideas that must be unwrapped the way you'd peel an orange, or pry open an oyster, or stir up from the bottom of a bowl of soup.

The electric fire of the heavens captured and stored in the Leyden jar of physical self.

Take, for example, Marianne Moore's The Fish, a poem that has been endlessly analyzed without ever giving up its secrets. Anyone who stands on that rocky shore with the poet, looking into the wave-washed chasm -- the sea as fluid as breath, as hard as a chisel -- takes away a lesson as profound as any one might learn in school, perhaps without being able to articulate exactly what the lesson is. The experience is simply there, to be seen, smelled, handled, in the weave and wave of animal bodies, in the intricate rhyme and syllabication of the poem. Truth -- crow-blue, ink-bespattered, hatcheted, defiant.

I'd go further.

I'd say that Emerson's description of poetry can be equally applied to science, or to any human attempt to attract the spark of Zeus. One must lift one's rod beyond the scratch and tumble of the everyday, while keeping its foot buried in the dark wet soil of lived experience.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Briefly it enters, and briefly speaks


A few months ago, I shared here the so-called Song of Amergin, traditionally the first poem written in Ireland.
I am the wind on the sea,
I am the ocean wave,
I am the sound of the billows,
I am the seven-horned stag…
…and so on. The poem is pre-Christian, druidic, pantheistic. The "I", as I understand it, is the mysterious, all-pervading power afoot in the landscape called neart in Celtic tradition, to which the gods were simply a way of giving a human face. Neart is unknown and unknowable, but sensed everywhere. The "I", as I read the poem, is also the reader (or auditor!) of the poem, the human perceiver who is at one with all that exists.

Yesterday I came across a poem by Jane Kenyon, who I have written about here, that seems to be in conscious homage to The Song of Amergin.
I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper. . . .

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me. . . .

I am food on the prisoner's plate. . . .

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden. . . .
…and so on. You can read the entire poem here.

Here, too, I think, is the ambiguous "I" -- the pantheistic neart, the poet, and the reader of the poem. This is what we all seek, is it not? A sense that everything is holy, and that we are inexplicably part of it, even in a world that is sometimes broken and painfully cruel.


(Reprise tomorrow, Anne on Sunday. On Monday I will be off to Ireland. Back here I hope on Wednesday.)

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Belief and faith


Last week, T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, had an op-ed in the New York Times called "Belief Is the Least Part of Faith." She is the author of a recent book on American evangelicals.

Here again is someone making a distinction I have a hard time grasping: the difference between belief and faith.

It is a version, I suppose, of Pascal's wager: I don't know whether God exists or not, but I choose to live as if he does because the risk of not believing -- eternal hell-fire -- is too great.

Luhrmann's evangelicals, she says, have faith for practical reasons. It makes them part of a group, bigger, better, more alive, p art of something greater than themselves. "You don't go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church."

She speaks of one evangelical woman who chooses "to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there."

I can't speak for evangelicals, but this is not so different from the distinction I have sometimes made here between agnostic Catholics and Catholic agnostics: those who foreground faith over belief, and those who give primacy to belief (or the lack of it) over faith.

I have many friends who count themselves faithful practicing Catholics who weave and dodge when confronted with the doctrines of their faith -- the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, the immortality of the soul, and so on. They have faith; they say the Creed without batting an eye. Belief -- well, let's not go into that. Agnostic Catholics, I call them. Faith submerges doubt.

I have sometimes called myself a Catholic agnostic. Catholic, culturally, by virtue of having been brought up in that faith and having spent my life in a Catholic milieu. But I can't separate belief and faith. Perhaps it's my scientific training, but I can't have faith in what I don't believe, no matter the practical benefits. Truth is not subject to an act of the will.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

A garden of earthly delights


A few weeks ago, Paul drew our attention to a rather unusual "flower garden," seen here on the cover of Science (click to enlarge). Not flowers at all, but non-living crystals, micrometers in size, grown in solution and here colored artificially by computer to more dramatically resemble flowers. This whole garden would fit on the period at the end of this sentence. These, and other crystalline forms, can be rationally grown by changing such parameters as pH level, temperature, and carbon-dioxide concentration.

Neat, but nothing compared to what nature does all on her own.

Consider the foraminifera (forams), tiny amoeboid creatures that live mostly in sea-floor sediments. They construct a bewildering variety of shells, typically sub-millimeter in size. You can see a photographic atlas of foraminifera here, on my daughter's web site.

For much of her research into past climates, Mo has relied upon sediment "cores" pulled up from the bottom of the sea. These are typically full of fossil forams whose forms, colors and composition contain multiple clues to the conditions in the sea (and by extension, the atmosphere) when the forams were alive. I previously wrote about one such exercise here.

As sea-floor sediments accumulate, they gather and bury a history of the Earth, page by page, reaching millions of years into the past.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Shank's mare


For many years, towards the end of my teaching career, I offered a course called The Naturalist. We never met in a classroom, unless it was raining. We availed ourselves of the wonderful natural environments of the Stonehill campus. We walked. We learned what we could of plants, animals, geology, sky. We read the works of celebrated nature writers. And we wrote. Small classes, limited to a dozen students, all self-motivated. I won't speak for the students, but I learned a lot. Nothing like smart young people to keep one on one's toes.

At the end of each class, we published a journal of nature writing, called Terraforma, featuring something from every student. It's been ten years now since I retired and our final offering.

Well, this past semester a new young professor named Stephen Siperstein offered a course in Nature Writing and revived Terraforma. It was lovely to see it resurrected from oblivion. And lovely too to see that the young writers are as talented as ever.

Let me comment on just one of the contributions: an essay on walking. Specifically, different tempos of walking. Swaying. Scurrying. Ambling. Skulking. Running. Tripping. Meandering. Wandering. Standing. The author gives each its due. As I read, it was hard not to think of Thoreau, who was a connoisseur of walking. He wrote about it, of course. He practiced it as a fine art. He skulked. He ambled. He sauntered. In the time it would take him as a laborer to earn the fare to Fitchburg on the railroad, he could walk the distance. And he did. Enjoying every footstep of the way.

Keep walking Casey. It's not just transportation. It's education.

Monday, June 03, 2013

On the river


There was wind in the willows as the Water Rat and the Mole rowed their boat along the river. They were on their way to visit Toad of Toad Hall.

"It been a long time since we've seen Toady," said the Rat.

"It's been a long time since I've seen any toad," observed the Mole.

"Whatever can be the problem?" wondered the Rat.

"Or frogs. Or newts. Or salamanders. The river bank is very quiet." The Mole shook his head.

"We must ask Toad what's happening to the amphibians," said the Rat, his brow furrowed with concern.

Just then they rounded a bend in the river and saw Toad Hall, a handsome old house of mellowed red brick. They glided up to the landing and the Mole shipped the oars.

"Toad is usually here to greet us," he said, looking about.

"He is, indeed," puzzled the Rat. "But look, here comes the Badger shuffling down the lawn. Halloo, Badger."

"Well, Ratty, my dear little man," exclaimed the Badger. "What brings you and Mole to Toad Hall?"

"To see Toady, of course," said the Rat.

"I'm afraid that will be impossible," responded the Badger. "Old Toad has gone from bad to worse. In fact, he passed away just yesterday."

"Oh dear!" said the Rat and the Mole together. Then the Rat added: "The Mole and I were just observing that all the amphibians seem to be disappearing."

The Badger gravely lowered his brow. "And not just here along the river. Disappearing amphibians is a worldwide problem. From Michigan to Australia. From Britain to Costa Rica. In the polluted environs of cities and in pristine nature reserves. Frog populations, especially, have declined over the past decade. And there seems to be more deformities among the frogs that survive -- extra legs, that sort of thing. Scientists are all a-tizzy, wondering what's up. The U. S. Geological Survey has just released a new report confirming the problem."

"Oh, you know those scientists," sniffed the Mole. "They are always making mountains out of molehills. If they blow up a crisis, it helps get funding for their research. 'The Silence of the Salamanders.' 'Croaking Frogs.' That sort of thing. It makes good press."

"We'll see, we'll see," mused the Badger. "Scientists are convinced something global and catastrophic is truly happening."

The Rat scratched his head: "Anyone who lives along the river knows that amphibians are the least resilient to stress. Whatever is happening to the frogs may be in store for the rest of us."

"Time will tell," said the Badger.

The Rat and the Mole made their good-byes and got back in their boat. "Badger's such a worry-wart," said the Mole, as they rowed away.

"Hmmm," said the Rat.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Friend in deed


Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday illumination.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Asymptote -- a Saturday reprise


My pal Brian Doyle has another of his terrific essays in the current Notre Dame Magazine, recounting a moment back in 1974 when, as an ND undergraduate, he bumped into the famed Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

"I read some of your stories the other day and they were pretty good," said the smug young Doyle, and added that he had in mind becoming a writer himself.

The unflappably courteous Borges responded with a few words of advice: "Get as close to the truth as you can."

Thanks, BD, for passing on the great man's words, although at this point in my life I suspect I'm about as close to the truth as I'm going to get.

In fact, I'd say that my career as a teacher and writer has been one of moving away from the truth -- or at least away from Truth with a capital T.

I was at Notre Dame two decades before Brian, and it was the professed mission of that institution to supply me with the Truth. I was ready. I lapped it up. I steeped in it. By the time I graduated I was so armored with Truth that you could kick me in the shins and I wouldn't fall over.

It was an exhilarating feeling, being in possession of the Truth.

Smug. Self-satisfied.

Trouble is, it didn't stick. My bride was less enamored with Truth than I was. As were my new secular friends at UCLA. And then there was science.

Science offered a new kind of truth -- tentative, evolving, but manifestly reliable. Truth with a lower-case t. One doesn't wear science like armor. One wears science like a pair of warm socks.

Truth? I'll settle for authenticity. Respect for the thing itself, the thingness of a thing. Juice dripping down the chin when one bites into an orange. A brushstroke of comet in the pre-dawn sky. A snuggle with a loved one in the middle of the night.

Not something as grandiose as capital T, but a myriad of little t's that can pop up anywhere, promising nothing more than a momentary tingle in the spine. Real. Authentic.

As a matter of fact, that's what I like about Brian Doyle's writing -- the way a collection of authentically felt particulars adds up to more than the sum of the parts, something one would almost be willing to call -- carefully, tentatively, asymptotically -- truth.


(This post originally appeared in October 2011.)