Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thank you

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Religious naturalism 2

Yesterday's post is an excerpt from a book-length, multipart poem called The Leaf and the Cloud. I meant it to be a teaser for what I will mention today.

But first--

Mary Oliver celebrates the beauty and goodness of the rose bud and the heron's white feather. In this she is very much in the religious naturalist tradition. But, as Paul suggests, nature includes more then the rose bud and feather. It also includes the parasitic mite in the heron's plume and the bacteria in its gut, the hummingbird and the Ebola virus, the rosy sunset and the tsunami, the raindrop and the supernova. Naturalism embraces it all. All are equal objects of scientific knowing.

Beauty and goodness are human constructs. They do not designate things, but the effect of things on human consciousness. They are sustaining and consoling products of millions of years of human evolution. When the poet celebrates the beauty and goodness of the bud and the feather, she is giving voice to the "religious" part of religious naturalism.

Why celebrate the white heron and not the Ebola virus? That is where it "gets difficult". No one said that responding to the ineffable and perhaps unknowable mystery of the world would be easy. We embrace it all as potentially knowable, and out of that web of knowledge shape an evolving nest of the beautiful and the good.

Which brings me to the Religious Naturalist Association, a new community founded by the microbiologist Ursula Goodenough and her like-minded friends. You will have met Ursula many times on this blog, principally as the author of The Sacred Depths of Nature. I'm not much of a joiner, but this is a group of people I am pleased to be a part of: science as a way of knowing, poetry as a way of living.

(Thanks to bromegrass for the image above.)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Religious naturalism

And certainly and easily I can see
how God might be one red rose,
one white feather in the heron's enormous, slowly opening wing.

It's after that
it gets difficult.

                                          --Mary Oliver

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Beauty bare

During the academic year 1968-69, I lived with my growing family in paradise. To be more precise, in a flat in Prince's Gate Mews, off Exhibition Road in London. Backing up against our flat was the Victoria and Albert Museum. Across the road were the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Geology Museum. Who could ask for a more endlessly enriching dwelling place. For the kids, of course, but for papa too, who probably learned more in the museums that year than in all the rest of his education put together.

Many an hour I spent on the top floor of the Geology Museum browsing the cabinets of minerals from around the world, of every color of the rainbow and of dazzling crystalline forms. As I recall, that was also the year I first read mathematical-physicist Hermann Weyl's delightful little book Symmetry, which explores the relationship between symmetry and beauty, in art and science.

Weyl begins with a 4th-century B.C. bilaterally-symmetric Greek sculpture of a praying boy, but soon enough moves on to crystals, such as those in the Geology Museum that piqued my esthetic and scientific sense. A crystal is mathematically symmetric through and through. A piece of glass can be cut in the shape of a diamond, but the imposed external shape has nothing to do with the amorphous internal structure of the glass. A cut diamond's external facets reflect an inner beauty (as too, by the way, does the external beauty of the human model of the praying boy).

Which brings me to Tom's latest offering, the photograph at the top of this post (click to enlarge). These crystals look like those one finds inside a geode, but look at the human figure at lower-right; this is a "geode" the size of a football stadium, the Cave of the Crystals in Mexico. Why hadn't I heard of this before? Thanks, Tom.

In his book Symmetry, Hermann Weyl chases symmetrical beauty to its mathematical roots. The lucky visitor to the Cave of the Crystals -- or the top floor of the Geology Museum -- learns the lesson that we also heard from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: "Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Constant palette

As the Rosetta comet mission drifts silently out of the news, Tom reminds me of when I took him, as a little kid, to see the Rosetta Stone in London's British Museum. He claims "vivid memories", which is more than I can muster. And now he sends me the above images of the Narmer Palette, another inscribed Egyptian stone that strikes his fancy (click to enlarge).

If I ever saw a photograph of the Narmer Palette before, I don't recall it. I can see why Tom is fascinated; this is a remarkable object in the delicacy and complexity of its imagery.

Palette? Stones such as this were used for grinding pigments for cosmetics or painting, although his one, two-feet tall, would have been large and heavy for that purpose. Possibly it was a votive offering for a temple. It is about 5000 years old, and in nearly perfect condition. One scholar has called it "the first historical document in the world." The inscriptions are thought to commemorate a victory of King Narmer of Upper Egypt over his enemies.

As I said, I have no memory of the Palette, but the image of Narmer about to bash in the head of a kneeling prisoner rings a bell. Could it be from those wonderful old National Geographic paintings of "Everyday Life in Ancient Times", from issues of the 1940s. A little hustle around the college library and -- Yes! And, as a matter of fact, I've written about this before. Funny how some things linger in memory and others do not.

As I study the Narmer Palette, my eye keeps coming back to the ten decapitated corpses, bound about the chest, severed heads between their feet. Clearly the recent decapitations by ISIS are on my mind. Religion, superstition, tyrants, bloodlust, war: Some things have remained constant for 5000 years.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The natural transcendent

Tom sends this composite image from the Rosetta spacecraft, as it flies alongside Comet 67P, 300 million miles from Earth. It shows the comet lander Philae drifting above the surface of the comet as it approaches landing and the footprint on the dusty surface where the lander bounced on touchdown. Interpretation here.

This is the sort of thing that gives Tom chills. Me too. Touchdown! Catching up with a two-mile-wide chunk of rock and ice after a 10-year journey around the solar system. Thrills. Chills. A breathtaking technological achievement.

But more than that. It is also a dazzling endorsement of the scientific way of knowing.
Many long years ago when our oldest three kids were young (Tom not yet born), we visited the museum in Bayeux, France, housing the famous tapestry. I pointed out to the kids the comet in the sky on the eve of the Battle of Hastings, which was taken to portend William of Normandy's victory over King Harold of England. The latin text reads "People marvel at the star." (Tom, BTW, saw the tapestry on a later occasion.)

Humanity was then in another time, a time of miracles. Knowledge came through divine revelation, holy books, authority and tradition. Nothing happened except by the will of God. The scientific way of knowing, invented essentially by the Alexandrian Greeks, was strangled in the cradle by more ancient ways of knowing, not least the rise of Christianity, not to be revived until centuries after Hastings. Even today, a millennium later, much of the world, including a sizable proportion of Americans, hold to the old ways of miraculous knowing and disdain science.

But can any of those older ways of knowing put a lander on a cometary nucleus 300 million miles away, a rocky snowball the size of Central Park?

The comet that appeared at the time of the Battle of Hastings was (we now know) Halley's Comet, which appears in Earth's skies every 75-76 years. I observed its most recent passage from Ayer's Rock in Australia, courtesy of Sky & Telescope magazine, as scribe for their expedition. Not a sign or an omen, not a communication of God's favor or disfavor, but a subtle natural, law-abiding wonder that -- in that marvelous dark-sky context -- sent a -- dare I say it -- transcendent shiver up my spine.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


As I write, the Philae probe is attempting to land on Comet 67P, a two-mile-wide chunk of ice and rock that is presently 300 million miles away from Earth. Tom sends the picture above, of a etched nickel disk carried by the probe, an archive of human languages that you can read about here. It is not the only such disk. There are many copies -- "Rosetta stones" -- to be distributed as widely as possible in space and time as messages to the future that hold keys to the past.

As I write, I am sitting in my usual chair in the college library, surrounded by books and journals, mostly in English, but a substantial number of other languages too. And even as I write, this paper trove is slowly being replaced by the digital cloud. The paper periodical section of the library has been vastly reduced; no longer, for instance, can I browse, as was my wont, the crisp, colorful pages of Architectural Record; I'm now directed to the web. I hardly ever see students cruising the lonely stacks; they are huddled over their laptops. It is not hard to imagine a library without books; some college and university libraries have already gone that way.

The Rosetta disks, like the one carried by Philae, will be more permanent than paper, more enduring than the digital cloud. What documents of our time will we want creatures of future millennia to read? I have just finished reading Richard Flanagan's Booker-prize-winning novel The Narrow Road To the Deep North, a book that plunges one into deep despair about man's inhumanity to man, then lifts one's spirit with the embrace of love, courage and redemption. Yes, let it be that -- the awfulness and the glory.

I think of a stanza from William Carlos Williams' "A Sort of Song":
Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Where next?

Dear denizens of the porch, Tom and I are exploring where to go next. We'll be back soon. Anne will surely join us. Hang on. Chet

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The end

Click to enlarge Anne's illumination of Dad's deathbed journals.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 22

My father’s father was a handyman. So was Dad. I’m fairly handy myself, and I have a son who is handier than all of us. Nature or nurture? Who knows? Maybe a bit of both. But surely not any longer an exclusively male preserve. My oldest daughter recently remodeled her kitchen. She taught me how to use a sledge-activated nail gun to lay a hardwood floor. What is the difference between a craftsperson and a handyman? The craftsperson does it for a living. The handyman does it for a life.

I wouldn’t say that what my father was doing on his deathbed was a barrel of monkeys, but he was clearly enjoying what he was doing. His engineering-style drawings have a kind of whimsy about them, a spontaneous parody that would make Thomas Ewing French and Rube Goldberg smile. Surely, one of the infelicities of our age is that we take our machines too seriously. We let them squash our sense of fun, turn us into mere appurtenances of their own inscrutable workings. I couldn’t repress a smile when I saw my daughter wrestling that massive nail gun into position, whacking it with the hammer, grinning like a demented fool. Handygals have fun.

When I was about twelve years old, my father gave me a hand-held electric jigsaw for my birthday. It was a clever tool. You held it like a pistol. The blade was like the straight side of a stretched-out letter D. A little 110-volt electromagnet pulled the blade down and the springlike upper side of the D pulled it up. Bzzzzzzzz. My first power tool. I made a few little toys out of bits of balsa, but for all of its cleverness the jigsaw was not very useful. It labored through anything thicker than an eighth of an inch. The flimsy blades kept breaking. I’ll give this to Dad. He picked up pretty quick on the unsatisfactory nature of the tool. On my next birthday I was rewarded with a proper jigsaw, a real tabletop power tool, driven with a powerful one-quarter horsepower motor, the same motor that with a flip of a belt drove his drill press. Together, we had entered the age of the power shop.

In all of this he was a distant angel, keenly interested in my jigsaw projects, but unlikely to reveal much of what was going on in his own life. Not much happened to us kids that he didn’t proudly record on film, but a surprising number of his own professional accomplishments were unknown to me until I read his curriculum vitae after his death. He never stopped tooting our horns, but he was reluctant to toot his own.

My biggest jigsaw project was a chess set, thirty-two pieces enameled black and white, hollowed out and weighted with solder, the bottoms then covered with green felt. To display this grand production I made a coffee table with a tiled chessboard built into the top. It was the first thing I had made without hints or help from Dad, and I was inordinately proud. Too proud, in fact, for my Catholic guilt. I was then in the throes of a bout of religious fervor. We are called—so I believed—to keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is not in this world but the next. Kneeling in the darkened nave of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church I resolved to chasten my pride by destroying one of the chess pieces, the white king. I laid the poor fellow on the cement basement floor. I raised the hammer. Then, in a change of heart, I substituted a more easily replaceable pawn for the king. Smash! As you can see, I was neither a very good sinner nor a very good penitent.

The pawn was quickly replaced, the Deadly Sin forgotten. The coffee table and chess set ended up gracing my first apartment as a married graduate student. It’s long gone now, I don’t know where, but it lasted longer than my Catholic scrupulosity. That cringe of guilt was not something I picked up at home. Dad took pride in my handyman projects, and hoped I would take pride in them too. Pride is an essential ingredient of the handyman’s craft. Somewhere among his many reels of 8 mm home movies there’s a sequence of me crouching by my chess-setted coffee table grinning with practiced self-satisfaction. Pride is the motive and the polish of the handyman.

He loved us. His love was vouched by his pride in our accomplishments. How did I show my love for him? By trying to live up to his expectations, by being as handy as he was and his father before him. Love is in the genes, of course, a biological imperative to cherish one’s offspring and revere one’s parents. Like the handyman talent, love is funded by nature and nurture. It was there in those backyard swings and seesaws my handyman grandfather made for his kids in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, and in the Buster Brown suits and frilly dresses stitched up by my grandmother. Dad was nurturing love when he stood waiting with his Cine-Kodak at the bottom of Ninth Street hill as my soapbox racer with the unaerodynamic axles sped towards the finish line. I know now that the jigsaws were tokens of his love. A handyman takes pride in his work, and if the design of a soapbox racer or a repaired toaster can be a token of love so much the better.

Remember the model Spanish galleon my father built just before his marriage, the one my mother relegated to the basement? There was another sailing ship, a tiny one, that he made for my mother while they were courting. Its hull was a walnut half-shell, bowsprit and all, to which he had glued a cardboard deck. Above he fashioned three-masted rigging with billowing paper sails. For as long as I can remember, that little ship resided in a corner of the china cabinet in the dining room. In a funny way, it was as inspirational to me as the infinitely more accomplished Spanish galleon. One evening at dinner, when I was about eight or nine, for a reason I cannot recall, my father took the little walnut ship out of the china cabinet, pried off the cardboard deck with a dinner knife, and there written on the underside in his neat engineer’s hand was the message “I love you,” hidden all those years. The message struck me as terribly romantic, but I have a recollection of something unsettling in the air at table that evening, an ironic tilt to the atmosphere. I was too young to pick up on the subtler complexities of matrimony, but wise enough to have remembered the token of romance and forgotten the cause of those flickering sparks of discontent.

At the end, in his hospital journals, he seems a little baffled that she is still there, at his side in the hospital room, attending his whims, after thirty-eight years of sometimes uneasy marriage. He also seems a bit surprised by his own happiness when she is in the room. He writes: Mom (God bless her) got dressed and went after an ice cream for me! So glad she is going to stay with me tonight. It is not the afterlife that looms large in those last pages of his deathbed journals, but this life—this infinitely mysterious life with its ineluctable entanglements of love, parents, spouse, children, grandchildren, this life that was ebbing away. He wanted desperately to fix it, to repair whatever was broken, to mend all of the frayed bonds of love. He thought the journals contained something valuable, something that should be shared. And perhaps they did. What was it he always used to say, the mantra of the handyman? With a little ingenuity, anything is possible.

(THE END. Many thanks to Anne for her lovely illuminations. They are an affectionate record of Dad’s final days. And thanks to Tom for photographic illustrations. Without Tom this website would not exist. To all of you who stayed aboard for Mr. Fix-it, your presence of on the porch has been warmly welcomed and we are grateful for it. Stay tuned.)