The Nature Of Notebooks

 

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In her poem “45 Mercy Street” Anne Sexton writes these words:

I live in,
my life,
and its hauled up
notebooks.

It is an idea I can easily identify, having kept notebooks for most of my life. I try to keep a small moleskin journal on me wherever I go to jot down ideas, questions, or observations. This was a habit I started as a boy, always sticking a small spiral-bound notebook into my jeans or short’s pocket along with a pen or pencil. Being an observer and constant asker of questions, my journals were filled with them: everything from seeing a king snake sleeping on a rock in the summer sun or watching a formation of geese fly overhead or the feel of wild fern fronds brushing against my leg as I walked through the woods.  Or I might sketch the flowers, birds, animals, plants or trees I encountered.

From a very young age, I have had what E.O. Wilson coined biophilia. This is the term he used to describe what he believed: that all humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with the natural world.

With my own notebooks, I would set out into the woods to observe nature, jot down what I saw or to create stories about the plants and animals. Certainly my view of nature first came to me from the literature I read: from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings. In fact, it was the latter that made me imagine every grand old oak as the ent Treebeard. As a boy, I strived to “stuff” my eyes with wonder, as Ray Bradbury suggested.

I felt a kinship with the poet Mary Oliver when I learned that she started doing the same thing from the time she was a girl of twelve and has continued to keep a notebook and pen on hand with her at all times, as she explored the natural world around her. As she wrote:

 Bless the notebook that I always carry in

     my pocket.

And the pen.

Bless the word with which I try to say

      what I see, think, or feel.

With gratitude for the grace of the earth.

The expected and the exception, both.

For all the hours I have been given to

      be in this world.

Is it any wonder that she became the poet of the natural world that she is today? Her notebooks allowed her to write down the contemplations she made while encountering wildlife, like a heron. As she told Krista Tippett, “I went to the woods a lot with books. Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as I — they came to me. And then worked them into poems later.”

Charles Darwin

Recently I read James T. Costa’s book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led To A Big Theory. Throughout his life, Charles Darwin kept notebooks filled with his questions and ideas. He was a keen observer and asker of questions. From the time he was a boy, Charles had a questioning mind and was eager to investigate and experience things. He was deeply curious about the natural world and loved spending time in it and finding things (collecting beetles remained one of his favorite past times throughout his life).  As Costa writes about Darwin’s mind and his need for writing in notebooks, “Looking at the world in a wholly new way calls for asking questions about the world no one had thought to ask before – questions that would need to be answered by careful observation in some cases, and experimentation in others.”

Darwin’s notebooks, Costa writes, “served as a storehouse of ideas and questions” on a variety of subjects including pollination, breeding, and variation. In the journals that would be published as Journals of Reasearches (1839): the words observation and observe appear 73 times, examine another 48, beautiful and beauty appear no less than 105 times along with delightful and delight, which are used 37 times.

Darwin's notebooks

It was from these various field notebooks that Charles Darwin was able to write passages like this one in Origin of the Species:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms… have all been produced by laws acting around us…

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on
according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful  have been, and are being, evolved.

Darwin kept at least fourteen journals during his voyages on the Beagle.  The field notes he took with him while he explored the Galapagos Islands are quick, jotted observations and thoughts of what he saw. Only when he was back onboard the ship did he take the time to write out in any detail what he saw as well as lists of specimens. No, the field journals were merely for him to go back to so that he wouldn’t forget any of the details. The journals are energetically written and reveal those things he found fascinating: whether that be plants or animals or even volcanic formations. What the journals show is an active and attentive mind at work.

Darwin's notebook inside

“… in the privacy of his notebooks,” Costa writes, “his speculations and questions ran rampant as he immersed himself in literature of all kinds, from hard-core geology, botany, and zoology to practical agricultural improvement and breeding, with philosophy. religion and literature thrown in.”

I was also fascinated to discover that Darwin kept extensive notebooks of books he’d read and those he wanted to read, which is something I also do.

What Darwin’s journals show is what Urusula K. Le Guin talked about when she said, “If I had to pick a hero, it would be Charles Darwin – the size of his mind, which included all that scientific curiosity and knowledge seeking, and the ability to put it all together. There is a genuine spirituality about Darwin’s thinking.”

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As a child, Jane Goodall began keeping what she referred to as her “Nature Notebooks.” In her book Seeds of Hope, Goodall talks about these notebooks she started when she was a girl of twelve, “I spent a great attention to detail, had sketched and painted a number of local plants and flowers. Beside each drawing or watercolor I had handwritten a detailed description of the plant, based on my careful observations and probably a bit of book research. This was not a schoolbook. This wasn’t done for an assignment. I just loved to draw and paint and write about the plant world.”

Jane Goodall writing in notebook

At the age of twenty-six, when she got on a plane and went to Africa to study chimps, Goodall carried only a notebook and her binoculars. There she would sit, observe, and write down what she saw. “I could see my camp in the valley to the south, and the dense forest of the lower Kasekela Valley to the north. I gazed through my binoculars at the chimpanzees feasting on fruits and leaves and began to gather my first impressions of their daily life.” She would also note the names she had given the chimpanzees: David Greybeard, Goliath and Frodo (the latter a nod to one of her favorite books).

“I well remember writing my first observations, describing how David Graybeard not only used bits of straw to fish for termites but actually stripped leaves from a stem and thus made a tool. And I remember too receiving the now oft-quoted telegram he sent in response to my letter: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Jane Goodall with chimp

Jane Goodall meticulously recorded the daily lives of the chimps. “I became totally absorbed into this forest existence. It was an unparalleled period when aloneness was a way of life; a perfect opportunity, it might seem, for meditating on the meaning of existence and my role in it all. But I was far too busy learning about the chimpanzees’ lives to worry about the meaning of my own. I had gone to Gombe to accomplish a specific goal, not to pursue my early preoccupation with philosophy and religion. Nevertheless, those months at Gombe helped to shape the person I am today-I would have been insensitive indeed if the wonder and the endless fascination of my new world had not had a major impact on my thinking. All the time I was getting closer to animals and nature, and as a result, closer to myself and more and more in tune with the spiritual power that I felt all around. For those who have experienced the joy of being alone with nature there is really little need for me to say much more; for those who have not, no words of mine can even describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected. The beauty was always there, but moments of true awareness were rare. They would come, unannounced; perhaps when I was watching the pale flush preceding dawn; or looking up through the rustling leaves of some giant forest tree into the greens and browns and the black shadows and the occasionally ensured bright fleck of blue sky; or when I stood, as darkness fell, with one hand on the still warm trunk of a tree and looked at the sparkling of an early moon on the never still, softly sighing water of Lake Tanganyika.”

Jane Goodall -Jane_s entry in a 1961 field notebook

“Those two worlds of my childhood,” she wrote, “that of the imagination and that of nature – were, I think, equally important in shaping the person I have become.”

John Muir

While working as a shepherd for a season in Yosemite, as a young man, John Muir used that time to begin keeping his nature journals.  Overwhelmed by the landscape, he began to record his observations. His writing was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays he loved reading by the campfire underneath a canopy of stars.  As he traveled alone, he kept a copy of Emerson with him at all times. Muir wrote, “As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”

John Muir's notebook

“One way to open your eyes,” wrote Rachel Carson, “is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” What a great way to approach writing a nature journal. To approach everything with new eyes and a fresh perspective.

Rachel Carson

All creativity begins from a place of questioning and curiosity. One sees this in the work and writing of Rachel Carson. “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth,” she wrote in Silent Spring, “find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Her writing is filled with precision and lyricism, a poet scientist. She was not a transcriber of nature but one who brought a real sense of wonder to the page. As a child, she began keeping a journal after becoming fascinated by birds. Her notebooks show how she did, as she would later write in her book The Sense of Wonder, “…drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see.” Carson was able, throughout her life, to retain that “inborn sense of wonder” that enabled her to observe and rediscover the world in a way that made her reader feel that same sense of “joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

Rachel Carson's notebook

Certainly one of the most famous examples of a naturalist’s notebooks were those of Henry David Thoreau that became Walden. Thoreau once said, “We should not endeavor coolly to analyze our thoughts, but, keeping the pen even and parallel with the current, make an accurate transcript of them.”

Thoreau

“My Journal,” he said, “should be the record of my love.”

Thoreau, like the others I have mentioned, grasped that for one to even begin to understand and appreciate the natural world, one must first be open and awakened to it.  As he wrote, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” With his keen eyes, Thoreau saw the sublime in everything.

His faithful, thoughtful, and provocative journals are a roadmap for mindful living with its encompassing of nature, philosophy, community, and solitude.

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour,” he wrote in Walden.  Thoreau allowed the world to ignite his imagination and he found such interconnectedness to it that from his he turned the writings of the natural world into that of  a defining spiritual journey. As he began Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

At the age of thirty-two, when he went to live a life of simplicity at Walden, he would spend his afternoons taking long walks. On those walks he took instruments for specimen collecting, a spyglass to watch birds, a walking stick to measure things by, and small scraps of paper that he would jot down his thoughts. At the suggestion of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau had begun journaling after graduating from Harvard in 1837. After returning from his walks, he would set down at his table to transcribe his notes into his journal. His journals are filled with entries on the natural world. His rigourousness was that of a poet and a scientist.

His journals are filled with his ever expansive attention to the natural world: filling pages with questions and observations about everything from birds and pines and the rings of a stump from a fallen tree. All was beauty. All was mystery. He was fascinated by the “marrow of nature.”

In her book Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls writes about how Thoreau began on November 8, 1850 to write in his journals like he had never done before and how he “wrote up everything he noticed and thought during his daily walk as one long entry . . . filling pages with a stream-of-consciousness flow of words as if he were writing while walking: “I pluck,” “I heard,” “I saw yesterday,” I notice.” And he continued to do so even on his death-bed where he penned his final entry.

Thoreau's notebook

Luis Pasteur once said, “Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.” The “prepared mind” is the one that is aware, that is constantly seeing and looking and questioning and wondering. To be astonished and never bored.

Stephen Whitney wrote in the preface to the Audubon Society Guide to Western Forests, “A notebook is the single most important piece of equipment a naturalist takes into the field. It is useful for recording daily observations, sketching plants and animals for later reference, taking notes on behavior and habitat, and assisting in identification by recording field marks that otherwise might be forgotten. The naturalist’s notebook only increases in value as time goes by and observations accumulate. Soon, patterns begin to emerge from what initially may have been chance encounters with various plants or animals. A well-kept notebook that preserves a record of their activities at a particular place over an extended period of time can contribute information valuable to our understanding of nature”

The journals by all of these great naturalists reveal how they all were passionate observers whose wisdom revealed a sense of delight and wonder at what they encountered. Each one was alive to the possibilities and approached their subjects with a child’s sense of awe and speculation. They were connected to every bird or plant or tree or animal they watched. They were drawn in to the rhythms of the natural world and were stirred by the realization that we are, indeed, all of us connected and necessary. Each studied their own small corner of the world but, in so doing, made the world seem not only grander and more amazing, but that all was important for the survival of each other.

All of the journals are more than a collection of words or thoughts but are alive and cause the reader to feel alive as well. They each give us a sense of wonder and curiosity that makes us want to grab a pen, a notebook and enter into the rich and diverse kingdom of the natural world.

 

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e e cummings on how a father’s love encouraged risking curiosity

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“We do not believe in ourselves,” wrote the poet e.e. cummings,  “until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

Edward Estlin Cummings was born to parents who were supportive of his interest in the arts and his own creative endeavors. Because of his parents encouragement, according to the Poetry Foundation  “Cummings decided to become a poet when he was still a child. Between the ages of eight and twenty-two, he wrote a poem a day, exploring many traditional poetic forms. By the time he was in Harvard in 1916, modern poetry had caught his interest. He began to write avant-garde poems in which conventional punctuation and syntax were ignored in favor of a dynamic use of language. Cummings also experimented with poems as visual objects on the page.”

His love for his father, Edward, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, shows up throughout Cummings’ poetic career. One of the first poems he ever wrote about his dad,  he wrote at the age of six. It was entitled “Father Dear.”

FATHER DEAR. BE, YOUR FATHER-GOOD AND GOOD,

HE IS GOOD NOW, IT IS NOT GOOD TO SEE IT RAIN,

FATHER DEAR IS, IT, DEAR, NO FATHER DEAR,

LOVE, YOU DEAR,

ESTLIN

After the death of his father (who was killed when his car was hit by a train), cummings wrote the elegy “my father moved through the dooms of love” which reveals how important a figure his father was in shaping who e e cummings became, both intellectually and spiritually. The poem was first published in 50 Poems (1940).  What is striking about this poem is how the poet offers his father up as an example of how one should live one’s life.

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

this motionless forgetful where
turned at his glance to shining here;
that if (so timid air is firm)
under his eyes would stir and squirm

newly as from unburied which
floats the first who, his april touch
drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates
woke dreamers to their ghostly roots

and should some why completely weep
my father’s fingers brought her sleep:
vainly no smallest voice might cry
for he could feel the mountains grow.

Lifting the valleys of the sea
my father moved through griefs of joy;
praising a forehead called the moon
singing desire into begin

joy was his song and joy so pure
a heart of star by him could steer
and pure so now and now so yes
the wrists of twilight would rejoice

keen as midsummer’s keen beyond
conceiving mind of sun will stand,
so strictly (over utmost him
so hugely) stood my father’s dream

his flesh was flesh his blood was blood:
no hungry man but wished him food;
no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile
uphill to only see him smile.

Scorning the Pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel;
his anger was as right as rain
his pity was as green as grain

septembering arms of year extend
less humbly wealth to foe and friend
than he to foolish and to wise
offered immeasurable is

proudly and (by octobering flame
beckoned) as earth will downward climb,
so naked for immortal work
his shoulders marched against the dark

his sorrow was as true as bread:
no liar looked him in the head;
if every friend became his foe
he’d laugh and build a world with snow.

My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)

then let men kill which cannot share,
let blood and flesh be mud and mire,
scheming imagine, passion willed,
freedom a drug that’s bought and sold

giving to steal and cruel kind,
a heart to fear, to doubt a mind,
to differ a disease of same,
conform the pinnacle of am

though dull were all we taste as bright,
bitter all utterly things sweet,
maggoty minus and dumb death
all we inherit, all bequeath

and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why men breathe—
because my Father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all

Edward Cummings with children

 “My father,” cummings recalled, “is the principal figure of my earliest remembered life; when he cradled me in his arms, i reposed in the bosom of God Himself; & when i rode on God’s shoulder i was king of the world. His illimitable love was the axis of my being.”

From the love of his father, cummings felt the ability to “risk curiosity” and “wonder,” whether that be through his poetry or his paintings (both of which he worked at daily, no matter where he was in the world).

ee cummings self-portrait

“It takes courage,” he wrote, “to grow up and become who you really are.” His parents, especially his father, instilled that courage within his son. What greater gift can a father give one’s child than to bless who they choose to become and in what they pursue? cummings found courage in his father’s acceptance.

Edwards Cummings was an involved father in the lives of his children.  Scientific research shows how the rejection of a parent, especially by the father, has a huge impact on the child as they grow up. Those who have felt rejected experience more anxiety and insecurity, as well as being more hostile and aggressive towards other people. Ronald Rohner of the University of Connecticut has written about such studies that show, “The pain of rejection — especially when it occurs over a period of time in childhood — tends to linger into adulthood, making it more difficult for adults who were rejected as children to form secure and trusting relationships with their intimate partners.” Why? Because they will relive the emotional pain of rejection over and over again throughout the years. Rohner writes that the love of a father is critical to a child’s development.

One sees the influence that the love, encouragement and nurturing of Edward had on his poet son, who felt free to explore his craft in ways that pushed the boundaries of poetry in syntax and form.

“To be nobody but
yourself in a world
which is doing its best day and night to make you like
everybody else means to fight the hardest battle
which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”

Because of his parents, e e cummings was allowed and emboldened to be himself and to strive creatively. His talent was strengthened by having parents who allowed their son to question, challenge, create, explore and be creatively curious. His father instilled in his boy a desire for wonder.

cummings

“I recognize immediately three mysteries: love, art, and self-transcendence or growing,” e e cummings once said.”Art is a mystery; all mysteries have their source in a mystery-of-mysteries who is love: and if lovers may reach eternity directly through love herself, their mystery remains essentially that of the loving artist whose way must lie through his art, and of the loving worshipper whose aim is oneness with his god. From another point of view, every human being is in and of himself or herself illimitable; but the essence of his or of her illimitability is precisely its uniqueness–nor could all poetry (past present and future) begin to indicate the varieties of self-hood; and consequently of self-transcendence.”

When parents inspire their children to embrace mystery, to examine and investigate, to allow for their talents to be developed and explored, to accept a child who’s unconventional, then children feel not only secure but emboldened to express themselves and to go out into the world with a sense of delight and joy and wonder. Creativity is birthed in this kind of environment.

ee cummings in a window

“Love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness: the truth more first than sun, more last than star…”

The love of a parent shapes a child, informs their sense of identity, and either fosters or discourages a child’s ability to “risk curiosity.” As a parent to two boys, I have striven to be such a Papa to them. I have worked hard to not only encourage such creativity but given them the space and tools needed to do so. This means exposing them to books and museums and nature and the world. I allow them to have their own thoughts and ideas, their own identities. Part of this is also letting them have the chance to make their own mistakes. To let them have their own feelings.

As e e cummings said, “Anybody can learn to think, or believe, or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel… the moment you feel, you’re nobody ― but-yourself ― in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else ― means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”

I want to instill in both my sons a sense of worth and identity. I want them to risk curiosity and wonder and delight that the world is so much bigger than they ever imagined. That they can be creators in their own ways, with their own talents, having their own voices. While they were both only born once, they can be reborn again and again as they change and discover and come to their own understandings and rediscover again and again, their own imaginations.

“may I be I is the only prayer,” cummings wrote. And I pray that my sons are themselves and forge their own paths. And that no matter where their lives may take them, what they accomplish or don’t, that they know and understand within the deepest parts of themselves that they will always and unconditionally have their Papa’s love.

by Manuel Komroff

Learning From Laura Ingalls Wilder

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“I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all,” wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I first encountered her Little House series not through the books but through the television show that began in the late 1970’s. Like many families, ours watched Little House on the Prairie every week (originally on Wednesday nights until NBC moved it to Monday nights).  Despite the hardships that the Ingalls family endured, there was something about their closeness and connectedness to the land  and community in Walnut Grove that drew me in and made me long to be a part of their clan. It was because of the show that I went to our local library and began to check each book in the series out, starting with Little House in the Big Woods. I remember taking that book to the counter to check it out and having the librarian look at my choice and remark, “Good for you.”

At the time, I didn’t know what she meant. Now I realize that she was glad to see a boy checking out a title that might be dismissed as being only a girl’s book, but I had never held to such preconceptions when I read (which is why so many of my favorite books have heroines: The Secret GardenLittle WomenAnne of Green GablesA Wrinkle in Time just to name a few).

Yet from the Wilder’s very lines about the “great, dark trees of the Big Woods,” I was hooked.

Little House Books

Reading the books only made me long to be a member of the Ingalls family, in the same way that reading Little Women made me want to be one of the March family. Yes, they endured hardships and struggles, but they faced down adversity and made do with little and yet there was still love and joy and I identified with Laura in her curiosity and restlessness. In many ways, I saw parts of myself in those traits. She connected me to the series, as any great protagonist can, and I followed along with what happened to her and her family.  With each new book, I only grew to love them more.  As a boy, I didn’t stop to consider whether or not white settlers had a right to appropriate the land that had been the home of indigenous people. Nor did I stop to reflect on Ma’s racism towards Native Americans. No, as a boy, I focused on Laura’s spiritedness.

Young Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I grew up and had two sons of my own, I decided to introduce them to the Little House series, though unsure of how either would respond. Would they find these books too quaint or would they dismiss them as being simply books for girls?

As an adult, I saw how romanticized, idealized and cleaned up the stories were but I also watched as both of my boys also began to enjoy hearing about the adventures and daily life of Laura. When we got to the moments of obvious racism, they provided me with an opportunity to talk about the dark side of Manifest Destiny and of the struggles that Native Americans still endure.

But what all of us were learning was the importance of having a real appreciation for what we have.  Yes, pioneer life could be hard, harsh, dirty and they even suffer near-starvation during wintertime blizzards, and, yet, they do not whine. The Ingalls triumphed over adversity and challenges, while remaining a loving family.

Pioneer Girl

After I finished reading the series, I began to read more about the author herself, including the recently published autobiography with annotations, Pioneer Girl, which shows the darker and harsher side of pioneer life. But what I continued to learn from Laura Ingalls Wilder was taking the time to grasp what she understood when she wrote, “As the years pass, I am coming more and more to understand that it is the common, everyday blessings of our common everyday lives for which we should be particularly grateful. They are the things that fill our lives with comfort and our hearts with gladness — just the pure air to breathe and the strength to breath it; just warmth and shelter and home folks; just plain food that gives us strength; the bright sunshine on a cold day; and a cool breeze when the day is warm.”

Do I feel a sense of thankfulness over the “common everyday” life I live? Do I feel “gladness” over having “air to breath and the strength to breathe it?” To appreciate what the day has to offer in beauty and simplicity is a spiritual gift and something that must be worked on to become a habit. And am I teaching these things to my sons?

Laura_Ingalls_Wilder_cropped_sepia2

“The true way to live,” she writes,  “is to enjoy every moment as it passes, and surely it is in the everyday things around us that the beauty of life lies.” These are not just pleasant words or platitudes. When one reads about all that Laura Ingalls Wilder truly went through in her life, one comes to realize the depth of spirit it takes for her to come to such a statement. How many of us, in this day and age, have such an outlook on life?

Laura

“It is a good idea sometimes to think of the importance and dignity of our every-day duties,” Laura wrote. “It keeps them from being so tiresome; besides, others are apt take us at our own valuation.” I know that this is something I struggle with constantly. How can one view ones daily duties, whether at work or at home, as being of deep and rich value? This can be difficult when we are folding and putting away laundry again or are struggling to help one of our kids with homework or in preparing dinner again or cleaning bathrooms again. These daily chores seem endless and tiresome, but how we approach them can make all the difference in how we do them.  I know, in my own life, when I am preparing dinner and I think about how much I love each of the people I am preparing this meal for, it changes this task from drudgery to an act of love (though this can easily be wiped out by one of my kids asking with a disgusted look, “Do I have to eat that? Can I please have something else?”).

Laura Ingalls

Certainly there is spiritual application to her writing, “We who live in quiet places have the opportunity to become acquainted with ourselves, to think our own thoughts and live our own lives in a way that is not possible for those keeping up with the crowd.” In silence and stillness, we can begin to know ourselves for who we truly are and not who we often pretend to be. Silence and meditation can only be had when we are not in a crowd, not in the hustle and bustle busyness that fills so much of our culture’s every waking moment. When we aren’t on social media, but either find a quiet spot in our own homes or go out into nature (without our technology). As she also writes, “Some old-fashioned things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat. In our mad rush for progress and modern improvements let’s be sure we take along with us all the old-fashioned things worth while.”

Certainly, we all have to deal with a society that gets more excited about the release of the latest iPhone than they do spotting a bird or playing in a stream. Yet how much are we losing in our families, our communities and in our nations by not removing ourselves from the crowds, from the technology and returning to the simpler and more fulfilling connections of each other and the natural world?

Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books remind me of the necessity of these things.

LauraIngallsWilder2

“As you read my stories of long ago,” she once said,  “I hope you will remember that things truly worthwhile and that will give you happiness are the same now as they were then. It is not the things you have that make you happy. It is love and kindness and helping each other and just plain being good. ”

Are these not things that we could all relearn and, hopefully, live out?

The Magic Of Wonder

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While reading Loren Eiseley’s The Unexpected Universe, I came across this line, “But, as scientists, we have sometimes forgotten that inward journey . . . that inward journey whose true meaning was long ago expressed by Circe’s warning . ‘Magic cannot touch you,’ she had said to Odysseus, but today we know that the heart untouched by the magic of wonder may come to an impoverished age.”

I could help but feel a sadness at the notion of a “heart untouched by the magic of wonder.”  While we have developed technologically and scientifically, have we also declined in our sense of wonder? Do we get more excited about the latest iPhone release than we do the change of seasons? Of seeing the autumnal changes in leaves, as they transform into glorious golds and oranges and reds. Are we humbled or simply ho-hum about the night sky? Or can we even see the night sky anymore amidst our cities of light? “I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky,” wrote Carl Sagan but will future generations find this quote unrelatable as they increasingly move from reality to virtual reality?

Until the End of the World

In Wim Wenders’ 1991 film Until the End of the World, am Farber (played by William Hurt) and Claire Tourner (played by Solveig Dommartin) who become addicted to watching their own dreams on a portable device that records them. I cannot help but think of how many are already in such a place with playing video games and cannot stop to leave this imagined world for the necessities of the real one (including eating) to the point where they are dying. Researchers have even found that, among kids 11 to 18, 45% said they prefer their online lives to their real ones. These kids are seeing their on-line world as detachable from the real world and that they explore online behaviors that they would never engage in their everyday real lives. I could not help but think how the magic of the natural world is unable to touch them; causing a real disconnect between youth and their environments.

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Filmmaker Werner Herzog once said of filmmaking, “It is not only my dreams, my belief is that all these dreams are yours as well. The only distinction between me and you is that I can articulate them. And that is what poetry or painting or literature or filmmaking is all about… and it is my duty because this might be the inner chronicle of what we are. We have to articulate ourselves, otherwise we would be cows in the field.” Herzog is a man of dogged curiosity who has made some of the most interesting and provocative documentaries of recent years (from Cave of Forgotten Dreams to Encounters at the End of the World to Into the Inferno).

In 2016, he made Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. In it, Herzog puzzles over and meditates on the nature of technology and what it means for humanity. Certainly he’s a man who likes to mull over subjects such as the nature of reality. In an interview with the New Yorker, he asked, “What reality is the cockroach at my feet in the kitchen experiencing? It is not my reality, we only share the same space.”  Herzog uses film as a way of not only exploring the outer world but, more importantly, the inner one. When asked if virtual reality will be the next way to do this, he replied, “It’s not convincing yet. Short forms that I have seen look fairly convincing and fairly good, but I do not see a real, big form of expressing the state of our existence. It happens somewhere else. It happens, for example, on the Internet, which may become more autonomous. I can only express it in the form of a question. The Prussian war theoretician Clausewitz, in Napoleonic times, famously said, “Sometimes war dreams of itself.” Does the Internet dream of itself? That’s a big question. Now let me ask the Clausewitz question about virtual reality. Does virtual reality dream of itself? Do we dream or express and articulate our dreams in virtual reality? It remains to be seen.”

Lo and Behold

When asked if people won’t be able to explore the world better through virtual reality, Herzog characteristically replied, “I can say it only in a dictum: the world reveals itself to those who travel on foot. It is hard to explain to anyone who has not travelled on foot. And I mean travelling on foot, not backpacking or hiking or ambling along. I mean as we were made as humans to travel on foot, and sometimes very large distances, or as nomadic people. Strangely enough, the only time I got the feeling I was not caught in a virtual reality is when I traveled on foot.” (He once walked from Paris to Munich to visit a dying friend).

So often technology gives us facts and information, but is that enough? Werner Herzog once said, “Facts do not convey truth. That’s a mistake. Facts create norms, but truth creates illumination.” Illumination begins in wonder, in curiosity, in what Rabbi Abraham Heschel calls “radical amazement.” As he has written, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

I do not blame technology, as the reason for eclipsing our attitudes towards wonder, but I cannot help but consider that, in our search for the newest and latest gadget, we are more instilled with a sense of consumerism than we are with wonder?

Philosophy, science, the arts all begin in wonder. Wonder is often its own reward, as it opens up new doors and avenues of thought and creativity. Wonder is the seed and wisdom is the fruit that grows from it.  Consider Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam, who studied closely the behavior of ants. By studying something so seemingly insignificant as ants, he concluded that one could “find miracles heaped on miracles and will see the wisdom of God clearly manifested in a minute point.” French author and scientist Bernard Fontenelle (praised for his intelligence and great mind by the philosopher Voltaire), wrote, “Nature is never so wondrous, nor so wondered at, as when she is known.”

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What wonders will we miss because we no longer see them? In her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, Lisa Randall writes, “We often fail to notice things that we are not expecting.” How much more is missed because we have our earbuds in our ears, listening to music on our iPods, or we are looking at our phones instead of the very world around us?

The Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller wrote, “We need only look on the miracle of every day, to sate ourselves with thought and admiration every day. But how are our faculties sharpened to do it? Precisely by apprehending the infinite results of every day.

Who sees the meaning of the flower uprooted in the ploughed field? The ploughman who does not look beyond its boundaries and does not raise his eyes from the ground? No — but the poet who sees that field in its relations with the universe, and looks oftener to the sky than on the ground. Only the dreamer shall understand realities, though, in truth, his dreaming must not be out of proportion to his waking!”

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As I have written about before, I love taking walks with my younger son because, like myself, he likes to pause and see and listen. We often do not talk but one of us will hear something, stop and ask, “What was that?” Quietly, we investigate. Sometimes we spot a bird  or a squirrel. On rare occasions, we spot a rabbit or a hawk.

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Even if we don’t see something as spectacular as a red-tailed hawk, we still find ourselves fascinated by mushrooms growing on a log. Taking a closer look at what’s around us, we discover that there is some sort of harmony to it all.

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In her book The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson wrote, “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.” To turn again to nature, is to welcome delight. It is the thrill of spotting a turtle either sunning on a log or swimming in the waters of a pond. These moments are gifts. They inspire joy and a desire to learn more about those we share this planet with. Whenever we return home from our walks, my son and I look up online about the different trees or plants or animals or birds that we encountered.

IMG_5237Curiosity and wonder lead to a much larger vision. They allow us to go beyond ourselves as we discover more about the world through microscopes and telescopes and exploration and questioning, as we see the interconnectedness of patterns within creation itself. I love how Lisa Randall asks, “When it comes to the world around us, is there any choice but to explore?”

Our answer is always, “No!”

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To see the world through wonder is to see it anew and clear-eyed. It is to be filled with awe and gratitude. Like in prayer, we often kneel to get a closer look at whatever we encounter. When we see a frog, we gasp as if we’d seen something out of a fairy tale that has enchanted us. It is magical. In talking about nature, neurologist Oliver Sacks said, “That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.” And we, in these moments, understand what he’s saying.

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In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes, “Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.” Isn’t that a splendid notion? Every act of perception as an act of creation?

When we stop and drink in the beauty around us, we find ourselves renewed. We connect to our environment with a vivid and vibrant curiosity. It makes me agree with Richard Feynman when he said, “A knowledge of science only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower.”

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What I have known ever since I was boy is that the woods are filled with wonder. When we go on our walks in nature, we enter the freedom to venture and discover. We find that we can say, as the poet Walt Whitman did in Leaves of Grass, “And as to me, I know nothing else but miracles”? How will we encounter such miracles if we do not unplug, do not leave our screens, disconnect from virtual reality and enter the glory and the grace and the magic of our wondrous world.

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When I’m Overwhelmed

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When I find myself overwhelmed by the tragedy of this world,

Then I must go back out into the world to rediscover its beauty again.

I learned this as a child,

for when my parents would fight,

I would wander into the forest

Where I could not hear

Their voices yelling

words as sharp as a raven’s beak.

I could escape, for

in the woods there were no words,

but only the sounds of rustling of leaves,

the rill of creek water,

the birdsong that filled the trees.

I was not lonely there

though I was alone.

I took the paths they never would.

No mother. No father.

I found peace among the oak and ash and poplar.

Even then I did not know a straight line

or stick to a path in the tamed wild of these woods.

Like Saint Francis I went about blessing

the animals, the trees, the plants, the rocks, the earth;

although, it was they that blessed me more

for they taught me that the holy is playful,

a poet,

an artist,

a delighter in diversity and variety:

Chickadees, sparrows, robins, cardinals.

Rabbits, foxes, squirrels, king snakes, box turtles.

Monarchs, cicadas, centipedes, bees, fireflies.

Though the forest was surrounded by suburbs,

somehow it felt as if it was worlds away

in silence and dappled shadows,

in fierceness and tranquility.

Like Moses, I dared not wear shoes

for all the forest was holy ground.

Every tree was sacred.

Every stone an altar.

Every sound a prayer.

It was there I learned devotion.

There I learned stillness.

And it was there I learned the truth:

All was life & breath & grace.

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Merwin On Seeing & The Nature Of Poetry

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“Poetry,” writes W.S. Merwin, “is a way of looking at the world for the first time.”

Poetry is always a beginning, a starting, a discovery. Poets make us pay attention: to language, to imagery, to the world around us. They can open our eyes anew to that which has become overly familiar, just think of Emily Dickinson with a fly or a bee. I keep one work of poetry with me in my car, so that, when I grow tired of cities with its glass and steel and cement, I can escape into the beauty of a poet’s words: concise and necessary, stripping bare all that is not needed to open the reader up to the feeling, the metaphor, the image, the natural world. Rumi, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Whitman, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver have all been my companions as I go about my work week. Tiring of being in big box chain stores day after day, they are my escape, my window into what is truly real, and allow me to  breathe again. My most recent poet comrade has been W.S. Merwin.

Merwin with plants

Like any great poet, Merwin has taught me to see, to notice, to open my eyes and be awake. Certainly, this notion of looking and seeing shines in his poem “To These Eyes,” originally published in The New Yorker, where he writes:

You only ones

I ever knew

you that have shown me

what I came to see

from the beginning

just as it was leaving

you that showed me the faces

in the realms of summer

the rivers the moments of gardens

all the roads that led here

the smiles of recognition

the silent rooms at nightfall

and have looked through the glasses

my mother was wearing when she died

you that I have never seen

except nowhere in a mirror

please go on showing me

faces you led me today

light the bird moment

the leaves of morning

as long as I look

hoping to catch sight

of what has not yet been seen

Merwin in nature

 

A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin is a poet, translator and environmental activist. From the time he heard his father, a Presbyterian minister, read the book of Isaiah or the Psalms, Merwin has been interested in and found a real love of language. “The kind of writing that matters most to me,” Merwin told the Paris Review, “is something you don’t learn about. It’s constantly coming out of what I don’t know rather than what I do know. I find it as I go. In a sense, much that is learned is bound to be bad habits. You’re always beginning again.”

I love that he says his poetry comes from what he doesn’t know rather than what he does. Why? Because this means he is setting aside his preconceptions and seeing something (a cloud, a canyon, a river, snowfall) in a way that is fresh, original and surprising.  One of the reasons I have loved Merwin’s poetry stems from the fact that, like myself, the poet has a love for trees. “They’re everything,” he has said,  “They’re a kind of life that is incredibly ancient. People say why palms and I say palms are 90 million years old and we don’t know anything about them. All you have to do is just pay a little attention to them and you can be learning from them all the time. You should be feeling a great pleasure in being alive. Trees have these connections between the roots and the leaves. A drop of rain that lands on the leaf of a tree is not the same as the drop that later falls down into the ground. There’s so much about it that we don’t understand and we don’t have to understand it. It’s not about understanding. It’s about our one life, our one and only life.”

In his poem “Native Trees,” he writes:

Neither my father nor my mother knew

the names of the trees

where I was born

what is that

I asked and my

father and mother did not

hear they did not look where I pointed

surfaces of furniture held

the attention of their fingers

and across the room they could watch

what they had forgotten

where there were no questions

no voices and no shade

Were there trees

where they were children

where I had not been

I asked

were there trees in those places

where my father and my mother were born

and in that time did

my father and my mother see them

and when they said yes it meant

that the did not remember

What were they I asked what were they

but both my father and my mother

said they never knew

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“On the last day of the world,” he wrote, “I would want to plant a tree.”

Merwin poet

I respond to the quietude and simplicity of his work. There is a depth and dimension to his writing that connects to me on a spiritual level just as all of my favorite poets do. I cannot help but think of Mary Oliver who wrote in her essay “Wordsworth’s Mountain”: Beauty has its purposes, which, all our lives and at every season, it is our opportunity, and our joy to divine.

Like Oliver, Merwin takes that opportunity to divine. He has done, as Rumi said, “Respond to every call that excites your spirit.”

His excitement and his joy at seeing and then capturing those moments, those glimpses into the gleam and glory of the natural world makes me long to return to the woods myself.

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W. S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a pious Presbyterian minister. When interviewed by Ray Suarez for PBS, W.S. Merwin told him, “As soon as I could move a stub of pencil and put words on paper, I wanted to be a poet. I mean, I was fascinated by the poems that my mother had read to me and by the hymns that we sang in church, which had a different — I mean, the “Spacious Firmament on High,” I thought, “That’s pretty interesting.” But I was kid who couldn’t read yet, you know? But I was always interested in the sounds of language and how they were related to — what were they related to? Were they really related to people talking and to — why were they standing singing? Then I wanted to write words that they would stand and sing, you know?”

“I started writing hymns for my father almost as soon as I could write at all, illustrating them… But the first real writers that held me were not poets: Conrad first, and then Tolstoy, and it was not until I had received a scholarship and gone away to the university that I began to read poetry steadily and try incessantly, and with abiding desperation, to write it.”

W.S. Merwin: To Plant a Tree

Merwin’s poetry is filled with imagery of and a real connection to the natural world. In an interview with the Paris Review, he said, “The connection is there—our blood is connected with the sea. It’s the recognition of that connection. It’s the sense that we are absolutely, intimately connected with every living thing. We don’t have to be sentimental and pious about it, but we can’t turn our backs on that fact and survive. When we destroy the so-called natural world around us we’re simply destroying ourselves. And I think it’s irreversible.”

One sees this connection in works like The Compass FlowerOpening the Hand and The Rain in the Trees.  They are not only immersed in nature, which he views as sacred, but are concerned deeply with preserving it. “I think,” he has said, “there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time. I think that’s a social role, don’t you? … We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect.”

In his poem “Memory,” Merwin says:

Climbing through a dark shower

I came to the edge of a mountain

I was a child

and everything was there

the flight of the eagles the passage of warriors

watching the valley far below

the wind on the cliff the cold rain blowing upward

from the rock face

everything around me had burned

and I was coming back

walking on charcoal among the low green bushes

wet to skin and wide awake

Merwin in greenhouse

In an interview with Lit Hub, W.S. Merwin said that he is constantly trying to see the world anew. “I think I’ve been looking for that all my life and sometimes I found it and I wasn’t ever really that far away from it. I think I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a long and happy life not cluttered up. I’ve lived a very simple life.”

In his poem “Berryman,” about the poet John Berryman, Merwin writes:

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

I love the line “if you have to be sure don’t write” because too many of us want to be sure, when so much of great art comes not from the knowing but from the exploring, from the opening to the uncertainty.

With Merwin, I read of nature and of memory, which he can tie together so transcendentally in a poem like “Sun and Rain,” which is so vulnerable:

Opening the book    at a bright window

above a wide pasture   after five years

I find I am still standing    on a stone bridge

looking down with my mother    at dusk into a river

hearing the current as hers     in her lifetime

now it comes to me    that that was the day

she told me of seeing my father      alive for the last time

and he waved her back from the door     as she was leaving

took her hand    for a while and said

nothing

at some signal

in a band of sunlight the black cows     flow down the

pasture together

to turn uphill and stand     as the dark rain touches them

His poetry like his garden is well-tended and serves as a metaphor to his writing. As he said, “Obviously a garden is not the wilderness but an assembly of shapes, most of them living, that owes some share of its composition, it’s appearance, to human design and effort, human conventions and convenience, and the human pursuit of that elusive, indefinable harmony that we call beauty. It has a life of its own, an intricate, willful, secret life, as any gardener knows. It is only the humans in it who think of it as a garden. But a garden is a relationship, which is one of the countless reasons why it is never finished.”

Merwin collage

Thoreau, King & Baldwin On Civil Disobedience

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We live in a society where people have begun to mistake civil disobedience with national disloyalty. Much of this stems from making idols of our national symbols, so much so that we get more offended by an African-American male kneeling during the national anthem than we do one being killed by police officers. In recent months, I have heard people say that they thought we had gotten past racism in this country. My immediate thought is, “That’s because you’re white. Go ask any person of color if they agree with you and see what answer you get.” Many will probably sound like the poet Langston Hughes when he wrote:

“I swear to the Lord,I still can’t see,
Why Democracy means,
Everybody but me. ”

People have gotten indignant and hostile towards those athletes who have chosen to kneel during the national anthem before sporting events. They have mistaken such actions as disrespectful to our country and our troops, when, in fact, those kneeling are doing so respectfully in the hopes of being heard. It’s not a protest against our flag, against patriotism, against supporting our troops and all that our soldiers have fought and died for. No, they are protesting a justice system that is systemically racist in its treatment of people of color.

Patriotism is not meant to be blind obedience to the government, it is not submission at all costs, but a standing up for the principles of a democracy that proclaims “All men are created equal” all the while not living up to its promises. Patriotism is standing up against injustice and not being silent towards a judicial system that is unfairly balanced against those who are not white. As the brilliant James Baldwin stated, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Yet we, in our worship of our flag and anthem, have failed to listen to those who are protesting. We dismiss their claims while not ever hearing them or heeding them. Most would prefer not to hear them because we have a desire to ignore the sins of our country. We want to cling to a false idol of a nation that was once great without looking at how this supposed greatness was built on the blood and backs of minorities and immigrants. There is a glossing over how our country’s expansion was at the cost of its indigenous people, or on the slave labor of Africans, of the Japanese internment camps of World War II, of Jim Crow or the new Jim Crow laws. Returning again to James Baldwin, who wisely understood that,  “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

The question is: Do we really want to change things? Are we really willing to face our past to move on to a new and better (more equal) future for all?

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While I am watching all of this play out on the national stage, I find myself returning to Henry David Thoreau’s magnificent essay Civil Disobedience. In it, Thoreau states, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” When there are unjust laws, we should not side with blind obedience but align ourselves with civil disobedience and join our voices with anyone who is oppressed, marginalized, or discriminated against in any form or fashion. We cannot try to silence them because we don’t like what they are telling us or reminding us of.  And we definitely cannot tell them that their experience is wrong and dismiss their grievances.  As Thoreau writes, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Or, as American historian Howard Zinn wrote, ““Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”

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Every year when it’s Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, people love to post quotes by him all over social media. I do not think he would be pleased by this; as I would guess he would rather we live by his words than merely quote them. Most focus on the “I Have a Dream Speech” or “Darkness cannot drive out darkness…” I do not see people posting his statement that, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” Nor do I see this quote posted on Facebook, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Baldwin

When we dismiss athletes protesting racial injustice as being simply “rich” and “spoiled,” or we cry out, “Just play sports as you are paid to do. Leave politics off the fields,” we are negating the fact that they are doing so to shine a light on police brutality and inequality for people of color. We do not want to hear this. We prefer them not to complain about the issues facing our community: systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality, disparity between the wealthy and those in poverty and the imbalance in the criminal justice system.  Instead, we wrap ourselves in our flags, our anthem and our pledge of allegiance as if to ward off evil. But that is the evil. James Baldwin wrote in his monumental work on race The Fire Next Time,  “Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.”

Baldwin quote

We who proclaim freedom, proclaim America being the “land of the free” are doing so to the imprisonment of ourselves to ideals and promises that are not lived out. We do not see the danger of our blindly following a nation that is tottering on the precipice of a cliff because we would prefer some imaginary “Andy Griffith Mayberry” version of our nation that has never and will never exist.

Howard Zinn

In his book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, historian Howard Zinn writes, “Civil disobedience, as I put it to the audience, was not the problem, despite the warnings of some that it threatened social stability, that it led to anarchy. The greatest danger, I argued, was civil obedience, the submission of individual conscience to governmental authority. Such obedience led to the horrors we saw in totalitarian states, and in liberal states it led to the public’s acceptance of war whenever the so-called democratic government decided on it… In such a world, the rule of law maintains things as they are. Therefore, to begin the process of change, to stop a war, to establish justice, it may be necessary to break the law, to commit acts of civil disobedience, as Southern black did, as antiwar protesters did.”

There is a great danger to our country if we silence these protests, if we willfully ignore them and pretend not to see the great racial division that exists in this country. As President John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

May we stop merely reading the words of Thoreau, King, and Baldwin and may we begin living them out. May we live up to the declaration that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For if we don’t then we will learn the truth, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

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The Wisdom Of Trees

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For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by trees. Our yard has at least seven grand old oak trees that I often like to stand underneath and look straight up at the branches so high above me. These oaks were here before our house, which is a little over a hundred years old. These trees house birds, including our beloved owls, squirrels and even a raccoon. Sometimes I will lie on the grass of our backyard and just enjoy their shade and be amazed at how much history they have survived, including ice storms and hurricanes. When there’s wind, the branches move rhythmically, the leaves rustling. In the early morning and in the evening, they are filled with birdsong.

The Lorax

I’m not sure where my love of trees came from. Perhaps from reading books like The Lorax or The Giving Tree? Perhaps it was from all the time I spent exploring the woods as a boy? As a child, I used to go out into the woods behind our house with a field guide to trees of North Carolina to see how many I could identify.  I would spend hours out in the woods during the months of summer vacation. Or from the small apple orchard on my grandparents’ farm. My cousins and I used to love climbing, picking and devouring apples until our tummies ached. If we weren’t careful and because we were barefoot, we sometimes got stung by bees that had gotten in the apples that had fallen from the branches and were rotting on the ground. There was also our neighbor’s weeping willow tree that my friends and I used to lie beneath its drooping canopy and we would talk about what our lives might be like when we grew up or we would make up stories (usually a patchwork of stories we’d read in books or heard told to us).

To me, the trees seemed magical, as if they could have woodland spirits living in them.  Fairy tales are filled with forests of trees. The woods were always magical and mythical. Those stories helped to fuel my interest in nature. Certainly I couldn’t help but picture trees through the eyes of the fairy tale illustrations of Arthur Rackham, with his gnarled and twisted dryads. Trees seemed fairy-like and full of secrets that they would remain silent about. Perhaps if I listened closely enough to their branches and leaves rustling in wind, I might hear them whispering to each other?

Arthur Rackham

Yet, even as I grew older, I never lost my interest in trees. Since I loved to draw, I often used to take my sketch pad out and draw trees, sometimes focusing on only a small section or trying to get the texture of the bark right. I would later learn that I was not the only one, as Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks were filled with sketches and notes on trees. da Vinci also was the first to  note that, as trees shed their foliage in the fall, they revealed a nearly universal growth pattern; in that there was a simple yet startling relationship that always holds between the size of a tree’s trunk and sizes of its branches. As he wrote in one of his notebooks, over 500 years ago, “”all the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk.” Essentially what this means is that, if a tree’s branches were folded upward and squeezed together, the tree would look like one big trunk with the same thickness from top to bottom.

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I also loved studying the moss and lichen that grow on the bark of trees.  There is an interaction and beauty that resembles both art and poetry between the moss, the lichen and the tree itself.

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There is something magical about the way moss in the forest grows on roots. One fully expects to catch a glimpse of a fairy flittering about in such a way as to be mistaken by a butterfly.

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On my walks, I stop often to just observe and notice (much to the chagrin, sometimes, of anyone walking with me). I bend down and get a closer look, to examine and see the amazing balance and to touch the softness of the moss with my fingers – gently – so as not to damage the mossy bed itself.

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In her book Gathering Moss: The Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “One gram of  moss . . . about the size of a muffin, would harbour 150,000 protozoa, 132,000 tardigrades, 3,000 springtails, 800 rotifers, 500 nematodes, 400 mites, and 200 fly larvae. These numbers tell us something about the astounding quantity of life in a handful of moss.” When I read that, I was amazed and delighted by the idea that there is so much life going on in such a small bit of moss. Is it any wonder, then, that I love looking at and taking photos of mossy tree roots? Or simply of the roots themselves?

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“To be rooted,” Simone Weil wrote, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” This quote always comes to mind when I am looking at the root systems of trees.

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We live in an age where people prefer to move every few years and there is more uprootedness than with previous generations. What are we losing because of this? A sense of community? We have lived in our house for over twenty years and yet I am constantly amazed by what I discover by simply walking in our backyard. By looking at the trees and their branches reaching skyward at different hours of the day or by season.

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“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers,” wrote Nobel prize winner Hermann Hesse, “I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farm boy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.”

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I could not agree with Hesse more. Whenever I walk in verdant forests, under the canopy of their leaves, I feel as if I have found sanctuary. There is something ancient and wise about trees and there is a truth hidden deep within them. I cannot help but touch their bark and feel its roughness on my hands.

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Or to find joy in the way light comes through their leaves: a chiaroscuro of light and dark. And to realize that no two leaves are exactly alike.

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And to think that each tree grew from a small kernel or seed or acorn. That such immense and grand life started from that small spark, as if to remind us that we all did. That we are all of us made up of the stuff of stars. One can see life in these trees just as we can our own children. We can see the veins in leaves just as our own bodies have veins.

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Yet how often do we pay scant attention to the trees around us?

Most barely do – unless there is a coming storm and we fear that these trees branches might come crashing down on our homes or that the very trees themselves will be uprooted in heavy winds and smash down on our cars or our houses.

“A few minutes ago,” John Muir wrote, “every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their song never cease.”

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There is such strength in trees.

They should teach us that, like leaves in autumn, we must let go of things and, that with each spring, new life begins within us. Is it any wonder so many cultures view trees as sacred and holy? If only we did, instead of tearing down such forests to make way for another grocery store or subdivision or, in the case of the woods I played in as a child, soccer fields for the local school. How much is lost by children no longer being able to explore and be within those glorious woods, amidst the wonder of its trees? Unsupervised and unscheduled play and delight and finding connection to the very trees themselves.

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I want to quote from Hermann Hesse again, as he writes, “When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”

Stop wandering. Be still. Be present to these trees. Be silent among them. Forget your smartphone or your iPod and listen to the sounds they make. This is not escaping, this is more than existing, this is being and living as we are meant to live. It is to  understand the memories of our ancestors and of the metaphors that trees so often offer us. Trees remind us of birth and life and death and we must think on all of these things because they are interconnected and natural as the woods themselves.

Be among the trees. Listen to the long-breathing, rustling leaves. Hear the voices of the trees. Do not rush through the woods, but walk without hastiness. In his book The Tree, John Fowles wrote, “I cherish trees because of their natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious processes of mind – and because they seem to me the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest to its heart.”

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The poet William Blake wrote, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

Be one of those people who are moved to tears of joys by trees. Be a person of imagination, as Blake suggests.

Take time to dwell in the woods. Be like children in the Hundred Acres Wood or the one from The Wind in the Willows. Listen to the song of the trees. Know that within those trees stirs the sap of life. See the woods and forests and trees for more than mere scientific knowledge or for their utility (timber and fruit) or for landscaping purposes but see trees as poetry, necessity, and as beauty beyond mere aesthetics.

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As the French author Marcel Proust wrote, ““We have nothing to fear and a great deal to learn from trees, that vigorous and pacific tribe which without stint produces strengthening essences for us, soothing balms, and in whose gracious company we spend so many cool, silent, and intimate hours.”

Take the time to spend “intimate hours” with such “gracious company.”

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To plant a tree is to offer hope, to believe in a future.

To walk among great, grand trees is to be filled with awe. We must learn from the trees: learn to be rooted in silence, to find strength in stillness. May we all cherish the company and wisdom of trees.

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Faulkner On Enduring & Prevailing

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On this day in 1897, William Faulkner was born in Mississippi. His works often dealt with race and a South struggling with coming to terms with losing the Civil War. Like James Joyce (whose work had a huge influence on him), Faulkner used stream of consciousness writing. His novel Absalom, Absalom! was named by The Oxford American as “the greatest Southern novel ever written.” Two of his novels would receive the Pulitzer Prize (A Fable and The Reivers).  The Sound and the Fury was ranked 6th on the 100 Greatest Modern Novels.

He would write, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.”

His writing would go on to influence many, including Nobel Prize Winner Gabriel García Márquez. Of Faulkner, Márquez told the Paris Review began to explore his childhood surroundings in writing because of Faulkner. “The atmosphere, the decadence, the heat in the village were roughly the same as what I had felt in Faulkner,” he said.  Months later,  Márquez wrote a piece for the New York Times in which he stated, “Faulkner is a writer who has had much to do with my soul…”

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In 1949, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His speech is considered one of the greatest ever given. He gave the speech on December 10, 1950 in the same ceremony as British philosopher Bertrand Russell. The Nobel Committee cited Faulkner for his “powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.”

Here is William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech:

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

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Embracing Uncertainty

The Long Road by Edward Ardizzone

In many ways, I am a creature of habit. I like knowing what is going to happen next and I don’t easily deal well with change. I love my routine and, so, it’s a paradox that I also love unanswered questions, that the world is bigger and more complex than my own personal philosophies, that there is mystery and uncertainty.

“Doesn’t part of the awe that fills us when we confront the unknown,” Nicole Krauss writes in her latest novel, Forest Dark, “come from the  understanding that, should it at last flood into us and become known, we would be altered?”

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Writing is an act of uncertainty, in that, one begins a story without necessarily knowing where it is going to end up, or what is to come, just as in life. As Krauss said in an interview with Electric Lit, ” I set out not knowing where the book will take me, and for a long time I sit with that uncertainty, sometimes for years. The act of discovery is very important to me, as it allows me to figure out the most authentic resolution for the various concerns and urgencies that inevitably arise when I’m working out something new. I had more anxiety about my process when I started out writing novels, particularly as their structures become more complex, but now when I start with many disparate stories or ideas, I trust that I will uncover connections, echoes, patterns, and meaning that eventually create a subtle sense of the whole, one I would never have arrived at had I set out armed with a plan and many certainties.”

The act of discovery begins in uncertainty.

But that can be unsettling and uncomfortable. I know I am not one who loves to strike out into the unknown (always preferring to map out trips on maps and GPS and planning). Scheduling and planning and organizing are a way of attempting to allay anxieties and fears, of attempting to keep chaos at bay and to remain in control. The question, however, reminds us that we are not. We strive for knowledge and understanding, not just to have wisdom but to ward off uncertainty and the fears that we are small and insignificant in the array of this huge universe we exist in.  That is why we question, we seek, we want to define and comprehend.

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“In our view of the stars, we find a measure of our own incompleteness, our still un-finishedness, which is to say, our potential for change, even transformation,” Nicole Krauss writes in Forest Dark, “That our species is distinguished from others by our hunger and capacity for change has everything to do with our ability to recognize the limits of our understanding, and to contemplate the unfathomable.”

Contemplating the unfathomable. How many of us even begin to start such a task?

It’s daunting.

That’s why we so often prefer to retreat into our preconceived notions and ideas of how and why the universe works the way that it does. We like to cling to ideas and beliefs that we accept and become fearful, even belligerent, when those are called into question or are doubted by others. We want to stick with our tribe, our religion, our political party, our way of thinking and doing and believing. It is comfortable. It feels safe. It does not challenge us. Too often people rigidly define areas to stave off any doubt, uncertainty or questions.

Letters to a Young Poet

And yet, in his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke tells his young student, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Most like the idea that Rilke is suggesting, but will seldom put it into practice. We have a hard time being patient toward the unsolved, in loving the questions, in embracing the uncertainty. We want resolution. We want closure. We want answers.

“But in a multiverse, the concepts of the known, and unknown are rendered useless, for everything is equally known and unknown,” Krauss continues in Forest Dark, “If there are infinite worlds and infinite set of laws, then nothing is essential, and we are relieved from straining past the limits of our immediate reality and comprehension, since not only does what lies beyond not apply to us, there is also no hope of gaining anything more than infinitesimally small understanding.”

We see this in that ninety-six percent of the universe is unknown and, if there are multiverses, as some physicists theorize, then that increases how little we really do know and how much grander and greater and unknowable and mysterious the universe is. For some this is frightening and for others it is breathtaking at the endless possibilities that exist.

Too many are, as Krauss writes, “drunk on our powers of knowing – having made a holiness out of knowing, and busying ourselves all day and night in the pursuit of it. Just as religion evolved as a way to contemplate and live before the unknowable, so now have we converted to the opposite practice, to which we are no less devoted: the practice of knowing everything, and believing that knowledge is concrete, and always arrived at through the faculties of the intellect.”

We have taken the French philosopher René Descartes’ statement “Cogito ergo sum. (I think; therefore I am.)” to heart. Believing that knowing is to exist and unknowing is unimaginable nonexistence. We have made an idol of our own intellects and understanding. But even Descartes wrote, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

Mastery is illusionary.

For myself,  I love when the natural world fills me with such wonder that I cannot begin to grasp understanding but can only be overcome with awe.

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The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wrote,  “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”

In the question, in the mystery, in the uncertainty is possibility. It allows the freedom and opportunity for change, for transformation. To be open is to not be boxed in and constricted, shaken by knew understandings and theories, but realizing that with each new discovery comes even newer questions to ask. Every answer offers many questions. To me, that is glorious. It is exciting and it fills me with reverence and delight in the not knowing.

The poet Max Ehrmann wrote in his prose poem Desiderata:

“You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

The universe is unfolding as it should be.

Yes, we don’t understand, but to allow for that, to make space for the question, for the uncertainty is to be healthier and more alive. It is a grappling, a wrestling and a coming to terms with the tensions of knowing and unknowing, trusting and questioning. Uncertainty allows for curiosity, for a facing of the unknown and allowing ourselves to truly be open to it.

When we let go of the false notion that we deserve answers, deserve resolution, then we can allow ourselves to live in the freedom that comes with paradox and ambiguity.

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Nicole Krauss’ official website: Nicole Krauss

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