Rachel Carson on Science and Our Spiritual Bond with Nature

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”


Rachel Carson on Science and Our Spiritual Bond with Nature

“The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal,” the nineteenth-century English nature writer Richard Jefferies wrote. “The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live.”

The most fertile seeds of cultural sensibility can take generations to bloom. In the twentieth century, Jefferies’s ideas became a major inspiration for Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) — the pioneering marine biologist and writer who catalyzed the modern environmental movement and ushered in a new literary aesthetic of writing about science as something inseparable from life and inherently poetic.

Carson examined the question of beauty as a lens on comprehending the universe in a stunning speech she delivered before a summit of women journalists in 1954, later published under the title “The Real World Around Us” in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Carson’s prescient 1953 protest against the government’s assault on science and nature.

Rachel Carson

Carson, for whom wonderment was not only the raw material for her books but the native orientation of her mind, writes:

A large part of my life has been concerned with some of the beauties and mysteries of this earth about us, and with the even greater mysteries of the life that inhabits it. No one can dwell long among such subjects without thinking rather deep thoughts, without asking himself searching and often unanswerable questions, and without achieving a certain philosophy…. Every mystery solved brings us to the threshold of a greater one.

Nearly a century after trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, in reporting on a total solar eclipse, observed that “it is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people,” Carson writes:

The pleasures, the values of contact with the natural world, are not reserved for the scientists. They are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of a lonely mountain top — or the sea — or the stillness of a forest; or who will stop to think about so small a thing as the mystery of a growing seed.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Unafraid of being seen as sentimental, this uncynical scientist, who eight years later would awaken the modern environmental conscience and who considered her life animated by “a preoccupation with the wonder and beauty of the earth,” adds:

I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.

I believe this affinity of the human spirit for the earth and its beauties is deeply and logically rooted. As human beings, we are part of the whole stream of life. We have been human beings for perhaps a million years. But life itself — passes on something of itself to other life — that mysterious entity that moves and is aware of itself and its surroundings, and so is distinguished from rocks or senseless clay — [from which] life arose many hundreds of millions of years ago. Since then it has developed, struggled, adapted itself to its surroundings, evolved an infinite number of forms. But its living protoplasm is built of the same elements as air, water, and rock. To these the mysterious spark of life was added. Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.

With a cautious eye to “this destruction of beauty — this substitution of man-made ugliness — this trend toward a perilously artificial world” — cautiousness rendered tragically prescient in the retrospect of half a century of irreversible environmental destruction in the hands of merciless capitalism — Carson admonishes against the commodification of nature as a marketable resource for human use:

Beauty — and all the values that derive from beauty — are not measured and evaluated in terms of the dollar.

Looking back on the innumerable letters from readers she had received in response to her groundbreaking book The Sea Around Us — a book that crowned the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-nine weeks, made Carson the most famous nonfiction writer in America, and earned her the National Book Award — she notes that she heard from people as diverse as “hairdressers and fishermen and musicians, “classical scholars and scientists,” who all articulated a kindred sentiment:

So many of them have said, in one phrasing or another: “We have been troubled about the world, and had almost lost faith in man; it helps to think about the long history of the earth, and of how life came to be. And when we think in terms of millions of years, we are not so impatient that our own problems be solved tomorrow.”

Photograph by Maria Popova

Returning to the Jefferies lines that had so inspired her, she adds:

In contemplating “the exceeding beauty of the earth” these people have found calmness and courage. For there is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; in the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.

Carson ends on a note of lucid hope in the face of humanity’s destructively short-sighted descent into “an artificial world of its own creation”:

For this unhappy trend there is no single remedy — no panacea. But I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

The whole of Lost Woods is a trove of abiding wisdom from one of humanity’s most elevated and elevating minds. Complement it with Henry Beston, one of Carson’s great heroes, on relearning to live in harmony with nature, then revisit Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work and her almost unbearably touching deathbed farewell to her soul mate.


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Take Fate by the Throat: Beethoven on Creative Vitality and Resilience in the Face of Suffering

“Day by day I am approaching the goal which I apprehend but cannot describe.”


Take Fate by the Throat: Beethoven on Creative Vitality and Resilience in the Face of Suffering

“After all that has been said and mused upon the ‘natural ills,’ the anxiety, and wearing out experienced by the true artist,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who paved the way for women in the arts, wrote in reflecting on art and suffering from her sickbed, “is not the good immeasurably greater than the evil?” The great nineteenth-century poet is among the handful of highly influential artists who, like Frida Kahlo, surmounted an inordinate share of physical suffering to make art of unassailable beauty that heals the human spirit.

Among those few was Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827), whose abidingly transcendent music sprang from the common fountain of his joy and his suffering. By his late twenties, Beethoven had begun losing his hearing — a deterioration that would result in near-total deafness by the end of his life, the source of which remains a medical mystery and the object of ample speculative mythologizing. One contemporary biographer has proposed lead poisoning, while the composer himself allegedly implicated a fit of fury — a second-hand account reported to his first serious biographer held that when a tenor interrupted Beethoven’s creative flow during a period of vigorous composition, he flew into a rage so violent that he collapsed to the floor in a seizure, hitting his head, and was deaf by the time he rose.

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler

By the end of his thirtieth year, Beethoven began actively seeking medical help for the ailment that anguished him and abraded his pride in his exceptional musical ear. Just as he was wading through the enigma of his suffering, in that strange and inopportune way the heart has of sneaking up on its owner, he fell in love with a young countess. A year before he wrote the spectacular letter to his brothers about the joy of suffering overcome, thirty-one-year-old Beethoven penned another letter of unrelenting optimism and towering spiritual resilience, found in the classic 1937 biography Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (public library).

Riding the tidal wave of elation that carries new love, Beethoven writes to his boyhood friend Franz Wegeler, then a medical student:

Oh, if I were rid of this affliction I could embrace the world! I feel that my youth is just beginning and have I not always been ill? My physical strength has for a short time past been steadily growing more than ever and also my mental powers. Day by day I am approaching the goal which I apprehend but cannot describe. It is only in this that your Beethoven can live. Tell me nothing of rest. I know none but sleep, and woe is me that I must give up more than to it than usual. Grant me but half freedom from my affliction and then — as a complete, ripe man I shall return to you and renew the old feelings of friendship. You must see me as happy as it is possible to be here below — not unhappy. No! I cannot endure it. I will take fate by the throat; it shall not wholly overcome me. Oh, it is so beautiful to live — to live a thousand times! I feel that I am not made for a quiet life.

He would go on to cultivate a lifestyle regimen that sustains this superhuman vitality, to embody the crucial difference between genius and talent, and to believe that music saved his life.

Complement this portion of Beethoven: His Spiritual Development with the great composer’s love letters to his “immortal beloved” and his touching letter of advice on being an artist, written to a little girl who sent him fan mail.


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The Search for a New Humility: Václav Havel on Reclaiming Our Human Interconnectedness in a Globalized Yet Divided World

“Our respect for other people… can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it… and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of being.”


The Search for a New Humility: Václav Havel on Reclaiming Our Human Interconnectedness in a Globalized Yet Divided World

In his clever 1958 allegory I, Pencil, the libertarian writer Leonard Read used the complex chain of resources and competences involved in the production of a single pencil to illustrate the vital web of interdependencies — economic as well as ethical — undergirding humanity’s needs and knowledge. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” Dr. King wrote from Birmingham City Jail five years later, as the material aspects of our interconnectedness became painfully inseparable from the moral. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

How to inhabit our individual role in that mutuality with responsible integrity is what the great Czech dissident Václav Havel (October 5, 1936–December 18, 2011) addressed in his 1995 Harvard commencement address, later published under the title “Radical Renewal of Human Responsibility” in his collected speeches and writings, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice (public library).

Václav Havel

Havel — a man of immense erudition and literary genius, who embodied Walt Whitman’s insistence that literature is essential for democracy, who went from playwright to president, who endured multiple imprisonments to uphold his ideals of justice, humanism, anti-consumerism, and environmental responsibility — begins by recounting an incident that sobered him to the irreversible forces of globalization: Sitting at a waterfront restaurant one evening, watching young people drink the same drinks as those served in his homeland to the sound of the same music that fills Prague’s cafés, surrounded by the same advertisements, he is reminded of the fact that he is in Singapore only by the different facial features of his fellow diners.

A decade before the social web subverted geography to common interests, values, and sensibilities as the centripetal force of community formation, Havel writes:

The world is now enmeshed in webs of telecommunication networks consisting of millions of tiny threads, or capillaries, that not only transmit information of all kinds at lightning speed, but also convey integrated models of social, political and economic behavior. They are conduits for legal norms, as well as for billions and billions of dollars crisscrossing the world while remaining invisible even to those who deal directly with them…. The capillaries that have so radically integrated this civilization also convey information about certain modes of human co­-existence that have proven their worth, like democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law, the laws of the market­place. Such information flows around the world and, in varying degrees, takes root in different places.

And yet, with prescience painfully evident two decades later, Havel cautions that there is a dark side to this undamming of information and ideas:

Many of the great problems we face today, as far as I understand them, have their origin in the fact that this global civilization, though in evidence everywhere, is no more than a thin veneer over the sum total of human awareness… This civilization is immensely fresh, young, new, and fragile, and the human spirit has accepted it with dizzying alacrity, without itself changing in any essential way. Humanity has gradually, and in very diverse ways, shaped our habits of mind, our relationship to the world, our models of behavior and the values we accept and recognize. In essence, this new, single epidermis of world civilization merely covers or conceals the immense variety of cultures, of peoples, of religious worlds, of historical traditions and historically formed attitudes, all of which in a sense lie “beneath” it. At the same time, even as the veneer of world civilization expands, this “underside” of humanity, this hidden dimension of it, demands more and more clearly to be heard and to be granted a right to life.

And thus, while the world as a whole increasingly accepts the new habits of global civilization, another contradictory process is taking place: ancient traditions are reviving, different religions and cultures are awakening to new ways of being, seeking new room to exist, and struggling with growing fervor to realize what is unique to them and what makes them different from others. Ultimately they seek to give their individuality a political expression.

With an eye to the dangerously disproportionate dominance of Euro-American values in this global marketplace of values and ideas, Havel writes:

It is a challenge to this civilization to start understanding itself as a multi­cultural and a multi­polar civilization, whose meaning lies not in undermining the individuality of different spheres of culture and civilization but in allowing them to be more completely themselves. This will only be possible, even conceivable, if we all accept a basic code of mutual co­existence, a kind of common minimum we can all share, one that will enable us to go on living side by side. Yet such a code won’t stand a chance if it is merely the product of a few who then proceed to force it on the rest. It must be an expression of the authentic will of everyone, growing out of the genuine spiritual roots hidden beneath the skin of our common, global civilization. If it is merely disseminated through the capillaries of the skin, the way Coca-Cola ads are ­– as a commodity offered by some to others ­– such a code can hardly be expected to take hold in any profound or universal way.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

Acknowledging that such a line of thought might be dismissed by cynics as unrealistically utopian, Havel insists on not losing hope — lucid hope. “This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen,” Rebecca Solnit would write a generation later in her electrifying manifesto for civilizational resilience. “It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”

A decade before philosopher Jonathan Lear made his case for “radical hope,” Havel writes:

I have not lost hope because I am persuaded again and again that, lying dormant in the deepest roots of most, if not all, cultures there is an essential similarity, something that could be made ­ if the will to do so existed –­ a genuinely unifying starting point for that new code of human co­ existence that would be firmly anchored in the great diversity of human traditions.

He points out that at the heart of every spiritual tradition, no matter its geographic or temporal origin, is a set of common moral principles upholding values like kindness, benevolence, and respect for human dignity. And yet, in an era of such irreversible triumphs of science as the splitting of the atom and the discovery of DNA — triumphs which Einstein believed united humanity through “the common language of science” — any real movement toward healing the ruptures of our natural interconnectedness lies not in reverting to ancient religions but in integrating the achievements of reason with the core values of the human spirit. Half a century after pioneering biologist and writer Rachel Carson invited us to step out of the human perspective, Havel writes:

Only a dreamer can believe that the solution lies in curtailing the progress of civilization in some way or other. The main task in the coming era is something else: a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility. Our conscience must catch up to our reason, otherwise we are lost.

It is my profound belief that there is only one way to achieve this: we must divest ourselves of our egotistical anthropocentrism, our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever occurs to us. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of being, where it is judged.

Illustration by Soyeon Kim from Wild Ideas

Havel calls for “the search for a new humility” — a search that politicians have an especial responsibility to enact:

Even in the most democratic of conditions, politicians have immense influence, perhaps more than they themselves realize. This influence does not lie in their actual mandates, which in any case are considerably limited. It lies in something else: in the spontaneous impact their charisma has on the public.

In a passage of bittersweet poignancy against the contrast of our present political reality, Havel adds:

The main task of the present generation of politicians is not, I think, to ingratiate themselves with the public through the decisions they take or their smiles on television. It is not to go on winning elections and ensuring themselves a place in the sun till the end of their days. Their role is something quite different: to assume their share of responsibility for the long-­range prospects of our world and thus to set an example for the public in whose sight they work. Their responsibility is to think ahead boldly, not to fear the disfavor of the crowd, to imbue their actions with a spiritual dimension (which of course is not the same thing as ostentatious attendance at religious services), to explain again and again ­ both to the public and to their colleagues ­– that politics must do far more than reflect the interests of particular groups or lobbies. After all, politics is a matter of servicing the community, which means that it is morality in practice, and how better to serve the community and practice morality than by seeking in the midst of the global (and globally threatened) civilization their own global political responsibility: that is, their responsibility for the very survival of the human race?

Standing before “perhaps the most famous university in the most powerful country in the world,” Havel issues a particularly urgent exhortation to American politicians:

There is simply no escaping the responsibility you have as the most powerful country in the world.

There is far more at stake here than simply standing up to those who would like once again to divide the world into spheres of interest, or subjugate others who are different from them, and weaker. What is now at stake is saving the human race. In other words, it’s a question of what I’ve already talked about: of understanding modern civilization as a multi­cultural and multi­polar civilization, of turning our attention to the original spiritual sources of human culture and above all, of our own culture, of drawing from these sources the strength for a courageous and magnanimous creation of a new order for the world.

With a cautionary eye to “the banal pride of the powerful” — corruption of character which Hannah Arendt followed to its gruesome extreme in her timeless treatise on the banality of evil — Havel adds:

Pride is precisely what will lead the world to hell. I am suggesting an alternative: humbly accepting our responsibility for the world.

Looking back at his own life with the astonishment of one who grew up under the locked-in nationalism of a communist authoritarian regime, then went on to travel to places like Singapore and address the graduating class at Harvard, Havel ends on a note of radical, responsible hope:

I have been given to understand how small this world is and how it torments itself with countless things it need not torment itself with if people could find within themselves a little more courage, a little more hope, a little more responsibility, a little more mutual understanding and love.

Complement this fragment of Havel’s wholly ennobling Art of the Impossible with other exceptional commencement addresses — including 21-year-old Hillary Rodham on making the impossible possible and Joseph Brodsky on our mightiest antidote to evil — then revisit Eleanor Roosevelt on the power of personal responsibility in social change.


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Over the Garden Wall Posters by Sam Wolfe Connelly and George Bletsis from Mondo (Onsale Info)

Mondo will sell two new Over the Garden Wall posters today. Sam Wolfe Connelly’s poster is an 18″ x 24″ screenprint, has an edition of 275, and will cost $45. George Bletsis’ poster is an 18″ x 24″ screenprint, has an edition of 225, and will cost $45. These go up tomorrow (Friday, September 15th) at a random time. Visit Mondotees.com.

Sam Wolfe Connelly

George Bletsis

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the Dangerous Myth of the Suffering Artist and What Makes Life Worth Living

A beautiful clarion call for making creative work “the filling joy of your life” no matter how difficult the cards you’ve been dealt.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the Dangerous Myth of the Suffering Artist and What Makes Life Worth Living

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806–June 29, 1861) surmounted an uncommon share of adversity to become one of the most influential writers of the past two centuries, a guiding spirit to such varied pioneers as poet Emily Dickinson and astronomer Maria Mitchell.

Since her girlhood, Barrett was bedeviled by intense spinal headaches and muscle pain that would plague her for the remaining four decades of her life, now believed to have been hypokalemic periodic paralysis — a rare disorder that depletes muscles of potassium and effects extreme weakness. A century and a half before scientists began to uncover how emotional stress affects our physical wellbeing, Barrett’s health deteriorated significantly after a close succession of tragedies just before her thirty-fourth birthday — one of her brothers died of fever and another, the most beloved of her eleven siblings, in a sailing accident for which she blamed herself. The following year, she was taken to London in an invalid carriage and spent spent seven years almost continuously bedridden in a darkened upstairs room alongside her beloved spaniel named Flush. In a testament to Rosanne Cash’s assertion that for many artists, “creativity comes from the same room as their deepest pain,” Barrett counterbalanced the stillness of her suffering with a ferocious pace of composition that led to her first major literary success and invited the courtship of the poet Robert Browning.

“I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,” Browning, six years her junior, wrote to the stranger whose 1844 poetry debut had enchanted him beyond words. “I love these books with all my heart — and I love you too.” So began a courtship that would blossom into one of literature’s greatest loves.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

What made the poet so singularly enthralling, as a writer and as a person, was that throughout trials that would break most people, she refused to romanticize the archetype of the suffering artist and to take it on as her own identity. Instead, she chose to exult rather than sorrow in art, to find in it a life-force of unparalleled vitality. Nearly two centuries before Mary Oliver contemplated why a passion for creative work is the greatest antidote to suffering, Elizabeth Barrett Browning made an exquisite case for making art as our most powerful mechanism of self-salvation — a conviction she articulated in one of the many resplendent missives collected in The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook), which also gave us Barrett Browning on the seductive power of honesty.

In February of 1845, a month into their epistolary courtship and shortly before she composed the sonnet that gave us the immortal “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” Elizabeth writes to Robert, whom she is yet to meet in person:

I do not know, I cannot guess, whether you are liable to be pained deeply by hard criticism and cold neglect, such as original writers like yourself are too often exposed to — or whether the love of Art is enough for you, and the exercise of Art the filling joy of your life.

[…]

After all, and after all that has been said and mused upon the “natural ills,” the anxiety, and wearing out experienced by the true artist, — is not the good immeasurably greater than the evil? Is it not great good, and great joy? For my part, I wonder sometimes — I surprise myself wondering — how without such an object and purpose of life, people find it worth while to live at all. And, for happiness — why, my only idea of happiness, as far as my personal enjoyment is concerned, (but I have been straightened in some respects and in comparison with the majority of livers!) lies deep in poetry and its associations. And then, the escape from pangs of heart and bodily weakness — when you throw off yourself — what you feel to be yourself — into another atmosphere and into other relations where your life may spread its wings out new, and gather on every separate plume a brightness from the sun of the sun! Is it possible that imaginative writers should be so fond of depreciating and lamenting over their own destiny? Possible, certainly — but reasonable, not at all — and grateful, less than anything!

Complement this fragment of the altogether enchanting Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning with Marina Abramović on turning trauma into creative fuel and Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, then revisit more poetic and profound love letters by Kahlil Gibran, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Albert Einstein, John Cage, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, and Hannah Arendt.


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