Category Archives: Literature

Snow graphemes, scribed by plants

Fallen leaves and fruits etch the snow when caught by the wind, leaving inscrutable messages. Tree roots do the same as they carve up through asphalt. The last few weeks have provided ample opportunity to read these signs.

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These snow scribblings bring to mind David Hinton’s description of the work of the Chinese poet Summit-Gate (峰門). Summit-Gate would gather particularly beautiful autumn leaves and carefully lay them in book-scroll boxes. These boxes were her library. When snows came, she took the leaves to her poetry shelter and released them one by one, watching their wind-blown botanical calligraphy on the snow. She could read the start of every poem but, by choice, the conclusions eluded her.

There is more to her story, all told in David’s excellent book, Hunger Mountain, a meditation on landscape, mind, and literature.

So in these snowy days, we can learn from Summit-Gate and keep our eyes on the surface to see what legumes, samaras, and cast-off leaves might be saying. Ideograms are also being continually made and erased on other surfaces: beaches, dusty roadsides, perhaps even the ooze on a scummy lake. This is “tracking” of a different sort.

Happy 100th Birthday, Lewis Thomas

Lewis Thomas was born one hundred years ago today (thank you, Writer’s Almanac for spicing your daily poetry with these biographical seasonings).

By happy coincidence I’m currently re-reading The Medusa and the Snail, taking great pleasure in Thomas’ wit and insight. Warm-hearted irony leavens what might otherwise be heavy discussions of science, ethics, and humanity’s place in the biological world. Although his words are now forty years old, they illuminate many of our modern preoccupations: genetic engineering, the importance of biological networks, the beauty and mystery of evolution, and our endless paradoxical capacity for both destroying and ennobling the world.

Here is a short excerpt from The Medusa and the Snail, an essay titled The Youngest and Brightest Thing Around (Notes for a Medical School Commencement Address), in which Thomas reflects on Homo sapiens’ relationship with the rest of the community of life:

And now human beings have swarmed like bees over the whole surface, changing everything, meddling with all the other parts, making believe that we are in charge, risking the survival of the entire magnificent creature.

Mind you, I do not wish to downgrade us; I believe fervently in our species and have no patience with the current fashion of running down the human being as a useful part of nature. On the contrary, we are a spectacular, splendid manifestation of life. We have language and can build metaphors as skillfully and precisely as ribosomes make proteins. We have affection. We have genes for usefulness, and usefulness is about as close to a “common goal” for all of nature as I can guess at. And finally, and perhaps best of all, we have music. Any species producing, at this earliest, juvenile stage of its development — almost instantly after emerging on the earth by any evolutionary standard — the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, cannot be all bad.

For more on Thomas, The New York Times obit has some interesting stories and context.

The Forest Unseen paperback edition; copies for course adoption available

paperback3DThe Penguin paperback edition of The Forest Unseen went on sale this week. Having read and enjoyed hundreds of books adorned with the smart little penguin, I’m very happy to see my book published under this imprint. All the other editions of the book — the hardcover, the various e-books — are still available. I’m hoping that this new edition will make the book available and attractive to new readers.

One such group of readers are students. The book is already in use in a few biology, environmental studies, literature, religion and philosophy classes, with great results so far. If you’re a teacher and would like an examination copy, Penguin has free copies available for “course-use consideration.” If you’re interested, please e-mail with your shipping address, course title and enrollment, and decision date. Please include “The Forest Unseen, ISBN: 978-0-14-312294-4” in the email. Penguin does not ship to P.O. boxes, so you’ll need to give a physical address. If you encounter any problems with the process (unlikely), just let me know and I’ll make sure that the books get where they need to go.

I’d be very grateful if you could spread the word to friends and colleagues who might be interested. (To make sharing easier here is the shortlink for this webpage:

To the many readers who have supported the book since its publication last year: Thank you! I’ve been bowled over by your generosity and enthusiasm.

Rambles will continue tomorrow. On the docket (literally): sex, nature and the Supreme Court, with a little help from the Grey Lady.

Reindeer carved deep into our history

How long have reindeer been dancing through our midwinter celebrations?Rudolph,_The_Red-Nosed_Reindeer_Marion_Books

Rudolph is seventy three years old. He came into being in 1939 for a Montgomery Ward Christmas publicity campaign. He joined his older cousins Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen, a little herd that celebrates its one hundred and ninetieth birthday this week. The eight “tiny rein-deer” originated with Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, written in 1822. Moore apparently re-imagined some Norse myths, replacing Odin’s Wild Hunt with St. Nicholas’ sleigh-in-the-sky. To power the sleigh, Moore replaced Thor’s goats (called teeth-barer — the snarler — and teeth-grinder) with more kid-friendly reindeer. Moore may also have penned a slightly older poem, Old Santeclaus, that also places reindeer at the head of a sleigh (originally published in a pamphlet by William B. Gilley, but the poem’s authorship is apparently in doubt). Unlike A Visit from St. Nicholas, this poem languishes in obscurity, perhaps because it ends with the gift of a birch rod with which parents can enact God’s will by thrashing their kids. Montgomery Ward would have a hard time weaving that idea into their sales pitch. Christmas is a lot tamer these days: gone are the snarling goats and instruments of corporal punishment.thor-clipart

In sum, Rudolph is a bit of an upstart. But all these modern deer are babies compared to the venerable grandma and granddaddy of them all: the Swimming Reindeer of Montastruc. This pair of reindeer are thirteen thousand years old. They live in the British Museum, in a carefully climate-controlled case. The pair were carved by an artist in what is now France. The artist carved a mammoth tusk (!) to create a sculpture of two reindeer swimming across a river.swim

This carving is a work of stunning beauty, carrying the artist’s skill across a chasm of time. More, it reveals much about the world in which the artist lived. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus, called caribou in North America) are animals of the tundra and northern forests. Their presence in France is a reminder that at the time of the carving the world was engulfed by the last ice age. Half of Britain was under ice, as was much of North America. The people of Europe were living in conditions similar to those of modern northern Scandinavia. Reindeer formed a substantial part of the diet of these early modern people, especially in the coldest years of the ice age. (The so-called Cro-Magnon/Paleo diet should, if carried out with rigor, be comprised of about 95% reindeer, with a little horse, cave bear, chamois, and mammoth thrown in for good measure. And don’t expect to live much beyond forty.)

I’m awed by the sculpture. For a more complete discussion of the artistic and archeological context, I recommend Robin McKie’s recent article in the Observer (reprinted in the Guardian). Here I’ll just note the artist’s attention to the particularities of the animals’ lives. This is the work of someone who understood their subject and was able to convey this understanding through sophisticated artistic technique. Natural history, science, and art have been close companions for a long, long time.

For a good view of the carving, use the British Museum’s online viewer and press the “zoom” buttons to magnify the image. Click the little square underneath these buttons to flip into “full screen” mode. You can see most of the details quite clearly and thus imagine the hands that conjured reindeer from a tusk so long ago.

Of all the various symbols and myths of the modern solstice celebration, reindeer may perhaps be the oldest. Humans were celebrating the return of Light with reindeer meat, hides, and carvings long before the agrarian revolution, let alone the origin of the Abrahamic religions. Clement Clarke Moore tapped something deep. Lighted reindeer on lawns and Rudolph songs are reminders of who we are: a species that has depended on ungulates for tens of thousands of years. These animals are carved into our psyche.

I know nothing about the midwinter traditions of cultures in places other than western Europe (transplanted to North America). Like most arctic animals, reindeer have a circumpolar distribution, so I’d predict that they appear in solstice stories in other northern temperate regions. If anyone know of any such stories (or their absence), I’d love to hear about them.

[Photo sources/credits: Rudolph, Thor, Swimming Reindeer.]

Rachel Carson’s legacy

The Sunday “Perspectives” section of the Chattanooga Times Free Press is running my column about Rachel Carson, along with a column about the politics of conservation by David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society. The layout is beautiful — I was expecting an unadorned column, but this morning I opened the paper to find a spread with Carson framed by bird sketches.

The columns are not online, so I can’t redirect you to the paper itself. I retain copyright, so I’ve reprinted my column below.

Rachel Carson’s legacy

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Rachel Caron’s Silent Spring. Carson is rightly remembered for her effects on our lives. Thanks to her, attitudes about synthetic chemicals have changed and regulatory oversight of toxins is more rigorous. Many of us now carry in our bodies fewer of the poisons that she warned about. Silent Spring is also remembered as a work of art. Her writing was both lyrical and scientifically rigorous, a rare combination. Carson unearthed, interpreted, and synthesized hundreds of arcane technical papers and government reports, then sung them straight into our hearts.

These are achievements worthy of celebration and remembrance. Yet Carson left another legacy, one that she believed was deeper than activism or literary mastery. She wrote that if she could give just one gift to every child, she would bestow “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

For Carson, this sense of wonder was developed by opening our minds, emotions, and senses to the world. She implored us to look up at “the misty river of the Milky Way,” to peer at moss with a hand lens and see a world where “insects large as tigers prowl amid strangely formed, luxuriant trees,” to attend to our noses and “savor the smell of low tide,” and to hear in the dawn chorus of birds “the wild medley of voices . . . the throb of life itself.”

Carson established her reputation with books that celebrated the biological and physical marvels of the world: periwinkles, sea weeds, eels, and ocean currents. She lifted the study of natural history from the quiet, dusty parlors of the Victorian age and made it relevant for her generation, becoming, in her own words, a creator of a “new type of literature . . . representative of our own day.” In Silent Spring, she took this further and used the testimony of natural history — robins, earthworms, plankton, caterpillars, and cells under microscopes — to make her case against the imprudent use of chemicals. So although Silent Spring is remembered for bearing fruit in legislatures and regulatory offices, it was rooted in Carson’s life as a naturalist.

For Carson, the practice of natural history was a source of both delight and profound moral significance. Even at her most polemical, when delivering a speech on pollution to medical professionals as she was dying of cancer, her arguments were grounded in stories about the evolution and ecology of our world. Her speech was not focused on policy recommendations or the details of toxicology. Rather, she opens with a discussion of the origin and evolution of ecosystems, then closes with Charles Darwin. Where in today’s environmental discourse do we hear such zeal for the unfolding drama of evolution?

Carson’s references to biological context were not merely rhetorical window-dressings. The fact of our kinship with the rest of life was the foundation of her worldview; the joyous study of the particularities of the natural world was the ground from which her activism grew. In poisoning the world, she believed, we poison ourselves, for there is no separation between nature and mankind. And there can be no wise decisions about “our true relationship to our environment” without intellectual and emotional connection to the community of life. Darwin taught us that we are kin to the rest of life; Carson taught us that this kinship leads to empathy and responsibility.

So, how to celebrate, honor, and carry forward the insights of Silent Spring? Use synthetic chemicals with care and caution? Of course. Engage with the political process? Yes. But most of all, I think Rachel Carson would want us to take up “the creed I have lived by . . . a preoccupation with the wonder and the beauty of the earth.”

Is this preoccupation with the study of nature naïve or outmoded? No. Carson’s call is all the more pressing today. Biological diversity is plummeting worldwide and our climate is dangerously destabilized. Yet mere abstract knowledge of these trends is not enough. Without emotional and aesthetic connection to the natural world, we’re dislocated from any reason for action.

So our homework assignment from Carson, fifty years after Silent Spring, is to get to know a tree, to listen to a bird and to smell the beauty of soil. By giving our attention to the ecology of our homes, we’ll find Carson’s most important legacy: wonder.

David George Haskell is the author of The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (Viking 2012). He is a Professor of Biology at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN.

Chattanooga Times Free Press, October 14th, 2012″