This is the brainpickings.org weekly digest by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — Georgia O’Keeffe on the art of seeing, the Dalai Lama on science and spirituality, Jane Welsh Carlyle on loving vs. being in love — you can catch up right here. And if you’re enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
Walt Whitman saw trees — “so innocent and harmless, yet so savage” — as a wellspring of wisdom on being rather than seeming. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse exulted in his love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”
Two generations earlier, another poet laureate of nature and the human spirit made trees a centerpiece of his emotional universe. For Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), there were creative and spiritual companions, sane-making and essential. His love of them comes alive in Thoreau and the Language of Trees (public library) — a selection of the great Transcendentalist poet and philosopher’s meditations on trees, drawn from his two-million-word journal by writer and photographer Richard Higgins, whose beautiful black-and-white photographs complement Thoreau’s arboreal writings.
Thoreau reverenced trees as living incantations, wordless prayers, benedictions for the art of being. In their company, he found a counterpoint to the falsehoods of society. Fifteen years after his mentor Emerson lamented in his own journal that “in cities… one seems to lose all substance, & become surface in a world of surfaces,”Thoreau redoubles his insistence on defining one’s own success and writes in a diary entry from January of 1857:
In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home… It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.
Four decades later, Whitman — who was two years younger than Thoreau but long outlived him — would record a kindred sentiment in his own notebook: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”
Complement the thoroughly elevating Thoreau and the Language of Treeswith Rachel Carson on our scientific and spiritual bond with nature and David George Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most interesting trees taught him about life, then revisit Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of walking, knowing vs. seeing, the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, and how to use civil disobedience to advance justice.
Stranger in the Village: James Baldwin’s Prophetic Insight into Race and Reality, with a Shimmering Introduction by Gwendolyn Brooks
“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) wrote as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves in 1960. Twenty-six years later, in the last spring of his life, Baldwin — by then one of the world’s most formidable forces of cultural transfiguration — visited the Library of Congress on the invitation of Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks — the trailblazing poet who had become the first black writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize thirty-six years earlier — had chosen Baldwin for the event concluding her appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States. Nearly eighty at the time, she would far outlive him and would come to recognize, in the discomfiting hindsight of history, his profound and prophetic insight into the frayed fabric of his society, as well as his enduring wisdom on what it would take to reweave it.
The event, a recording of which is preserved in the Library of Congress archives, would be one of Baldwin’s last major public appearances. Brooks introduces him with these shimmering words:
You know the phrase larger than life. If that phrase is valid at all, it likes James Baldwin. This man has dared to confront and examine himself, ourselves, and the enigmas between. Many have been called prophets, but here is a bona fide prophet. Long ago, he guaranteed “the fire next time” — no more water, but fire next time. Virtually the following day, we, smelling smoke, looked up and found ourselves surrounded by leering, singing fire. I wonder how many others have regarded this connection. And, no, James Baldwin did not start the fire — he foretold its coming. He was a pre-reporter — he was a prophet.
His friends enjoy calling him Jimmy, and that is easy to understand — the man is love personified. He has a sweet, soft, lay, loving, enduring smile. [Baldwin smiles, audience laughs]. He has a voice that can range from eerie effortless menace — menace educational and creative — to this low, cradling, insinuating, and involving love. This love is at once both father and son to a massive concern — a concern for his own people, surely, but for the cleansing, the extension of all the world’s categories. No less, surely, since he knows, surely, that the fortunes of these over here affect inevitably those over there.
Essayist, novelist, poet, playwright, new French Legion of Honor medalist, human being being human: James Baldwin.
Baldwin proceeds to read from his work, beginning with the ending of an essay he had written more than three decades earlier, during his short stay in the small Swiss village of Chartres at the outset of his life in Europe, titled “Stranger in the Village” and later published in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library). Composed in 1953 — the same cultural moment in which is compatriot and fellow prophet Rachel Carson was bringing her own prescience to the other great problem of their time, which also remains unsolved in ours — the essay stuns with its timeliness today and stands testament to Baldwin’s singular gift as a prophet and seer into past, present, and future.
The cathedral at Chartres… says something to the people of this village which it cannot say to me; but it is important to understand that, this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them. Perhaps they are struck by the power of the spires, the glory of the windows; but they have known God, after all, longer than I have known him, and in a different way, and I am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone and seeming to say that God and the devil can never be divorced. I doubt that the villagers think of the devil when they face a cathedral because they have never been identified with the devil. But I must accept the status which myth, if nothing else, gives me in the West before I can hope to change the myth.
In a passage of bone-chilling prescience, affirming Zadie Smith’s insistence that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Baldwin adds:
Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world — which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white — owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us — very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will — that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.
In a sentiment that reverberates with astonishing relevance three generations later, Baldwin — America’s poet laureate of “the doom and glory of knowing who you are”— concludes by framing the difficult reality we must face rather than flee from in order to nurture a nobler, healthier, and more just society:
The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.
The Price of the Ticket — which also gave us Baldwin on the creative process, our capacity for transformation as individuals and nations, and his definition of love — remains an indispensable and indeed prophetic read. Complement it with Baldwin on resisting the mindless of majority, how he learned to truly see, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, his advice on writing, his historic conversation with Margaret Mead about forgiveness and responsibility, and his only children’s book, then revisit Gwendolyn Brooks on vulnerability as strength and her advice to writers.
When the 29-year-old Charles Darwin made his endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage, he was applying a now common decision-making technique pioneered half a century earlier by another revolutionary mind on the other side of the Atlantic: America’s polymathic Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706–April 17, 1790).
Not since the Stoics had there been so prolific a prophet of self-improvement as Franklin. From the list of thirteen virtues he penned when he was only twenty to his staggering daily routine to his clever trick for disarming haters, he continually devised and applied various psychological frameworks to just about every problem of existence. By middle age, Franklin’s reputation as a formidable sage of practical wisdom rendered him on the receiving end of countless pleas for advice, many of which he generously and thoughtfully obliged.
In the late summer of 1772, Franklin received one such plea from a friend — the English scientist, theologian, and liberal political theorist Joseph Priestley, at the time working as minister of the famed Unitarian church Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds. On Franklin’s recommendation, the Earl of Shelburne had offered the 39-year-old Priestley a lucrative position as his general assistant, tasked with managing his library and educating his children. Priestley was torn — the appointment would grant him financial stability for the first time in his life and would leave ample time for his scientific investigations, but it would require that he relinquish his ministry and move his family to the Earl’s estate near Bath. Unsure how to proceed, he turned to Franklin for help in navigating the high-stakes conundrum.
Rather than telling his friend what to choose, Franklin taught him how to choose. His letter, cited in Steven Johnson’s excellent book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most (public library), outlined a sort of worksheet for the moral mathematics of decision-making — the first known instance of a pros and cons framework.
In the Affair of so much Importance to you, wherein you ask my Advice, I cannot for want of sufficient Premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how.
When these difficult Cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under Consideration all the Reasons pro and con are not present to the Mind at the same time; but sometimes one Set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of Sight. Hence the various Purposes or Inclinations that alternately prevail, and the Uncertainty that perplexes us.
To get over this, my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.
And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.
Priestley accepted the position, which proved to be a turning point in the history of science. Less than three years later, in the laboratory the Earl of Shelburne built for him, he went on to conduct the famous experiment in which he focused the sun’s rays on a sample of mercuric oxide through a burning glass and discovered oxygen, O2 — a new kind of air Priestley marveled was “five or six times better than common air for the purpose of respiration, inflammation, and, I believe, every other use of common atmospherical air.”
Complement this particular fragment of the altogether insightful Farsighted with Descartes on the cure for indecision, Milan Kundera on knowing what we really want, Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman on how our intuitions mislead us, and Oliver Burkeman on the psychology of why overplanning and excessive goal-setting limit our happiness and success, then revisit Franklin on the truest source of happiness.
1Did you know…
… that today is Mousetrap Day? In 1952, Agatha Christie’s play “Mousetrap” debuted in London. The play became so popular that it set a world record for the longest continuous run at one theater. In 2002, the play marked its 20,807th performance!
Today’s Inspirational Quote:
“Health does not always come from medicine. Sometimes it comes from peace of mind, peace in the heart, peace in the soul. It comes from laughter and love.”
— Author Unknown
Blanket heat prepares for fete
“Fear of Better Options (FOBO) is The Reason You Can’t Make a Tough Decision” by Thomas Oppong https://link.medium.com/TJ5fkoPz7R
Passions are often confused with hobbies, but there is a critical difference. A hobby is “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.”Passions, on the other hand, are not relaxing. … We think of a passion as something we love, an overwhelming feeling of devotion and obsession.
Everything is fun
Doing great creative work
Getting great results from what I share
Having perfect friendships
Enjoying abundant ease and comfort between creative activity