This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — astronaut Leland Melvin reads Neruda’s love letter to Earth’s forests, a color spectrum of sadnesses as a portal to more vibrant aliveness, and more — you can catch up right here. And if you find any value and joy in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, as I have been for fourteen years, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Wander: Natascha McElhone Reads Hermann Hesse’s 100-Year-Old Love Letter to Trees in a Virtual Mental Health Walk Through Kew Gardens

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In the final years of his life, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks reflected on the physiological and psychological healing power of nature, observing that in forty years of medical practice, he had found only two types of non-pharmaceutical therapy helpful to his patients: music and gardens. It was in a garden, too, that Virginia Woolf, bedeviled by lifelong mental illness, found the consciousness-electrifying epiphany that enabled her to make some of humanity’s most transcendent art despite her private suffering.

When my dear friend Natascha McElhone (who narrated Figuring) was asked to choose a piece of literature with which to narrate a tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for an episode of Wander — a lovely series by filmmaker Beau Kerouac, benefiting Britain’s Mental Health Foundation and helping quarantined people virtually visit some of the world’s most beloved parks and cultural institutions, accompanied by some of the world’s most beloved literary and artistic voices — Natascha chose a wondrous 100-year-old love letter to trees by Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962), which she had saved from Brain Pickings nearly a decade ago. Originally published in Hesse’s 1920 collection of fragments, Wandering: Notes and Sketches (public library), it comes newly alive in this transportive, transcendent journey through the screen and past it, into a lush wonderland of nature’s aliveness, with two uncommonly beautiful voices as the sherpas.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngFor me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. 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 farmboy 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.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

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… Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

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“Perspective” by Maria Popova

For a lyrical kindred-spirited counterpart, visit one of Earth’s greatest forests with Pablo Neruda and astronaut Leland Melvin, then savor Amanda Palmer’s reading of Mary Oliver’s spare and splendid poem “When I Am Among the Trees” and this cinematic love letter to the wilderness, inspired by the great naturalist John Muir, who saw the universe as “an infinite storm of beauty.”

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ/WATCH ONLINE/Like https://www.brainpickings.org/2020/05/04/natascha-mcelhone-wander-hesse-kew/ on Facebook

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Every week for fourteen years, I have been pouring tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy and solace in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU. (If you’ve had a change of heart or circumstance and wish to rescind your support, you can do so at this link.)

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Love Beyond Label: Lisel Mueller’s Tender Poem About the Lush, Unclassifiable Bond Between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann

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Among the handful of things I have learned about life with the calm, quiet clarity of elemental knowing is one that bears repeating: The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos — but it is also a limiting one: In naming things, we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the richness of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them. Emily Dickinson knew this intimately — the extraordinary lifelong love she shared with Susan prompted her, after decades, to exult in verse: “Title divine — is mine! The Wife — without the Sign!”

Such loves — oceanic loves, vast and deep and wholly unfathomable to any shoreline observer — are luminous private miracles undimmed by the tattling irrelevance of the public. Among those loves was that between the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897) and the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896).

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Clara and Johannes first crossed orbits in 1853, when her beloved husband — the celebrated composer Robert Schumann — encountered in the twenty-year-old Brahms a talent so uncommon and promising that he immediately set about bringing the music world’s awed attention to it, writing impassioned letters to all the leading journals and auguring the young musician’s future fame.

Brahms was intensely grateful for the famed composer’s faith. But before the mentorship could fully blossom, Schumann’s already precarious mental health plummeted. Only four months after meeting Brahms, he attempted suicide by leaping into the Rhine from a bridge. He was rescued, but never recovered — he spent the remaining two years of his life in a private psychiatric institution, savaged by hallucinations and psychoses. Clara was left to raise their seven children alone. In an era when only the rarest women had artistic careers, or any careers at all, she leaned on her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to feed her children and secure them an education.

It was in that period of disorientation and bereavement that Clara came to correspond with Johannes directly — at first perhaps as an extension of her husband, who had seen much of himself in his young protégé, then as something… else, something sweeping and unclassifiable, beyond the reach of our bystander imaginations — a something that, over the lifetime of tender letters that followed, became an everything. “I would gladly write to you only by means of music,” Johannes would soon be telling Clara, “but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.” Even music — their common language, the language capable of expressing breadths and vicissitudes of emotion no words can express — was too small to hold the universe between them.

That private vastness is what Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) captures with stunning elegance and generosity in her poem “Romantics,” found in her altogether indispensable collected poems, Alive Together (public library).

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngROMANTICS

      Johannes Brahms and
Clara Schumann

The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth-century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.

Overhear a little — ever so little, but ever so beautiful — in these tender excerpts from Clara and Johannes’s surviving letters, then pair them with a lovely picture-book about love beyond label. For more of Mueller’s penetrating insight into the lives of the heart and the mind, savor her poems about how our frames of reference limit us and what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives.

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ/LISTEN ONLINE/Like https://www.brainpickings.org/2020/05/07/lisel-mueller-romantics/ on Facebook

And So It Goes: A Lyrical Illustrated Meditation on the Cycle of Life

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“What is it then between us? What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?” asked Walt Whitman in his iconic ode to the unstoppable succession of being as he contemplated the generations who, long after he has returned his borrowed atoms to the universe, would walk the same streets and traverse the same waters and burn with the same human passions. Half a century down this generational river, Rilke insisted that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” But even if, long after Whitman and Rilke have gone, the physicists have come to agree with the poets that our mortality is the wellspring of our existential vitality, it remains — and perhaps it shall always remain — a towering triumph for the human animal to view its own existence from this placid cosmic vantage point. To grow up is to learn to manufacture “antidotes to fear of death” — in marriages and mortgages, in products and possessions, in the various illusions of stability and permanence that allow us to go on averting our gaze from our finitude, from the fact that we too will one day be washed into the impartial waters of time.

This, perhaps, is why the not-yet-grown are the rare few in possession of an imagination spacious and porous enough to see the cycle of existence and non-existence as the basic mechanism of life, to see its beauty as that Rilkean portal to presence and love.

That is what Chilean illustrator Paloma Valdivia celebrates with great soulfulness and sensitivity in And So It Goes (public library), translated into English by Susan Ouriou — a lovely addition to these uncommonly wonderful children’s books about making sense of death.

Reading more like a poem than a story, and feeling very much like one, this lyrical meditation paints life as a wonderland of possibility, to be visited and relished, all the more intensely for the knowledge that we are only temporary visitors.

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Reminiscent of Jane Hirshfield’s spare and sublime poem “Jasmine,” the opening line is a subtle, tender reminder that we are but links in the chain of being, preceded by other links and, by inference, to be succeeded by others still: “Some have already left,” Valdivia writes, gently listing “the neighbor’s cat, Aunt Margarita,” and “the fish in yesterday’s soup” among the departed. “Others will arrive,” she adds. “Some were longed for, others come out of the blue.”

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As vignettes of loss and life unfold across the pages, grief and delight take turns — a see-saw, a syncopation — and from that clam rhythm emerges the naturalness, even the loveliness of the cycle.

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We are reminded, too, of how little we know, and how even littler we control — but even the passengers on Valdivia’s existential boat of uncertainty have curious, contented smiles as they bob on the ocean of life.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThose who leave don’t know where they’re going.

Their destination doesn’t depend on the wind or how old they are.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThose who arrive don’t know either.
Life’s just like that, it seems — up to chance.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWe don’t know when, but those who arrive will leave one day as well.

What arises from these illustrated verses, more than the sense that we are born of a mystery and die into a mystery, is the wondrous awareness that we live a mystery — that the true wonder is the interlude between the two, the visitation, the mirthful miraculousness of existing at all.

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Complement And So It Goes with Carson Ellis’s lyrical illustrated meditation on the eternal equilibrium of growth and decay and a subtle Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life, then pair it with a grownup counterpart in Carl Sagan’s wisdom on how to live with mystery.

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ ONLINE/Like https://www.brainpickings.org/2020/05/03/and-so-it-goes-paloma-valdivia/ on Facebook

donating=loving

Every week for fourteen years, I have been pouring tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy and solace in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU. (If you’ve had a change of heart or circumstance and wish to rescind your support, you can do so at this link.)

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.

Start Now Give Now

Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

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