This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — Alan Watts on love, the essence of freedom, and the antidote to fear; Eula Biss on immunity, sanity, and health as communal trust; Newton and trees — you can catch up right here. If my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation – for a decade and a half, I have spent tens of thousands of hours, made many personal sacrifices, and invested tremendous resources in Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
“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?” the aging Walt Whitman asked in his diary as he contemplated what makes life worth living while recovering from a paralytic stroke, then answered: “Nature remains… the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”
A century after Whitman’s birth, on the other side of a globe newly disillusioned with its own humanity after the First World War, a young Japanese man was embarking on a life of celebrating the inexhaustible consolations of nature in uncommonly poetic visual art.
Born into a Tokyo family of rope and thread merchants, Hasui Kawase (May 18, 1883–November 7, 1957) grew up dreaming of becoming an artist. His parents pressed him to continue in their path, but he persisted in following his own, drawing quiet inspiration from the example of his maternal uncle — the creator of the first manga magazine.
He did take over the family business, but he was moonlighting in art while running it — sketching from nature, copying one master’s woodblock prints, learning brush painting from another.
Sunset at Ichinokura, 1928. (Available as a print.)
When the business went bankrupt in the early twentieth century, the twenty-six-year-old Kawase devoted himself wholly to art, applying to apprentice with one of the great masters of transitional Japanese woodblock printing. The master rejected him, encouraging him to broaden his sensibility and to develop his style by studying Western painting first. The young man obliged.
Two years later, he applied again.
The master accepted him, conferring upon him the lyrical name Hasui — an ideogram of his family name fused with the name of his boyhood school, most closely translated translated as “water springing from the source.”
Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931. (Available as a print.)
Hasui was thirty-five — the age Whitman was when he staggered the world with his Leaves of Grass — when he made his artistic debut with a series of experimental woodblock prints, depicting the mostly empty streets of Tokyo and the unpeopled landscapes of the countryside.
As he began his next series, nature and night beckoned to him more and more .
Moon Over Akebi Bridge, 1935. (Available as a print.)
And then, on an otherwise ordinary Saturday the autumn after his fortieth birthday, the convergence boundary between two tectonic plates deep in the body of the Earth ruptured, unleashing the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923. It leveled his workshop, destroying the finished woodblocks and fomenting in him an even more intimate sense of the sublimity of nature.
Autumn Rainbow at Hatta, Kaga, 1924. (Available as a print.)
Winter Moon at Toyamagahara, 1931. (Available as a print.)
Spring Night at Inokashira, 1931. (Available as a print.)
In landscape after landscape, the majestic silhouettes of the matsu (Japan’s iconic pine trees, symbols of fortitude and courage) and the sugi (the enormous old-growth cedars, symbols of power and longevity) reach into the noctrune toward the crescent and lean into the gloaming hour, backlit by the full Moon.
Crescent Moon and Tea Houses, Kanazawa, 1920s. (Available as a print.)
Hikawa Park in Omiya, 1930. (Available as a print.)
Moon over Arakawa River, 1929. (Available as a print.)
In the final year of his life, the Japanese government classified Hasui as a Living National Treasure. Comparable to the American National Medal of Arts and Humanities, Japan’s highest civilian honor is bestowed upon those whose life’s work renders them, in what may be the most poetic government certification in any language, “Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties.”
Kankai Pavilion at Wakaura Beach, 1950. (Available as a print.)
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“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote into the void of self-elected obscurity decades before her work was posthumously rediscovered as a rare masterpiece of landscape poetics irradiated by the human search for meaning. A generation later, another trailblazing woman of uncommon poetic sensibility and intimate relationship to the land echoed the sentiment in her own art, into her native canyons of the American Southwest: “It’s true that landscape forms the mind. If I stand here long enough I’ll learn how to sing.”
In 1989, long before she became Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo entwined visions with the astronomer and photographer Stephen Strom in Secrets from the Center of the World (public library) — a slender, splendid installment in the University of Arizona’s wonderful Sun Tracks series, celebrating Native American literary art long before Native representation rose to the fore of the American mainstream, long before the English language awakened to how deeply its etymological reliance on the Earth permeates words as mundane as mainstream.
Emerging from the lovely call-and-response between Strom’s photographs and Harjo’s short lyrical reflection is a subtle meditation on the interpenetration of place and mind, of landscape and the human spirit. Contemplating the ochre canyons and the golden valleys, the pleated sierras and the billowing mudhills, the frosty branches of the winter trees and the summer-blazed strata of sandstone, she unfolds the origami of deep time into a note some ghost-mother left for her ghost-child long ago on the edge of the kitchen table, on the edge of the world, inscribed with the meaning of being human.
This land is a poem of ochre and burnt sand I could never write, unless paper were the sacrament of sky, and ink the broken line of wild horses staggering the horizon several miles away. Even then, does anything written ever matter to the earth, wind, and sky?
If all events are related, then what story does a volcano erupting in Hawaii, the birth of a woman’s second son near Gallup, and this shoulderbone of earth made of a mythic monster’s anger construct? Nearby a meteor crashes. Someone invents aerodynamics, makes wings. The answer is like rushing wind: simple faith.
Strom — who received his doctoral degree from Harvard, studied the formation of star and planetary systems at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, taught astronomy in Emily Dickinson’s hometown for a decade and a half, and spent three decades photographing the Southwest — renders Earth otherworldly in his photographs, spare and solitary, edged in by invisible implied horizons, the way the desert implies life, the way poetry makes life visible. Revealing the fractal patterning of nature, his subtle geometries of shape and color reach beyond the three spatial dimensions to intimate the dimension of time.
These smoky bluffs are old traveling companions, making their way through millennia. Ask them if you want to know about the true meaning of history. You’ll have to offer them something more than one good story, and need to understand the patience of stones.
Harjo — a member of the Creek Nation — meets the cosmological sensibility of the photographs with a private cosmogony drawn from that ancient human impulse to locate ourselves in relation to the universe, to make meaning in the sliver of spacetime on which chance has perched us to live out our lives between the scale of protozoa and the scale of galaxies. She envelops each photograph in a short prose-poem that takes the image as its origin point of contemplation, then radiates centrifugally into a miniature universe of metaphor and meaning-making — the mark of all great poetry.
Near Round Rock is a point of balance between two red stars. Here you may enter galactic memory, disguised as a whirlpool of sand, and discover you are pure event mixed with water, occurring in time and space, as sheep, a few goats, graze, keep watch nearby.
My house is the red earth; it could be the center of the world. I’ve heard New York, Paris, or Tokyo called the center of the world, but I say it is magnificently humble. You could drive by and miss it. Radio waves can obscure it. Words cannot construct it, for there are some sounds left to sacred wordless form. For instance, that fool crow, picking through trash near the corral, understands the center of the world as greasy strips of fat. Just ask him. He doesn’t have to say that the earth has turned scarlet through fierce belief, after centuries of heartbreak and laughter — he perches on the blue bowl of the sky, and laughs.
My cheek is flat against memory described by stone and lichen. The center of the world is within reach. It is as familiar as your name, as strange as monsters in your sleep.
Harjo looks at the Moon and sees “an ancient mountain lion who shifts his bones on a starry branch,” looks at the branches of the tamaracks and sees crows “leaning over the edge of the world, tasting the wind blown up from a pool of newly born planets,” looks at the land and sees its elemental poetry, sees how it humbles her own art, her own existence, every human existence and all of our art.
East of Nazlini, going up toward Fort Defiance Plateau, winter by Stephen Strom
In winter it is easier to see what my death might look like, over there, disappearing into the misty, spotted rocks.
I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars, and know anything of meaning, of the fierce magic emerging here. I am witness to flexible eternity, the evolving past, and I know we will live forever, as dust or breath in the face of stars, in the shifting pattern of winds.
In his revelatory 1956 classic The Art of Loving, the humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) dared defy millennia of cultural distortion, setting out to heal our most damaging inheritance from the Romantics and to correct Freud’s limited, limiting theories with a new lens on love, radical and realistic: For centuries, our culture conditioned us to “see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving,” which in turn conditioned us to believe that the hardest thing about love is finding the right person to love us, but once we do, love is easy.
Drawing on his work with patients and on emerging ideas in humanistic philosophy that had only just begun revising the old narratives of religion and Romanticism, he observed that the key to love is to treat it not as a noun — a state to be found and possessed — but as a verb — a practice to be mastered. The difficult work is the mastering, which then confers ease upon love between those who have done this work — the work which Rilke well knew “is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
An inheritor to Fromm’s work born a century after the publication his masterpiece, the Belgian-American philosopher-psychotherapist Esther Perel — author of the modern classic Mating in Captivity, creator of the insightful and pleasantly disquieting Where Should We Begin? “podcast for anyone who has ever loved” — picks up where Fromm left off in this lovely animated adaptation of her On Being interview, exploring the essential elements of love as a practice, the delicate relationship between play and risk, the cyclical nature of passion, the osmosis of desire and self-worth, and how the concept of ambiguous loss illuminates the modern experience of loneliness:
Trust in all your senses to avoid being blinded by one. Men trust their ears less than their eyes. (Herodotus) ========== It’s never impossible to show kindness. Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. (Dalai Lama)
Saving It For Yesterday. ——————— A Stranger Today Can Be A Friend Tomorrow. ——————— A Library Is Meaningless Without Readers. ——————— Not Even Bones. ——————— A Promise Now Broken Is Best Not Spoken. ———————