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“Her voice is deep, rich, and full of color; she speaks with her whole body, like a singer… Whatever she does is done with every fibre,” a Nebraskan journalist observed on the pages of the Lincoln Star after meeting the brilliant and reclusive Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) while she was working on the novel that would soon win her the Pulitzer Prize, having already written the one that prompted F. Scott Fitzgerald to despair that The Great Gatsby is a failure by comparison.
Perhaps because they conversed while walking in the autumn sunshine — something Cather, who found her greatest happiness in nature, had requested — and perhaps because the interviewer was also a woman in an era when so few women’s words and thoughts and experiences appeared on the printed page, the conversation that unfurled, later published in Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters (public library), remains the most candid and revealing glimpse of Cather’s creative credo, process, and philosophy of art — which is at bottom, always, a philosophy of life.
The two meandered beneath the fiery autumnal canopy near the home Cather shared with the love of her life, the conversation meandering accordingly in that natural synchrony between the foot and the mind, leaving the interlocutor to marvel:
The longer Miss Cather talks, the more one is filled with the conviction that life is a fascinating business and one’s own experience more fascinating than one had ever suspected it of being. Some persons have this gift of infusing their own abundant vitality into the speaker.
Cather had honed her own love of life — that essential wellspring of creative vitality — in childhood, roaming the wilderness on foot, on horseback, and in her parents’ farm wagon. As a young writer — not privileged, not straight, not resigned to the era’s conventional domestic destiny for a woman — she often worked until the small hours, ate no breakfast to save time and money, and learned to inhabit the world with the full-body presence that would soon give her novels their uncommonly transportive sensorial enchantment.
Contemplating the subject of creativity, Cather laments that nothing is more “fatal to the spirit of art” than the rise of what she aptly terms “superficial culture” — the commodification of art not as an instrument of aliveness but as a status symbol, pursued by rich ladies who “run about from one culture club to another studying Italian art out of a textbook and an encyclopedia and believing that they are learning something about it by memorizing a string of facts.” To her, the young black boy on the porch improvising a Verdi opera on his fiddle by ear — with no formal knowledge of what he is playing and no theoretical rationale for why it is so stirring his soul — “has more real understanding of Italian art than these esthetic creatures with a head and a larynx, and no organs that they get any use of, who reel you off the life of Leonardo da Vinci.”
The creative experience, Cather insists, is a matter of tuning into the inner feeling-tone strummed not by our cerebrations but by our creaturely relishment of the world.
Decades before poet and science historian Diane Ackerman rooted our creaturely and creative vitality in the delights of the senses, Cather echoes her contemporary Egon Schiele’s exhortation to “envy those who see beauty in everything in the world” and observes:
Art is a matter of enjoyment through the five senses. Unless you can see the beauty all around you everywhere, and enjoy it, you can never comprehend art.
A generation before the star teacher of Black Mountain College made her exquisite case for creativity as a way of being, arguing that art is made “with food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, or a wineglass, or a torch,” Cather adds:
Esthetic appreciation begins with the enjoyment of the morning bath. It should include all the activities of life… The farmer’s wife who raises a large family and cooks for them and makes their clothes and keeps house and on the side runs a truck garden and a chicken farm and a canning establishment, and thoroughly enjoys doing it all, and doing it well, contributes more to art than all the culture clubs. Often you find such a woman with all the appreciation of the beautiful bodies of her children, of the order and harmony of her kitchen, of the real creative joy of all her activities, which marks the great artist.
Lest we forget, there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.
In consonance with Rilke’s beautiful reflections on the reservoir of experiences required for creativity, Cather adds:
Many people seem to think that art is a luxury to be imported and tacked on to life. Art springs out of the very stuff that life is made of. Most of our young authors start to write a story and make a few observations from nature to add local color. The results are invariably false and hollow. Art must spring out of the fullness and the richness of life.
Complement with James Baldwin on what it means to be an artist, then revisit Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer and her moving letter to her brother about making art through times of inner turmoil.
The Theory of Everything (We Know So Far): The Ultimate Animated Primer on the Most Successful Model of Reality in the History of Humanity and Its Fertile Limits
Between the time Hypatia of Alexandria first pointed her pre-telescopic eye to the cosmos millennia before the notion of galaxies and the time Vera Rubin stood at the foot of the world’s most powerful telescope to confirm the existence of dark matter by observing how distant galaxies rotate, and in all the time before, and in all the time since, we have hungered to understand the forces that move the stars and the Moon and the mind. Ever since Galileo leaned on his artistic training in perspective to draw his astronomical observations intimating that the universe might not be what the theologians have claimed it to be, humanity has been on a passionate and disorienting quest to understand the nature of the mystery that made us.
Art from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)
In the centuries since, we have made staggering discoveries of fundamental forces swirling exotic particles into “the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.” Along the way, in our longing for a final theory of everything, we have been staggered by revelation after revelation that things are not what we previously thought them to be and beneath each layer of reality we have unpeeled lies another. The heavens are not a clockwork orrery of perfect orbs revolving around us in perfect circles. The cosmic wilderness is overgrown with a species of mystery we call dark matter and the fabric of spacetime is pocked with black holes the rims of which gape our Munchian scream at the sense that the universe remains a sweeping enigma whose native language we are only just beginning to decipher, naming our particles and composing our equations in the alphabet of a long-gone civilization that believed the Earth was flat and the stars were at its service.
Art from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)
Our yearning for a Theory of Everything has culminated in what we call the Standard Model — a conceptual map of all the known particles and the fundamental forces that govern them to make the universe cohere into everything we know and are. It is the most successful scientific theory in the history of our species. But it is rather a Theory of Everything We Know So Far, at once triumphal and tessellated with incompleteness.
The essence of that theory, its central contradictions, and how it contours the next layer of reality awaiting discovery is what theoretical physicist David Tong details in this animated primer for Quanta Magazine, drawing out discoveries and questions that punctuate the excellent anthology Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire: The Biggest Ideas in Science from Quanta (public library).
Complement with an animated look at the little loophole in the Big Bang model, then revisit the remarkable story of how Johannes Kepler revolutionized our understanding of the universe while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial.
“There is one book that I would rather have produced than all my novels,” Willa Cather rued in her most candid interview about creativity. That book was Rocky Mountain Flowers: An Illustrated Guide For Plant-Lovers and Plant-Users (public library | public domain) by the pioneering plant ecologist and botanical artist Edith Clements (1874–1971).
Together with her husband, the influential botanist Frederic Clements, she pioneered the science of plant ecology, lending empirical substantiation to her contemporary John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” In her 1960 memoir Adventures in Ecology: Half a Million Miles: From Mud to Macadam (public library), penned shortly before Rachel Carson awakened the modern ecological conscience with Silent Spring and half a century before the climate calamity we are now living, Edith Clements prophesied:
There seems little doubt that the application of the principles of ecology to human affairs, whether personal, national or world-wide, would go far in solving the problems that beset us.
Edith and Frederic Clements, early 1900s.
Having begun as Frederic’s doctoral student — the first woman awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, then an epicenter of botany and earth science — Edith went on to be his partner in science and life.
Young, passionate, and poor, they headed for the Rocky Mountains to build a research station for controlled study of how various environmental conditions impact plants, their acclimatization, and their relationships.
Nothing like this had been attempted before.
They called it The Dream.
In a stroke of necessity-dictated entrepreneurship, they set out to fund it into reality by coupling their scientific knowledge with Edith’s artistic talent to create an unexampled guide to the wildflowers of the Rockies, which they would then sell to scientific institutions.
Two centuries after the young self-taught botanist and artist Elizabeth Blackwell painted her astonishing encyclopedia of medicinal plants and as a century after the young Emily Dickinson composed her delicate herbarium of native New England wildflowers, the young Edith Clements began collecting, classifying, photographing, and painting 533 plant specimens from the mountains of Colorado for a meticulously annotated herbarium, completed in 1903 and followed by a second volume in 1904. It became the foundation of the book that would so enchanted Willa Cather a decade later.
With the income from the first herbarium, Edith and Frederic purchased a tiny cabin beneath a colossal pine on the side of a Colorado hill and set up the scientific instruments the university had lent.
The Dream became rugged reality and the shack became the first building of their Alpine Laboratory.
Over the years to follow, the single shack grew to a five-room cottage with a glass-enclosed veranda. Graduate students came to study with Edith and Frederic. Scholars visited from Japan, China, India, Australia, England, and continental Europe.
With graduate students and visiting scholars at the Alpine Laboratory.
Edith, Frederic, and graduate students descending the hill near the Alpine Laboratory.
Eventually, the government recognized how invaluable this work would be to the National Parks. Frederic was offered a paid position. Edith was not. They took the assignment anyway, together, and set out to study the reproduction of conifers in forests.
Edith and Frederic’s car stuck in a mud-hole during a field trip.
Edith and Frederic at work.
They climbed hills, crossed prairies, trekked into meadows and marshes, Frederic making notes and charts of the vegetation, Edith painting the wildflowers “until swarms of mosquitos made it impossible.”
As they worked, he whistled and she sang.
In quiet, bold contrast to the era’s appetite for impressionistic and abstract flower blossoms — this was the golden age of Georgia O’Keeffe — Edith painted the whole plant in its natural colors, with the correct number of petals and stamens. She called her paintings “portraits,” reflecting her determination to show people what plants are really like, with all the dazzling scientific complexity undergirding the aesthetic splendor.
In 1926, the editor of National Geographic encountered Edith’s plates of flower family trees, depicting the relationships and evolution of different plant families, and found them to be just the sort of thing to make readers “sit up and take notice.” He was right. When thirty-two of Edith’s paintings backboned a 7,000-word magazine feature about plant ecology in May 1927, the issue sold out in record time. Recognizing the allure of the framable flower illustrations, enterprising young people bought extra copies to resell at manyfold the price.
Plant ecology entered the popular imagination for the first time, via the portal of Edith’s botanical art.
Edith and Frederic went on to consult the newly founded Bureau of Soil Erosion, helped the Navajo Indian Reservation of New Mexico rewild a dismally overgrazed pasture, opposed the building of dams along the Missouri River, and were called on by numerous panicked government agencies when poor understanding of ecology in agriculture unleashed the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which devastated the ecosystem of an entire continent, made refugees of thousands of farmers, and inspired Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Frederic Clements atop a dust-swallowed farm during the Dust Bowl years. Photograph by Edith Clements.
The Clementses devised soil conservation methods for leveling Dust Bowl dunes and replanting them with native grasses and corn crops, mechanisms for diverting and conserving flood water, techniques for rewilding fire-denuded slopes.
As Edith and Frederic Clements pioneered the study of plant ecology together, they were celebrated as “the most illustrious husband-wife team since the Curies.” But their work was also seen as quixotic for its countercultural ethos, decades ahead of its time. In an era of world wars, when science was reduced to military technology and coopted as a handmaiden of dueling nationalisms, Edith and Frederic endeavored to advance the conservation of this one indivisible planet by better understanding the role of climate and the relationships between life-forms. Along the way, they raised and began answering such complex and previously unasked questions as what makes a forest a forest — questions that would unravel some of the most astonishing science of our time.
Edith and Frederic Clements, 1911.