Whitman's hymn to human nature, a forgotten Swiss masterpiece on the evolution of consciousness, the lost botanical art that inspired Emily Dickinson

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The Marginalian

Welcome Hello Reader! This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — Yo-Yo Ma performs Richard Feynman's ode to the wonder of life, the mystery of the world's most majestic tree, and more — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for more than fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive (as have I) thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

Emily Dickinson’s Botanical Inspiration: Stunning 19th-Century Flower Paintings by the Forgotten Artist and Poet Clarissa Munger Badger

“To be a flower,” Emily Dickinson wrote in her prescient ode to the interconnectedness of nature, “is profound responsibility.”

A passionate lifelong gardener, the poet had fallen under the spell of wildflowers while composing her astonishing herbarium as a teenager. But it was an uncommonly beautiful book her father gave her just before she turned thirty — not long after she wrote to an ill-suited suitor, “My flowers don’t know how far my thoughts wander away sometimes.” — that fueled her poetic passion for nature’s own garden: Wild Flowers Drawn and Colored from Nature (public library) by the botanical artist and poet Clarissa Munger Badger (May 20, 1806–December 14, 1889).

Wildflowers by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Violets by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Wood lily by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Published the year On the Origin of Species shook science and artistically modeled on The Moral of Flowers, with which the poet and painter Rebecca Hey had enchanted English readers a quarter century earlier, Badger’s book contained twenty-two exquisite scientifically accurate paintings of common New England wildflower species — violets and harebells, the rhododendron and the honeysuckle — each paired with a poem bridging the botanical and the existential: some by titans like Percival and Longfellow, some by long-forgotten poets of her time and place, some by Badger herself.

Poertrait of Clarissa Munger Badger, painted by Nathaniel Jocelyn in 1847 — the year Emily Dickinson’s only known photographic portrait was taken.

Wildflowers by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Harebell by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Rhododendron by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

For a taste of her fusion of playfulness and poignancy, here is a fragment from Badger’s ode to the rhododendron — a flowering wonder that was here when the dinosaurs roamed Earth, long before small warm-blooded mammals with large minds and poetic hearts evolved the opposable the thumbs to paint flowers and the consciousness to contemplate the meaning of life in a flower:

I charge thee, flower, of beauty born,
Lift not thy head too high,
For, like the lowliest of thy race,
Thou, too, wert born to die.

The Power that lifts thee to the sun,
And bends thee to the gale,
Doth watch, with equal care and love,
The Lily of the vale.

Wildflowers by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Cardinal flower by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Fringed gentian by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Red maple by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Wild rose by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Wild honeysuckle by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Wild Columbine by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Beauty-berry by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Yellow lily by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Sweet-brier by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Tulip-tree blossom by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Fringed Orchis by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Seven years later, as Bronson Alcott was contemplating the relationship between gardening and genius while raising his visionary daughter a state over in New England and Ernst Haeckel was coining the word ecology, Clarissa Munger Badger gave her wildflower masterpiece a domestic counterpart in Floral Belles from the Green-House and Garden (public library | public domain).

Bringing her brush to the beauty of the pansy and the lily, the day-blazing geranium and the night-blooming cactus, the tulip and the rose, and once again pairing her paintings with poems, she celebrated garden flowers as “brilliant hopes, all woven in gorgeous tissues,” as “stars… wherein we read our history” — a vibrant testament to Oliver Sacks’s clinically substantiated belief in the healing power of gardens.

Tulips by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Calla lily and poincettia by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Larkspur and Japan lily by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Passion-flower by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Salvia and dielytra by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Cactus bloom by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Fuchsia by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Geranium by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Pansies by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Moss rose by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Rose of Gethsemane by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Aster by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Night-blooming cereus cactus by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Flowers by Clarissa Munger Badger. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Couple with these stunning French botanical drawings of some of Earth’s most otherworldly plants from Badger’s epoch, then leap forward a century with pioneering plant ecologist Edith Clements’s Rocky Mountain wildflower drawings, then leap back two with the self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell’s gorgeous illustrations from the world’s first pictorial encyclopedia of medicinal plants, then straddle the centuries with this layered reflection on flowers and the meaning of life, starring Emily Dickinson and The Little Prince, then slake your soul on this:

donating=loving

Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) going. For fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor has made your own life more livable in the past year (or the past decade), please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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Kosmos: Artist Dustin Yellin Reads Walt Whitman’s Timeless Hymn to Human Nature as a Miniature of the Universe

“We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” Loren Eiseley wrote in his exquisite meditation on our search for meaning. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.” Meanwhile, the poetic physicist Richard Feynman was remembering the miracle while standing at the seashore, remembering that we are each “atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity… a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.”

A century before Eiseley and Feynman, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) became the poet laureate of this atomic miracle, reminding us again and again, across space and time, across confusion and erasure, that to cherish ourselves is to cherish the universe and to cherish the universe is to cherish ourselves.

Walt Whitman in the 1850s (Library of Congress)

He called himself a “kosmos,” spelled after the title of Humboldt’s epoch-making book, which had lit up Whitman’s formative imagination and had awakened humanity to the interconnectedness of nature with the poetically phrased proclamation that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.”

He called his most intimate poems, which were also his most universal, Song of Myself — a hymn to human nature itself, to its numberless and fathomless fractal manifestations in particular selves, reverberating with the eternal truth that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

One of artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare century-old English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In the early spring of 2020, epochs after Whitman, with humanity furling into fetal position amid a global lockdown, feeling at once more fragile and more connected than ever before in our shared lifetime, Whitman’s ethos came alive anew, his cosmic songs resonant with tones we needed to hear more than ever — tones that both soothe and vivify the discomposed soul dwelling then in each of us fractals of the world-soul.

In the wake of the disorientation, as I endeavored to go on with the annual Universe in Verse — to preserve its spirit as a celebration of life in an atmosphere of deadly terror — I could think of no better person to inspirit Whitman’s poem “Kosmos” than my friend, neighbor, and co-dreamer of improbable dreams Dustin Yellin — a visionary artist animated by the questions of a physicist, or a child, and the answers of a poet, or a child; founder of Pioneer Works, without which there would be no Universe in Verse; composer of five-ton poems of glass, color, and stainless steel; a creature of unselfconscious multitudes: part Plato, part Frida Kahlo, part The Little Prince.

Psychogeographies by Dustin Yellin

Two springs later, as humanity slowly unfurls, newly awakened to the kosmos of connection that binds us to each other and to the great living poem of a reality in which not one atom can be considered in isolation, Whitman returns to remind us that each and every one of us is the survivor not only of a deadly pandemic but of myriad cataclysms stretching back to the Big Bang — a miraculous miniature of the universe itself.

KOSMOS
by Walt Whitman

Who includes diversity and is Nature,
Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of the earth, and the great charity of the earth and the equilibrium also,
Who has not look’d forth from the windows the eyes for nothing, or whose brain held audience with messengers for nothing,
Who contains believers and disbelievers, who is the most majestic lover,
Who holds duly his or her triune proportion of realism, spiritualism, and of the aesthetic or intellectual,
Who having consider’d the body finds all its organs and parts good,
Who, out of the theory of the earth and of his or her body understands by subtle analogies all other theories,
The theory of a city, a poem, and of the large politics of these States;
Who believes not only in our globe with its sun and moon, but in other globes with their suns and moons,
Who, constructing the house of himself or herself, not for a day but for all time, sees races, eras, dates, generations,
The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.

Complement with Emily Dickinson’s ode to the interconnectedness of nature, brought to life as an animated song, then revisit Meshell Ndegeocello’s enchanting performance of Whitman’s own ode to the interconnectedness of nature.

The Ever-Present Origin: Swiss Poet, Philosopher, and Linguist Jean Gebser’s Prescient 1949 Vision for the Evolution of Consciousness

“Time is being and being time, it is all one thing, the shining, the seeing, the dark abounding,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her splendid “Hymn to Time” shortly before she returned her borrowed being to eternity.

In 1932, when Le Guin was only just beginning her being, when humanity was still reeling from its first global war and seething with the forces about to stir the second, the Swiss poet, philosopher, and linguist Jean Gebser (August 20, 1905–May 14, 1973) saw, in what he later described as a “lightning-like flash of inspiration,” the elemental disruption of the human spirit pulsating beneath the savage tumults of the surface: our altered relationship with time — a transformation catalyzed by the Galilean dawn of timekeeping in the sixteenth century, accelerated by the invention of motion photography in the nineteenth, and exploded by the birth of relativity in the twentieth.

Jean Gebser

Gebser, who swam in Jung’s circles and drank at Rilke’s fount, realized that for us creatures of time, creatures whose very consciousness is woven of temporality, an altered relationship with time is an altered relationship with ourselves — inner upheaval so profound on the scale of the individual, and so total on the scale of the species, that every major upheaval in the outer world can be traced to it when followed back closely and lucidly enough. To live more harmoniously with ourselves and each other, Gebser concluded, demands nothing less than a recalibration of our relationship with time itself.

For seventeen years, through the next World War and its aftermath, he turned these ideas over in his mind, turned them into poetry and turned them into prose, eventually distilling them in the 1949 masterwork The Ever-Present Origin (public library) — an effort “to render transparent our own origin, our entire human past, as well as the present, which already contains the future.”

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

Gebser writes:

Origin is ever-present. It is not a beginning, since all beginning is linked with time. And the present is not just the “now,” today, the moment or a unit of time. It is ever-originating, an achievement of full integration and continuous renewal. Anyone able to “concretize,” i.e., to realize and effect the reality of origin and the present in their entirety, supersedes “beginning” and “end” and the mere here and now.

Writing at first for his own generation, Gebser came to find as the years unspooled into decades that the subject was not only timeless but rediscovered with ever-growing urgency by the next generation. In a passage of astonishing resonance for our own time, he observes:

The crisis we are experiencing today is not just… a crisis of morals, economics, ideologies, politics or religion. It is not only prevalent in Europe and America but in Russia and the Far East as well. It is a crisis of the world and mankind such as has occurred previously only during pivotal junctures — junctures of decisive finality for life on earth and for the humanity subjected to them. The crisis of our times and our world is in a process — at the moment autonomously — of complete transformation, and appears headed toward an event which… can only be described as a “global catastrophe.” … We must soberly face the fact that only a few decades separate us from that event. This span of time is determined by an increase in technological feasibility inversely proportional to man’s sense of responsibility — that is, unless a new factor were to emerge which would effectively overcome this menacing correlation.

To ward off the menace, Gebser cautions, we need to find this “new factor,” to seize it for all it is worth and wrest from it the transformation — which he calls a “mutation” of consciousness — necessary for ensuring our continuance as a planetary species.

In a sentiment evocative of the Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön’s insight that “only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” he writes:

If we do not overcome the crisis it will overcome us; and only someone who has overcome himself is truly able to overcome… Either time is fulfilled in us — and that would mean the end and death for our present earth and (its) mankind — or we succeed in fulfilling time: and this means integrality and the present, the realization and the reality of origin and presence.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering 19th-century astronomical drawings. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

Gebser anchors his argument in the fundament fact of time, out of which arises the poetic truth of the present:

As the origin before all time is the entirety of the very beginning, so too is the present the entirety of everything temporal and time-bound, including the effectual reality of all time phases: yesterday, today, tomorrow, and even the pre-temporal and timeless.

With an eye to how the Renaissance discovery of perspective in art and architecture radicalized our relationship to space, thus revolutionizing our consciousness itself, Gebser argues that a similar transformation needs to take place in our relationship to time — a shift from the “unperspectival” past to a properly perspectival present that opens the portal to an “aperspectival” future, something beyond perspective, implying a fully integrated and interconnected consciousness indivisible into separate perspectives — the ultimate way of achieving perspective,” we might say. In a sentiment of staggering prescience nearly a century later — which is also a touching testament to our being a perennial work in progress that continually mistakes itself for near-complete — he writes:

The condition of today’s world cannot be transformed by technocratic rationality, since both technocracy and rationality are apparently nearing their apex; nor can it be transcended by preaching or admonishing a return to ethics and morality, or in fact, by any form of return to the past.

We have only one option: in examining the manifestations of our age, we must penetrate them with sufficient breadth and depth that we do not come under their demonic and destructive spell. We must not focus our view merely on these phenomena, but rather on the humus of the decaying world beneath, where the seedlings of the future are growing, immeasurable in their potential and vigor. Since our insight into the energies pressing toward development aids their unfolding, the seedlings and inceptive beginnings must be made visible and comprehensible.

Coffee plant and bean from French artist Étienne Denisse’s luscious 19th-century natural history drawings of some of Earth’s most otherworldly fruit and flowers. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting the New York Botanical Garden.)

A new consciousness and a new reality, Gebser cautions, can only arise from a more intimate and examined knowledge of the past and its pitfalls — “a consciousness of the whole, an integral consciousness encompassing all time and embracing both man’s* distant past and his approaching future as a living present,” which is not an intellectual but a spiritual orientation to time. In a lovely antidote to the diffusion of responsibility that marks our social species — and that, in its most urgent present manifestation, has landed us in our climate catastrophe — he roots us back into the tiny, infinite locus of our personal potentiality:

If our consciousness, that is, the individual person’s awareness, vigilance, and clarity of vision, cannot master the new reality and make possible its realization, then the prophets of doom will have been correct. Other alternatives are an illusion; consequently, great demands are placed on us, and each one of us have been given a grave responsibility, not merely to survey but to actually traverse the path opening before us.

Gebser argues that it is only by rendering transparent “the concealed and latent aspects” of our dawning future, in those vital periods of transition, that we come to fully “clarify our own experiencing of the present.” Affirming humanistic contemporary Erich Fromm’s insistence on the need to move beyond the simplistic divide of optimism and pessimism, Gebser calls for “overcoming the mere antithesis of affirmation and negation” as essential to this evolution in consciousness by which we can attain the new reality — “a reality functioning and effectual integrally, in which intensity and action, the effective and the effect co-exist; one where origin… blossoms forth anew; and one in which the present is all-encompassing and entire.”

He adds an essential disclaimer consonant with the basic ethos of The Marginalian, reverberating with the reason I spend my days and nights with long-gone visionaries like Gebser:

Before we can discern the new, we must know the old.

Guide to the Temple of Time by the visionary 19th-century cartographer and information designer Emma Willard. (Available as a print.)

Looking back on the history of ideas — which is the history of our resistance to change, strewn with what David Byrne called “sleeping beauties”: creative and intellectual breakthroughs that lay dormant for centuries and millennia, rejected by their contemporaries, only to be affirmed and accepted epochs later — Gebser considers Democritus’s atomic theory, two millennia ahead of particle physics, and Zeno’s anticipation of relativity, worlds ahead of Einstein, and writes:

These inceptions were all anticipations, the seedlings as it were, of later blossoms that could not flourish with visible and immediate effect in their respective ages, since they were denied receptive soil and sustenance.

In a sentiment Bertrand Russell would echo two years later in the seventh of his ten commandments of critical thinking for a more possible future — “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Gebser adds:

Acceptance and elucidation of the “new” always meets with strong opposition, since it requires us to overcome our traditional, our acquired and secure ways and possessions. This means pain, suffering, struggle, uncertainty, and similar concomitants which everyone seeks to avoid whenever possible.

In the remainder of The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser goes on to explore the three consciousness structures that have marked the history of our species — the magic, the mystical, and the mental: all springing from origin, but each successive one increasing the intensity of consciousness. Dismantling the limiting dualism of Western thought along the way, he delivers a lucid, luminous vision for a different way of being: freer, more present, more whole.

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller.

In the postscript to the book, penned in the early 1950s amid a world scarred by two World Wars and newly petrified with the terror of the Cold War, Gebser calls out to the highest and most courageous part of us, the part even more assaulted by the mass cowardice of cynicism in our own time, amid the transitional world we live in, the world Gebser presaged:

At a time when mankind is suffering… from scepticism and suspicion or… from ideological anxiety, anyone audacious enough to recall some basic values that run counter to the superficial course of events and seem to lack any immediate “efficiency” in a world given over to quantification is all too readily dismissed as being, in the familiar clichés, “unrealistic” and “idealistic.” These are perhaps the most innocuous of the terms used by those who confuse realism with material utility and thus fall prey to a dualistic fallacy even where it has nothing to do with idealism. As a type, they lack perception of those powers of which realism and idealism are only conceptual and classifying aspects. In addition there is the obstinacy resisting change which emerges even where it is obvious that it is unable to resolve an intractable problem. A person for whom the present, even during his or her finest hours, is no more than a time-bound moment, will not participate in the emerging transformation. Only those will succeed for whom the present becomes a time-free origin, a perpetual plenitude and source of life and spirit from which all decisive constellations and formations are completed.

Plate from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe by Thomas Wright, 1750. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

A short verse from “Das Wintergedicht” — the long 1944 “Winter Poem” through which Gebser first gave shape to the ideas that became The Ever-Present Origin, composed in a single forty-five-minute burst of creative force — captures the heart of his timeless and atemporal insight into the urgency of being:

Who speaks of the future?
Who counts
in saying:
“It shall be”?
Look outward
and you see within:
It is.

Complement with physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic meditation on time and the antidote to our existential anxiety, then revisit the nineteenth-century psychiatrist and mountaineer Maurice Bucke’s pioneering theory of cosmic consciousness, formulated half a century before Gebser, and cosmologist Stephon Alexander, writing a century after him, on dreams, consciousness, and the nature of the universe.

donating=loving

Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) going. For fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor has made your own life more livable in the past year (or the past decade), please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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.
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Plus, a guide to the Spanish capital of grilled fish ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌

12 Summer Salad Recipes That Use The Season's Best Ingredients

Monday, May 23, 2022

Summer Salad Recipe Upgrades Get Allrecipes Magazine 12 Easy Summer Salad Recipes That Use The Season's Best Ingredients REAL SIMPLE If you'd like to take your greens game up a notch and wow