Poet Donald Hall on the secret to lasting love, Bruce Springsteen's strategy for living through depression, and the strange story of the avocado

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The Marginalian

Welcome Hello Reader! This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — the revolutionary 1964 model of human relationships that changed how we (mis)understand ourselves and each other, the bittersweet true story of the real-life peaceful bull that inspired the beloved children's classic Ferdinand, 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 sixteen 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.

Bruce Springsteen on Surviving Depression and His Strategy for Living Through the Visitations of the Darkness

It starts with a low hum that adheres itself to the underbelly of the hours like another dimension. Gradually, surreptitiously, the noise swells to a bellowing bass line, until it drowns out the symphony of life.

It can last for days or months or entire seasons of being. It visited Keats frequently in his short life, leaving him with a mind empty of ideas and hands heavy as lead. It rendered Lorraine Hansberry “cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired.” It drove Abraham Lincoln to the brink of suicide.

If you are lucky enough, if you have the right aids of science, social support, and chance, one day you look over the shoulder of time and, like the poet Jane Kenyon, gasp in grateful incomprehension: “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?” But until that moment comes, as William Styron so vividly observed in his classic bridge of empathy, “the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain.”

Among the legion of us soaked by the drizzle is one of the most beloved artists of our epoch, whose music has made life brighter and more livable for generations.

Bruce Springsteen driving cross-country in 1987. (Photograph from Born to Run.)

In his memoir, Born to Run (public library), Bruce Springsteen writes about his father’s “long, drawn-out depressions,” often so debilitating that he could not rise from bed for days, and about his own tumble toward the edge of the abyss quarried by his genetic inheritance and the darknesses of his childhood, and about what kept him from falling. “God help Bruce Springsteen when they decide he’s no longer God,” John Lennon reflected in his most personal interview, but no outside “they” — no critic, no cry from the public — ever measures up to the inner chorus of anguish that most cruelly lowers an artist from the pedestal of their creative power and into the pit of depression.

In a particularly vivid vignette from the period just before he finally sought help, Springsteen writes:

My depression is spewing like an oil spill all over the beautiful turquoise-green gulf of my carefully planned and controlled existence. Its black sludge is threatening to smother every last living part of me.

Even Springsteen’s favorite books reflect this lifelong undertone of black. But it is in his BBC Desert Island Discs appearance that he opens up most candidly about his experience of depression and his life-honed coping mechanisms for it. He reflects:

I’ve developed some skills that help me in dealing with it, but still — it is a powerful, powerful thing that really comes up from things that still remain unexplainable to me.

Bruce Springsteen. (Photograph: BBC.)

After noting that much of it is pure biochemistry, and can therefore be greatly salved by biochemical interventions, he considers the psychological skills that have helped him temper the onslaught and offers a Buddhist-like strategy of unresistant presence with the flow of experience on its own terms, laced with a gentle admonition against the trap of blamethirsty projection:

Just naming it [helps]… What most people tend to want to do is, when they feel bad, the first thing you want to do is to name a reason why you feel that way: “I feel bad because…” and you’ll transfer that to someone else “…because Johnny said this to me,” or “this happened.” And, sometimes, that’s true. But a lot of times, you’re simply looking to name something that’s not particularly nameable and if you misname it, it just makes everything that much worse.

So my “skill” is sort of saying, “Okay, it’s not this, it’s not that — it’s just this. This is something that comes; it’s also something that goes — and maybe something I have to live with for a period of time.”

But if you can acknowledge it and you can relax with it a little bit, very often it shortens its duration.

Complement with Bloom — a touching animated short film about depression and what it takes to recover the light of being — and Tim Ferriss on how he survived his suicidal depression, then revisit Robert Burton’s centuries-old salve for melancholy and two centuries of beloved writers — including Keats, Whitman, Hansberry, Carson, and Thoreau — on the mightiest antidote to depression.

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Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For sixteen 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 makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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Chance, Choice, and the Avocado: The Strange Evolutionary and Creative History of Earth’s Most Nutritious Fruit

In the last week of April in 1685, in the middle of a raging naval war, the English explorer and naturalist William Dampier arrived on a small island in the Bay of Panama carpeted with claylike yellow soil. Dampier — the first person to circumnavigate the globe thrice, inspiring others as different as Cook and Darwin — made careful note of local tree species everywhere he traveled, but none fascinated him more than what he encountered for the first time on this tiny island.

Dampier described the black bark and smooth oval leaves of the tall “Avogato Pear-tree,” then paused at its unusual fruit — “as big as a large Lemon,” green until ripe and then “a little yellowish,” with green flesh “as soft as Butter” and no distinct flavor of its own, enveloping “a stone as big as a Horse-Plumb.” He described how the fruit are eaten — two or three days after picking, with the rind peeled — and their most common local preparation: with a pinch of salt and a roasted plantain, so that “a Man that’s hungry, may make a good meal of it”; there was also uncommonly delectable sweet variation: “mixt with Sugar and Lime-juice, and beaten together in a Plate.” And then he added:

It is reported that this Fruit provokes to Lust, and therefore is said to be much esteemed by the Spaniards.

Avocado by Étienne Denisse from the stunningly illustrated 19th-century French encyclopedia Flore d’Amérique. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting the New York Botanical Garden.)

But far more fascinating than the cultural lore of the avocado are its own amorous propensities, uncovered in the centuries since by sciences that would have then seemed like magic, or heresy.

The most nutritious known fruit, the avocado — a mostly evergreen member of the laurel family — is a ghost of evolution that should have grown extinct when the animals that fed on it and disseminated its enormous seeds did. Mercifully, it did not. Ample in Europe and North American during the Ice Age, it somehow managed to survive in Mexico and spread from there. But even more impressively, it managed to survive its own self-defeating sexual relations — the botanical equivalent of the human wire-crossing Eric Berne described in his revelatory 1964 classic Games People Play.

Bald of petals though the tree’s small greenish blossoms may be, they are an example of “perfect flowers” — the botanical term for bisexual blooming plants, which can typically self-pollinate. The avocado, however, is far from reproductively self-sufficient due to an astonishing internal clock, which comes in two mirror-image varieties.

In some cultivars — like the Hass, Pinkerton, and Reed avocados — the blossoms open up into reproductive receptivity in their female guise each morning, then close by that afternoon; the following afternoon, they open in their male guise. Other cultivars — the Fuerte, Zutano, and Bacon avocado among them — bloom on the opposite schedule: female in the afternoon, male by morning.

Thisbe by John William Waterhouse, 1909. (Available as a print.)

This presents a Pyramus and Thisbe problem across the wall of time — while both partners inhabit the space of a single tree, they can’t reach each other across the day-parts and need to be pollinated by trees on the opposite schedule. Their reproduction is further derailed by the fact that some varieties, like the Hass, only fertilize to fruition every other year.

Ever since humans have cultivated Earth’s most nutritious fruit, they have tried to help the helpless romancer with various intervention strategies — grafting, planting trees with opposite blooming schedules near each other, even manually pollinating blossoms of the same tree.

The world’s most beloved avocado — the Hass — is the consequence of human interference consecrated by happenstance in the hands of a California mailman in the 1920s.

The Hass avocado in Northern California. (Photograph: Maria Popova.)

The year he turned thirty, Rudolph Hass (June 5, 1892–October 24, 1952) was leafing through a magazine when an illustration stopped him up short: a tree growing dollar bills instead of fruit. He was making 25 cents an hour delivering mail while raising a growing family. The tree, he learned, was an avocado and its fruit were promised to be the next great horticultural boon.

Rudolph took all the money he had, borrowed some from his sister Ida, and bought a small grove of the leading commercial avocado variety — the Fuerte — with a few other cultivars sprinkled in. Needing the greatest possible gain from his grove, he wanted only Fuertes but couldn’t afford to buy any new trees. Instead, he decided to cut down some of the old ones and graft them to become more fertile young Fuertes. He took counsel from a professional grafter, who said the best technique was to graft with his own seedlings. He had none. But it happened that a man on his mail route had a mighty green thumb and was experimenting with growing avocados from seeds, which he got from restaurant refuse.

Rudolph bought three of the lustrous dark orbs and planted them in his grove. They sprouted. When they grew strong enough, he grafted onto one of them a cutting from one of the mature Fuerte trees. The graft didn’t take. He tried again on another of the seedlings. This too failed.

Resigned, Rudolph abandoned the experiment and let his surviving seedling grow as it pleased. In a neglected corner of the grove, it quietly went on doing what trees, those masters of improvisation, do — press on with their blind optimism. When it reached maturity, it began bearing fruit that looked nothing like any other avocado — dark and luscious, the Braille of its skin glimmering with violet.

When Rudolph cut one open for his five young children, they declared those were the most delicious avocados they had ever tasted.

Soon, the world would agree.

This being America and that being the wake of the Great Depression, the Hass family had patented the avocado within a decade.

Rudolph and Elizabeth Hass in front of the mother tree

After describing his “new and improved variety of avocado which has certain characteristics that are highly desirable” and listing all the ways in which “the present invention” differed from existing avocados — higher oil content, superior flavor, doesn’t drop from the tree or rot inside before ripening, resists cold blasts, and, oh, it is almost purple — Rudolph ended his patent application with a summation of his creation that hums with a kind of humble pride:

I claim as my invention: The variety of avocado tree… characterized by its summer ripening, medium-sized fruits, of purple color having a leathery skin… and borne on long stemps [sic], with a small tight seed and with creamy flesh of excellent color and nutty flavor, smooth with no fibre and butter-like consistency.

Rudolph Hass’s avocado patent, 1935.

In the near-century since Rudolph’s hopeful and hapless experiment, the Hass avocado has begun bringing in more than a billion dollars a year for growers, accounting for four fifths of the American avocado industry. But Rudolph Hass continued working as a mailman until he was felled by a heart attack months after his sixtieth birthday, months before Rachel Carson indicted her country with the reminder that “the real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife.”

Today, every single Hass avocado in every neighborhood market that ever was and ever will be can be traced to a single mother tree grown by a destitute California mailman in 1926 — tender evidence that every tree is in some sense immortal, and a living testament to how chance and choice converge to shape our lives.

The Third Thing: Poet Donald Hall on the Secret to Lasting Love

“The encounter between two differences is an event,” French philosopher Alain Badiou wrote in his tremendous treatise on why we fall and how we stay in love. “On the basis of this event, love can start and flourish. It is the first, absolutely essential point.”

And yet at the heart of this essential event is often something beyond the two — something often improbable, almost always inessential in itself, which somehow magnetizes the two differences into a unit of belonging.

The power of that mysterious and magical something is what the poet and essayist Donald Hall (September 20, 1928–June 23, 2018) explores in a gorgeous essay titled “The Third Thing,” which appeared on the pages of Poetry — the world’s most enduring and visionary poetry magazine — in the autumn of 2004.

Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

Reflecting on his life with the love of his life — the poet Jane Kenyon, herself the keeper and giver of uncommonly clarifying wisdom on writing and life — Hall considers the secret to the kind of lasting love that blooms between the mundane and the magical. An epoch after Virginia Woolf exulted in “the bead of sensation” that punctuates the dailiness of any durational love to make it last, Hall writes:

Jane Kenyon and I were married for twenty-three years. For two decades we inhabited the double solitude of my family farmhouse in New Hampshire, writing poems, loving the countryside. She was forty-seven when she died. If anyone had asked us, “Which year was the best, of your lives together?” we could have agreed on an answer: “the one we remember least.” There were sorrowful years — the death of her father, my cancers, her depressions — and there were also years of adventure: a trip to China and Japan, two trips to India; years when my children married; years when the grandchildren were born; years of triumph as Jane began her public life in poetry: her first book, her first poem in the New Yorker. The best moment of our lives was one quiet repeated day of work in our house. Not everyone understood. Visitors, especially from New York, would spend a weekend with us and say as they left: “It’s really pretty here” (“in Vermont,” many added) “with your house, the pond, the hills, but … but … but … what do you do?

What we did: we got up early in the morning. I brought Jane coffee in bed. She walked the dog as I started writing, then climbed the stairs to work at her own desk on her own poems. We had lunch. We lay down together. We rose and worked at secondary things. I read aloud to Jane; we played scoreless ping-pong; we read the mail; we worked again. We ate supper, talked, read books sitting across from each other in the living room, and went to sleep. If we were lucky the phone didn’t ring all day… Three hundred and thirty days a year we inhabited this old house and the same day’s adventurous routine.

What we did: love.

Art from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O — Shel Silverstein’s allegory of the secret to lasting love

But the substance of this daily love, Hall argues, is not the stuff of romantic tropes. Echoing Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beautiful insistence that “love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction,” Hall writes:

We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

For Hall and Kenyon, the third thing was the pond near their home. He writes:

We had our summer afternoons at the pond, which for ten years made a third thing. After naps we loaded up books and blankets and walked across Route 4 and the old railroad to the steep slippery bank that led down to our private beach on Eagle Pond. Soft moss underfoot sent little red flowers up. Ghost birches leaned over water with wild strawberry plants growing under them. Over our heads white pines reared high, and oaks that warned us of summer’s end late in August by dropping green metallic acorns. Sometimes a mink scooted among ferns… Jane dozed in the sun as I sat in the shade reading and occasionally taking a note in a blank book. From time to time we swam and dried in the heat.

Hall’s most piercing point is that the third thing, rather than being an extraneous adornment of the relationship, is a central form of companionship. But while it is indispensable, it is not irreplaceable — it doesn’t so much matter what the thing is, only that it is.

Art by Maira Kalman from Achieving Perspective for The Universe in Verse

When a landfill leakage destroyed their beloved pond, Hall and Kenyon still had their other third thing — poetry. Reflecting on its unparalleled power of perspective, its power to connect and console in the face of life’s darkest moments, he writes:

We lived in the house of poetry, which was also the house of love and grief; the house of solitude and art; the house of Jane’s depression and my cancers and Jane’s leukemia. When someone died whom we loved, we went back to the poets of grief and outrage, as far back as Gilgamesh; often I read aloud Henry King’s “The Exequy,” written in the seventeenth century after the death of his young wife. Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief. Poetry embodies the complexities of feeling at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears. As I sat beside Jane in her pain and weakness I wrote about pain and weakness. Once in a hospital I noticed that the leaves were turning. I realized that I had not noticed that they had come to the trees. It was a year without seasons, a year without punctuation. I began to write “Without” to embody the sensations of lives under dreary, monotonous assault. After I had drafted it many times I read it aloud to Jane. “That’s it, Perkins,” she said. “You’ve got it. That’s it.” Even in this poem written at her mortal bedside there was companionship.

Hall’s 1999 poetry collection Without (public library) is the breathtakingly beautiful record of that abiding companionship. Complement it with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage and Wendell Berry on what poetry teaches us about the secret of marriage and Adrienne Rich on honorable human relationships.

donating=loving

Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For sixteen 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 makes your own life more livable in any way, 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.
 

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A LONGTIME LABOR OF LOVE:

The Universe in Verse: A Poetic Animated Celebration of Science and the Wonder of Reality

A SMALL, DELIGHTFUL SIDE PROJECT:

Uncommon Presents from the Past: Gifts for the Science-Lover and Nature-Ecstatic in Your Life, Benefitting the Nature Conservancy

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