Every loss reveals what we're made of; David Whyte's poems of presence with wonder; Michael Pollan on the radical roots of the flying-witch broomstick

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The Marginalian

Welcome Hello Reader! This is the weekly email digest of Maria Popova's daily writings on The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings). If you missed last week's edition — how (not) to love, or, unbreaking our hearts by breaking our patterns; Ursula K. Le Guin's love-poem to life, death, and trees; the art of solitude — you can catch up right here. If you missed my very personal essay about the name-change, that is 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: THANK YOU.

Every Loss Reveals What We Are Made of: Blue Bananas, Why Leaves Change Color, and the Ongoing Mystery of Chlorophyll

Autumn is the season of ambivalence and reconciliation, soft-carpeted training ground for the dissolution that awaits us all, low-lit chamber for hearing more intimately the syncopation of grief and gladness that scores our improbable and finite lives — each yellow burst in the canopy a reminder that everything beautiful is perishable, each falling leaf at once a requiem for our own mortality and a rhapsody for the unbidden gift of having lived at all. That dual awareness, after all, betokens the luckiness of death.

Art by Arthur Rackham, 1906. (Available as a print.)

But autumn is also the season of revelation, for the seeming loss unveils a larger reality: Chlorophyll is a life-force but it is also a cloak, and when trees shed it from their leaves, nature’s true colors are revealed.

Photosynthesis is nature’s way of making life from light. Chlorophyll allows a tree to capture photons, extracting a portion of their energy to make the sugars that make it a tree — the raw material for leaves and bark and roots and branches — then releasing the photons at lower wavelengths back into the atmosphere. A tree is a light-catcher that grows life from air.

Although the human mind has puzzled over why leaves fall and change color at least as far back as Aristotle, chlorophyll — which shares chemical kinship with the hemoglobin in our blood — was only discovered and named in 1817, by the French pharmacist-chemist duo Joseph Bienaimé Caventou and Pierre Joseph Pelletier. In a lovely touch of humility that distinguishes, always, the scientist from the explorer — the explorer, so eager to name the lands and landmarks he has “discovered” after himself — they wrote in their landmark paper:

We have no right to name a substance long-known, and to the story of which we have added only a few facts; however, we will propose, without granting it any importance, the name chlorophyll, from chloros, color, and φυλλον, leaf: a name that would indicate the role it plays in nature.

Oak by the self-taught 19th-century naturalist, painter, and poet Rebecca Hey from The Spirit of the Woods — the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of wild trees. (Available as a print.)

But chlorophyll, which is yet to be fully understood, is not the only pigment in trees. Throughout a leaf’s life, four primary pigments course through its cells: the green of chlorophyll, but also the yellow of xanthophyll, the orange of carotenoids, and the reds and purples of anthocyanins.

In spring and summer, when the day grow long and bright, chlorophyll saturates leaves as the tree busies itself converting photons into the sweetness of new growth.

As daylight begins fading in autumn and the air cools, deciduous trees prepare for wintering and stop making food — an energy expenditure too metabolically expensive in the dearth of sunlight. Enzymes begin breaking down the decommissioned chlorophyll, allowing the other pigments that had been there invisibly all along to come aflame. And because we humans so readily see in trees metaphors for our emotional lives, how can this not be a living reminder that every loss reveals what we are made of — an affirmation of the value of a breakdown?

Life and Loss Are One by Maria Popova. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

A similar process take place as fruit ripen from green to varying shades of red, purple, orange, or yellow.

Two centuries after the discovery of chlorophyll, a new generation of scientists armed with a new arsenal of tools unimaginable in 1817, in that abiding way science has of only revealing new layers of reality when it lets go of its assumptions, placed bananas in various stages of ripeness under UV light and discovered that as the world’s favorite yellow fruit ripens and its chlorophyll breaks down, it not only reveals the xanthophyll of yellow, but produces the chlorophyll catabolite hmFCC — a previously unknown blue fluorescent compound.

Artwork based on laboratory imaging from Agewandte Chemie: A Journal of the German Chemical Society, international edition, 2008.

Subsequent research has found signs of this blue pigment in devil’s ivy — the evergreen golden pothos thriving in the corner of my library in Brooklyn at this very moment — rendering the mystery of chlorophyll ongoing and filling the human heart with exhilaration. How thrilling to think that something we discovered two centuries ago, something nature created more than a billion years ago when the first green plants evolved from prokaryotes, can still shimmer with mystery — a molecular microcosm of the ultimate thrill: the knowledge that however much we might uncover, nature will never cease to be filled with surprise ripe for the reaping. And how humbling to think that we too are animals doing their best to make sense of the world with their creaturely limitations — animals whose vision evolved to peak in so narrow a band of the spectrum, in the tiny wavelength range between red and violet, blind to everything between radio and cosmic rays, blind to ultraviolet light. But if we were butterflies or reindeer, bees or sockeye salmon, bananas might be blue.

“Spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric” from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

The poetic astronomer Maria Mitchell captured this best in her rueful and rapturous observation that “we have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” and yet “we reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

Complement with the late, great nature writer Ellen Meloy on the conscience of color from chemistry to culture, then revisit this fascinating read on Turing, trees, and the science of how alive you really are.

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For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no 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 lending a helping hand. Your support makes all the difference.

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Blessing Sound, Blessing Light: David Whyte’s Poems for the Small Miracles of Presence that Awaken Us to the Wonder of Being Alive

“Now I will do nothing but listen,” the young Walt Whitman resolved as he pressed his ear against the eternal song of being a century before Aldous Huxley found in the transcendent power of music a portal into the “blessedness lying at the heart of things.”

“Blessedness is within us all,” Patti Smith wrote in yet another century as she contemplated life, death, and love. (Which might, in the end, be one.)

Even for the unchurched among us, who worship at the altar of reality, blessedness can be a beautiful concept unbaggaged from religion. For me, blessedness is a feeling-tone of grateful wonder. That feeling-tone can come as symphonic as a total solar eclipse or as quiet as the rising tide. It can bless with the surprising cymbal of a robin’s egg out of time and out of place or with the murmuration of a moonlit tree. It can bless with Bach.

That feeling-tone of grateful wonder is what poet and philosopher David Whyte celebrates the “Blessings & Prayers” suite of poems found in his altogether vivifying collection The Bell and the Blackbird (public library).

Two of these poems — “Blessing for Sound” and “Blessing for the Light” — come alive as a ravishment of Irish landscape and music in Whyte’s collaboration with filmmaker Andrew Hinton and composer Owen Ó Súilleabháin for Emergence Magazine.

BLESSING FOR SOUND
from The Bell and the Blackbird by David Whyte

I thank you,
for the smallest sound,
for the way my ears open
even before my eyes,
as if to remember
the way everything began
with an original, vibrant, note,
and I thank you for this
everyday original music,
always being rehearsed,
always being played,
always being remembered
as something new
and arriving, a tram line
below in the city street,
gull cries, or a ship’s horn
in the distant harbour,
so that in waking I hear voices
even where there is no voice
and invitations where
there is no invitation
so that I can wake with you
by the ocean, in summer
or in the deepest seemingly
quietest winter,
and be with you
so that I can hear you
even with my eyes closed,
even with my heart closed,
even before I fully wake.

BLESSING FOR THE LIGHT
from The Bell and the Blackbird by David Whyte

I thank you, light, again,
for helping me to find
the outline of my daughter’s face,
I thank you light,
for the subtle way
your merest touch gives shape
to such things I could
only learn to love
through your delicate instruction,
and I thank you, this morning
waking again,
most intimately and secretly
for your visible invisibility,
the way you make me look
at the face of the world
so that everything becomes
an eye to everything else
and so that strangely,
I also see myself being seen,
so that I can be born again
in that sight, so that
I can have this one other way
along with every other way,
to know that I am here.

Complement with Whyte on courage, anger and forgiveness, and his soul-slaking poem about the pathway to true love, then revisit Ronald Johnson’s transcendent prose poem about sound, science, and the soul and filmmaker Andrew Dawson’s tree-inspired visual poem based on Whyte’s lyric reflection on the meaning of closeness.

Halloween’s Forbidden Fruit: Michael Pollan on Gardening as Radicalism and the Scandalous Botanical Origin of the Broomstick in Flying-Witch Legends

“Oh that beloved witch-hazel,” Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousins in 1876 as she tended to her famous garden, “one loved stalk as hearty as if just placed in the mail by the woods… witch and witching too, to my joyful mind” — her garden, across the hedge from which lived the love of her life, joylessly married to Emily’s brother, absent from Emily’s arms for a quarter century. That same year, she wrote in a poem:

Long Years apart — can make no
Breach a second cannot fill —
The absence of the Witch does not
Invalidate the spell —

As a gardener and a poet, ever since she pressed four hundred wildflowers into the teenage herbarium that became her first formal act of composition, Emily Dickinson had an uncommon grasp of how the life of plants and the life of feelings interleave — particularly the forbidden, the subversive, the countercultural.

In many ways, across epochs and cultures, gardens themselves — and not only the plants grown in them — have served as psychoactive agents profoundly transforming the human experience: gardening as resistance, gardening as growing through grief, gardening as finding the roots of happiness, gardening as “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.”

Gardening as witchcraft for the soul — defying the permissible, magnifying the possible.

Red poppy by Elizabeth Blackwell from A Curious Herbal — the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

This defiant aspect of gardening, so foreign to the dominant modern model of the garden as a place of order walled within a lawn-mowed wilderness, is what Michael Pollan explores in a portion of his 2001 classic The Botany of Desire (public library).

He writes:

I sometimes think we’ve allowed our gardens to be bowdlerized, that the full range of their powers and possibilities has been sacrificed to a cult of plant prettiness that obscures more dubious truths about nature, our own included.

But for most of the history of our species, the relationship between nature and human nature has been one of conviviality rather than conquest and control. Only in the mere blink of evolutionary time called modern civilization did we begin viewing the rest of nature as a “parallel world.”

Pollan envisions a future that might view our present conception of the garden — a place for basic produce, household herbs, and pretty flowers — as “almost Victorian in its repressions and elisions,” which include the modern repression and elision of the garden’s radical past. He traces the subversive botanical roots of the mythic flying witch’s broomstick as one example:

For most of their history, after all, gardens have been more concerned with the power of plants than with their beauty — with the power, that is, to change us in various ways, for good and for ill.

In ancient times, people all over the world grew or gathered sacred plants (and fungi) with the power to inspire visions or conduct them on journeys to other worlds; some of these people, who are sometimes called shamans, returned with the kind of spiritual knowledge that underwrites whole religions. The medieval apothecary garden cared little for aesthetics, focusing instead on species that healed and intoxicated and occasionally poisoned. Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to “cast spells” — in our vocabulary, “psychoactive” plants. Their potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), and the skins of toads (which can contain DMT, a powerful hallucinogen). These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based “flying ointment” that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the “broomstick” by which these women were said to travel.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop from Down-Adown-Derry, 1922. (Available as a print.)

It was in one such epoch that Johannes Kepler took six years from decoding the laws of the universe to defend his herbalist-mother in a witchcraft trial, while elsewhere in Europe the world’s first prim and proper botanical gardens were sprouting up.

The Botany of Desire — which also gave us the story of how “broken tulips” shaped the modern world — is thoroughly satisfying in its totality. Complement this fragment with the little-known botanical-cultural story of why NYC is known as “the Big Apple” — a surprise even to most native New Yorkers — then revisit Pollan on how one particular plant magnified the bewitchment of Bach.

donating=loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no 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 lending a helping hand. 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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A SMALL, DELIGHTFUL SIDE PROJECT:

Vintage Science Face Masks Benefiting the Nature Conservancy (New Designs Added)

vintagesciencefacemasks.jpg

AND: I WROTE A CHILDREN’S BOOK ABOUT SCIENCE AND LOVE

The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story

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