First Known When Lost on Spring and mortality, with Herrick, Wallace Stevens, and Epictetus

Original here

Spring beautifully — and gently — counsels us to be mindful of our mortality. This is sound advice. In fact, we are well-advised to consider our mortality on a daily basis, through all the seasons. I am not suggesting that we should brood over “the strumble/Of the hungry river of death” from morn to eventide. But an awareness of the shortness of our stay here provides a sense of perspective, and reminds us that we ought to be continually grateful for what the World bestows upon us, without our asking, each day.

Spring (like all the other seasons) teaches us gratitude, though the gratitude may at times have a wistful and bittersweet cast.

To Blossoms

Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
Why do ye fall so fast?
Your date is not so past;
But you may stay yet here a while,
To blush and gently smile;
And go at last.

What, were ye born to be
An hour or half’s delight;
And so to bid goodnight?
‘Twas pity Nature brought ye forth
Merely to show your worth,
And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
May read how soon things have
Their end, though ne’r so brave:
And after they have shown their pride,
Like you a while: They glide
Into the grave.

Robert Herrick, Poem 467, Hesperides (1648).

“Death is the mother of beauty.” (Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning.”) What do blossoms do? They “stay yet here a while,/To blush and gently smile;/And go at last.” What do “lovely leaves” do? “They glide/Into the grave.” This is how the World works, and there is no reason to brood or to grieve. Our response should be gratitude. Gratitude and acceptance.

“Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).

From “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries From a Hidden World”, Peter Wohlieben

Scent as a means of communication? The concept is not totally unfamiliar to us. Why else would we use deodorants and perfumes? And even when we’re not using these products, our own smell says something to other people, both consciously and subconsciously. There are some people who seem to have no smell at all; we are strongly attracted to others because of their aroma. … So it seems fair to say that we possess a secret language of scent, and trees have demonstrated that they do as well.

 

For example, four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, the walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when the had moved about 100 yards away.

The reason for this behaviour is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specially, ethylene) that signaled to neighbouring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.

Similar processes are at work in our forests here at home. Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty nibble out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute.

From “The Long, Long Life of Trees”, Fiona Stafford

 

In spring, you can feel life stirring in the barest twigs and the silhouetted catkins look as if a diminutive duck has run across the sky. One day the twigs are just beginning to thicken and brighten and bulge; by the next they are covered in pincer-paired leaves and pale, lime-white or pink-tinged blossoms. There is nothing tentative about these vernal explosions. When the days are longer, it is all sap and fresh smells, and the liquid calls of birds hidden in the drifts of thicker foliage. The bark has been through it all before, but the craggy faces of cherry tress seems less pinched in the bright light. By early November, when it is all dank and dark, the woods have a different taste, which does not quite match the ember-fall, sugar-brown shaken leaves.

George Orwell and the “process of life”

From Dan Hitchens, Orwell and Contraception
In all of Evelyn Waugh’s novels up to Brideshead Revisited, ­Orwell detected a consistent theme: Waugh’s “private ideal” of “a middle-sized country house.” In each of Orwell’s novels, his own private ideal is voiced by his characters: It is what Dorothy Hare in A Clergyman’s Daughter calls “that mystical joy in the beauty of the earth and the very nature of things.” In Coming Up for Air, George Bowling gazes into a pond crowded with living creatures and is overcome by “the sort of feeling of wonder, the peculiar flame inside you. It’s the only thing worth having, and we don’t want it.” ­Orwell’s essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” asks whether this delight in nature might distract us from the struggle for justice. He responds that there is not much point in political change if we lose “all pleasure in the actual process of life.” That process itself resists the money-god and the totalitarians: “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

Orwell was drawn to remote places, to an existence close to the “process of life.” (In the thirties, for instance, he decamped to a tiny village where he tended a garden and kept goats.) His villains, “they,” are against it. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s last novel, O’Brien predicts that “the intoxication of power” will obliterate everything else: In the future there will be “no enjoyment of the process of life.” In Orwell’s debut novel, Burmese Days, Flory is impressed by “the whole life and spirit of Burma,” but to his racist fellow Brits he cannot say anything. “It is a corrupting thing to live one’s real life in secret,” he muses sadly. “One should live with the stream of life, not against it.” George Bowling recalls that his childhood home had a routine “like clockwork. Or no, not like clockwork, which suggests something mechanical. It was more like some kind of natural process. You knew that breakfast would be on the table to-morrow morning in much the same way as you knew the sun would rise.”

“sound as a way of sense-making”

Sound Artist Lawrence English on the Power of Radical Listening

From Observer.com

Interview here

 

How did you become interested in working with sound as a creative medium?

When I was a kid, I’d go bird watching with my dad at this waterfront area of Brisbane that’s now populated with condos. My dad would take us there and we’d look for Reed Warblers on binoculars, which is cruel for children because they can’t control their own eyes, let alone a second set of eyes that’s meant to help them see deeper.

I was constantly looking for this bird, and after several months of not seeing it, my dad told me to put the binoculars down, to close my eyes and listen. He said, “Now that you know where the bird is, put the binoculars back to your eyes and look where you sense the sound is.” I did that and I was able to see the bird straightaway. That was the first time I understood the role of sound as a way of sense-making, as a way of being into the world.

 

Later in the interview:

You intentionally collaborated more on Cruel Optimism. What can connection, real physical connection, do for us in these times? Are you hopeful that we can discern how to move beyond the issues that ensnare us in 2017?

I’m incredibly optimistic about the future. But, in saying that, I’m the past. My children are the future and their children are the future. My place is to support them and to love them and to encourage in them a way of being in the world that is reflective of the things we’re talking about. This is one of the most critical things I feel that I can do with whatever time remains for me.

There’s this great quote from Neil Postman, who was a wonderful academic who lived in New York. He wrote a book called The Disappearance of Childhood, and at the beginning he basically said, “Children are the living messages that we send to a time that we will never see.” That’s a profound way to think about the idea of time and our time on the planet.

 

Matthews Oates on butterfly watching, from “In Pursuit of Butterflies”

Butterflying, and Emperoring in particular, does not entail hours of walking, but eternities of standing about, watching and waiting. Patience is everything, and those of us who have spent our youths fishing will have mastered this essential skill. Sitting down is no good, as it narrows the field of vision too much, as any hunter will appreciated. So, butterflying is more akin to game angling than coarse fishing. One of my favourite standing places was in a young conifer plantation, where I would loiter for hours, gazing up at the adjoining oak edge in wait of Purple Emperors and their attendant knight, the Purple Hairstreak. Early in July I found a rusty milk churn in another wood, and laboured it on my shoulder to where it was needed. … I stood on that milk churn for hours and hours, gazing up at the oak edge. No one ever saw me. It was an excellent vantage point. The churn stands there still, a forgotten monument to times gone by, but woods are strewn with the features of personal memories. They collect them.

I loved this passage, from what is proving a hugely enjoyable book, for two reasons. One is the invocation of the value of being one of those who “only stand and wait”, a necessary admonition to our restless age. The power of still observation, of waiting, is profoundly countercultural. Secondly, I love the invocation of forests as repositories of human memories. Analogous to the urban concept of the Tomason (or Thomason) but without the overtones of civilisational decay and more richly personal, I wonder could there be a word coined for these “features of personal memories” that populate the landscape.