|This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — Aldous Huxley on love, knowledge vs. understanding, and the antidote to our existential helplessness; Neil Gaiman’s tribute to a forgotten visionary — you can catch up right here. If my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation – for a decade and a half, I have spent tens of thousands of hours, made many personal sacrifices, and invested tremendous resources in Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: THANK YOU.|
“I had a pleasant time with my mind, for it was happy,” Louisa May Alcott wrote in her diary just after she turned eleven, a quarter century before Little Women bloomed from that uncommon mind — a mind whose pleasures and powers were nurtured by the profound love of nature her father wove into the philosophical and scientific education he gave his four daughters.
The progressive philosopher, abolitionist, education reformer, and women’s rights advocate Bronson Alcott (November 29, 1799–March 4, 1888) developed his ideas about human flourishing and social harmony by observing and reflecting on the processes, phenomena, and pleasures of the natural world — something he shared with the Transcendentalists of his generation, and particularly with his best friend: the naturalistic transcendence-shaman Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1856, while living next door to the visionary Elizabeth Peabody in Boston — the seedbed of Transcendentalism, a term Peabody herself had coined — Alcott borrowed and devoured Emerson’s copy of a book sent to him by an obscure young Brooklyn poet as a token of gratitude for having inspired it: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published months earlier.
Whitman’s unexampled verse — so free from the Puritanical conventions of poetry, so lush with a love of life, so unabashedly reverent of nature as the only divinity — stirred a deep resonance with Bronson’s own worldview and inspired him to try his hand at the portable poetics of nature: gardening.
Right there in the middle of bustling Boston, where his young country was just beginning to find its intellectual and artistic voice, Alcott set up his humble urban garden. One May morning — a century and a half before bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer contemplated gardening and the secret of happiness, before Olivia Laing wrote of gardening as an act of resistance, before neurologist Oliver Sacks drew on forty years of medical practice to attest to the healing power of gardens — the fifty-six-year-old Alcott planted some peas, corn, cucumbers, and melons, then wrote in his journal:
Human life is a very simple matter. Breath, bread, health, a hearthstone, a fountain, fruits, a few garden seeds and room to plant them in, a wife and children, a friend or two of either sex, conversation, neighbours, and a task life-long given from within — these are contentment and a great estate. On these gifts follow all others, all graces dance attendance, all beauties, beatitudes, mortals can desire and know.
By mid-summer, Alcott had discovered in his garden not only a creaturely gladness but a portal into the deepest existential contentment — something akin to the creative intoxication that he, like all artists, found in his literary calling:
My garden has been my pleasure, and a daily recreation since the spring opened for planting… Every plant one tends he falls in love with, and gets the glad response for all his attentions and pains. Books, persons even, are for the time set aside — studies and the pen. — Only persons of perennial genius attract or recreate as the plants, and of books we may say the same, as of the magic of solitude.
Complement with Derek Jarman on gardening as creative redemption and training ground for presence, then revisit Whitman, writing while recovering from a paralytic stroke in the nursery of nature, on what makes life worth living.
When the twenty-two-year-old Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) wrote to her mother one bleak January day, both women were wading through a darkness of the soul. Science was only just beginning to hone the tools with which to begin dissecting the elemental mystery of what makes us who we are: how much of our psychology and what we experience as our personhood — whether we call it self or soul or spirit — is a product of our physical constitution, of the particular biochemical processes coursing through our particular infrastructure of matter that we experience as our body. Neuroscience was then an infant science — it still is — and the helix of heredity had just been discovered, hinting at the promise of new clarity on the ancient puzzlement of nature versus nurture, new insight into how much of our psychology is a biological inheritance and how much an ongoing composition continually revised by the confluence of chance and choice we call experience.
Sylvia Plath by Rollie McKenna (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)
Several years earlier, the teenage Plath had begun contouring her consciousness and mapping its psychological promontories, its luminous surfaces and its dark edges, rhapsodizing about the joy of living, thinking deeply about free will and what make us who we are, and composing her first tragic poem in response to a minor domestic accident. Two years before she shaded in what was becoming an all-consuming darkness in “The Disquieting Muses,” she wrote to her mother in a letter included in the posthumously collected Letters Home: Correspondence 1950–1963 (public library):
I don’t know whether it is an hereditary characteristic, but our little family is altogether too prone to lie awake at nights hating ourselves for stupidities — technical or verbal or whatever — and to let careless, cruel remarks fester until they blossom in something like ulcer attacks — I know that during these last days I’ve been fighting an enormous battle with myself.
But then, with the presence of mind and the triumph of spirit that allowed her to live through the remaining years of her life — years she filled with some of the most timelessly exquisite poetry ever written — she adds:
But beyond a point, fighting only wears one out and one has to shut off that nagging part of the mind and go on without it with bravo and philosophy… Your present life is the important thing.
There is a dangerous fallacy — a biological falsehood, a feebleness of empathy, an ethical failing — in the view that people who die by suicide after living with mental illness have somehow failed at life. It is one thing to feel deeply the tragedy of that loss, to rue the help not available to them in their time of struggle; it is quite another to fault the faulty instrument itself. It is impossible for any one consciousness to truly know what living inside another is like in the first place — we make art and poems and songs to try to show each other what it is like to be alive in this body-mind. But it is especially unfathomable for a mind coursing with fairly ordinary biochemistry, housed in a brain with fairy ordinary neurophysiology, to grasp what it might be like to live with a mind inflamed by ceaselessly misfiring neurotransmitters or a mind housed in a brain with a large tumor pressing against the amygdala at every moment of every hour. To survive even a single day with such a mind is no small feat. To have not only survived thirty-one years, as Sylvia Plath did, but to have filled those years with works of staggering beauty, with poems that irradiate generations of lives — that is a rare triumph of the spirit.
One of Sylvia Plath’s little-known paintings.
Complement with May Sarton on the cure for despair and Lorraine Hansberry — another visionary artist of Plath’s generation, who also lived and made in the darkest depths — on the most reliable antidote to depression, then hear Meryl Streep read Plath’s stunning “Morning Song” and savor a rare glimpse of the poet’s inner world through her little-known paintings.
The Vast Wonder of the World: An Illustrated Homage to Ernest Everett Just’s Trailblazing Life and Life-Redefining Science
“I have marveled at the green urchins on a Maine shore, clinging to the exposed rock at low water of spring tides, where the beautiful coralline algae spread a rose-colored crust beneath the shining green of their bodies,” Rachel Carson wrote as she was revolutionizing our understanding of the marine world with her poetic science and preparing to awaken the modern environmental conscience. “At that place the bottom slopes away steeply and when the waves at low tide break on the crest of the slope, they drain back to the sea with a strong rush of water. Yet as each wave recedes, the urchins remain… undisturbed.”
So too with deepest discoveries of science, adhering to the bedrock of culture ideas that remain through the ebb and flow of ideologies. So too with the minds who produce them — the rebels, the visionaries, the pioneers who stand strong and undisturbed against the tide of their time.
Exactly twenty years before Carson began honing her urchin mind at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts — the JPL of marine biology — a young fellow urchin alighted there to do the same.
Ernest Everett Just (Marine Biological Laboratory Archives)
Ernest Everett Just (August 14, 1883–October 27, 1941), who soon came to be admired as the “black Apollo” of science by the Italian women working at the Neapolitan laboratory for which he left Woods Hole, is the subject of The Vast Wonder of the World (public library) by librarian-turned-author Mélina Mangal and Colombian illustrator Luisa Uribe — a lovey addition to the growing corpus of picture-book biographies of cultural heroes to foment young hearts with inspiration for growing vast minds and tenacious spirits.
The story begins in Woods Hole in 1911:
At twilight, a man lay on a dock, luring marine worms with a lantern. He scooped them out with his net and placed them in a bucket. He couldn’t wait to look at them more closely.
He knew the ways of the sea, though he was not a fisherman. His grandfather had built wharves, but he was not a dockworker…
He was a scientist.
But Ernest Everett Just was not like other scientists. Half a century after another researcher with a similar name and a similar scientific passion (the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel) coined the word ecology and half a century before another marine biologist with similar outsider status (Rachel Carson) made it a household word, Ernest Everett Just “saw the whole, where others saw only parts.” Like Carson, he wrote poetry — that supreme art of interrelation; like every true visionary, he was above all a noticer — “he noticed details others failed to see.”
The story follows him from his childhood in South Carolina — where he watched the river become ocean, attended the school his mother founded in the town she established, and nearly lost his life to typhoid fever — to the laboratory where he developed his greatest scientific contribution: the understanding of how life begins from an egg.
Along the way, we see his mother’s school destroyed by a fire, we see Ernest leave home on a segregated steamship to continue his education in the North, we see him study with grief-redoubled focus after his mother dies of tuberculosis.
At Dartmouth, a biology class concentrates and consecrates his devotion to science as he looks through a microscope for the first time and discovers the miniature universe of the cell.
Born not long after the development of cell theory began revolutionizing our understanding of life, at a time when the cell was known to be the basic biological unit but its working parts were a mystery, Just devoted the rest of his cellular existence to illuminating the mystery.
He became a biology professor. He traveled to Woods Hole each summer to deepen his research and train young scientists. In an era when most biologists treated marine creatures as inanimate samples for study, he tenderly removed sea urchins and sand dollars from their habitat to transport them to the lab and encouraged his students to study them right there in the tide pool.
Day after obsessive day, night after late night, he peered at sea animals through the microscope, squinting at the edges of a radical idea, until it blazed with the empirical clarity of a discovery: Studying a sand dollar during fertilization, he observed how the egg cell was directing its own development — anathema to the accepted view that the sperm cell was responsible for the changes that coalesce into new life.
Despite the scientific esteem the discovery brought him, Just felt increasingly stifled by the swell of racism in his nation’s bosom, which kept him from obtaining a teaching position at a major university worthy of his talent and credentials. (Since history is not the factual record of events but the dramatic narrative our species superimposes over events, it is historical irony, in the classic Ancient Greek literary sense, that Just was among the biologists whose work laid the foundation for genomics and its sobering revelation that we share 98% of our DNA with a head of broccoli, dwarfing to absurdity the sub-negligible biological differences on which humans peg the artificial othernesses of their senseless biases.)
In his mid-forties, Just emigrated to Europe, where he completed and published the groundbreaking results of his research as the twin triumphs Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals and The Biology of the Cell Surface, both published in 1939, as the world’s deadliest war was syphoning life from humanity and syphoning the humanity from Life.
All biography is more like sculpture than like portraiture, tasked with the creative challenge of what to cut away from the immense monolith of a whole life in order to render a representative depiction of personhood — a challenge especially trying when sculpting a life-story for young readers, balancing beauty and complexity. The Vast Wonder of the World is more Grecian sculpture than Guernica, composed in the spirit of beautification and celebration — Just did, after all, live a beautiful and inspiring life — without wading into the confusions, controversies, and complexities that haunt any human life and haunted his. (My own orientation to writing nonfiction for young humans, especially dealing with science, is to lean on the side of truth; to trust that any truth, handled with basic sensitivity and humanity, is in the larger service of beauty — the beauty of reality — and that E.B. White was right in his life-tested conviction that anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time.”) The book, while lovely, ends on an abruptly and artificially upbeat note with the publication of Just’s magnum opus, leaving a great deal out: how he, like Frederick Douglass before him, fell in love with a German woman — a philosophy student — while still married; how, unlike Douglass, he had the moral courage to rise against the stigma of divorce; how the Nazis invaded Germany months after the landmark publication of his life’s work and interned him in a camp; how he was soon released and headed back to America, not knowing his own cells had been silently mutating along the way; how within months of his return he was dead by that metastatic mutation, leaving behind the stunning urchin spine of his trailblazing life and his life-redefining science.
Special thanks to my friend Stephon Alexander for bringing Ernest Everett Just’s story into my life.
For other lovely picture-book biographies of science visionaries who broadened the humanistic landscape of possibility with the example of their lives, savor the illustrated lives of astronomer Maria Mitchell and astronaut Ronald McNair, then revisit the inspiring story of Wangari Maathai, who became the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize with her tenacious work at the intersection of activism and ecology.