This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — love and limerence, Nathaniel Hawthorne on life, death, and what fills the interlude with meaning, Julia Perry on the universal language of music — you can catch up right here. If you missed my atypically 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: I appreciate you more than you know.
There is something about the skeletal splendor of winter trees — so vascular, so axonal, so pulmonary — that fills the lung of life with a special atmosphere of aliveness. Something beyond the knowledge that wintering is the root of trees’ resilience, beyond the revelation of their fractal nature and how it salves the soul with its geometry of grief. Something that humbles you to the barest, most beautiful face of the elemental.
I know of no one who has captured that singular enchantment better than the artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930).
In 1902, nine years before she laid the cultural groundwork for what we now call youth climate action in her exquisite field guide to wonder, Comstock wrote an article for the magazine Country Life that became, fourteen years later, her slender, tender book Trees at Leisure (public library | public domain) — a love letter to the science, splendor, and spiritual rewards of our barked, branched, rooted chaperones of being.
A century before Ursula K. Le Guin so mightily unsexed the universal pronoun, Comstock considers the role trees have played in “the aesthetic education of man” since the dawn of evolutionary time and writes:
Ages may have passed before man gained sufficient mental stature to pay admiring tribute to the tree standing in all the glory of its full leafage, shimmering in the sunlight, making its myriad bows to the restless winds; but eons must have lapsed before the human eye grew keen enough and the human soul large enough to give sympathetic comprehension to the beauty of bare branches laced across changing skies, which is the tree-lover’s full heritage.
Noting that “the mortal who has never enjoyed a speaking acquaintance with some individual tree is to be pitied,” for a tree “brings serene comfort to the human heart,” Comstock celebrates winter as the season that welcomes the most intimate connection between the human heart and trees:
In winter, we are prone to regard our trees as cold, bare, and dreary; and we bid them wait until they are again clothed in verdure before we may accord to them comradeship. However, it is during this winter resting time that the tree stands revealed to the uttermost, ready to give its most intimate confidences to those who love it. It is indeed a superficial acquaintance that depends upon the garb worn for half the year; and to those who know them, the trees display even more individuality in the winter than in the summer. The summer is the tree’s period of reticence, when, behind its mysterious veil of green, it is so busy with its own life processes that it has no time for confidences, and may only now and then fling us a friendly greeting.
Winter, Comstock observes, is the best time for learning to tell trees apart from each other. How to discern, and inevitably fall in love with, different species — the sycamore, with its “great undulating, serpent-like branches, blotched with white”; the golden osier willow, with its “magnificent trunk and giant limbs upholding a mass of terminal shoots that tinge with warm ocher the winter landscape”; the apple, with its “maze of twigs” and its “great twisted branches making picturesque any scene” — is what Comstock explores throughout the rest of her sapling-sized, sequoia-spirited Trees at Leisure.
Complement it with Trees at Night — a playful, poignant meditation on our relationship to trees, painted by the cartoonist Art Young in the final years of Anna Botsford Comstock’s life — and Paul Klee, writing in the same era, on why an artist is like a tree, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin’s love poem to trees and Rilke on winter as the season for tending to your inner garden.
For a different portal into growing more intimate with trees, explore Italian artist, designer, futurist, and inventor Bruno Munari’s uncommon vintage gem Drawing a Tree. Then, for no reason other than sheer delight, savor Women in Trees.
“Lights and shadows are continually flitting across my inward sky, and I know neither whence they come nor whither they go; nor do I inquire too closely into them,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his notebook one spring day in 1840. “It is dangerous to look too minutely into such phenomena. It is apt to create a substance where at first there was a mere shadow… It is best not to strive to interpret it in earthly language, but wait for the soul to make itself understood.”
A century after him, the French philosopher Simone Weil — another visionary of uncommon insight into the depths of the soul — contemplated the paradox of friendship, observing that “it is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.”
For one consciousness to understand another — to understand what it is like to be another — might be the supreme challenge of communication and coexistence, because we each move through life half-opaque to ourselves. We aim the analytical mind — that magnificent novelty-instrument millennia in the evolutionary making — at the opacity, but occluding the lens of self-understanding is something much more primeval: Emotion smudges the eyepiece of life, often without our awareness, changing what we see and making us react not to what is but to what we are perceiving. Anyone with moderate self-awareness can relate to the experience of having an irritable or indignant or melancholy mood descend upon them seemingly out of the blue, when it has in fact coalesced out of an invisible and pervasive atmosphere of unprocessed feeling: Who among us has not, in a human moment, aimed a flash of fury at the wrong person for the wrong thing because something entirely else is filling the sky of the mind with its charged nimbus of wrongness.
Why emotion so easily clouds the lens of experience is what psychiatrist trio Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explore throughout A General Theory of Love (public library) — the altogether revelatory book that remains, in my life of reading, the single most illuminating inquiry into the neurological nature and psychological nurture of why we feel what we feel and how this shapes how we become what we are.
Drawing an analogy to music — which might be so elemental to our sense of aliveness precisely because it shares a fundamental neuropsychological mechanism with emotion — Lewis, Amini, and Lannon examine the composition of feeling out of neural notation, illuminating the interdependence of and difference between emotion and mood:
Emotions possess the evanescence of a musical note. When a pianist strikes a key, a hammer collides with the matching string inside his instrument and sets it to vibrating at its characteristic frequency. As amplitude of vibration declines, the sound falls off and dies away. Emotions operate in an analogous way: an event touches a responsive key, an internal feeling-tone is sounded, and it soon dwindles into silence. (The figures of speech “pluck at one’s heartstrings” and “strikes a chord in me” have found a home in our language for just this reason.) Rising activity in the emotion circuits produces not sound, but (among other things) a facial expression. When the neural excitation exceeds a shadowy threshold of awareness, what emerges is a feeling — the conscious experience of emotional activation. As neural activity diminishes, feeling intensity decreases, but some residual activity persists in those circuits after a feeling is no longer perceptible. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, an emotion appears suddenly in the drama of our lives to nudge the players in the proper direction, and then dissolves into nothingness, leaving behind a vague impression of its former presence.
Against this haunted backdrop of feeling, the dance of mood plays out, twirling us into tumult with its persuasive percussion:
Moods exist because of the musical aspect of an emotion’s neural activity, the lower portion imperceptible to our conscious ears… A mood is a state of enhanced readiness to experience a certain emotion. Where an emotion is a single note, clearly struck, hanging for a moment in the still air, a mood is the extended, nearly inaudible echo that follows. Consciousness registers a fading level of activation in the emotion circuits faintly or not at all. And so the provocative events of the day may leave us with emotional responsiveness waiting beneath our notice… Since the neural activation that creates a given emotion decreases gradually, provoking it again is easier within the window of the mood.
By these imperceptible pulsations and resonances, our present experience comes to reverberate with echoes of the past:
A musical tone makes physical objects vibrate at its frequency, the phenomenon of sympathetic reverberation. A soprano breaks a wineglass with the right note as she makes unbending glass quiver along with her voice. Emotional tones in the brain establish a living harmony with the past in a similar way. The brain is not composed of string, and there are no oscillating fibers within the cranium. But in the nervous system, information echoes down the filaments that join harmonious neural networks. When an emotional chord is struck, it stirs to life past memories of the same feeling.
A particular emotion revives all memories of its prior instantiations. Every feeling (after the first) is a multilayered experience, only partly reflecting the present, sensory world.
Over the sweep of time, our lived experience thus rewires the brain, generating a forceful momentum of emotional habit. What we have felt comes to shape what we most easily and readily feel, unstringing the harp of reality. We come to perceive the world not as it is but as we are. At the heart of this reality-discord are what Lewis, Amini, and Lannon term Limbic Attractors — pre-conditioned patterns of interpretation of incoming sensory data, densely networked and deeply ingrained in the limbic brain, activated so reflexively and powerfully that they can obscure and overwhelm the raw signal of reality.
Limbic Attractors are the source of the blindness that makes us so opaque to ourselves, but they are also a portal to transcending our own limitations by linking up to other minds, sympathetic and sonorous with different feeling-tones. Through such mutual harmonics — nowhere more powerful than in the limbic linkage we call love — we can recompose our own patterned soundtrack of emotion:
Because human beings remember with neurons, we are disposed to see more of what we have already seen, hear anew what we have heard most often, think just what we have always thought. Our minds are burdened by an informational inertia whose headlong course is not easy to slow… No individual can think his way around his own Attractors, since they are embedded in the structure of thought… Because limbic resonance and regulation join human minds together in a continuous exchange of influential signals, every brain is part of a local network that shares information — including Attractors.
Through the limbic transmission of an Attractor’s influence, one person can lure others into his emotional virtuality. All of us, when we engage in relatedness, fall under the gravitational influence of another’s emotional world, at the same time that we are bending his emotional mind with ours. Each relationship is a binary star, a burning flux of exchanged force fields, the deep and ancient influences emanating and felt, felt and emanating.
In any such binary star system, this limbic resonance allows two people to harmonize their Attractors, fine-tuning the respective musical tones that most easily flow from each consciousness — Pythagoras’s music of the spheres and Kepler’s celestial harmonics, right here on Earth, in the infinite universe of the human heart:
In a relationship, one mind revises another; one heart changes its partner. This astounding legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love, as our Attractors activate certain limbic pathways, and the brain’s inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them. Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.
Complement this fragment of the altogether illuminating A General Theory of Love with poet Ronald Johnson on matter, music, and the mind, then revisit José Ortega y Gasset on how our loves shape our character and George Saunders on breaking our patterns to unbreak our hearts.
A century before an encyclopedia titled Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know fell into Alan Turing’s child-hands and seeded the ideas that bloomed into the computing revolution, an encyclopedia titled Wonders of the World fell into the child-hands of Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882), seeding in him the passion for travel to remote wonderlands of nature that took him aboard the Beagle to make the observations that ultimately came abloom in his evolutionary revolution.
Darwin grew up in the Golden Age of the great nature-poets — the days of Wordsworth’s proclamation that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science” — and so the boy’s passion for the science of nature came coupled with a passion for its splendor, channeled in the poetic and aesthetic enchantments of the human arts.
Between lessons on Euclid, the teenage Darwin sat for hours reading poetry: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, Milton. Later, when he could only carry a single book on his voyages, he carried Paradise Lost.
At twenty, after traveling to a “music meeting” in Birmingham, Darwin wrote to his cousin: “[It] was the most glorious thing I ever experienced.” His love of music grew so intense that, as he began formulating his ideas about evolutionary descent, he timed his thinking-walks to hear the choir at Kings College Chapel. “It gave me intense pleasure, so that my backbone would sometimes shiver,” he recalled in his old age, baffled that music could move him so deeply despite his own exceptionally bad ear for pitch. (Here Darwin falls victim to his time and training, looking for a physiological explanation before the birth of psychology and neuroscience, before we understood how music moves us not by sense-organ mechanics but by the lever of feeling — that supreme interpretive art of higher consciousness, so that “matter delights in music, and became Bach.”)
This feeling-tone of the beautiful, this delight in the native poetry and musicality of aliveness, accompanied Darwin as he dove deeper and deeper into science to emerge with nothing less than a new world order of understanding the natural world and our place in it. In the last months of finalizing On the Origin of Species, the forty-nine-year-old Darwin wrote in an ecstatic letter to his wife and great love, Emma:
I strolled a little beyond the glade for an hour and a half… the fresh yet dark green of the grand old Scotch firs, the brown of the catkins of the old birches, with their white stems, and a fringe of distant green from the larches, made an excessively pretty view… a chorus of birds singing around me, and squirrels running up the trees, and some woodpeckers laughing… it was as pleasant and rural a scene as ever I saw and did not care one penny how the beasts or birds had been formed.
When the Beagle took him to Brazil in his mid-twenties, Darwin gasped in his journal as he beheld the grandeur of the rainforest:
It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.
These “higher feelings” shaped his notion of divinity — he observed that the devotional experience people cite as their proof of God is based on the same “sense of sublimity” that nature’s grandeur stirs in the spirit, the same “powerful though vague and similar feelings excited by music.” (Two centuries later, the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman would echo and harmonize this idea in her lovely notion of the Earth ecstatic as a personal religion.)
But then, as Darwin grew old, something happened — something he himself struggled to understand, something that caused him great sorrow: This radiant delight in aliveness through the transcendent experience of beauty — be it in spring’s symphony of songbirds or in a Bach sonata, in a Whitman poem or in the slant of sunlight on a centuries-old oak — grew dim, then was altogether extinguished. Darwin found himself mentally alert and active, but blind, deaf, dead to the life of feeling with which beauty inspirits us.
This gave him both his greatest regret and his greatest insight into the purpose of life.
In his final years, Darwin set aside an hour each afternoon to reflect on his life and to impart the private cosmogony of meaning he had discovered in his seven decades. In a set of autobiographical sketches he wrote for his children, bearing the heading “Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character,” he considered what makes us human, what makes us happy, and what makes life worth living. After his death, finding in these notes immense insight and universal value, his children edited and published them as The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (public library).
In one of these recollections, the elderly Darwin writes:
My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years… Poetry of many kinds… gave me great pleasure… Pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight… But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry…Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.
In a sentiment of extraordinary lucidity and humility, and of immense foresight given what we have since learned about the brain, Darwin bends his mind into examining its own inner workings, illuminating the most essential nature of the human animal — a beast of feeling, wired not for brutality but for beauty:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Complement with Mary Shelley, writing in Darwin’s epoch about a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, on what makes life worth living and Walt Whitman, writing shortly after his paralytic stroke, on how an appetite for nature’s beauty restores vitality, then revisit the story of how Darwin’s greatest loss shaped his view of life.