Dictatorial Decree

Already the sun slipsSun,
filches off
at a sneaking speed.

The despot rising
declares a natural
state of emergency.

The pompous papa
prays on the instant
for a sum of leniency.

Alas, mere poet, see?
The sun protracts
your high-pitched misery.

Tonight a summer
full moon calls
a ball of lunacy.

The sun dictates the noon,
casts down dress codes
on the darling horology.

The moon denudes the day.
The night goes without
a blanket of authority.

Spring Waltz

IMG_1128The local nurseries and flower markets are loaded with starts, but I can feel the pink of the hard orange rose hips still sleeping, snoring in thorns, and hear the tiny golden broach just touching the iridescent crimson of the humming-bird’s throat.

Spring came yellowing in a green coach, wavy red-orange hair billowing out the open windows, the coarse driver spitting and spurring the horses to spirit, but the horses needed a rest already, apparently, and Spring slowed to a walk, not even a trot. Slug, slug, slug. One evening, a few weeks ago, we ate dinner outdoors – a false spring. I had lugged out the wooden table from the basement into the backyard, and we lit candles – it’s been covered with a vinyl table cloth since, to protect it from the rains.

IMG_1129And still the going is slow, the soil too wet to work, but I work it anyway, and the only birds following the hampered whirlicote, and a few Mew Gulls (never saw them before this far inland), sensing a lost trawler on restless water. Still, the apple tree is in fine form, drenched with blossoms and besotted with a few skittish bees. A little early for besotted bees, but there it is, Spring.

A Disambiguation of Living Alone

“Why are so many Americans living by themselves?” Nathan Heller asks in “The Disconnect” (New Yorker, April 16, 2012). “Today,” Heller says, “half of U.S. residents are single, and a third of all households have one occupant.” We’re in the world of the sociologist, but while this issue’s “Table of Contents,” titled “Journeys,” promises “How to be alone,” we don’t learn how to live alone: what we get is a review of books about people living alone and why, and why the number of people living alone is increasing, and we are given to reflect on what it might mean to live alone, and how living alone might relate to loneliness, and whether or not living alone really means we are alone.

I find the topic interesting for a number of reasons, but mainly because I have never lived alone. In one sense, living alone might be compared to driving alone. Rarely are we on the road alone; we are surrounded by other cars, usually bumper to bumper, and if there’s a mishap, a flat tire or a blown hose, we soon learn who our neighbors are. Likewise, unless we live alone like Jay Gatsby did, in a giant, empty mansion on acreage twenty miles out of the city, we might be able to say that we have a room of our own, but is having a room of one’s own really living alone?

In South Bay for a time we lived in a one-room studio courtyard apartment. There were six, one story apartments, connected wall to wall down one side of a lawn, shaded by a single, large pepper tree, across from six apartments down the other side of the lawn. On each side, between the lawn and the row of apartments, a small drive led down to the carports. There used to be scads of places like this in South Bay, and they were very popular. They were sometimes advertised as “efficiency apartments,” but were often referred to as “bachelor pads,” and, for a time, we were the only ones in our courtyard sharing one of the apartments.

During most South Bay “solid gold weekends,” if we were home, we might for a little while leave our door open to the courtyard, and our neighbors did, too. One day, everyone in their places with sunshiny faces, the girl in the apartment attached to our north wall let out a peace shattering scream followed by a jet like roar, “Get that thing out of here!” followed by another scream, followed by an apparition at our front door.

Her cat, the situation quickly emerging in ghastly gasps, had carried a live lizard into her apartment. Would I please help her get it out? Susan tried to explain to her that the lizard was a gift, from the cat, but the look she produced at this irrelevant and impotent suggestion quickly gave way to an aggressive look back toward me that said, “Help me, now.” Thus it was that I became for the next half hour or so an alligator wrestler, while in the end it was the cat that wound up carrying the lizard back outside.

Cats can live alone, though Susan’s never had one that would, and the lizard seemed happy enough to be scurrying back up the tree to tell his tale back home, and while I don’t think our neighbor ever left her door open again, I always felt her presence.

On Universe: A Conversation Between Thoreau and Bucky

Thoreau: “What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment!”

Fuller: “Man seems unique as the comprehensive comprehender and co-ordinator of local universe affairs.”

Thoreau: “Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good which society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation; and I believe that a like but infinitely greater steadfastness elsewhere is all that now preserves it.”

Fuller: “This is the essence of human evolution upon Spaceship Earth. If the present planting of humanity upon Spaceship Earth cannot comprehend this inexorable process and discipline itself to serve exclusively that function of metaphysical mastering of the physical it will be discontinued, and its potential mission in universe will be carried on by the metaphysically endowed capabilities of other beings on other spaceship planets of universe.”

Thoreau: “I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe.”

Fuller: “Coping with the totality of Spaceship Earth and universe is ahead for all of us.”

Thoreau: “The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions.”

Fuller: “Only as he learned to generalize fundamental principles of physical universe did man learn to use his intellect effectively.”

Thoreau: “The harp is the travelling patterer for the Universe’s Insurance Company, recommending its laws, and our little goodness is all the assessment that we pay.”

Fuller: “We are faced with an entirely new relationship to the universe.”

Thoreau: “Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive.”

Fuller: “Can we think of, and state adequately and incisively, what we mean by universe?”

Thoreau: “Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask.”

Fuller: “But the finite physical universe did not include the metaphysical weightless experiences of universe.”

Thoreau: “The universe is wider than our views of it.”

Fuller: “The universe is the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience with the nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partially overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever omnitransforming, event sequences.”

Thoreau: “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

All quotes, juxtapositions around universe, taken from Thoreau’s Walden and Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder]. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben]. Print.


Walden: From “The Pond in Winter” to “Spring”

In Samuel Beckett’s chapter of Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress, twelve essays looking at Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (reissued New Directions Paperbook 331, 1972), titled “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Beckett says, “Words have their progressions as well as social phases. ‘Forest-cabin-village-city-academy’ is one rough progression…And every word expands with psychological inevitability.” Thus the Latin word “Lex,” originally, Beckett says, “Crop of acorns,” progresses to “Lles = Tree that produces acorns,” to “Legere = To gather,” to “Aquilex = He that gathers waters,” to “Lex” = Gathering together of peoples, public assembly,” to “Lex = Law,” to “Legere = To gather together letters into a word, to read” (10-11).

“It is the child’s mind over again,” Beckett says. “The child extends the names of the first familiar objects to other strange objects in which he is conscious of some analogy.” It is this idea of analogy that helps inform a reading of Thoreau’s Walden.

Walden seems to move quickly toward the end when Thoreau takes us from “The Pond in Winter” chapter directly into the “Spring” chapter. But this sense of quickness evaporates in his detail of observation, for we glimpse both the speed of change, as one day he wakes up and suddenly it’s spring, and the slowness of the process revealed in the close reading he gives nature.

This close reading is found, for example, in his etymological study of leaf, which progresses in the same way of Beckett’s Lex, but with Thoreau is added an extended analogy in which man is found in and of nature, finding his voice, his language, words he needs to describe his predicament:

“The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (γεἱβω, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λοβὁς, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words); externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed), with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of waterplants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils” (286-287).

One feels the ice melting in Thoreau’s “Spring” as an analogy for the learning of language, human language, but also the language of nature, from a frozen state of the tongue, where speech is all body language, to the cacophony of the awakened spring day, the naturalist writing it all down. Beckett says, “In its first dumb form, language was gesture. If a man wanted to say ‘sea,’ he pointed to the sea…The root of any word whatsoever can be traced back to some pre-lingual symbol” (10-11). Thus Thoreau, wanting to say spring, or nature, points to Walden.

The reading reveals much of Thoreau’s general method of explicating nature, through metaphor, analogy, personification, pun: “Is not the hand [of man] a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins?” (287). And the function of Thoreau’s method, its purpose, is to show interconnections, not man removed from nature, but not even man in nature, but man of nature, which allows for the view that “our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity” (291). This is why “There is nothing inorganic” (288), and why “We can never have enough of Nature” (297). Thoreau can trace everything back to nature because everything is nature, everything comes from nature: “The root of any word….” Recall McKibben’s questions in his introduction: “How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). The ambiguity, if any remains, is nature’s, not Thoreau’s.


Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Now is the Science of our Discontent: E. O. Wilson and the Sacrifice of Science

Why do humans sacrifice for one another, sometimes even giving their lives so that others may go on living? We are an exceptionally selfish species, if measured by our propensity to hoard, to covet power and control, to manipulate and coerce. Scientists appear to be part of the species. Nature published last August a new paper by E. O. Wilson, with Marin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, all of Harvard (Wilson, now 81), but we wonder what’s become of the peer review process when after publication 137 scientists see fit to call Wilson a heretic, signing a letter chastising Nature for publishing his argument. Of course there’s disagreement – no disagreement, no argument; no argument, no need to publish results. One would think the scientist would be the first to understand this. So what’s going on here?

Borrowing from the medical peer review scandal, about which we posted last October: In the Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman (November, 2010) said, “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it.” The motive appears to be funding. If you are a scholar at work on research on kin selection, it’s possible that Wilson’s breakaway article renders your work null and void. Yet most disturbing is the suggestion that many of the scientists signing the letter of discontent have not even read Wilson’s paper, or, if they have, have not studied the mathematics addendum, or if they have, have not understood the math. A Boston Globe interview (April 17, 2011) with Wilson, interestingly titled “Where does good come from?,” discusses the letter of discontent and his revised theory. According to the Globe, Richard Dawkins said, “It’s almost universally regarded as a disgrace that Nature published it.” That’s not a rebuttal; it’s an insult. Wired Science’s Brandon Keim summarized the support that does exist as well as opposing viewpoints: See “E. O. Wilson Proposes New Theory of Social Evolution.”

The crux of the matter was usefully stated by Robert B. Laughlin in A Different Universe (2005): “The pig-headed response of the science establishment to the emergent principles potentially present in life is, of course, a glaring symptom of its addiction to reductionist beliefs – happily abetted by the pharmaceutical industry, which greatly appreciates having minutiae relevant to its business worked out at taxpayer expense” (173). Laughlin defines emergence this way: “Emergence means complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules. Emergence means stable inevitability in the way certain things are. Emergence means unpredictability, in the sense of small events causing great and qualitative changes in larger ones. Emergence means the fundamental impossibility of control. Emergence is a law of nature to which humans are subservient” (200-201). Further, Laughlin explains, perhaps, both the medical research scandal and the dissing by so many scientists of Wilson’s paper: “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (215). What Laughlin is talking about is science that shifts in focus from explaining things based on “the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective” (208). And that is precisely the direction taken by Wilson’s new paper.

The threat of Wilson’s change in focus is to the dominance of the individual, the single gene as well as the single person. When humans come together, the resulting behavior of the group is something different from the behavior of each individual within the group. The same may be true of genes. This is what Dawkins can’t tolerate, for the focus changes from competition, which his work is bound to, to cooperation, which is probably an emergent phenomenon. If we are to have the truth, it appears that someone in the scientific community is going to have to make a sacrifice. Perhaps E. O. Wilson already has.