29 November 2015

'Such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before'

Re-reading Philip Fisher — Wonder is a horizon-effect of the known, the unknown and the unknowable — I was turning it over in contrast with a well-known passage from Walking by Henry David Thoreau:
My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence...
Reading on, I came again to a passage which I hadn't thought about in a while:
We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold grey day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest brightest morning sun-light fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon, and on the leaves of the shrub-oaks on the hill-side, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.
On this November day, however, there has been no break in the grey, cold and wind.

27 November 2015

A natural compass

Chinese scientists say that they have found a biological compass needle — a rod-shaped complex of proteins that can align with Earth’s weak magnetic field — in the cells of fruit flies. 
The biocompass — whose constituent proteins exist in related forms in other species — could explain a long-standing puzzle: how animals such as birds and insects sense magnetism.
Image: Qin et al. Nature Mater. (2015)

25 November 2015

'Attentiveness can rival the most powerful magnifying lens'

You can look at mosses the same way you can listen deeply to water running over rocks…  
Having words for the forms [of the moss] makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal you can see more clearly… 
I find the language of microscopic description compelling in its clarity. The edge of a leaf is not simply uneven; there is a glossary of specific words for the appearance of a leaf margin: dentate for large, coarse teeth, serrate for a sawblade edge, serrulate if the teeth are fine and even, ciliate for a fringe along the edge. A leaf folded by accordion pleats is plicate, complanate when flattened as if squashed between two pages of a book.
Gathering Moss, Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2003

Image of Barbula fallax via here

23 November 2015

Surfing uncertainty

Visual information goes to the visual cortex, so there are a huge number of connections going from the thalamus into the visual cortex. But here’s the surprise: there are ten times as many going in the opposite direction.
David Eagleman
A skilled surfer stays ‘in the pocket’; close to, yet just ahead of the place where the wave is breaking. This provides power and, when the waves breaks, it does not catch her. The brain’s task is not dissimilar. By constantly attempting to predict the incoming sensory signal we become able…to learn about the world around us and to engage that world in thought and action. Successful, world-engaging prediction is not easy. It depends crucially upon simultaneously estimating the state of the word and our own sensory uncertainty. But get that right, and active agents can both know and behaviourally engage their worlds, safely riding wave upon wave of sensory stimulation.
Andy Clark

Image: moillusions.com

20 November 2015


When an observer doesn't immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there's a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience...
The first lesson in learning how to see more deeply into a landscape was to be continuously attentive, and to stifle the urge to stand outside the event, to instead stay within the event, leaving its significance to be resolved later; the second lesson, for me, was to notice how often I asked my body to defer to the dictates of my mind, how my body's extraordinary ability to discern textures and perfumes, to discriminate among tones and colours in the world outside itself, was dismissed by the rational mind.
The Invitation, Barry Lopez, Granta 133, Autumn 2015
The crossing from nature to culture and vice versa has always stood wide open. It leads across an easily accessible bridge: the practising life.
Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life, 2013

Photo by author

16 November 2015

Still in movement, stopped and going

Today, driving north next to green fields and blackthorn blossom for mile after mile, I thought that, if I could, I would like to travel through the whole season [of spring] like this. Caught up in time but at ease with it, in step and moving through the morning of the world, as it makes free room for half of every year in the northern hemisphere. To be out and about with the spring as it does its world-work. Wouldn't you do that if you could? Haven't we always wanted to lean towards the sun? And, better still, to feel spring coming, its arrival, and its passage onwards not by standing in one place as we mostly do in our settled ways, but for one year to travel with it, sometimes ahead of its green gears, sometimes behind, but to be most often with the season as it breaks over everything so that all might live beneath it...
Tim Dee in Archipelago 10

11 November 2015

'A temporary form created out of wind and ocean and moon'

The view that consciousness gets is a very partial, and in some ways inaccurate, reflection of all the activity that is going on ‘below stairs’...What consciousness sees is not what’s there, but a useful, plausible guess about what’s probably there – which in this case is wrong. Out of the swirl, the body-brain constructs a semi-stable image, our ‘World’, which isn’t an accurate representation of ‘what’s out there’, but a tissue of useful but fallible predictions about how things would change if I did various things like moved my eyeballs, or reached out my hand, or smiled. I actually see the world in terms not of what it is, so much, as what I expect to be able to do about it.
Effing the ineffable Guy Claxton

6 November 2015


A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa—to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines and nuthatches and mushrooms. This is the language I hear in the woods; this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around.
'The Grammar of Animacy' in Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2015

Puhpowee is the Potawatomi word for “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight” — a word for rising, for emergence.

See also Tongues in trees, books in running brooks

5 November 2015

'I wandered...till I got out of my knowledge'

Earlier this year I posted a short passage from John Clare that has become quite well known (thanks in large part to Iain Sinclair). Here is a longer section of the text from which it is taken, in Clare's own spelling:
I loved this solitary disposition from a boy and felt a curosity to wander about spots where I had never been before I remember one incident of this feeling when I was very young it cost my parents some anxiety it was in summer and I started off in the morning to get rotten sticks from the woods but I had a feeling to wander about the fields and I indulgd it I had often seen the large heath calld Emmonsales stretching its yellow furze from my eye into unknown solitudes when I went with the mere openers and my curosity urgd me to steal an oppertunity to explore it that morning I had imagind that the worlds end was at the edge of the orison and that a days journey was able to find it so I went on with my heart full of hopes pleasures and discoverys expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I could look down like looking into a large pit and see into its secrets the same as I believd I could see heaven by looking into the water  So I eagerly wanderd on and rambled among the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemd to forget me and I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one and shining in a different quarter of the sky still I felt no fear  my wonder seeking happiness had no room for it  I was finding new wonders every minute and was walking in a new world often wondering to my self that I had not found the end of the old one...

1 November 2015

'Stay close to the cold stream'

Dawn lights up the room. I close my book and sleep
dreaming of Bell Mountain and full of tenderness 
How do you grow old living with failure and disgrace?
Stay close to the cascading [stream]: cold, shimmering. 
Chant by Wang An-shih translated by David Hinton

Photo by Rob Pedley