Death On The Shelf: Megan Rosenbloom On Books Bound In Human Skin

When I was a child I had a hamster named Pepper, who lived for about three years I recall. When he died, I don’t remember crying. Pepper sat curled in the corner of his glass domain, his shut eye a soothing crescent, looking as if he simply fell into sleep. I asked my father if I could touch him, and my father said I could; so I reached in, and gave him one last pet. Rigor mortis had set in, and as I petted Pepper’s back I could feel his spine, stiff and knobbed although his fur coat still had shine, and curled tightly as he was he reminded me of a seashell, a conch or ponderous ark set on the shore or ocean bed. Pepper was buried in the backyard by the garage. I didn’t feel too bad—I had the distinct feeling he had just up and left somewhere.

This is my earliest memory of death. I probably had encountered it before this moment, but time loosens the bows. My hamster’s quiet, peaceful sleep, endless and never waking, is clearest when I hold shells, running my fingers over their bumps and edges. And not just seashells, but pasta shells and candy shells and gastropod shells and those little coat buttons shaped like clams… My little girl’s assumption that Pepper’s skeleton bore some connection to our underwater kin was surprisingly insightful. I think of it often, veering my brain into the wonder of whether symbolism is innate inside us. Very early in my life I linked death with the sea, and also with the stillness of sleep. Countless have drawn these parallels before me: Thanatos and his brother Hypnos in the ancient Greek; in Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet spinoff play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern, “Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?”

The question is refuted, but it stands. Humans oft associate death with the sea, and death with his ‘brother’ sleep. But death with books? Mm, perhaps with the binding, some poor PETA faithful mourning the loss of a beloved cow. More often then not though, we seem to associate books with immortality, the preserved written word transcending our mortal selves into the halls of meaningful permanence.   

Immortality is so far from death it could be considered its antithesis. Life everlasting—what’s dead about that? When we link death and books it feels more circumvential. One must maneuver around the obvious lifeblood to find the ghost.

In the state of Pennsylvania, in the city of Philadelphia, on South 22nd Street, there is an austere building, with an iron wrought gate flanked by two imposing lampposts. It is bulky, wide and congressional looking, and inside its walls is a macabre collection of medical oddities. It is the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and here rests perhaps the largest collection of anthropodermic books, or for the layman, books bound in human skin. Upon this a link between books and death slips not through our fingers, but rather assaults as one strolls through the Mütter’s aisles of wet specimens, medical models, instruments, and osteological wonders, including a corset skeleton with the alluding title “The Price of Beauty” and a vast collection of human skulls.

These books are dead. Yet, somehow, also living. A creeping ambivalence overtakes; the books are rather plain looking, so it is both surprising and skepticalizing, but then an actualization hits. Who are these people?, one finds themselves asking. It’s a question asked throughout the entirety of the Mütter Museum but it feels more acute here. After all, a skeleton is by natural law something that is discovered, not created—but a book? Bound in human skin? It pries forth a very specific fascination. If you are a human who feels its tickle there is a knowing it possesses an intangible pull. One is propelled forward and toward these strange covers as though on a sleigh. Librarian Megan Rosenbloom felt that pull, as her grey-blue eyes swept over the volumes. She wanted to know, Who are these people?, or, more accurately, who were they? What would they have to say about the fate and display of their derma? Would they object? Did they object? Were they pleased about their immortality? What were their names?

Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science and History of Books Bound In Human Skin is that exploration, and so much more, as Megan Rosenbloom sets herself on a course to test, catalog, and build provenance for any and all anthropodermic books scattered and hidden about the globe. Like its subject matter, it is an oddity, and a gem of a read. 

“Anthropodermic bibliopegy has been a specter on the shelves of libraries, museums, and private collections for over a century. Human skin books—mostly made by nineteenth-century doctor bibliophiles—are the only books that are controversial not for the ideas they contain but for the physical makeup of the object itself. They repel and fascinate, and their very ordinary appearances mask the horror inherent in their creation. Anthropodermic books tell a complicated and uncomfortable tale about the development of clinical medicine and the doctoring class, and the worst of what can come from the collision of acquisitiveness and a distanced clinical gaze. The weight of these objects’ fraught legacy transfers to the institutions where they are housed, and the library and museum professionals who are responsible for them. Each owner handles this responsibility differently.’ 

“[…] the conservationists at Harvard Library had discovered that a simple scientific test could be employed to confirm definitively whether an alleged human skin book was genuine. Shortly thereafter, I joined forces with the chemist who carried out the Harvard test, another chemist, and the curator of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to create the Anthropodermic Book Project. Our aim is to identify and test as many alleged anthropodermic books as possible and dispel long-held myths about the most macabre books in history. Sometimes the most unlikely candidates turn out to be real human skin, and some books with plausible pedigrees turn out to be frauds. As of this writing, my team has identified only about fifty alleged anthropodermic books in public collections and a few more in private hands. With such a small field of study, any test result could completely reshape our understanding of the scope of this practice. We have to approach every item objectively and let science out the truth.” 

Megan Rosenbloom, from Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin

In the mid to late-2000s a chemist named Daniel Kirby started utilizing proteomics to help museums better restore and protect their artifacts and artworks. With modern technology Kirby realized by looking at an object’s proteins he could help distinguish a painting’s egg tempera content, or the type of seal skin used in a nineteenth-century Yup’tik kayak, assisting in recreations. When Megan Rosenbloom found Daniel Kirby, the Anthropodermic Book Project was born. Taking only a sliver of the supposed skin binding (about the amount of a thin fingernail shaving) peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) for the first time in history could prove whether an alleged human skin book was real or fraudulent. Soon, confirmed anthropodermic books started showing up all over the world, though there were still unanswered questions. For one, PMF testing cannot identify the race or cultural makeup of a person; homo sapiens “do not have enough genetic variability among its populations to justify either the identification of geographically based races or of evolutionarily distinct lineages.” For another, PMF testing cannot even really distinguish between homo sapiens and other members of the Homininae subfamily (i.e. chimps, bonobos, and gorillas); however, no book has ever (to modern knowledge) been bound (or allegedly bound) in gorilla skin. That said, Megan Rosenbloom wants you to know that if you do know of a book allegedly bound in gorilla skin to contact her immediately.  

The ghostliness of these books makes them uniquely opaque, despite their grim nudity. Stripped of their personage, decontextualized, their true pasts can only be cobbled together through dedicated detective work, old paper trails and the sort. Some anthropodermic books are terrible question marks: nameless, with limited provenance and nothing substantial to grab hold to. But others are blatant in their confessions. 

Patterns began to emerge as more and more anthropodermic books were wedged into the light. The majority of acquisitioners and tanners were doctors or part of the doctoring class; when alleged human skin books were outed to be frauds, a large portion of them were centered around ploys of racism; though PMF tests cannot determine sex, many of the skins were claimed to be female, alluding to a rather sinister result of what happens when the distanced clinical gaze collides with the objectifying male one, making women and their skins victims of physicians’ psychosexual pathologies. Yet some defied expectations. One such anthropodermic book, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Peirce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove the Highwayman, was the result of a deathbed wish. The inscription “Hic liber Waltonis cute compactus est” graces the cover, on a gold-tooled black leather strip: “This book by Walton bound in [his] skin.” George Walton, lifelong criminal bibliophile turned armchair philosopher in prison, took end-of-life matters into his own hands. When he died, he requested his memoir be bound in himself; skin was taken from his back, tanned to mirror grey deerskin, and sent to bookbinder Peter Low. He now rests at the Boston Athenaeum, his words preserved in his own suede. 

Though one might be inclined to believe Dark Archives is a book of grotesque goggling, it is chiefly a book of history—medical history to be precise. When we die, we inevitably leave something behind: our bodies. Much of Dark Archives circles around the dubious questions of what rights do these bodies have. Who owns them if not ourselves, ourselves which have flown away? Rosenbloom wends us through humanity’s troubling pasts of corpses and their defilements; the dead stolen from graves, criminals hacked up in front of storefront windows to the appeasement of oglers, the moral minefield of surgeons in need of practicing cadavers, the exchange of money for human flesh. In the long shadow of medical butchery, anthropodermic books are a niche, and at times almost seem quaint in the grand scheme of things. But so many factors must converge to make an anthropodermic book possible. It is this chain of compliance that is most fascinating, and it is this chain that presents the most challenging end result of why. What does an anthropodermic book represent? What does its existence mean? 

I am not so squeamish about death. From the fungi growth of human composting to how bodies explode when cremated, I am rather captivated by the human corpse’s embracing of ugliness and repellency of what is considered contemporarily aesthetically good. We spend so much of our lives overly concerned with our appearances… I am strangely refreshed with the reality that at the end death throws all that hard work and devotion away. Once dead, we stiffen then fall slack, we yellow and brown and grey; insects flume within us, our internal bacteria goes bonkers and we bloat, blister, and burst; we are all—essentially—eaten, whether by fire or dirt. What’s left of us? In time not even bones. Should your derma befall the fate of an anthropodermic book, your lifeless body will be flayed, your skin pickled in acidic juices then washed and beaten and pressed. It is all an odd, ugly sort of business, a wonderfully odd ugly business. But, why shouldn’t it be? Must we be preserved youthful and plump with intrinsic beauty? Encased in resin, pumped full of formaldehyde, or launched into the vacuum of space, so as to never rot and decay. I suppose what draws me most to anthropodermic bibliopegy is despite the frequent usurping of human rights, it feels like a second life, so unlike that of our first. 

These books exist, for now at least. Another ornament to be hung and considered on the tree of the Human Condition. What we can learn from them, and what we believe of their nature, is sure to vary with time. 

From 1497-1543 a German artist named Hans Holbein existed. While in his impressionable twenties, he endeavored on a series of intricate woodblock paintings. These paintings were small, small enough to cup in the palm of your hand. In them, Death in the form of a skeleton performs a dance, a dance that yanks the cowl off an astonished monk, steals food from a miser, skewers an adorned knight, pulls the covers off a resting duchess, and leads a crying child away from his parents into the coming night. It is The Dance of Death, and to all peoples of every class he is an intruder, enthusiastically performing his jig. Cut by Hans Lützelburger (who died before he could see the finished product over which he labored, in a crude stroke of irony) the sensational woodblocks were later sold to creditors and compiled for publishing in Lyons in 1538. They have never been out of print, the hypnotic movements of Death’s swinging arms and empty eyes enlivening and alarming viewers for over six centuries. 

And in 1816, a famous bookbinder by the name of Joseph Zaehnsdorf commissioned the skin of a woman to give what he saw as “an appropriate binding” for a copy of Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. The quantity of the material he was given (meaning, human skin) was in his own words “scanty”, resulting in him having to split the human leather in two, creating a smooth finished cover but a lumpy binding. In the typed memorandum he signs conditionally, “Yours obediently, Zaehnsdorf”. It is macabre in its pragmatism, the capitalist system that incited and buoyed this tome’s creation.

This copy along with two other anthropodermic editions of Holbein’s Dance of Death were later displayed at an exhibition by Grolier’s Club in 1903. Supposedly, three more copies throughout the 19th century of The Dance were made, totaling the number of times Hans Holbein the Younger’s eerie woodblock series The Dance of Death being allegedly bound in human skin to six. Though perhaps the most well known anthropodermic books, Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives barely covers these volumes, likely because of their notoriety. Of these six, only two have been tested, and confirmed by PMF testing; Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 binding is one of them, obedient to the end.  The book now rests at Brown University, at the Jay Hay Library in Providence, Rhode Island, ‘rests’ holding more weight here than is perhaps norm.

Hans Holbein created The Dance of Death to showcase what he saw as an encouraging—and brutal—truth: Death comes for all of us, regardless of wealth, faith, condition, or class. Sometimes Death’s dance is like an assault, as to a jewel-laden emperor being denied his crown; but other times, Death is more a liberator, as to an old woman limping down a dirt road being released from her pains. Holbein also made The Dance as a sort of warning, a reminder to the most elitist classes that they will not be spared. But what Holbein’s enigmatic dancing Death misses is that though being dead will likely be the same for all of us, our dying—and the bodies we leave behind—will not become equalized the moment Death’s dance is finished. Rather, death just follows the path life has laid out. And, as all of us know, life is not egalitarian. 

The skins that bind Holbein’s [Dances] of Death were surely taken without consent, and with disregard of their owners. The commissioners, the bookbinders, the sellers, they all get to have their names passed on through history. But who makes Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 Dance of Death? No name is granted. We don’t know. Without the name, what immortality is given? They are doomed to mere superficial covering, a pale smooth beautiful nothing on a paper throne. Megan Rosenbloom gives new life to these dark volumes, and asks us to think about death, and our dead, more often. Through Dark Archives she invites us with compassion into a “more empowering relationship with our mortality.” 

An edition of Hans Holbein’s The Dance of Death bound in human skin, 1898. The only image of an anthropodermic book featured in Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives.

5 out of 5 stars for Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin.


The featured image is of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is an American museum of medical history, and “helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.” Photograph via muttermuseum.org – Thank you.

On Tides

Growing up in the Twin Ports of Minnesota and Wisconsin, I was often exposed to the chilling brutality, and lashing beauty, of the waves of Lake Superior. 

The Ojibwe called Lake Superior kitchi-gami, meaning “great sea”. With the largest surface area of any freshwater body in the world, if one looks outwards from the shores of either Wisconsin Point or Canal Park, the lake can truly appear as an ocean—vast and unbroken as the sky. On a vicious, windy day, bundled well in a thick coat and set on just the right rock, observing the lake can be a meditative, absolving experience, and it’s one I indulged in quite often. There’s no brine or scent of life in the lake; just her coldness, and clattering foams, like a land of liquid angry snow. Sitting alone on those shores are some of my most peaceful, quiet memories. Sometimes, I go there in my mind, and I can smell the crisp mist. 

Stunning image of Lake Superior waves at North House. Photograph taken by Layne Kennedy.

Waves that chop and peak when unruly. A color more resembling iron in winter. A heavy, thudding roar. The visage of the lake—if it could be described with a single word—is flinty. Hard and unyielding, like the gaze of a tiger or Cellini’s defiant Perseus. With temperatures in the region that can hit -40℉ with windchill, this stoic, saltless sea, can display a unique form of frigid savagery. An old saying rises up: “Lake Superior seldom gives up her dead”. This axiom, sounding like the stuff of grim tall tales, has a surprising basis in truth. Due to the unusually low temperature of the water, the cold functions as a sterilizer, inhibiting bacterial growth. Decaying bodies, lost in the waves, need feeding bacteria to generate gases to float. Therefore, without the bacteria feeding and thriving, the heavy lake holds down any and all souls. In Lake Superior is a graveyard of men, women, children, and ships. Kitchi-gami plays for keeps, giving little up. 

I swam in those waters, I walked along those coarse and rock laden shores and picked up pieces of smoky glass and smooth small stones. One of my uncles, who ran a booth at Minnesota’s Renaissance Faire for some decades called Wizard’s Wax Works, used the driftwood tossed up along Wisconsin Point to mold his fantasy wax figures on. In the spring and summer as a family we’d all go to the point and collect these extravagant burled and gnarled wood pieces, and stack them in the back of the van and take them home. Beneath a small heating lamp in my grandparents basement my uncle would push and pull dragons and wizards, unicorns and fish and bears out the wax, and merge and coil them about the driftwood. Kitchi-gami, seemingly against her character, also grants gifts.

And sometimes the mad lake tries to kill you. It almost took me, one summer when I was a child. I was wearing little green shoes, full of tiny pink, blue, and white flowers. Playing down by the water at Canal Park, near the lighthouse, a massive wave enveloped me and nearly swept me out. In my memory, I remember the smack and crush, and the sudden roll of the world being turned upside down as I was flung inside the watery drum. My uncle saved me (a different uncle, not my uncle who forged creatures from wax to driftwood) and after it was made clear that I wasn’t dead and drowned, I was carried back up the rocks to the van in the parking lot, and I was set down in the back, drenched and dazed. My older cousin, excited by the event, gave me a once over and exclaimed, “Look! She’s lost a shoe!” The great lake that day had almost swallowed me up. I was toweled off, and sent back out to play to supposedly laugh in the face of death. Kitchi-gami, swung her fist, but missed.

Image of the Canal Park Lighthouse, very close to where I almost drowned as a child. Image Credit: Canalpark.com

The water woos me; it’s always been this way. Living in Seattle now some of my favorite things to do are to take the ferries or go to the docks and watch the Pacific waters rising in, flowing out. Always in motion (perhaps that’s why I love the water, for it resembles my mind) scientific studies say I love the water because it lowers my cortisol levels when I see it, smell it taste it touch it; that we humans always seek it, are soothed by it; that it is a reflection of our bodies and our lives. The same percentage of salt that exists in our blood exists in the ocean—but I prefer a poet’s view. I look out at the unending blue and think, Winter never rots in this sky.

So we all tend to be drawn to the waters. For me, the pull of the great blue bodies is that they change. The oceans, lakes, rivers, and seas have their own unique patterns and their own processes of time. For me, it’s all about the tides and waves—not the heart or head or belly or feet—but the lungs, that breathing, that comb and swell and yaw. Taking the hours to be witness to that slow, unwavering rhythm of up and down, ascent and descent, high and low, is a day well spent, a very good day indeed. This is what Johnathan White’s book Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean is about. You set out your front door on a wave and it circles the globe, and with prowess and gentleness and speed, it carries you back home. 

“My interest in tides springs from a fascination with the ocean. I grew up on the southern California coast, surfing, diving, sailing, fishing. I built a twenty-six-foot sloop after college and sailed it for a couple of years in the Atlantic and Caribbean, making several offshore passages. In the early 1980s, at twenty-five, I bought a leaky old sixty-five-foot wooden schooner, Crusader, and founded a non-profit educational organization, Resource Institute. For eleven years we sailed Crusader off the Northwest Coast, from Seattle to Alaska, around Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. We conducted weeklong seminars afloat on topics ranging from natural history, photography, and whale research to psychology, music, poetry, and November Coast Native art, culture, and mythology. […] Six or eight participants from across the country – sometimes from around the world – would join us at a coastal town, and we’d sail off, often not seeing another human settlement until seminar’s end.

It was a wonderfully adventurous eleven years, but one of the not-so-wonderful adventures was going aground on a large tide in Alaska’s Kalinin Bay.”

Johnathan White, from Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

Following White’s example, I opened this review with my own experiences of life by the waves, one of which involved me nearly getting swept out. White, in a similarly uncomfortable vein, opens his book with an excellent tale of running aground in mud. An unexpected turn of tides left him and his crew completely stranded in the Kalinin Bay. At a loss, White went to the pilothouse and grabbed for the tide chart, hoping the news would be good—but it wasn’t. The schooner Crusader had gone aground at peak high tide; that left White and his hapless crew of passengers stuck for at least nine to ten hours, and during those hours, White knew Crusader would continue to sink deeper and deeper into the mud. “Over the hours, I watched Crusader drop like a fatally wounded animal, first to her knees, then all fours, and finally onto her side. She filled chest-high with water. When the tide reversed, all seventy tons of her were stuck in the mud and didn’t want to come back up.”

The crew was shuttled ashore via small boats, leaving only White and one other crew member aboard the floundering ship. Fruits bobbed in the watery blue, books flapped about like birds. They pumped and pumped the water to what felt like no avail, White called the Coast Guard, it seemed all was lost and that he would have to say goodbye. But then, something changed. The tide, a silent avenger, rose, and the Crusader was jogged loose and floating again in little over a minute. 24 hours stuck in the salty sludge and in under two minutes Crusader was free. White never forgot. That event changed him, and he vowed to learn more about the tides, the oceans and the seas and their rhythms and harmonies. A masterful work of ensnaring prose, illuminating discoveries, and good old journalism, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean is Johnathan White’s journey around the world, and wherever he goes, the waves give chase. 

Image of a semipalmated sandpiper. Image Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

With introduction, broken into nine chapters (there is a lovely foreword by Peter Matthiessen that I would recommend not skipping) White has undertaken a deep exploration of the tides and their many intricate dances. Perusing topics such as the first tide theories by renown figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Zakariya Qazvini, to the Ptolemy-Aristotelian astronomies of the Mediterranean world, White delves into a rich history of human fascination—and bafflement—with the tides. There is a bouquet here of information, shaped by White’s elegant pen; a reader can feel at ease sailing along the wending of history, as though in the hands of a veteran captain. White searches for the tidal secrets both scholastically and by foot, traveling to famous sites like Mont Saint-Michel in France; China’s Qiantang River; Venice, Italy; and the Eling Tide Mill in Southampton, just north of the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. In these fervent voyages of the mind and heart, White performs a series of dances of his own: with the moon and sun, with semipalmated sandpipers and mudshrimp, with tidal bores, with technologies designed to harvest tidal energies, with massive gates rising from out the sea hoping to hold them off. It is a stellar work of writing, peppered with visual treats. Helpful photographs and diagrams make Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean an immersive, decadent read.  

And then there’s Johnathan White, with a childlike sense of awe that really brings animation to the journaling of his journey. White is a fine writer, expertly rendering scenes, a reader gets to really chew the senses: tactile, taste, smell, sound, sight, stream of consciousness, musings. A reader can clearly feel the tiny sandpiper in their cupped hands, can hear the roar of the upcoming bore, can know the slosh of high tide in Venice. The book is wonderfully thought through, with clean transitions and engaging topics.

Great diagram explaining how the Sun and Moon influence Earth’s tides. Image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica.

When one stands with the ocean, there is often an overwhelming feeling that sweeps over, a feeling of great encapsulation and interconnectedness. John Steinbeck states it well in his story The Log from the Sea of Cortez, “It’s a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious… is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable…. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” This quote, stationed at the beginning of the first chapter of White’s Tides, encompasses what the oceans and their cycles are really about: the understanding that all things are bound together, and that all things are dependent upon this binding. From this, it is easy to see what White is really exploring throughout his voyages with the tides, is influence. How one thing shapes another thing and how that thing shapes another, and another and another, so on and so on, possibly ad infinitum. The discovery of this totality of union, of this naturalist perspective, can be an aid in understanding and coping with the events of the modern day. Johnathan White’s Tides is a welcome balm against stringent individualism—stringent individualism being the belief of existence of one inside a vacuum—and a much needed lesson of balance, connection, and patience, in time.

It has been a tough year. With the coronavirus pandemic biting at our heels, and the terrible losses for human rights, 2020 seems a year of high highs, and low lows. Here we all are, caught in the tides; some of us are run aground, lodged in mud, others of us are being swept out. This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about cycles, about the rolling circle that is life. Some might describe it as a hamster wheel—but, I struggle to have a view so nihilistic. I sense it more as a phasing, that life has us crest, grow, peak, shrink, shrivel, go dark, and retry. That my time here exists beyond my basic body, and that we will all roll onward into the future, repeating these seven fundamental forms in some manner, matter, or way. That we are always part of a shifting mold. If we view humanity as a collection of all that are human, and perhaps, even some that are little less, or little more, we can view ourselves as an ocean, and all oceans have their tides, tides both consistent and changing.

In times like these, it is helpful to remember that there have always been times like these. One day as a child, a wave pounded and almost swallowed me up. 

It could have swallowed me, but it didn’t. Kitchi-gami surely didn’t let me go that day, she simply missed her mark. I toweled off, and kept on playing. Because the wave goes out, as surely as it comes back in. The wheeling ring never stops, though the complications and complexities are many and wild.

Beautiful image of the tides of river and sea meeting. Image credit: Shutterstock

Five out of five stars for Johnathan White’s Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. 

Thank you for the voyage.  


The featured image is of Le Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. It is a tidal island and mainland commune, the fantastic abbey being of Romanesque architectural design, and is only accessible at low tide, for at high tide the waters sweep in and flood the sand strip. It is visited by more than 3 million people each year.

Dreamland: Science and Musings on Sleep

I have been reading online over the past few weeks about how during the COVID-19 pandemic people are reporting having strange, vivid dreams. As to why this is happening, theories abound, but one of the more interesting theories is that withdrawal from our usual environments (caused by the quarantine) has left many subconscious brains searching back into the lost stacks of the mind for inspiration. The past, for many, is being dug up, and played out in new formulations while they sleep. How fascinating, I thought as I read, The dreaming mind is such a deep, welling place. 

That got me thinking about sleeping in general, and all the mystery that entails it. My own sleep has always been plagued by oddities, from having Night Terrors in my youth to run-of-the-mill somnambulism to a terrible case of Exploding Head Syndrome I got in my mid-twenties. My immediate thought was I should get a book on it from the library, ride the wave of my sudden interest, before I was triggered by the remembering that I, in fact, already own a book about sleep and its many variations, and had never gotten around to reading it.

So to my small-ish Tsundoku collection I went, and pulled from the back of my shelf Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall. A rather journalistic endeavor and easy reading, Randall’s book was a fun, intriguing exploration into what happens (and what can happen) when we lay our heads down at night. A little lacking in imagination but clear cut on facts and a good dose of wit to it, Dreamland is a good beginner’s guide to the strangeness of slumber and the nebulous workings of the unconscious mind. 

Dreamland_Randall

“Whether any of us has a sleep problem or not, it is clear that we are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not that long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electrical lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.’ […]

“Because of the number of new findings in such a short time span, today’s researchers believe that they are in a golden age of their field. Sleep is now understood as a complex process that affects everything from the legal system to how babies are raised to how a soldier returning from war recovers from trauma. And it is also seen as a vital part of happiness. Whether you realize it or not, how you slept last night probably has a bigger impact on your life than what you decide to eat, how much money you make, or where you live. All of those thing that add up to what you consider you–your creativity, emotions, health, and ability to quickly learn a new skill or devise a solution to a problem–can be seen as little more than by-products of what happens inside your brain while your head is on a pillow each night. It is part of a world that all of us enter and yet barely understand.”  

It was neato to learn that Randall’s interest in the hidden elements of sleep were prompted by his own experience of sleepwalking. Always more of a talker in his sleep than a walker, David K. Randall woke up one night on the floor of his hallway, having no recollection of how he’d gotten there. Obviously, he’d been sleepwalking, but he’d never done it before and was baffled by what had happened, and slightly concerned it would happen again. When he sought out a specialist, a neurologist, all he received was an answer that led to more questions. The neurologist told him plainly, “I’m going to be honest with you. There’s a lot that we know about sleep, but there’s a lot that we don’t know. If the sleepwalking continues, let’s try some sedatives. But I don’t want you to start taking drugs that you don’t need. Try to cut down on your stress and see what happens.” And that was that.

the-little-violinist-sleeping-antoine-auguste-ernest-hebert
Flipped image of Hebert Antoine Auguste Ernest’s lovely “The Little Violinist Sleeping” via FineArtAmerica.com

But being a reporter, Randall couldn’t just leave it at that. So began his adventures into the weirdness of sleep. Though the science was still in its infancy when Dreamland first appeared on the shelves in 2012, and hasn’t come that far since, Randall touches upon all sorts of topics, from Freudian and Jungian theories of our dreams, to criminal acts committed by sleeping individuals, to baseball stats, Randall’s book is a wonderland of fascinating discoveries and entertaining trivia. 

The book is 13 chapters, the first opening with Randall’s own bizarre encounter with his unconscious self that left him confused and dazed on the floor, to closing up shop with a fruitful experiment to see whether he could, as it were, brain-hack himself to a better night’s rest. Very readable and easy to follow, Dreamland is articulate and streamline. Choosing to touch upon as many subjects as he can instead of going into expansive depth of any one or two, the book has a jack of all trades feel to it that keeps it light, and keeps the pages turning. The information gained tastes a great deal more like data than knowledge, and that’s just fine, and Randall has a charming sense of humor that adds a component of warmth to the book, even in the drier bits. A reader is sure to find something that interests them, and sure to learn some new amount about sleep. My favorite chapters where “Between The Sheets”, “Game Time”, and “Breathe Easy”, mostly due to the surprising socio-economic turns they took that had never much graced my mind. 

Speaking of my mind, Dreamland was certainly a book that got me thinking about my own inner mechanics. Recently, I learned about an area of the brainstem called the PONS which regulates respiratory and sensory functions, and is in fact the little switch that turns off our motor functions while we sleep. But for those of us who are somnambulists (sleepwalkers), our PONS areas frequently decide not to turn off when the lights go out, and we are left running around and acting out our dreams, so many of us waking up cooking sunny-side eggs, stumbling on stairs, or completely prone on our living room floors. It got me thinking, What disrupts this? Why some and not so many others? The clockwork of the mind is a fine, intricate machine that loves to suddenly sproing springs. Much like many other mysteries, sleep is an entity who when answers a question is poised to ask twenty more.     

And that’s the review. A good enough read that taught me new things, got me thinking, and helped satiate my curiosity on the recent coronavirus pandemic dreams going around. David K. Randall’s Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep gets three out of five stars. 

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Gustave Courbet’s “Portrait  of Juliette Courbet as a Sleeping Child”, mere graphite and paper, via Wikiart.org

Sweet dreams, everyone.  


The featured image is Frederic Leighton’s “Flaming June” produced in 1895. Painted with oil paints on a 47-by-47-inch (1,200 mm × 1,200 mm) square canvas, it is widely considered to be Leighton’s magnum opus. “Flaming June” disappeared from view in the early 1900’s and was rediscovered only in the 1960’s. It now resides at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico, via Wikipedia – Thank you.      

Carlo Rovelli’s Mind in Time

The human relationship with time has always been a pushmi-pullyu one. Usually, when time is exhorted upon in our daily lives, it is spoken about in its quantity and availability that can be allotted and used in the chaotic arrangement that is existing. One has either “too much time” or “too little”; time is “running out” or “dragging on”; we must “set the time”; we must properly “time” musical notes and when to throw the ball; we discuss our past with the mapping phrase “back in my time”; furthermore, time as exactitude, and time as nomothetic. Time, as we experience and use it, is a constantly shifting needle, pushed and pulled throughout our lives. Should a person have one of those suspiciously strange, eerily flawless days, time is “right on”—and, before one can even savor the delicious, punctual moment, the pleasing perfection has passed—swooped into the river of this mystical thing we know of as time.

During the western Age of Enlightenment, time in literature became personified. As nature became Nature and love was exalted to Love, so time was written as Time—a subtle, though I believe, sure expression of our intimate link with the mysterious, rolling hour. Time accompanies us without falter, an ever present companion such as the likes of oxygen proceeding in and out of our bodies and the microbiology of our skin. We occupy time as much as it occupies us. Its material, mechanism, and form mostly eludes us, but its force is undeniable, unstoppable, enviable even… Time, like death, is perfect, in that it cannot be improved upon. In its function, in its being, time is unsurpassed.

I have long been an admirer of time, perhaps because I have long felt time was on my side. As a child, I yearned for my grandmother’s white hair and her vein strewn hands; as an adolescent, I craved a craggy forehead and a bespeckled, splotched chest. Now, in my thirties, I sometimes in the night flip through the pages of old diaries, and with my feet clung to the leather of my seat, chin rested on my beaten knees, I trace the ink I looped into intimate disposition, and consider how I can barely grasp what has been and what will be. Often seen as a bandit, I’ve spent my life viewing time as a great giver. Hasn’t my life been nothing short of but a constant receiving and processing of time? Time is a filler, not an emptier. I think I have been lucky, for this perception has seemingly protected me from much stress and anxiety.

So a book on time was irresistible. I have read several now, one of the best being About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution by Paul Davies. My latest read, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time (in its native Italian: L’ordine del tempo) is a summarized, but rich rendering of Rovelli’s life’s work: the study of space and time. Well plotted and envisioned, Rovelli’s book is written for the layman while not shunting expertise. From the point by point charting of Newtonian time, to the nebulous musings of Aristotle and the Greek philosophers, to a fever dream of possibilities, Rovelli explores far and wide what it means to be in time, and what it means to be time itself.

The Order of Time_coverOne after another, the characteristic features of time have proved to be approximations, mistakes determined by our perspective, just like the flatness of the Earth or the revolving of the sun. The growth of our knowledge has led to a slow disintegration of our notion of time. What we call “time” is a complex collection of structures, of layers. Under increasing scrutiny, in ever greater depth, time has lost layers one after another, piece by piece. […]

One by one, we discover the constituent parts of the time that is familiar to us—not, now, as elementary structures of reality, but rather as useful approximations for the clumsy and bungling mortal creatures we are: aspects of our perspective, and aspects, too, perhaps, that are decisive in determining what we are. Because the mystery of time is ultimately, perhaps, more about ourselves than about the cosmos.

The Order of Time is a progression—from beginning to end—into greater and greater entropy; this, I think, is part of Rovelli’s vision, for it is the story of time. The opening chapters are of time’s material, its measurement and mechanism, and what could be considered its proofs. Some myths and beliefs are quickly expelled, and with a very sharp scalpel, time is sliced; what was once explained and referred to as a singular body, flowing and constant and in perfect sync with all of space, is blown apart into innumerable sects. Rovelli explains, “Times are legion: a different one for every point in space. There is not one single time; there is a vast multitude of them.” Gravity, and heat, are massive influences of time’s current. A human being who lives on the seafloor will have more time than one who lives up in the mountains; our aquatic friend’s processes will process more slowly, while our mountaineer’s will process faster.

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A page from Einstein’s Zurich notebook where the line element of General Relativity appears for the first time. (top left of the page) Image Credit: University of Pittsburgh – Thank You 

This is not a matter of perception—but fact. Precision timepieces have shown us that time does indeed move at different rates, and it all boils down to Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity. Thermodynamics also plays a role, keeping time in its forward trajectory. Though time is multitudinous, it is certainly moving in one direction, Rovelli reassures. If I fall and skin my knee, I can not go back. Time is a river, as it has long been waxed and waned; however, each drop of water, each locality, exists only in relation to the others. Though it seems the river is one, it is not. It is our limited perceptions that see it as such. Time is not the broad stroke of a very big brush; it is intricate, painstaking pointillism.

So Rovelli makes a bold conclusion: due to the splintered, smattering that is time, there must therefore be no present, just past and future. In such squeezed, bubbled localities, the present is merely a construction of the human mind; in the material of the universe, time is a strange serpent, a creature of merely head and tail, asymmetrical and without equidistance. This leads to another revelation: that time is something that is happening. To us, time is understood by the diurnal rhythms of the natural world. The rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, the comings and goings of the tides, the circulations of the seasons. We count the ways in which things change. From out the fields of physics, we find ourselves being led by Rovelli into the forests of philosophers. If time is happening, and if the happening of life is the continual totaling of events occurring around us, if suddenly, nothing were to move, nothing were to change, would time cease to pass and therefore, cease to exist?

It was a question Aristotle posed, and Rovelli rolls it in his hands, considering. He does this a lot throughout the course of the book, spinning the thoughts of his predecessors, as though spinning a basketball on his finger. It’s a balancing act, and the Law of Angular Momentum. The momentum must be conserved, or the whole thing falls off.

And things do fall off. Certain parts of The Order of Time can leave one scratching one’s chin like a chimp. At stages, a reader can feel the brain growing; a lightheadedness that invokes the sensation that your head will detach from your shoulders and float upward until your crown bumps the ceiling, rolling on its side as though a helium filled balloon. To his credit, Rovelli does his best to put things within reaching distance, but sometimes you’re just left up on your tippy toes, straining for the box. “Many parts of this story are solid, others plausible, others still are guesses hazarded in an attempt at understanding the whole.” Rovelli writes. The Order of Time begins very differently than how it ends; it proceeds from definitive rudimentary bits into manifold extrapolations; lopsided, and on incline, the ball in form of a book that is Rovelli’s mind rolls further and further ahead into question: this, by all means, is time.

Though time is fascinating to me, and I have spent countless hours discussing it in both verbal and written form, it was not the subject of Rovelli’s words that I found most enjoyable about this read—rather, it was Carlo Rovelli himself. (This is something that occurs often to me in reading: it is not only books I find so interesting, but the writers of books as well.) Rovelli has a wandering mind, and his elegant prose and choice vocabulary lend a wonderful freeness to The Order of Time that is so often lacking in the genres of science and nonfiction. In the dilating eye of quantification, the soulfulness and emotion of his study does not leave. Embracing the poetry of a carefully unfurling scene, Rovelli communes easily with his memories, his loves, his life. In what he calls “the residues of the past”, it is Rovelli’s reveries that make The Order of Time a book worth reading.

As humans—most notably over the past several decades—our explorations into the cosmos and the inception of it All seems to be emitting a quadraphonic sound: gravity, heat, space and time are all converging like points on a compass, but in our eager hands the arrow keeps spinning, round and around. It is a question: will we be able to sail deep into the unknown seas with this compass? Are these great titans the guides that will aid us in our strive to know more, and go further than we have ever gone? I don’t know, but over the years of my reading, it is clear to me that slowly, a consensus is being built by an impassioned chattering of scientific minds. These four things, have something to do with the birth of our universe. And if you are someone who is interested in The Big Questions, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time is a fine piece of writing to add to your library.

Make time for Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. I was not disappointed; hopefully, you won’t be either.

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Great portrait of Carlo Rovelli at the University of Luminy in Marseille, France, on April 16th 2015. (Ian Hanning, Réa / Contrasto) via international.it – Thank You.

Four out of five stars for Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time.

The Water Will Come: Jeff Goodell Wades into the Future

In the morning of October 2, 2018 a massive oscillation of pulsing white started to heave its lungs over the southwestern Caribbean sea.

For the NHC (National Hurricane Society) this was nothing out of the ordinary. Such disorganized accumulations of thunderstorms occur fairly regularly during the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico hurricane season, however, dutiful in their profession, they began to monitor it. Over the next few days, the tropical disturbance slowly, in a smooth fog-like creep, began to gather itself into a definite whorl. An enormous wheel, of rumble and powder, started to roll northward and then so eastward toward the Yucatán Peninsula. Its body got built quickly, and a head began to form. By October 6th, a lazy, sleepy eye was taking shape. Advisories got initiated. People waited on the land, looking out. On the 7th day, it depressed, spun, and woke, and by 16:55 UTC that day it had a name. Hurricane Michael over the next three days would begin barreling into the Gulf Coast and Florida, its gaze reaching landfall on the 10th of October. In wild winds and torrential rains, it popped up electrical poles like wine corks, smothered beaches, flooded rivers, tore into houses and flung small animals into the sky. Northward it banked, tired—yet still determined—and poured and howled itself over the states of Georgia and both Carolinas. On the 11th day, its one, beautiful mean eye closed; still, like a sleepwalker, it continued. Hurricane Michael had one last gasp, and after traveling east for four days, its cyclone-shell dropped on the Iberian Peninsula the 16th of October, washing Portugal in its death throes. No doubt it was satisfied with its brief, but brutal life.

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An aerial shot of Mexico Beach, FL after Hurricane Michael hit on the 12th of October. Image provided by weather.com – Thank you. 

I was not there, of course; I was safe and snug on the west coast of the United States, watching it all from my laptop. I had an awe and respect for its savagery, its sheer size. Hurricane Michael in little more than a week had ripped through a dozen countries and touched three continents. It slouched its belly over some 5,000 miles, crushing all it could before it vanished into literal thin air. I found it remarkable, and terrifying; a true Titan of Nature.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, the glaring, unforgiving Sun, are all welded into the amorality of the Earth and Universe, so very far beyond the simply duality of right and wrong that us human beings so lovingly cling. It was at this time, watching Hurricane Michael thunder itself through the lower east coast, that the true mass of climate change—the heavy bodies of the fast rising seas—sat all their weight upon me. As I scrolled safely through the destruction of Hurricane Michael (a pang for being a rubbernecker, twinging) it began to fully settle upon me just how much we were not ready for the onslaught of destruction that was making headlong for us.

The water, la belle dame sans merci, was coming. And she was arriving at a good clip, unable to wait for anyone or thing. I saw it, like a vision: if the west coast of the North American continent would burn in wildfires unending, than the east coast would flood. Highways would wend along the seafloor, barnacles would encrust front steps; the tops of buildings, pockmarked from eroding salt and oiled in algae, would metamorphose into small craggy islands, waves breaking upon them like rocky shores. It was all going to happen, in the rising decades, the turbines of a windmill wheeling in one direction—the east coast was going to flood. One day, the tides would come and the waters would cease to recede. Hurricane Michael with its wake had washed clarity over me, and I sought more detail in the emerging scene.

(So, I went to the bookstore, for I know it is safe to assume that when something of importance strikes me it has surely struck someone else far more educated than I, earlier, and that that someone has probably written a book about it. Lo and behold—there it was.)

Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World is not a book to enlighten and uplift a reader. It is a book of education and facts, designed to inform, ask open-ended questions, and little more. Goodell has one thing on his mind: what’s going to happen, when the water comes? Not if—when. Compiling, vetting, daydreaming, Goodell pens the coming scenarios lurking beneath those encroaching waves. Someday in the future, the Ferrari on the seafloor won’t just be a haunting image in a fiction dystopia. In the approaching decades, as a child grows into an adolescent and so into an adult, so too will the sea gradually climb, and the land—along with the coastal metropolises of the homo sapien world—will become one with the cold blue.

Water-Will-Come-jacketThe real x factor here is not the vagaries of climate science, but the complexity of human psychology. At what point will we take dramatic action to cut CO₂ pollution? Will we spend billions on adaptive infrastructure to prepare cities for rising waters—or will we do nothing until it is too late? Will we welcome people who flee submerged coastlines and sinking islands—or will we imprison them? No one knows how our economic and political system will deal with these challenges. The simple truth is, human beings have become a geological force on the planet, with a power to reshape the boundaries of the world in ways we didn’t intend and don’t entirely understand. Everyday, little by little, the water is rising, washing away beaches, eroding coastlines, pushing into homes and shops and places of worship. As our world floods, it is likely to cause immense suffering and devastation. It is also likely to bring people together and inspire creativity and camaraderie in ways that no one can foresee. Either way, the water is coming. As Hal Wanless, a geologist at the University of Miami, told me in his deep Old Testament voice as we drove toward the beach one day, “If you’re not building a boat, then you don’t understand what’s happening here.”

A book that opens with a prologue titled “Atlantis,” like many current events reads of the day, a reader is aware that they are likely going to feel a little depressed and a lot disappointed. This is to our nonfiction writer’s benefit, however, for a good enough writer can grasp what a book is for. Though fluffy feel-good inspiration and kinship memoirs flood the shelves in these self-help, self-love times, a book has a much greater power, one that many modern writers do not utilize fully: The Omen. In this, science fiction writers particularly excel, and lucky for Goodell, his subject of choice falls nearly parallel to the realm of science fiction. But, The Water Will Come is not a fantasy—it is frightening reality. Goodell employs not the mistakes of the past to get his point across, but the what-ifs of the future, and he does it well, gently veering readers to brush by grave scapes of political deadlock, citizen denialism, flooded neighborhoods, climate refugees, health and sanitation nightmares, nuclear spills, abandoned houses, skyscrapers half submerged and crumbling into the sea. The complexity of the situation he tries to make clear: the future of rising seas looks less like an orderly spider’s web and more like a mountain-sized tangle of electrical cords. No one really knows what’s going to happen when the water shows up; but, it’ll show up, salty and bacteria ridden and full of fecal matter and dead things. It’ll kill trees, fuck-up army bases, eat poorer countries and neighborhoods alive. When it comes, not everyone is going to play fair. The rich will likely get along fine, pack up and move inland or to higher ground, sail around the rusted hats of buildings in their boats, continue with their lives. Others won’t be so fortunate.

How much will the waters rise? How much land loss are we talking about here? Once again, Goodell says with a distressing shrug, we’re not sure. But the hopeful 3 feet 2 inches reported in the 2013 ICPP report is looking grimly underestimated. This is of particular importance, because in 2013 the thaw and collapse of the Greenland ice sheet happened too sudden and too quickly to be included. Scientist thought the melt would take decades longer than it did. This is regrettable, for the 2013 ICPP report was the scientific bases on which the 2015 Paris Climate Accords was constructed. Countries all over the world are planning for at most 4 feet of additional water. But by possibly as early as 2075, we’re looking more at 7 to 10 feet of sea level rise. Some climate scientists even suggest as much as 25 feet by 2100.

If I lived on the second floor of a small apartment complex right along the ocean in Miami-Dade, with 10 extra feet of water, I could open my window, sit my leggy self on the pane, and dip my toes in.

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Drone image of the famous Miami-Dade strip provided by Pintrest – Thank you.

And Miami-Dade is ground zero. Those who will be hit the hardest will be those living in Atlantic coastal cities like New York, USA and Lagos, Nigeria; the island states of the South Pacific, such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands (the Marshelles made famous by climate change); Alaska and the upper Canadian coasts (the melting of the Bering Strait a national security and foreign affairs nightmare for the United States); and Shanghai, which sits only about 13 feet above sea level, built on the alluvial plain of the Yangtze River Delta. Small towns will be hit too, and perhaps suffer even harder than their big metropolis neighbors, who’ll have more money to fund big projects such as raising sidewalks and roads, building and tearing down infrastructure, and fixing municipal sewer systems that have broken down from the erosion of salinization, the salt of the rising ocean seeping into everything.

There will be refugees: people who have lost everything and will have to move across national lines, over oceans, travel hills and valleys to find new homes. And we are not ready for them. Such displaced people will have no protection, Goodell reminds, for under international law, there is no such thing as a climate refugee. Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives (deposed by a military coup in 2012) made an enemy of big Western polluters by being fervently outspoken about the fate of his island country. In 2014, he issued the following statement to the polluting giants: “You can drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions so that the seas do not rise so much… Or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can let us in… Or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick.” Though seemingly bleak, Nasheed’s pronouncement is disturbingly real. Consider how the world today is handling the present refugee crisis. With the first-world countries, from Denmark to Australia to the supposed haven of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (the United States of America) slamming their doors, one does not have to be a prophet to envision the horrible future that awaits on the coming, ever rising, ever rising waves.

Has Goodell written a good book? I don’t know; the writing is a tad dry. (I guess I’ll forego a rating on this review.) Goodell’s writing doesn’t wow, however, on such a dire timeline—one that seems fated to be swallowed into aquamarine dimness—flowing prose and cruel optimism (or pessimistic declarations) seem not the point. Goodell presents what’s there, and like many journalists turned authors, his writing is informative, brief, concrete; and, when he does dream, he does so in a way where he confines himself to the modern day consensus of “Hey now, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.” The Water Will Come is the book I was searching for, and it is what it is. Whether we as citizens of Earth will heed the warnings in its pages, is yet to be seen, but the word is getting out, and Goodell is doing his part in trying to make sure it outpaces the water.

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People in Karachi, Pakistan sleep on the sidewalk to escape the heat and frequent power outages during the 2018 heatwave. Image provided by The Guardian – Thank you. 

2018 was the year scientists all over the world declared that we were no longer talking about climate change—we were living it. That year, record high temperatures struck Europe and India, Hurricane Florence ripped through Cape Verde and Hurricane Michael followed suit, famine continued for many East African countries, wildfires burned on and on.

It will only get worse. Many climate scientists believe our planet is on the path to becoming a “hothouse.” By 2100, the Republic of Kiribati, and many other South Pacific nations, will be underwater. As the waters rise, and the heat grows, rainforests and coral reefs will shrivel and collapse, freshwater ecosystems near the coast that become contaminated with seawater will choke and die. It will get hotter. Southern Spain and other parts of Europe will turn into deserts; the western United States will be caked in the fumes of wildfires. Berlin, Germany will become as hot as Basrah, Iraq. Such radical transformation in such short time seems impossible to many—but it is already here.

Change is coming; the Anthropocene has begun its march. At current, the world is undoubtedly ours. For how much longer, is a topic up for debate.

Goodell’s message is clear: the water will come. But so much more is riding in on those crystal waves. Though the horizon looks dark, the future will forever remain unknown to us until the light of the present breaks it free. All Goodell and the lot of us can glimpse are the silhouettes of things to come.

And, if you are gazing out, seeking glimpses, The Water Will Come is a good place to start.

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The featured image is a view of the eye of Hurricane Michael taken on Oct. 10, 2018 from the International Space Station currently orbiting Earth. The photo was taken by astronaut Dr. Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor, who began working with NASA as a Flight Surgeon in 2006. In 2009, she was selected as a NASA astronaut. Image provided by Wikipedia – Thank you. 

The Body Keeps The Score: A Hefty Review For A Hefty Read

At the turn of the 16th century, a monumental shift was about to occur in scientific medicine.

Not so quietly, a call to intellectual arms was on the move. In 1527, Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist, would help ignite a medical revolution by publicly burning the works of Galen and Avicenna, throwing the much accepted medical theories and practices of the classical masters, such as Hippocrates and Aristotle, into doubt. The world was changing. By the end of the 1500’s much of the occultist influence of the previous principles would be dumped. With the old skin shed, the 17th century would come in with a roar. Throughout the 1600’s two of the most significant advances in all of medical science, inoculation and blood transfusion, would take their first teetering steps. Marcello Malpighi, a lecturer in theoretical medicine at the university of Bologna, using the light of the setting sun, would be the first human being to observe the capillaries through the lens of a microscope. The circulatory system, in all its glory, was being revealed. Yet such monumental revelations, riveting and inconceivable at the time, would be small potatoes compared to what was coming on the wing of the 18th century. The Age of Enlightenment rocked the world, and struck a chord in the western medical sciences. Students flocked to lecture halls, experimentation abounded. What was not known was now known; what was invisible could now be seen. Huge developments were breaking out, huge discoveries being made. And, during this cataclysmic time, small and unnoticingly at the end of the 17th century from an Ancient Greek word meaning “wound”, the term trauma slipperingly entered the medical Latin. The pin drop of this moment, a mere pebble deposited in already rolling waters, would not be truly realized until centuries later.

Though the Greeks used the term only for physical injuries, it would evolve, and around the late 19th century trauma would come to encompass the description of both physical and psychic harm. It is this latter, evolved meaning, psychic, that so often predominates the modern day relationship with trauma. In Bessel Van der Kolk’s illuminating work, The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Van der Kolk plunges headlong into this most tumultuous, eluding of maladies, and gives a studious, heartfelt attempt at bringing integration and clarity into this often misunderstood condition and field.

How to even begin to tackle such a hulking shadow? For those of us who have experienced it, lived with it, trauma is a hydra that pursues its vessel without tire. Van der Kolk, M. D. has spent the greater majority of his life aiding, studying, and observing the individuals hounded by this miraculously persistent of beasts. From car accident victims to rape survivors, from children who have been molested to war veterans, Van der Kolk’s breadth of interaction with the wounded is revealed potently in his book’s pages. Much like the Swiss physician nearly 500 years before him, the Dutch born Van der Kolk is seeking a revisioning of ingrained practice and theory; however, unlike Paracelsus, he has chosen to write books instead of burn them. (A less flashy, though better way I would think.)

In the prologue, Van der Kolk is quick to the point: Trauma affects all of us, our brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, friends, daughters, sons, neighbors, ourselves. Trauma can occur at any moment, happen at any time. In what is often designated into the realm of “other people”, Van der Kolk moves the needle, and advises an awareness that human beings have tendency to let slide. “Trauma […],” he places tenderly, “is unbearable and intolerable. Most […] victims […] become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on.” In these words, it is very easy to forget how fast one can lose control of one’s own life. Yet it happens; in terrible frequency it happens. To the young and old, weak and strong alike. Trauma, like cancer, can rise from the dead. Dormant in the body, it can sudden, fling, and burst sundering through as a tsunami. The brain, for all its faults, is very good at what it does: Storing and maintaining information. But what of horrors? What of profound grief? The brain keeps them, the body suffers them, and the mind, in the grip, writhes.

cover_van der kolk“[…]traumatized people become stuck, stopped in their growth because they can’t integrate new experiences into their lives.[…] Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.’

“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of symptoms […] . This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain.”

A book so stuffed with information one has to wonder how Van der Kolk fit it all in, I was very moved and learned a lot from The Body Keeps The Score. A work of relentless devotion, Van der Kolk maintains and promotes the highest of medical ethics clearly: “First, do no harm.” Though many of his patients have histories of horrible aggression and violence towards other human beings, Van der Kolk has only one objective on his mind: Healing. This might make him seem naive, or at worst, enabling to certain readers. But Van der Kolk has not chosen a profession in justice, or law, or philosophy; he has chosen a profession in medicine. And medicine is about treatment and recovery. He doesn’t much seem to care if he comes across gullible and sentimental. What he does care about, to his bones, is results. Open and driven, the writing speaks to these qualities. Crisp, empathic, and full of study, The Body Keeps The Score is a book foremost about medical science. Trauma, and all its terrors, is secondary.

Sectioned down into five parts, Van der Kolk uses the first four chapters to thoroughly discuss the origins and varied symptoms of trauma. In the fifth, and final chapter, Van der Kolk refocuses the energy into what he believes matters most: Recovery.

In the briefest of briefs and oversimplified, trauma stems from “immobility”. When the instinctual fight or flight responses to terror are denied, the human body continues to create hormones and continues to fire off nerves that instruct the individual to either fend off the attack, or flee. When the panicked pumping of these faculties produces no result, the brain and body, in a way, begins to implode. This implosion, internal and frightening and powerful, can hijack the mind, and from this commandeering, thrown completely out of whack, an individual can become ostracized from their body. They are, essentially, tossed off their own ship. What follows is an endless treading of water and desperation not to drown. Adrift, and wounded, without any navigation tools, the person begins to develop symptoms both physical and psychological from what is nothing short of total exhaustion.

To say that Van der Kolk presents a well researched documentation of trauma and its many expressions is an understatement. So much has gone into The Body Keeps The Score that it can make a reader dizzy. Eager to fit all his arguments and observations in, I will say that if the book has any fault at all, it is that Van der Kolk jumps from point to point to point so frequently, that the ability for the reader (and writer for that matter) to mull and chew upon what’s been laid out is squished.

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Anatomical illustration by Arnauld-Eloi Gautier-Dagoty (1741-1771); Provided by rawpixel

But this is a small matter, and one that did not dissuade this reader from being impressed by the astonishing workload Van der Kolk has taken upon himself and convinced by the enlightening though troubling facts dispensed in rapid fire formation. Chiefly in the beginning chapters, Van der Kolk makes it clear that mental illness—in its ever growing bouquet of variation—is not birthed out of chemical imbalances spur-of-the-moment. Mental illness, overwhelmingly, is the result of trauma, either formed from a singular catastrophic event (such as a car crash, or a rape) or from repeated punishment and exposure to violence (such as an abusive childhood, or a long war). Van der Kolk, as clearly and kindly as he can, provides a thorough mapping of what happens to the human brain when such circumstances occur, and how these changes then create rippling effects throughout the body. Presenting studies, PEW supported statistics, using images, telling his own stories and the stories of his patients, Van der Kolk dissects the arguments for the belief and trust in purely pill-form medicine. The root cause of such painful and often confusing conditions are not addressed, he argues, and therefore modern medicine continues to fall short for the elephant in the room continues to be ignored: Trauma. How can we prevent mental illness in the brain and body if we do not acknowledge the inception of these diseases? Van der Kolk is not just asking for better, more talk-based healing. What Van der Kolk is pushing for is a cultural awakening.

In a illuminating surprise, there is a hidden, tertiary plot inside Van der Kolk’s information laden volume. One that he has slipped in effectively and, perhaps, quite unconsciously. It is a story of denialism and silence.

Trauma is everywhere, in our siblings, our cousins, our parents, our friends, our neighbors. Then so, The Body Keeps The Score strategically tells us by simple deduction that abuse is everywhere, rape is everywhere, violence is everywhere, domination and hate is everywhere. The hardest lesson of the world, the most uncomfortable of truths, Van der Kolk tells in strict and factual form. Strangers, foreign invaders, monsters of the dark do not arrive in the form immaculate conception. Therefore mental illness—be it PTSD, depression, a behavioral disorder, insomnia—does not arrive by way of spontaneous combustion or generation. No, mental illness is foisted. Those who do our loved ones harm are us. An uncle, a father, a mother, a friend, a fellow employee, a sibling; trauma arrives more often than not on the wings of an intimate than on the heels of a catastrophe. It is this hidden lesson, poignantly slid between the lines of Van der Kolk’s compelling volume, that I found held the most weight. The silencing of abuse and trauma victims, Van der Kolk reminds us, comes at a high price: Skyrocketing medical expenses, homelessness, drug addiction, mental disorders, autoimmune sickness, and more. The question Van der Kolk most wants asked is this: Not what is wrong with a patient (this is often evident), but what has happened to them.

Though great advances have been made in all the medical fields, and the composition of our bodies has never been diagrammed more pristinely, puzzlingly, perhaps predictably, we still remain largely in the dark about the interactions and operations of our inner components. This statement will no doubt cause dispute; however, the likelihood of agreement on the conflicting reports of the scientific media and misinterpretation of discovery, is high. It is evident that, even if a small pocket of heavily uptodate individuals exists, and are inching ever closer to a totality of medical anatomy, biology, neurology, et al., it remains so that the vast majority of individuals are constantly bombarded with opposing results about what is good for them and what is bad, what will harm them and what will not, what is so and what is not so. An avalanche of unreplicatable results continues to plague psychology and much of modern medicine. So, unavoidably, The Body Keeps The Score is a book of subject information to be argued over and disagreed. For his part, Van der Kolk understands and sympathizes with his fellow physicians in the “finding a needle in a mountain of needles” problem. But this does not stop him. Van der Kolk has done his homework, put in his hours, and has chosen to listen to his patients, and, what is perhaps most revealing, Van der Kolk has chosen to believe their stories. And their stories are violence, their stories are sexual abuse, their stories are guilt and shame and above all, suffering. In the epilogue, Van der Kolk writes, “We are on the verge of becoming a trauma-conscious society.” This is, by all means, Van der Kolk’s ultimate goal. To take the ugly thing from the shadow, and bring it into the light.

If you remember, I opened this preposterously long review with a short history lesson. History, by all means, is a great way to reveal the world. To understand where a thing comes from, we must first understand the events that led up to it, the foundation and components that birthed it, the environment and circumstances that hindered, or nurtured it. From a time of great revolution of thought the word trauma emerged. From there, it has traveled hills and valleys, and will continue to move and change and perhaps rebirth and die despite what future awaits. But, its genesis, its life, is planted firm. Though trauma is from the Greeks, *trau, an extended form of root *tere (or *terə) is a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to “cross over, pass through, overcome.”

I do not know if we will ever become a trauma-conscious society in the way Bessel Van der Kolk hopes us to be. I do not know if suffering has purpose, or greater meaning, or if there is a magic bullet out there, waiting for medical science to uncover and wield. But I do know that human beings are strong, stronger then we will ever know, and of the stuff of stars. The cover of The Body Keeps The Score is what initially drew me; a wonderful portrait of human body surrounded by what could be perceived as hands or birds or sound blasts or stars… I saw them as stars. And my first thought upon viewing the picture was how it felt like a transformation.

On the blotted shape, with no characteristics other than legs, torso, arms, and head, there is the heart. Just a heart. A small red dot in a rising shadow.

The heart keeps the score.

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Photo of The Body Keeps The Score cover art by French artist Henri Matisse.

Four out of Five Stars for The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma


The featured image is an antique lithograph of an anatomy chart of a human body showcasing its internal system by Korpers Des Menschen (1898). Provided by rawpixel – Thank You.

Looking At Stars With Alan Lightman

Along my youth, in the brief Wisconsin summers of my hometown, I use to creep from my bed and go sit on my family’s back porch roof and look at stars.

I could never sleep. The night was an electric zap that would shock me to life. I’d pray to the moon, who I sometimes would refer to as God, whisper my secrets in the indigo lush hours, and at moments would cry at the famous hush of greater things. This stillness and silence—the sound of divinity or mystery, was both a comfort, and disquieting, as the racket of my inner uncertainties and deepest hopes roared like a waterfall in my lit mind.

When young one can philosophize in ways that only the young can; with angst and an unbridled sense of certainty. There exists a mere two great paths of thinking: Knowing and Not Knowing. As children we rarely question whether we truly Know or Do Not Know. Complex processing, such as Might Know and Might Not Know, do not cross our paths. So writing and thought is pure freedom when we are juvenile; we do not parse our words. The universe is very reachable, and one reaches most eagerly.

Most of us will lose much of this ability as we age. We grow and our roots sink further down, and it becomes harder and harder to uproot us. We are not so easily surprised, not so easily scared, not so easily swayed, not so obsessive, not so pure. Complexity, both the grasping and performing of it, is something laboriously acquired. The ability to wonder and pick and choose shrinks inside the increasing days. We more and more so move into the arenas of Maybe, Perhaps Some, and For Now. But certain individuals have chosen professions that keep them in the Know and Do Not Know. Scientists and religious leaders often frequent this youthful way of being, remaining tucked inside wonder and concentrated thought.

In Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine he states, “The most profound questions seem to have this fascinating aspect: Either they have no answer at all, or all possible answers seem impossible.” So Lightman’s questions are all our questions: Who are we; are we alone; what is truth; how should one seek truth. In these veins, all the blood flows back towards the heart. Lightman’s essays explore what combines and differentiates us, and in no less than poetic terms, waxes and wanes on humanity’s place in the cosmos and existence as a whole.

Searching_Stars_Lightman“Despite these exceptions, the Absolutes and the Relatives can be considered a large frame in which to view the dialogue between religion and science, or between spirituality and science. But I suggest that the issues go deeper, into the dualism and complexity of human existence. We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world.”

Lightman does what few writers can: He writes with the deft precision of both youth and age. Though a book that would attract more adult hands than young ones, make no mistake, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a book for youth. Lightman is an excellent teacher. His explanations for complex systems and far away concepts are down to earth and visual. His vocabulary remains within the margins of rudimentary comprehension while simultaneously willing his readers to stretch beyond their capabilities and perceive things through a glass darkly. He uses metaphor to aid in understanding, and stops it there, not risking the fall into misinterpretation by cementing the metaphor as strictly non-literal. Lightman does what few modern day writers think to do: He does not want to confuse you. Lightman acts as a cartographer to thinking, drawing out the roads of thought: Know, Might Know, Do Not Know, Might Not Know, Perhaps Some, and For Now. He travels these roads himself throughout the pages, guided by science, religion, curiosity, and simple faith. He at times gets himself lost in his attempts to chart uncharted lands, spiraling into meta-cognitive Möbius bands leading himself and the reader in circles. But Alan Lightman hopes for what everyone else hopes for: A place among the stars. And this openness creates space for readers of all kinds. Lightman makes room, and even through sections of disagreement and dismay between writer and reader, one still feels one is in the company of a teacher who respects and understands them.

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Portrait of Alan Lightman. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Books about science often chase certain readers away. This sometimes happens before the first page of an informed book can ever be turned. Intellectual snobbery, or the mere anticipation of snobbery, is a deep wide canyon that has been carved over centuries of scientific jargon being lobbed like gunfire in the faces of those who chose differently or had limited choices to start. The fixed mindset model has flourished in the post-Human Genome Project, neurobiological age, where it seems everyday there’s a news article reporting on some obscure study claiming to have found the latest brainbox or success gene. So determinism haunts Alan Lightman as well, and he questions whether he has ever truly chosen anything or if he is but a cog in the machine. Yet, in reading Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, never once did I feel Alan Lightman was telling me, “You can’t get it.” A patient instructor, Lightman whether consciously or unconsciously, believes in the power of teaching; that the mind is plastic, that change is not only possible but unavoidable, and that the great mysteries of the universe can and might be known, and that you – person not knowing what to do with their weekday off – can participate in this grand search. Be you scientific or spiritual, be you pessimist or optimist or pragmatist, you too can ponder the fabric of space and time and the meaning and intricacies of existence. And you don’t even need a PhD in quantum physics.

I am older now than I was back in the days of gazing at celestials on my back porch roof in a small town in Wisconsin. I live in Seattle, Washington now, and the stars are faded and gulped by the light pollution and smog of my congested, wakeful city. But I still look up. I think differently now than I did back then, kinder in my thoughts and less selfish, my place in the cosmos having shrunk from a gilded throne to a seat in the nosebleeds, but I still wonder. Wonder about space, about gods, about time, about ecosystems and evolution, and my own body and its multitudes. And it is comforting, and strangely beautiful to know, that on some island shaped like a lute in Maine, Alan Lightman is doing the same thing.

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Beautiful photo of the Southern Maine forest and the sky. Image Credit: USM/Southworth Planetarium – Thank you

Four out of five stars for Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.

The Origins of Creativity: E. O. Wilson’s Search For A Third Enlightenment

While reading Edward O. Wilson’s latest book, The Origins of Creativity, a quote from a recent read by Abby Smith Rumsey kept coming to mind.

 “Scientists separate how questions from why and dwell exclusively on what is, not what ought to be. This is a moral hazard Socrates warned against—that by alienating our knowledge, making it ‘external to us,’ we have brought an immense measure of power over the world at the expense of having power over ourselves.”

Abby Smith Rumsey, from When We Are No More

It is these divisions between how and why, what is and what ought to be, that is the crux of the current clashing between the sciences and the humanities, which is the topic of argument in The Origins of Creativity. E. O. Wilson, for his part, attempts to remedy this poisonous conflict. The methods he uses are reason and (of course) scientific basis, and in doing so he seemingly accidentally pits the two against each other, plays favorites, and in a parental fashion portrays the two opposing parties as siblings who can’t get along: the sciences are the high-achieving older sibling who gets first picks, and the humanities are the younger sibling who doesn’t do the homework and has a ballooned head stuck in the clouds.

This, as you might expect, makes for a rather lopsided read.

Origins_of_Creativity“The humanities, particularly the creative arts and philosophy, continue to lose esteem and support relative to the sciences for two primary reasons. First, their leaders have kept stubbornly within the narrow audiovisual bubble we inherited happenstance from our prehuman ancestors. Second, they have paid scant attention to the reasons why (and not just how) our thinking species acquired its distinctive traits. This, unaware of most the world around us, and shorn of their roots, the humanities remain needlessly static.”

Peppered with images and classic art, The Origins of Creativity through a series of short chapters takes one on a logical anthropological dive into deep time and the buried instinctual underpinnings of human psychology. These scientific explorations are then used as the two oars E. O. Wilson paddles up the stream with in his personal observations of two notable and often very at odds subjects: sciences and the humanities. It’s a bit of slog, full of holes and fragmented musings, and instead of the top comes out the side, leaving the sensation of having experienced a horizontal fall. This book from the cover (and jacket) proposes to be about creativity in some vein or another. This is misleading, as the book rather meanders through this topic. Creativity is sometimes vaguely used as a referral to how the sciences and humanities will bridge the gap, but it’s a three legged table. Even so, after a couple days of mulling, I’ve decided this is a good book, despite its failings.

Yes, I didn’t like it. But it’s still a good read. I came to realize (or perhaps gave in), that this book is not about the past or the present, but the future. It should be pointed out that clearly this is E. O. Wilson’s goal, to have you peer ahead into the beyond and envision the world as he would like to see it – unified. But the scope he builds is muddy and speckled. This book seems incomplete, as though he had a grander work in mind but couldn’t cobble it together in time for the publishers. It reads more like a series of essays, or blog posts, and all this information and murmuring of his inner mind are stuffed together. With each page turn I kept giving Wilson the benefit of the doubt, that by the end all the pieces would be in place and he would unroll a marvelous patchwork quilt, a photomosaic of the proclaimed Third Enlightenment. Upon finishing, it’s just not there.

The book is broken down into five parts, and each part is (I imagine) suppose to act as a steppingstone to get to the matter at hand: the attainment of a Third Enlightenment. On this journey, E. O. Wilson takes jabs at everybody as to why we aren’t there yet, but humanities takes the brunt of it. The star students he openly lists: paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology. In E. O. Wilson’s opinion, organized religion has flunked. Organized religion has been in the hot-seat for some time now, so this is unsurprising.

E. O. Wilson is a naturalist, so the way living things came to be, how they operate, what they think and feel, and where they are headed is of particular importance to him. These are the bright parts of this book; his love of the natural world and the intricacies of the ever running earth inspire him, and Mother Nature’s endless forging of diversity and wellspring of creativity is Wilson’s rapture. Several chapters hearken back to other books authored by him, such as Half-Earth and many from what could be called his ‘ant days’, often co-authored with Bert Hölldobler. E. O. Wilson is in the twilit years, so his memories of the past he looks back on fondly. Wilson’s age might have something to do with the fragmented feeling of this book – but I don’t think so. In fact, I think his age is more a strength, and lends much to an otherwise empty read. Authors and writers who are on the way out have a particular taste in their writing that I’ve never been able to wholly put a name to. It’s a sense of settlement in their opinions. Conviction? It seems a bit stronger than the word I’m looking for. E. O. Wilson is a brilliant man who has lived a life with much wonder and discovery; he is a seeker, in heart and mind, and his journey has taken him far and wide and through all this he has developed his Truth. And we should pay attention. E. O. Wilson has made his decisions, knows what path he would suggest we take. This is the saving grace of the book, and makes it worth reading.

I debated long and hard how to rate this book, and in the end I’m giving it a good review. I disagreed with a good much of his presentation; it left me frustrated. But long after I closed The Origins of Creativity, I kept thinking about it. This alone is enough of a reason to give the book a decent rating, for a book that makes you think – even if it gets you thinking in the opposite direction – is a good book. (Most the time anyway.) The research is sound, and Edward O. Wilson’s accolades speak for themselves, and if they don’t impress for whatever reason, E. O. Wilson is still a damn good writer.

At the end, E. O. Wilson chooses someone else’s words to send us off. I would like to do the same, with words from Buckminster Fuller regarding to what I believe E. O. Wilson is trying to say.

“We are going to have to find ways of organizing ourselves cooperatively, sanely, scientifically, harmonically, and in regenerative spontaneity with the rest of humanity around Earth. […] We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”

Buckminster Fuller, from Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

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A photo of the Earth taken during the Apollo 11 mission. Source: NASA/Flickr; NASA

Three out of five stars for The Origins of Creativity, and also, that I hope Edward O. Wilson has one more book in him. (Would it be selfish of me to ask for two?) 

Loving The Rain: A Natural and Cultural Journey

In August of 2017, the Western United States was on fire. In my Seattle apartment, I would wake up to the stifling scent of smoke, and going to the window I had left open – for hope of fresh air – I would find white ash covering the sill. One afternoon, I took my finger and wrote “WHY” in the brittle bleached soot.

Fires raged in British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon, and California. Air quality plummeted; some mornings were so shrouded in the sickly hue that the sun sat in the sky like a reflecting stone beneath a murky pool. I was, in a word, despairing, that month and more. Those days creaked by, and dragged on and on.

But my growing sadness through that summer didn’t so much stem from the fire – it was barely the fire, that made me so sad. It was that for 56 days there had not been a drop of rain. And when it at last did come – the moment it fell – it was gobbled up and gone. The departed rain left a hole inside me. My heartbreak felt spiritual. That horrible parched summer, was also the summer I read Cynthia Barnett’s rich and deeply reflective book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. And it was Barnett’s winding and researched ode to the rains that got me through that dry summer.

A Pen Literary Award finalist, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History opens with genesis of sorts; Cynthia Barnett take us on a journey through deep-time at a breakneck pace. She paints a hellish dreamscape, angry and turbulent and hot, and through painstaking clashes and currents, that far and alien planet of distant past blossoms into a blue, rich world; we named her Earth, and it is our only home, and on this oblate ball that is full of life, it rains.

“Inside the fiery storms…was a lining better than silver. Virtually all of the rocks thatRAINcover made Earth had water locked inside. Water is a remarkable shape-shifter, able to change from liquid to solid – or to gas when it needs to make an escape. As meteorites crashed onto Hadean Earth and split apart, they spewed out water in the form of vapor. This was water in its gas form, no different from the steam rising from a boiling pot on the stove…

All that water vapor would prove an indivisible redeemer.”

Barnett in lyrical and poetic terms describes the rain as a liberator, raising Mother Earth out of her red, writhing infancy into wizened, calmed adulthood. From this point on, Barnett take us forward, breaking down this natural wonder into five parts: “Elemental Rain”, “Chance Of Rain”, “American Rain”, “Capturing The Rain”, and “Mercurial Rain”, before wrapping everything up in a heartfelt epilogue, where her thoughtful and compounding writing style reaches its peak.

This book is wonderful, stuffed to the gills with information both relevant and trivial. From how climate can affect the directions of nations, to Morton Salt’s ad turned adage, “When it rains it pours”, readers will surely be taken with something, and overall, through Barnett’s moving verse, the rain will take on new form. Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, really brings to the table the unrivaled importance of our planet’s rain. It is the lifeblood. The heartbeat. Without it, our beloved Earth would be a desert like Mars, or a runaway greenhouse like Venus. The rain gives us everything we have. Through these pages, Cynthia Barnett has one resounding message: Cherish the rain.

Today, as I type out this review in my apartment, the wind whistles. It has been raining hard on and off for several days now. The cloud fronts and storms blow in and out, unrelenting. I leave the deck door open at night, and hear the platter of drops in collective drumming. Petrichor, rain’s smell, spills in like a fog. It is a moment of being, felt in the chill and rhythm of a downpour. I can say, in my bones, I feel connected to rain. Its somber, ethereal body slips into my nooks – there is something about it that makes me stop: I stop to look at stars, I stop to gaze at trees, and I am stopped in my tracks whenever I feel the coming rain.

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Another rainy day in Seattle, Image Credit: MyNorthwest.com

Five out of five stars for Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. And a special thanks to Cynthia Barnett, for saving me that summer, and for helping me remember why every so often, I go outside, and stand in the rain.