The Invention of Nature

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“Humboldt talked of ‘mankind’s mischief…which disturbs nature’s order’. There were moments in this life when he was so pessimistic that he painted a bleak future of humankind’s eventual expansion into space, when humans would spread their lethal mix of vice, greed, violence and ignorance across other planets. The human species could turn even those distant stars barren and leave them ‘ravaged’, Humboldt wrote as early as 1801, just as they were already doing with earth….”

“Maybe now is the moment for us and for the environmental movement to reclaim Alexander von Humboldt as our hero.”   – The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

I didn’t have the camera or the skills to do justice to the landscape we drove through late one afternoon and into the evening on our cross-country journey. Mile after mile of drilling, fracking, and water pillaging, as far as the eye could see. We found our way into this surreal place unawares, and emerged a few hours later, shaken and sober.

 

Flame:Derrick

 

Living in the Finger Lakes region, I’ve been spoiled: citizens came together to successfully outlaw fracking. Scenes such as these are not unfamiliar to me, though. I grew up in Cleveland and saw heavy industry smokestacks often. But I have never seen anything on this scale before. Hundreds of gas flares marked the landscape as if there were some dire emergency – which I believe there is.

We arrived at our rather desolate, but welcome, motel room and, as timing would have it, that evening I finished reading The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, about a man who, over 200 years ago, predicted that humans would wreak havoc on the environment. 

The Invention of NatureThe German scientist and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten, even though he was an international “rock star” of his time, and even though many parks, lakes, mountains, towns, and counties in the US are named after him. Andrea Wulf’s biography, published in 2015, has resurrected his legacy and spirit. Her book won the James Wright Award for Nature Writing, the Royal Geographical Society Ness Award, and many others, and it was named a best book of the year by many newspapers and publications.

It’s a wonderful read, especially if you love well written biographies with themes of history, nature, travel, and adventure.  Here’s how Humboldt’s story opens:

“They were crawling on hands and knees along a high narrow ridge that was in places only two inches wide. The path, if you could call it that, was layered with sand and loose stones that shifted whenever touched. Down to the left was a steep cliff encrusted with ice that glinted when the sun broke through the thick clouds. The view to the right, with a 1,000-foot drop, wasn’t much better. Here the dark, almost perpendicular walls were covered with rocks that protruded like knife blades.

Alexander Humboldt and his three companions moved in single file, slowly inching forward….It was 23 June 1802, and they were climbing Chimborazo, a beautiful dome-shaped inactive volcano in the Andes that rose to almost 21,000 feet, some 100 miles to the south of Quito in today’s Ecuador.”

As a young man, Humboldt spent five years exploring South America and, later in life, about a year traveling through Siberia. For much of the rest of his years, he conducted research and scientific experiments, lectured, taught, and wrote books about his findings. His books were unlike any seen before, with his discoveries about climate and the natural world. Nearly bankrupting himself, he hired botanical illustrators, naturalists, and researchers to assist him in creating magnificent volumes that were much in demand and translated into many languages.

Humboldt is incredibly important because he concluded that nature was a vast, interconnected global force, and that human impact locally could have ramifications globally.

He had the radical notion that nature did not exist to serve humanity. His work and ideas influenced Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and others. I like that Wulf devotes entire chapters to Darwin, Thoreau, Muir and a few others, so we can see how they carried Humboldt’s ideas forward in understanding nature and climate.

“… [John] Muir experienced the natural world in a new way….he now began to see connections. Everything was important in this grand big tangle of life. There existed no unconnected ‘fragment’, [John] Muir thought. Tiny organisms were as much part of this web as humankind. “Why ought man to value himself as more than an infinitely small unit of the one great unit of creation?’ Muir asked. “The cosmos,’ he said, using Humboldt’s term, would be incomplete without man but also without ‘the smallest transmicroscopic creature.’”

I love this description of Humboldt’s privately sponsored lectures, which women were allowed to attend. (At that time, women could not attend university lectures or meetings of scientific societies.)

“By not charging any entry fee, Humboldt democratized science: his packed audiences ranged from the royal family to coachmen, from students to servants, from scholars to bricklayers – and half of those attending were women.

With his gentle voice Humboldt took his audiences on a journey through the heavens and deep sea, across the earth, up the highest mountains and then back to a tiny fleck of moss on a rock. He talked about poetry and astronomy but also about geology and landscape painting. Meteorology, the history of the earth, volcanoes and the distribution of plants were all part of his lectures. He roamed from fossils to the northern lights, and from magnetism to flora, fauna and the migration of the human race. The lectures were a portrait of a vivid kaleidoscope of correlations that spanned the entire universe.”

 

Truck

Humboldt wrote prolifically. His most influential books are:

Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (Five Volumes)

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the years 1799 – 1804

Views of Nature

Natural gas tanks

 

“The connection between knowledge, art and poetry, between science and emotions – the ‘deeply-seated bond’, as Humboldt called it – is more important than ever before. Humboldt was driven by a sense of wonder for the natural world – a sense of wonder that might help us today realize that we will protect only what we love.”

 

 

Refinery

A refinery

 

Our reward for making it through the landscape in these pictures was a full moon rising.

 

Moonrise

 

Days later in our journey, we passed by Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest in eastern Nevada.

Coming up next, places and images of great beauty and more luscious books, I promise!

 

Lab Girl

lab-girl “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”  – Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

“After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifera) and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. And then one day this little plant’s yearning finally burst forth within a laboratory.”

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

Lab Girl is an extraordinary memoir, and Hope Jahren is an important new voice who breaks new ground in literary autobiography. We just don’t hear from enough scientists and researchers, and certainly we don’t hear from enough women in science who have struggled and prevailed at making careers in difficult, often male-dominated fields.

Lab Girl is for the lay person who loves plants, trees, and nature, and for the lay person who thinks plants, trees, and nature are boring and who wants to be dazzled, moved, changed, and reconnected with the holiness and mystery of life.

hopeLab Girl is for women in science and research, and women thinking of careers in science and research. But men in science and research will love the book, too.

Lab Girl is for anyone making a career and building a family in the face of a serious mental illness, and for those who want to better understand people with mental illness.

Lab Girl is for those who care about the environment and climate change, and who want to connect with someone of like mind whose passion and energy are contagious. Because, as Hope says, we won’t have any trees left in six hundred years if we keep on our current path.

Lab Girl is for anyone who has important work to do and wants to be inspired and emboldened by someone not afraid to be different and go her own way.

I have Katie at Doing Dewey to thank for letting me know about this book. I’ve included several passages from the memoir because I couldn’t decide between them. They make me want to read Lab Girl all over again. I’m sure I will, since I’m working on a memoir of my own. For those of you who are memoir writers, this one is both inspiring and a great memoir model.

Women, and men, doing important work in science simply don’t get enough attention in our culture, which is especially saturated by superficial drivel at the moment. Lab Girl is the antidote. When I was a clinical librarian at UR Medicine, I was always impressed and mystified by the grad students and faculty, the women especially, who had lives so different from mine, who spent hours and hours in labs and out in the field researching esoteric topics that had the potential to change lives.

We should know more about them, the important work they are doing, and how they navigate the challenge of carving out rich, fulfilling personal lives as well. There is a deep vein of fascinating life stories in science that appeal to experts and lay people alike, and I hope Lab Girl will inspire many more memoirs of this kind.

The excerpt below is a good example of the organizing metaphor in Lab Girl: the rich and evocative parallels between plant life and human life. Hope alternates between chapters about plant life and her own life, which makes for a satisfying structure:

“Every species on Earth – past or present – from the single-celled microbe to the biggest dinosaur, daisies, trees, people – must accomplish the same five things in order to persist: grow, reproduce, rebuild, store resources, and defend itself….It seemed outrageous to hope that fertility, resources, time, desire, and love could all come together in the right way, and yet most women did eventually walk that path.”

Below are a few more quotes. Read the memoir!

“On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.”

The boldface in the next quote is mine; I think it is an important point:

“A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge. This transition between doing what you’re told and telling yourself what to do generally occurs midway through a dissertation. In many ways, it is the most difficult and terrifying thing that a student can do, and being unable or unwilling to do it is much of what weeds people out of Ph.D. programs.” 

“Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”

“I’m good at science because I’m not good at listening. I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little. I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. I have been told that I can have eternal life, and I have been told that I will burn myself out into an early death. I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along. I don’t take advice from my colleagues, and I try not to give it. When I am pressed, I resort to these two sentences: You shouldn’t take this job too seriously. Except for when you should.”

Have you read Lab Girl? Do you have memoir favorites to recommend?

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass cover

“Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair… Hold the bundle up to your nose. Find the fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river water and black earth and you understand its scientific name: Hierochloe odorata, meaning the fragrant, holy grass. In our language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you had forgotten.”   Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

I’ve been working on my first podcast in a nature series, and as part of my research I visited Ganondagan, a cultural center and historic site that was the home of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. It has an intriguing array of programs, from animal tracking to music to meditation to dance. Last Sunday, I heard Robin Wall Kimmerer speak about her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which I highly recommend to anyone who cares about nature, the land, and saving the earth.

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Robin Wall Kimmerer leads us in a song to save the earth at Ganondagan

I first heard of Kimmerer via Elizabeth Gilbert, who found the inspiration for her book, The Signature of All Things, when she read Gathering Moss by Kimmerer.

I’m about a quarter of the way through Braiding Sweetgrass. I’m loving the poetry of her writing as I take in the simple but profound indigenous wisdom Kimmerer is eager to pass on. It’s wisdom we as a culture have long overlooked and which may save us all, if we pay attention. Braiding Sweetgrass is a book to read slowly and savor.

Kimmerer is a botanist, a professor of environmental biology, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is descended from the Anishinabekwe of the New England region; in the forced Native American migration her people settled in Oklahoma.

There, her grandfather, by law, had to leave the reservation when he was nine years old to attend public school. At that point, their language and most of their indigenous wisdom was lost.

Kimmerer has spent a good part of her adulthood reclaiming both as she also pursues the life of a botanist and university professor.

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Making sweet grass medicine. © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Here Kimmerer expresses what she aimed for in writing Braiding Sweetgrass:

“I offer…a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands: indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story – old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other.” 

I’ve still many pages to go, so I’ll write more once I finish the book. I’ll leave you with this:

“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us….It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be sold.”

Indigenous Peoples

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air

“There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simply:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”   Paul Kalanithi, in a letter to his daughter.  Excerpt from When Breath Becomes Air

My brother passed away from pancreatic cancer last fall, and I didn’t feel quite ready for When Breath Becomes Air, a Stanford neurosurgery resident’s memoir about his cancer diagnosis. Also, in my work as a clinical librarian, I’d spent time supporting and rounding with clinical staff in neurology/neurosurgery. I had a special affection and respect for the brilliant, hard-working residents, who were about the same age as my sons. So to read about the death of a young resident from lung cancer….

But if you are a living, breathing person who likes to read memoir and nonfiction, and if you consider yourself an engaged participant in our death-denying culture, I would say When Breath Becomes Air is required reading.

One of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, who owns a bookstore that practices the art of making personal recommendations to readers based on their interests, says, “This is one of the handful of books I consider to be a universal donor – I would recommend it to anyone, everyone.” 

On publication, When Breath Becomes Air shot to number 1 on the New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller List. So when I saw Paul Kalanithi’s memoir on our library’s “Most Wanted Book” shelf, I decided to grab it.

Paul Kalanithi set out to be a writer and then switched to medicine and neurosurgery, one of the most challenging and consuming of all clinical disciplines. He believed that a person’s brain determines his identity, which is inseparable from his values and sense of life’s meaning.

Finding meaning was all-important to Kalanithi. During his residency, Paul came to see it was his responsibility to do his best to give his patients the quality of life that would allow them to live according to their most precious values.

We need more doctors who have both the time and desire to get to know and serve their patients in this way, wouldn’t you say?

In his memoir, Kalanithi says the twin pursuits of caring for patients with brain illnesses and writing as a way to explore the meaning of life’s joys and traumas was his perfect calling.

It’s just that he hadn’t planned on doing the writing part until much later in his career. Many months after his diagnosis, when he could no longer work as a neurosurgeon, Paul chose to use his remaining time to write a memoir that, among other things, explores living and dying from the unique perspective of someone who is both a patient and healer.

He and his wife decided to have a child, too. Paul writes of becoming a father with great joy. It reminded me of last summer, when my brother (and our extended family) lived with end-of-life illness, even as we celebrated his daughter’s wedding.

As you can see from the memoir excerpt above, Paul was an extraordinary writer. Medical humanities literature, also known as narrative medicine, written by patients, doctors, nurses, and clinicians, is really coming into its own, and I think When Breath Becomes Air will become a classic.

Paul Kalanithi stands right alongside Anthony Verghese, Danielle Ofri, Sherwin B. Nuland, Tilda Shalof, Theresa Brown, Atul Gawande, Oliver Sachs, and others as one of the best. Really, his memoir is not to be missed.

“The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”  Paul Kalanithi

Below is the trailer for When Breath Becomes Air.

Have you read When Breath Becomes Air, and what did you think? Have you read another medical humanities or health related memoir, novel, or essay that you have especially liked? Please share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments.

 

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