My brother, whose avocation is science historian and whose papers I often proofread, has acquainted me with the 18th-c. comparative anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. As often occurs when one becomes attuned to new knowledge or focus, I suddenly seem to find Blumenbach’s name or theories “everywhere.” Mostly in books, of course, but also in a natural history museum where I came face to face with a trilobite that bore his name. I have also been reading Andrea Wulf’s book on Alexander Humboldt, The Invention of Nature; Blumenbach was one of Humboldt’s professors and influencers.
Wulf’s book begins as a biography of Humboldt but closes with several chapters on others who were inspired by his work; she makes the claim that Humboldt’s ideas about the deep connectedness of everything on earth laid groundwork for environmentalists and the discipline of ecology. Indeed, Darwin, Thoreau, Marsh, Muir, and many others found his texts revelatory and transformative. His writing is supposedly poetic and emotional–he did not think the earth and its denizens deserved less than awe and appreciation. Even though his books are packed with measurements, comparisons, careful botanical descriptions, and minute observations of practically everything he encountered, he allows space for admiring the view. Or, so Wulf’s book says. Now, I suppose I shall have to do a bit of reading Humboldt!
Along these lines, the lines of the natural world’s connectedness and relationships–ourselves among these, despite our frequent destruction of them–I find myself thinking of the recent death of poet Mary Oliver. I so admire the work and the woman, or what little I knew of her from a few appearances and through friends who studied with her. My social media feed has been alive with tributes, postings of her poems, and some critique about her standing as an American poet, as if that would matter to her (I doubt it would).
I can just make note that her poems have encouraged me to continue to write about nature, even when I’ve been told nature poets are unfashionable, uninteresting, or unnecessary. Her work taught me how to observe closely, like Aristotle at the tidal pools or Haeckel peering at radiolaria. First notice, listen; then describe, then try to obtain more information, and all the while percolate what experience has created within the observer herself. Maybe nothing earth-shattering comes of the process, but sometimes there’s a poem…
Here’s one of Oliver’s early poems (from Twelve Moons, 1979), one readers are less likely to find in all of the tributes to her but which offers a sense of how well-observed–for all their ‘simplicity’–her poems are.
Buck Moon–from the Field Guide to Insects
Eighty-eight thousand six-hundred different species
in North America. In the trees, the grasses
around us. Maybe more, maybe
several million on each acre of earth. This one
as well as any other. Where you are standing
at dusk. Where the moon
appears to be climbing the eastern sky. Where the wind
seems to be traveling through the trees, and the frogs
are content in their black ponds or else
why do they sing? Where you feel
a power that is not yours but flows
into you like a river. Where you lie down and breathe
the sweet honey of the grass and count
the stars; where you fall asleep listening
to the simple chords repeated, repeated.
Where, resting, you feel
the perfection, the rising, the happiness
of their dark wings.
Her poems are not metaphysical by any means, but Oliver is avowedly spiritual, which is not a fashionable thing. I am not spiritual, but I have always respected that in her. May she rest in the perfection and the happiness of those dark wings.