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“We share in the slow optimistic tendency of the universe… We have life and health and wholeness on the same terms as the trees, the flowers, the grass, the animals have, and pay the same price for our well-being, in struggle and effort, that they pay. That is our good fortune.”

In those seasons of being when life boughs you down low with world-weariness, when the sun of your soul is collapsing into a black hole, when you despair of humanity’s twin capacity for inhumanity and are no longer able to hold without heartache Maya Angelou’s eternal observation that we are creatures “whose hands can strike with such abandon that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness” — in those seasons of being, there is great solace in remembering that what we call human nature, with all of its terrors and transcendences and violent contradictions, is a humble subset of nature itself: In nature, where stars are always being born and die and give us life, creation and destruction are always syncopating; in nature, the seasons are always changing; in nature, every loss reveals what we are made of, and that is a beautiful thing.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

There is great comfort and calibration in trusting, not with the faith of the pious but with the faith of the naturalist, that even the bleakest seasons pass, and even the most violent forces are counterbalanced by the forces of vitality — cosmic calculus of which the very existence of life is living proof.

Such awareness is not a negation of the need for morality, of our moral calling as human beings to right the forces that violate life, but an affirmation of it — for morality would not exist if suffering did not exist.

We are human because we are sensitive to both, susceptible to both, moved by both.

That is what the great naturalist and prose-poet of nature John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) explores in an exquisite 1904 essay reflection titled “An Outlook upon Life,” included a century later in The Art of Seeing Things: Essays by John Burroughs (public library).

In the closest Burroughs came to formulating a personal philosophy, distilling his vast view of life into a kind of credo worth borrowing, he writes:

I was born under happy stars, with a keen sense of wonder, which has never left me… and with no exaggerated notion of my own deserts. I have shared the common lot, and have found it good enough for me.

John Burroughs

Echoing Whitman — who owes his cultural reverence to Burroughs and who, in the wake of his paralytic stroke, considered what makes life worth living and counseled to “tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies” — Burroughs adds:

Unlucky is the man who is born with great expectations, and who finds nothing in life quite up to the mark.

One of the best things a man can bring into the world with him is a natural humility of spirit. About the next best thing he can bring, and they usually go together, is an appreciative spirit — a loving and susceptible heart.

A century and an epoch of discoveries before physicist Freeman Dyson observed that “our universe is the most interesting of all possible universes, and our fate as human beings is to make it so,” Burroughs exclaims that this world is “a mighty interesting place to live in” and invites the reader into the cosmic reverie that seems to have been the all-suffusing atmosphere of his own life:

If I had my life to live over again, and had my choice of celestial bodies, I am sure I should take this planet, and iI should choose these men and women for my friends and companions. This great rolling sphere with its sky, its stars, its sunrises and sunsets, and with its outlook into infinity — what could be more desirable? What more satisfying? Garlanded by the seasons, embosomed in sidereal influences, thrilling with continents — one might ransack the heaves in vain for a better or more picturesque abode.

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Art by Daniel Bruson for The Universe in Verse: My God, It’s Full of Stars.

Half a century before the Nobel-winning founding father of quantum mechanics Erwin Schrödinger’s dazzling illumination of Well Woven Custom Size Runner - Choose Your Length - Silas Black, Burroughs adds:

We may fancy that there might be a better universe, but we cannot conceive of a better, because our minds are the outcome of things as they are, and all our ideas of value are based upon the lessons we learn in this world.

More than the unsurpassable beauty of the planet, however, Burroughs celebrates the sheer sense of belonging to a world — to a totality of being across species and landscapes, a totality the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel Phone Case Compatible with iPhone We Shock Never Accessories Lea when Burroughs was just beginning his literary life while working as a treasury clerk. He exults:

O to share the great, sunny, joyous life of the earth! to be as happy as the birds are! as contented as the cattle on the hills! as the leaves of the trees that dance and rustle in the wind! as the waters that murmur and sparkle to the sea! To be able to see that the sin and sorrow and suffering of the world are a necessary part of the natural course of things, a phase of the law of growth and development that runs through the universe, bitter in its personal application, but illuminating when we look upon life as a whole!

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

A generation after the grief-savaged Darwin solaced his personal loss in the scientific knowledge that the death of the individual is what propels the evolution of the species, and an epoch before science equipped us its cosmic consolation of what happens when we die, Burroughs adds:

Without death and decay, how could life go on? Without what we call sin (which is another name for imperfection) and the struggle consequent upon it, how could our development proceed?

[…]

Look at the grass, the flowers, the sweet serenity and repose of the fields — at what price it has all been bought, of what warring of the elements, of what overturnings and pulverizings and shiftings of land and sea… We deplore the waste and suffering, but these things never can be eliminated from the process of evolution. As individuals we can mitigate them; as races and nations we have to endure them… and the evolution of life on the globe, including the life of man, has gone on and still goes on, because, in the conflict of forces, the influences that favored life and forwarded it have in the end triumphed.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s nineteenth-century astronomical drawings, observed through the era’s most powerful telescope. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In a lovely antidote to human exceptionalism, Burroughs celebrates our shared inheritance with the rest of life, itself exceptional — a bright gift of chance against the staggering cosmic odds of nonexistence:

Our good fortune is not that there are or may be special providences and dispensations, as our [ancestors] believed, by which we may escape this or that evil, but our good fortune is that we have our part and lot in the total scheme of things, that we share in the slow optimistic tendency of the universe, that we have life and health and wholeness on the same terms as the trees, the flowers, the grass, the animals have, and pay the same price for our well-being, in struggle and effort, that they pay. That is our good fortune. There is nothing accidental or exceptional about it. It is not by the favor or disfavor of some of some god that things go well or ill with us, but it is by the authority of the whole universe, by the consent and cooperation of every force above us and beneath us.

[…]

If we or our fortunes go down prematurely beneath the currents, it is because the currents are vital, and do never and can never cease nor turn aside.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s AIHOU Halloween Sweatshirts for Women,Vintage Womens Hoodies Pul. (Available as a print.)

Rachel Carson — the twentieth century’s great prose-poet of nature, recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the Nobel of nature writing — would echo this sentiment in her sublime meditation on the ocean and the meaning of life; James Baldwin — the twentieth century’s great prose-poet of human nature — would echo it in his classic insistence that we must “say Yes to life and embrace it whenever it is found” because “the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, [and] the sea does not cease to grind down rock.” A century before Maya Angelou serenaded our shared destiny on this “lonely planet” adrift “past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns,” Burroughs adds:

Nature is as regardless of a planet or a sun as of a bubble upon the river, has one no more at heart than the other. How many suns have gone out? How many planets have perished?… She has infinite worlds left, and out of old she makes new… Nature wins in every game because she bets on both sides. If her suns or systems fail, it is, after all, her laws that succeed. A burnt-out sun vindicates the constancy of her forces… In an orchard of apple trees some of the fruit is wormy, some scabbed, some dwarfed, from one cause or another; but Nature approves of the worm, and of the fungus that makes the scab, and of the aphid that makes the dwarf, just as sincerely as she approves of the perfect fruit. She holds the stakes of both sides; she wins, whoever loses… Peace, satisfaction, true repose, come only through effort, and then not for long.

Another of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s nineteenth-century astronomical drawings. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

With this, Burroughs returns to the animating question of his reflection — what, amid the universe’s ceaseless dance of dissolution, makes human life worth living and what, amid nature’s indifference to our notions of good and evil, backbones a good life:

To have a mind eager to know the great truths and broad enough to take them in, and not get lost in the maze of apparent contradictions, is undoubtedly the highest good.

Complement with Marcus Aurelius on the good luck of your bad luck and Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, then revisit Mary Shelley — envisioning a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, from a nineteenth-century world savaged by the decade-long Napoleonic Wars — on nature’s consolations and what makes life worth living.


An 84-second revelation in the heart, from humanity at its most purehearted.

“What is essential in the future is that every member of the family, even little children, should learn at whatever cost not to give way to wrong or to co-operate in it,” the pioneering X-ray crystallographer and Quaker peace activist Kathleen Lonsdale wrote as she considered the real building blocks of a livable world a decade into the Cold War.

If, a century and two World Wars before her, Baudelaire was right — he was — when he observed that “genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will,” and if it is true — it is — that we need a new kind of moral genius to build a more livable world without the wrongs of violence, then children might hold the building blocks of the building blocks.

After thirty years of working as a librarian and after seeing art education vanish from American schools over the decades, florist and poet Nancy Kangas began leading a poetry program as artist in residence at a preschool in Columbus, Ohio. She was quickly staggered by the plain, poignant ways in which children who could neither read nor write so readily named their hopes and fears — those elemental human longings coursing through the inner child that lives in each of us, deep beneath the strata of self-protective pretense we call adult personhood.

Nancy Kangas

As she got to know the children and their families, she also discovered that they were writing their poems with their lives — lives often strewn with hardship and violence and loss, but also irradiated by an innocent gladness and irrepressible hunger for connection, for beauty, for wonder.

She discovered that children are silent virtuosi of noticing — both the beauty and the terror that make life life — and noticing is the crucible of all poetry.

One of the preschool poets

After nearly a decade of teaching poetry to young children — and letting children teach her the poetics of reality seen with the clearest eyes — Kangas teamed up with documentary filmmaker Josh Kun in what became their lovely project Preschool Poets, inviting artists from around the world to animate eight of the children’s tenderest and most touching poems.

This is one of them — composed by Brayden, performed by Miracle, and animated by Ukrainian filmmaker and artist Stas Santimov.

BULLETS
by Brayden

Sit down, world
and relax
so you don’t have tornadoes.

Trees, color your leaves.

Relax, people. Go to sleep.

Relax, wolves. Lay down by the trees.

Relax, bullets from guns.
Stop shooting people.

Fire, eat wood.

Boundless gratitude to Brazilian artist Daniel Bruson — who animated Tracy K. Smith’s poetic serenade to our human hunger for truth and meaning from the second chapter of The Universe in Verse and who was one of the eight artists selected to animate the preschoolers’ poems — for pointing me to this immeasurably wonderful project, the documentary about which might just be the brightest spot in your day. Or year. (It was in mine.)


“What an astonishing thing it is to find something. Children, who excel at it — chiefly because the world is still so new to them that they can’t help but notice it — understand this, and automatically delight in it.”

“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her superb early work on love and loss. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”

It is a handsome observation, an elemental truth we might glimpse — and be saved by glimpsing — in those rare moments of pure presence that dissolve all too quickly into what Borges knew to be true of human nature: that time is the substance we are made of.

As creatures made of time, we live in the present and the past and the future all at once, continually shaken by all the fears and hopes, all the anxieties and anticipations, that are the price we pay for our majestic hippocampus — that crowning glory of a consciousness capable of referencing its memories and experiences in the past, capable of projecting its goals and desire into the future, capable of the bleakest despair and of the brightest dreams.

This might be, as Elizabeth Gilbert observed in the wake of losing the love of her life, why love and loss have something elemental in common — each is “a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted,” one that “comes and goes on its own schedule… does not obey your plans, or your wishes [and] will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to.”

Out of this arises a basic equation we accept as a function of life, as an echo of the fundamental laws. We accept it unwittingly, or wittingly but unwillingly, but it is an entropic given indifferent to our assent: We love, then we lose. We lose our loved ones — to death or the dissolution of mutuality — or we lose ourselves. (This is also why flowers move us so.)

Vanish by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

But if we are lucky enough, if we are are stubborn enough, we love and we lose and then the loss opens us up to more love — different love, because each love is unrepeatable and irreplaceable — on the other side of grief; love unimaginable from the barren landmass of loss, love without which, once found, the world comes to feel unimaginable.

Because these are the two most all-consuming and all-pervading of human experiences, the labels in which we try to classify and contain them are bound to be too small — as with love, so with loss. (This is what Joan Didion captured in her classic observation that “grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.”)

All of this, with all of its subtleties, comes alive on the pages of Lost & Found (public library) by Kathryn Schulz — part personal memoir, part existential inquiry into the two great universals of human life.

After hearing herself say “I lost my father last week” — her father, of whom she paints a boundlessly affectionate and admiring portrait as “part Socrates, part Tevye,” a gregarious and godlike figure with “a booming voice, a heavy accent, a formidable mind, a rabbinical beard, a Santa Claus belly, and the gestural range of the Vitruvian Man” — Schulz reflects:

Perhaps because I was still in those early, distorted days of mourning, when so much of the familiar world feels alien and inaccessible, I was struck, as I had never been before, by the strangeness of the phrase. Obviously my father hadn’t wandered away from me like a toddler at a picnic, or vanished like an important document in a messy office. And yet, unlike other oblique ways of talking about death, this one did not seem cagey or empty. It seemed plain, plaintive, and lonely, like grief itself. From the first time I said it, that day on the phone, it felt like something I could use, as one uses a shovel or a bell-pull: cold and ringing, containing within it both something desperate and something resigned, accurate to the confusion and desolation of bereavement.

Art from The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers — an illustrated fable about love and loss

She eventually realizes that the etymology of the word is in fact an apt analogue for the experience of loss:

The verb “to lose” has its taproot sunk in sorrow; it is related to the “lorn” in “forlorn.” It comes from an Old English word meaning to perish, which comes from an even older word meaning to separate or cut apart. The modern sense of misplacing an object only appeared later, in the thirteenth century; a hundred years after that, “to lose” acquired the meaning of failing to win. In the sixteenth century we began to lose our minds; in the seventeenth century, our hearts. The circle of what we can lose, in other words, began with our own lives and each other and has been steadily expanding ever since. This is how loss felt to me after my father died: like a force that constantly increased its reach, gradually encroaching on more and more terrain.

The most confounding aspect of grief is its fractal nature — the one great trunk of loss branches and twigs into the trivial, splintering reality into an infinity of losses until we come to look at the world (as that lovely verse by Lisel Mueller goes) “as if what exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious.” The small things we lose come to feel so precious that we dissolve into tears over the book that fell out of the bicycle basket on the way home, the trivial twig dragging with it the unbearable trunk. It is a universal experience, which Schulz captures with the splendid poetics of her particular mind:

Like a dysfunctional form of love, which to some extent it is, grief has no boundaries; seldom during that difficult fall could I distinguish my distress over these other losses from my sadness about my father.

[…]

This is the essential, avaricious nature of loss: it encompasses, without distinction, the trivial and the consequential, the abstract and the concrete, the merely misplaced and the permanently gone. We often ignore its true scope if we can, but for a while after my father died, I could not stop seeing the world as it really is, marked everywhere by the evidence of past losses and the imminence of future ones.

Moving through her loss at a time when all of us, whatever the nature of our personal losses, were moving together through what scientists have now termed Adventure Awaits - Lets Go Camping Shirt, Adventure Awaits, Adve — a mere century and half after the birth of ecology — she follows the fractal:

The world itself seemed ephemeral, glaciers and species and ecosystems vanishing, the pace of change as swift as in a time-lapse, as if those of us alive today had been permitted to see it from the harrowing perspective of eternity. Everything felt fragile, everything felt vulnerable; the idea of loss pressed in all around me, like a hidden order to existence that emerged only in the presence of grief.

Pressed wildflowers from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, including species now endangered or extinct.

Because everything does suddenly feel so fragile — or, rather, because loss suddenly reveals that we are indeed “the fragile species” — grief itself becomes a kind of glue with which try to hold together the shattered pieces of our familiar world. In a passage of uncommon insight and sensitivity to what may be the most paradoxical and most underdiscussed aspect of loss, she writes:

Most people, I think, are at least a little afraid of ceasing to grieve. I know that I was. However terrible our sorrow may be, we understand that it is made in the image of love, that it shares the characteristics of the person we mourn. Maybe there was a day in your life when you were brought to your knees by a faded blue ball cap or a tote bag full of knitting supplies or the sound of a Brahms piano concerto… Part of what makes grief so seductive, then, is that it seems to offer us what life no longer can: an ongoing, emotionally potent connection to the dead. And so it is easy to feel that once that bleak gift is gone, the person we love will somehow be more gone, too.

Thus our strange relationship with the pain of grief. In the early days, we wish only for it to end; later on, we fear that it will. And when it finally does begin to ease, it also does not, because, at first, feeling better can feel like loss, too.

Liminal Worlds by Maria Popova. (Available 14k REAL Yellow Gold 6.5mm Shiny Diamond-Cut Alternate Classic M.)

Contemplating how our deepest losses might be so painful “not because they defy reality but because they reveal it,” she adds:

One of the many ways that loss instructs us is by correcting our sense of scale, showing us the world as it really is: so enormous, complex, and mysterious that there is nothing too large to be lost — and, conversely, no place too small for something to get lost there… Like awe and grief, to which it is closely related, loss has the power to instantly resize us against our surroundings; we are never smaller and the world never larger than when something important goes missing.

It is this harsh corrective to our sense of being central, competent, and powerful that makes even trivial losses so difficult to accept. To lose something is a profoundly humbling act. It forces us to confront the limits of our mind… It forces us to confront the limits of our will: the fact that we are powerless to protect the things we love from time and change and chance. Above all, it forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish.

This, of course, collides with the most fundamental feature of our consciousness: its inability to parse its own negatios. Try as we might in the virtual reality of the mind, on some deep animal level, we simply cannot fathom the actuality of nonexistence, the ultimate void, what Emily Dickinson termed “the drift called the infinite.”

Total eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

Because spacetime is the hammock in which everything exists but consciousness is both made of spacetime and the is loom of our imagination, to imagine the absolute nonexistence of consciousness — another’s, or our own — we must also imagine the total absence of spacetime. Our inability to do that is reflected in our euphemisms for dying: to “pass away,” as if the person is transported to some other place rather than entirely displaced from existence; to “run out of time,” as if time still exists for the dead, a dimension they happen to have directionally vacated along some vector pointing elsewhere.

A nowhere without elsewhere is simply beyond the grasp of human consciousness.

Schulz intuits this, locating that creaturely instinct in the cultural trope of the Valley of Lost Things — one of the seven valleys the protagonists of L. Frank Baum’s 1901 children’s novel Dot and Tot of Merryland visit after a runaway boat carries them away from the Land of Oz. She writes:

Although it often goes by other names, the Valley of Lost Things has haunted our collective imagination for centuries… in every context from autobiography to science fiction.

[…]

Part of the enduring appeal of this imaginary destination is that it comports with our real-life experience of losing things: when we can’t find something, it is easy to feel that it has gone somewhere unfindable. But there is also something pleasing about the idea that our missing belongings, unable to find their rightful owners, should at least find each other, gathering together like souls in the bardo or distant relatives at a family reunion. The things we lose are distinguished by their lack of any known location; how clever, how obviously gratifying, to grant them one… This may be the most alluring aspect of the Valley of Lost Things: it renders the strangeness of the category of loss visible, like emptying the contents of a jumbled box onto the floor. In my mind, it is a dark, pen-and-ink place, comic and mournful as an Edward Gorey drawing: empty clothing drifting dolefully about, umbrellas piled in heaps like dormant bats, a Tasmanian tiger slinking off with Hemingway’s lost novel in its mouth, glaciers shrinking glumly down into their puddles, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra atilt upon the ground, the air around it filled with the ghosts of nighttime ideas not written down and gone by morning. It is this taxonomically outrageous population, shoes to souls to pterodactyls, that makes the idea of such a place so mesmerizing. Its contents have a unity and meaning based only on the single common quality of being lost, a kind of vast nationality, like “American.”

Art from The Osbick Bird by Edward Gorey

But while the Valley of Lost Things is at bottom sorrowful place — “the things we love are banished to it, and we ourselves are banished from it” — its melancholy has a mirror image in the ecstatic delight of finding things. Schulz writes:

What an astonishing thing it is to find something. Children, who excel at it — chiefly because the world is still so new to them that they can’t help but notice it — understand this, and automatically delight in it… Finding is usually rewarding and sometimes exhilarating: a reunion with something old or an encounter with something new, a happy meeting between ourselves and some previously missing or mysterious bit of the cosmos.

In some territory of our collective imagination, there there seems to be an analogous place we might call the Valley of Found Things, strewn the forgotten phone number, the time for an afternoon walk, the photograph of my beaming twenty-something father atop my beaming twenty-something mother’s shoulders in the Black Sea. Finding, too, is a fractal delight — the simple delight of finding a long-treasured something we had lost, or finding something we didn’t know existed, branches from that grand, all-consuming, all-transforming, reality-recalibrating delight we call love.

As with loss, so with love: Here too our our metaphors are woven of spacetime, bespeaking our inability to think and feel beyond it — we speak of “finding love,” as if love were stationed at some distinct location until (and here is another measure of time) we wander by to chance upon, something E.E. Cummings captured in that single perfect line: “love is a place.”

That place is precisely where Schulz found herself not long after her father’s death. She met (on Main Street in a small town, by a chance-fold of spacetime) and married (with all of their living parents and the bittersweet presence of her father’s absence: “a kind of commonplace memorial, a candle I don’t have to light because it is always bright with him”) the love of her life — a woman she came to love across the abyss of surface differences between them, differences past which she might not have plumbed the depths, had loss not reconfigured her world by shattering the bedrock of familiar reality to make space for the improbable, space for this stranger without whom spacetime came to feel unimaginable.

Art from The Osbick Bird by Edward Gorey

The second half of Lost & Found is as much a meditation on finding the most precious of human finds — which is never a possession — as it is a love letter to her wife, ending with a beautiful meditation on how these twin experiences illuminate the central truth of life:

That is all we have, this moment with the world. It will not last, because nothing lasts. Entropy, mortality, extinction: the entire plan of the universe consists of losing, and no matter how much we find along the way, life amounts to a reverse savings account in which we are eventually robbed of everything. Our dreams and plans and jobs and knees and backs and memories; the keys to the house, the keys to the car, the keys to the kingdom, the kingdom itself: sooner or later, all of it drifts into the Valley of Lost Things.

[…]

Nothing about that is strange or surprising; it is the fundamental, unalterable nature of things. The astonishment is all in the being here. It is the turtle in the pond, the thought in the mind, the falling star, the stranger on Main Street… To all of this, loss, which seems only to take away, adds its own kind of necessary contribution. No matter what goes missing, the object you need or the person you love, the lessons are always the same. Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days. Our crossing is a brief one, best spent bearing witness to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, tending what we know needs our care, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone. We are here to keep watch, not to keep.


“Those people who see clearly the necessity of changed thinking must themselves undertake the discipline of thinking in new ways and must persuade others to do so.”

The thrill of childlike wonder never left Kathleen Lonsdale (January 28, 1903–April 1, 1971), who often ran the last few yards to her laboratory and took her mathematical calculations into the maternity ward where her children were born.

The tenth child in a Quaker household without electricity, she was born in Ireland the year the Wright brothers built and flew the world’s first successful flying machine heavier than air. Her home was still lit by gas when she first began studying science — in a school for boys, because no such subjects figured into the curriculum of the local girls’ school. By the time she was a teenager, living outside London, she watched gas-filled Zeppelins rain bombs and death from the air. She watched them go down in flames, shot down by British weapons. She watched her mother cry with the knowledge that piloting them were German boys not much older than Kathleen.

Trained as a physicist, Kathleen Lonsdale went on to become the pioneering X-ray crystallographer who illuminated the shape, dimensions, and atomic structure of the benzene ring that had mystified chemists since Nature#39;s Answer Chamomile Flower 90 Vegetarian Capsules | Re discovered benzene a century earlier. She was still in her twenties. The chemistry of benzene would come to fuel the twentieth century. J.D. Bernal — the visionary scientist who first applied X-ray crystallography to the molecules of life and whose laboratory group she joined — came to see how beneath Lonsdale’s quiet, unassuming manner lay “such an underlying strength of character that she became from the outset the presiding genius of the place.”

Dame Kathleen Lonsdale. (Photograph: Walter Stoneman. National Portrait Gallery.)

Lonsdale became the first woman tenured at London’s most venerated research university and the first female president of both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Union of Crystallography.

She also became one of the twentieth century’s most lucid, impassioned, and indefatigable activists against our civilizational cult of war and the military industrial complex funding its planet-sized house of worship. When the next World War broke out, Lonsdale — by then one of the world’s most preeminent scientists — was imprisoned as a conscientious objector to military conscription. She went on to become one of Europe’s most influential prison reformers, having seen how the prison industrial complex — a term then yet to be coined — is the price societies governed by the military industrial complex pay for the inequalities and injustices stemming from that foundational cult.

In 1957, as part of a Penguin series that invited some of the era’s most lucid and luminous minds to explore some the era’s most urgent questions, Lonsdale composed a slender, exquisitely reasoned and deeply felt book titled Is Peace Possible? (public library), now out of print. In it, she writes:

History teaches us that time can bring about reconciliations that seemed at another time impossible, but only when violence has ceased, whether by agreement or through exhaustion.

Art by the American pacifist Rockwell Kent from Wilderness, written and painted in the final months of WWI. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

A quarter century after Einstein and Freud’s little-known correspondence about war, human nature, why we fight, and how to stop, Lonsdale challenges the misconception of pacifism as the simplistic idea that a perfect and peaceful world is merely a matter of individuals refusing to fight. “Truism based on Utopias are poor arguments,” she observes, instead invoking the style of pacifism native to the Quaker tradition and its original formulation in 1660 as the refusal to partake of “all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatever.” Bridging the spiritual ethos of her upbringing with the scientific worldview of her calling and training, she writes:

The man or woman is sure, whether through the guidance of the Spirit of Christ or the guidance of their reasoning powers or both, that war is spiritually degrading, that it is the wrong way to settle disputes between classes or nations, the wrong way to meet aggression or oppression, the wrong way to preserve national or personal ideals: that man or woman who is sure of this must obviously take no part in war and indeed must actively oppose it. Most civilized nations are beginning to realize that there is such a thing as a genuinely conscientious objection to personal participation in war, even if they do not regard it as expedient to encourage young people to think along these lines or take this stand.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s century-old illustrations for classic French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

With empathic sensitivity to the confusions and intuitions that lead otherwise goodhearted people to see some applications of war as justified, she adds:

Most people, however, are not sure of anything… They are not sure that it is wrong to fight, if by fighting one can alter intolerable conditions, or prevent large-scale communal crime, or get rid of a dangerous dictator before he gains too much power, or stand up to international blackmail, or ward off an armed attack. In terms of reason, they find it arguable — as it is — to say that although every possible way to avoid war must be sought, yet until men are perfect there will always be some who want to grab more than their share. They see no reason why this should be permitted if it can be prevented by the limited use of military force. They are pretty sure that it is prevented in many cases by the knowledge that force is there to stop it. For men are not perfect, but neither are they foolish enough, as a rule [with exceptions], to burgle or murder even on a national scale, if they know that they will be stopped and punished.

Citing a prominent politician who had once said to her that “pacifism is not practical politics” but “to be spiritually healthy every nation needs to have a spear-point of idealist opinion,” she dismantles the convenient illusion that pacifism is a purely ideological stance with no practical responsibilities of political participation:

The pacifist who argues that he is concerned only with principles, and that politics are not his business, is usually evading the discipline and the responsibility of hard thinking. His position is a logical one only if he does not either expect or desire the politician to put pacifist principles into practice for him. He won’t expect it, but if he does desire it then it is incumbent on him to study the world situation and try to decide for himself how it might be done, in general at least, if not in particular.

To illustrate the interleaving of lives across the artificial pickets of national borders, she looks back on the 1947 cholera epidemic that quickly came to claim five hundred lives per day in Egypt but was also quickly curbed after twenty nations cooperated on a supply line for vaccines. In a sentiment of staggering timeliness in the wake of the twenty-first century’s deadliest pandemic — which Mary Shelley anticipated two centuries ago — Lonsdale observes that “plagues are no respecters of sovereignty,” nor are the far-reaching economic, moral, spiritual, and radioactive consequences of war.

Art by Ryōji Arai from Almost Nothing, yet Everything: A Book about Water by Hiroshi Osada

In another sentiment of staggering timeliness in the aftermath of a twenty-first-century despot masquerading as a democratic ruler while erecting a physical wall on his nation’s border, and half a century before Toni Morrison lamented that in our time “walls and weapons feature as prominently now as they once did in medieval times,” Lonsdale adds:

One of the objects of military alliances and military defence seems to be the prevention of population movements, the freezing of the status quo.

It is just not possible to freeze the status quo, either nationally or internationally. One might as well try to freeze the Indian Ocean.

Writing shortly after the first test explosions of nuclear weapons in the Pacific Ocean, and shortly before Rachel Carson made ecology a household word a century after it was coined with her epochal exposé on the ecosystem devastation pesticides inflict far beyond their intended locus of use, Lonsdale observes:

No nation can claim that it can do what it likes, even with its own. The air above it will move to other parts of the world. The water around it will be exchanged gradually, not only with surface waters elsewhere, but also with the waters in the depths of the ocean.

Art by Ryōji Arai from Almost Nothing, yet Everything by Hiroshi Osada

At the heart of Lonsdale’s case against war is a clarity about the dangers of relativism and transactionalism, the dangers of mistaking self-interest for moral courage:

Total disarmament would not be an extreme form of partial disarmament [but] something quite different… At present our attitude is “If you eat my grandmother, I’ll eat yours. But if you will agree not to eat my grandmother, I’ll agree not to eat yours either, but I will jolly well look out to see that you are not beginning to boil the water in the saucepan.” What we need to do is to develop a horror of cannibalism, a horror of the crime of war.

Total disarmament means not only the abolition of military organization, of armament factories, of armies, of the naval and air forces, but the re-education of men and women everywhere to abhor the idea of war… abhor war and all preparations for war, not only in one country — although some country must set an example — but in every country… abhor it so much that they were willing to accept the readjustments that the absence of war and of the sanction of force might mean. It would be absolutely necessary to be clear on that point in any large-scale effort at adult education.

Art by Edward Gorey for a special edition of Little Red Riding Hood

This is a point of great subtlety and great import, for it speaks not only to the constant threat of war looming over the world but to the ecological apocalypse looming with even greater certainty unless we re-educate ourselves. In the near-century since Lonsdale’s time, we have cannibalized our climate for the exact same reason we have failed, as a civilization and a species, to eradicate war: Most people, whatever their loftiest moral standards may be, are simply too unwilling to inconvenience themselves with the not terribly demanding readjustments of habit that a personal stance against fossil fuel or the tendrils of the military industrial complex would demand of their daily lives. We weigh political candidates by how their tax policy would impact our personal finances and not by their intended military spending. We toss our soda cans — made of the same metal as the military aircraft of WWII — into the recycling bin when we remember, and we continue to fly across the increasingly carbonic sky we share.

Art from The Three Astronauts — Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s book about world peace

With this, Lonsdale excavates the deepest stratum of the reasons for war. Military alliances and international treaties only gauze the open wound of widespread inequality and injustice that colonialism and capitalism have inflicted on our world. In a sentiment an epoch ahead of her time, she observes:

Real security can only be found, if at all, in a world without the injustices that now exist, and without arms.

Lonsdale considers how such a world might become possible:

There are two ways in which such changes might come. One is the way of the compulsion of experience, the whip and spur of historical inevitability, the coercion of facts. That is the hard and bitter way. The other is the way of foresight, of preparation, of imagination. It is also the way of moral compulsion. It may be no less hard but it is not bitter.

Half a century before Jacqueline Novogratz bridged the notions of moral imagination and moral leadership in her elevating manifesto for a moral revolution, Lonsdale laments that most people are not instinctually able to make the necessary effort of imagination, for they are too accustomed to being led by leaders too unimaginative and morally insipid, if not actively immoral. She writes:

Most people… can rise to great heights of courage and sacrifice, but not usually without leadership. Two kinds of such leadership exist. The first is leadership from above. The other is leadership from within. Very often the second does have to precede the first. Those people who see clearly the necessity of changed thinking must themselves undertake the discipline of thinking in new ways and must persuade others to do so.

Art by Rockwell Kent from Wilderness, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Anticipating the world-changing power of Greta Thunberg’s generation, Lonsdale considers the members of our species best poised to think in new ways:

The new world needs much more than co-existence. It needs ways of living together peacefully and co-operatively, and these ways young people educated in the principles of peace could help find.

[…]

What is essential in the future is that every member of the family, even little children, should learn at whatever cost not to give way to wrong or to co-operate in it… It would mean also that if another nation was invaded, and not our own, the support that we could give them would be limited to moral support… unless we intend to destroy the world to prevent aggression. But moral support is powerful in proportion to the integrity of the nation that gives it.

Four years before Eleanor Roosevelt — who shared Lonsdale’s condemnation of nuclear weapons and spearheaded the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that set out to lay “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” — made her impassioned case for our personal power in world change, Lonsdale observes that creating a world without war would require as much cultural devotion and resources as planning for war took in the past. But such planning, she observes, is not the unreachable work of governments — it is the work of the people, each and every one of us, for we ourselves are the primary resource of the possible future:

If the will to plan internationally for peace were there, the mechanisms would not be far to seek. And the will that is required is that of ourselves, the ordinary people of the world, expressed urgently enough for those who govern not to be able to ignore it, even if they would.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1920s. (Available as a print.)

A surviving copy of Is Peace Possible? is well worth tracking down. (Humanistic publishers, take note: It is also well worth bringing back into the public imagination.) Complement it with Albert Camus on the antidote to violence and the great Czech dissident playwright Václav Havel — who endured multiple imprisonments by the communist government for his values of justice, humanism, and ecological consciousness, before becoming president of his liberated country — on living up to our interconnected humanity in a globalized yet divided world, then revisit E.B. White, writing in the same era as Lonsdale on the other side of the Atlantic, on nuclear weapons and what it really means to live in a peaceful world.


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