At Peace

Every man is followed by a shadow which is his death—dark, featureless and mute. And for every man there is a place where his shadow is clarified and is made his reflection, where his face is mirrored in the ground. He sees his source and his destiny, and they are acceptable to him. He becomes the follower of what pursued him. What hounded his track becomes his companion.

That is the myth of my search and my return.


I have been walking in the woods and have lain down on the ground to rest. It is the middle of October and around me, all through the woods, the leaves are quietly sifting down. The newly fallen leaves make a dry comfortable bed, and I lie easy, coming to rest with myself as I seem to do nowadays only when I am in the woods.

And now a leaf, spiraling down in wild flight, lands on my shirt front at about the third button down below the collar. At first I am bemused and mystified by the coincidence—that the leaf should have been so hung, weighted and shaped, so ready to fall, so nudged loose and slanted by the breeze, as to fall where I, by the same delicacy of circumstance, happened to be lying. The event, among all its ramifying causes and considerations, and finally its mysteries, begins to take on the magnitude of history. Portent begins to dwell in it.

And suddenly I apprehend in it the dark proposal of the ground. Under the fallen leaf my breastbone burns with imminent decay. Other leaves fall. My body begins its long shudder into humus. I feel my substance escape me, carried into the mold by beetles and worms. Days, winds, seasons pass over me as I sink under the leaves. For a time only sight is left me, a passive awareness of the sky overhead, birds crossing, the mazed interreaching of the treetops, the leaves falling—and then that, too, sinks away. It is acceptable to me, and I am at peace.

When I move to go, it is as though I rise up out of the world.

Wendell Berry, A Native Hill, written in 1962 when he was 28 years old

Set to music by Gavin Bryars, sung by The Crossing under leadership of Donald Nally, part of a new album


You and I have bacteria living on the food in our intestine that play a vital role in regulating our hormones and our moods, not just digestion.

Carpenter ants have bacteria that have actually moved inside the cells of the intestinal lining and integrated themselves into the cellular metabolism. The symbiosis has become so close that the bacteria actually moved in, and the ant’s own cells made a home for them.

There’s a whole set of adaptations that make this possible. When a carpenter ant starts life as a fertilized egg, the single egg cell doesn’t divide, but instead just the nucleus divides. Again and again, until there is a giant cell with hundreds of cell nuclei. Of course, all this while, the digestive bacteria are also reproducing within this giant cell. When the cell is finally ready to divide itself up, one nucleus per cell, the bacteria shift almost all to one end, and that cell that breaks off with the greatest number of bacteria is destined to become the intestine. Of course, a few bacteria are also sequestered into the cells that are destined to become the gonads, so they are already preparing to be passed on to the next ant generation, to seed their intestines.

Viviane Callier tells the story at Quanta Magazine

Close-up photo of a carpenter ant queen carrying eggs.

Telepathic Parrot with a Kindergarten Vocabulary

(This is a Rupert Sheldrake experiment from 2002. The first unusual thing about N’kisi the parrot is that he had a vocabulary of 1200 words and spoke in grammatically constructed phrases, using combinations he had never heard before. The second is that he was psychic.)

Aimée Morgana noticed that her language-using African Grey parrot, N’kisi, often responded to her thoughts and intentions in a seemingly telepathic manner. We set up a series of trials to test whether this apparent telepathic ability would be expressed in formal tests in which Aimée and the parrot were in different rooms, on different floors, under conditions in which the parrot could receive no sensory information from Aimée or from anyone else. N’kisi’s “task” was to talk about a picture selected at random from a sealed envelope and presented to Aimée in a distant room.

During these trials Aimée and the parrot were both videotaped continuously. We conducted a total of 149 two-minute trials. He scored 23 hits, when the expected number by chance was 12. The probabiliy that this could have occurred by chance was 0.00025.

Read more details or Read an academic write-up of the experiment or a BBC News story

The relation of reason to wonder

At the beginning of this text, the moon enters the narrator’s body so as to become coextensive with his physical form. He asks,

Why are there dark areas on the moon?

She smiled a little, then she said: “If mortals’
opinion therein errs, where key of sense
unlocketh not, surely the shafts of wonder
ought not to pierce thee now; for thou perceivest
that short are Reason’s wings, when following sense.
But tell me what thou think’st thereof thyself.”

This from a time when scientific reasoning found a natural place in poetry.

And I: “What seems to us diverse up here,
is caused, I think, by bodies thin and dense.”
And she: “Thou ’lt surely see that thy belief
is sunk in error, if but well thou heed
the arguments I’ll now oppose to it.

Canto 2 from the Paradiso of Dante, trans. William Wordsworth
text explication

Moon - Wikipedia

Nonviolence? C’mon…get real!

I was swimming in a lake in the Philadelphia suburbs, as is my wont on a summer afternoon. Out in the middle, I saw an insect floating, and I identified with his struggle. I lifted him out of the water and he tried to fly, but his wings were too waterlogged, and he fell right down. So I lifted him onto my finger and held that hand out of the water while I swam sidestroke for awhile. He dried in the sun for about a minute, then picked himself up and flew somewhat further before falling back down in the water. I thought he really needed to dry out for longer, so I swam breast stroke, pushing him on a water wave ahead of me until we got close to the shore, where there was a fallen tree in the water, and I lifted him onto a branch. There I said good-bye, and swam off, hoping he might dry off thoroughly enough that he could fly to the shore and safety.

All the while, I was thinking what a Buddhist thing I was doing. Or maybe Jainist. Or maybe I am just taking the idea to extremes, that all life is worthy of our reverence. It was only after I swam off that I became curious about the taxonomy of the creature whom I had helped.

Delta wings with an orange underbelly…

As I realized that I had rescued a lantern fly, I was flooded with a whole different set of feelings. Here I thought I was experiencing a tiny connection across a wide genetic gulf. But at the same time, I was putting myself at odds with my neighbors, who are on a campaign to exterminate lantern flies. I thought about C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters, in which Satan’s advice on how to capture souls was to: “Make sure he loves mankind but can’t stand his mother in law.”

Am I a deeply empathetic person who carries non-violence to the point of catching mice in have-a-heart traps and carefully shephering wasps out the window? Or am I so accustomed to virtue-signaling that I do it even when there’s no one around to signal? Maybe both?

And what about lantern flies? I truly think that the campaign to kill every last lantern fly in Pennsylvania is doomed to failure. They are a new reality that the ecology is just going to have to adjust to, as they fill their niche and attract predators that will keep their numbers in check. But I also realize that this belief separates me from my neighbors who are doing their part with backyard lantern fly traps. It’s making me lonely.

Why have I spent so much of my life being morally superior and lonely?

The Wellfleet Whale

It was the tag-end of summer.
From the harbor’s mouth
you coasted into sight,
flashing news of your advent,
the crescent of your dorsal fin
clipping the diamond surface.
We cheered at the sign of your greatness
when the black barrel of your head
erupted, ramming the water,
and you flowered for us
in the jet of your spouting.

All afternoon you swam
tirelessly round the bay,
with such an easy motion,
the slightes downbeat of your tail,
an almost imperceptible undulation of your flippers,
you seemed like something poured,
not driven; you seemed to marry grace with power.
And when you bounded into air,
slapping your flukes,
we thrilled to look upon
pure energy incarnate
as nobility of form.
You seemed to ask of us
not sympathy, or love,
or understanding, but awe and wonder.

That night we watched you
swimming in the moon.
Your back was molten silver.
We guessed your silent passage
by the phosphorescence in your wake
At dawn we found you straned on the rocks.

There came a boy and a man
and yet other men running, and two
schoolgirls in yellow halters
and a housewife bedecked
with curlers, and whole families in beach
buggies with assorted yelping dogs.
The tide was almost out.
We could walk around you,
as you heaved deeper into the shoal,
crushed by your own weight,
collapsing into yourself,
your flippers and your flukes
quivering, your blowhole
spasmodically bubbling, roaring.
In the pit of your gaping mouth
you bared your fringework of baleen,
a thicket of horned bristles.
When the Curator of Mammals
arrived from Boston
to take samples of your blood
you were already oozing from below.
Somebody had carved his initials
in your flank. Hunters of souvenirs
had peeled off strips of your skin,
a membrane thin as paper.
You were blistered and cracked by the sun.
The gulls had been pecking at you.
The sound you made was a hoarse and fitful bleating.
What drew us, like a magnet, to your dying?
You made a bond between us,
the keepers of the nightfall watch,
who gathered in a ring around you,
boozing in the bonfire light.
Toward dawn we shared with you
your hour of desolation,
the huge lingering passion
of your unearthly outcry,
as you swung your blind head toward us and laboriously opened
a bloodshot, glistening eye,
in whch we swam with terror and recognition.

Master of the whale-roads,
let the white wings of the gulls
spread out their cover.
You have become like us,
disgraced and mortal.

Stanley Kunitz, born this day in 1905


Biology is not Physics

You’ve found the spark that makes the sun burn bright
and tracked the orbits of the distant stars.
You’ve harnessed energy for planes and cars—
success convinces you you’ve got it right.

You think the rule of physics must be strict,
yet only in the aggregate do maths
apply to living things. Their single paths
take twists and turns that you cannot predict.

Man’s thirst for knowledge never can be quenched
while minds refuse to grant the role of mind
that regulates the quantum. You won’t find
broad truth while narrow physics is entrenched.

What sort of physics would it take to know
how neurons fire, hearts beat, and grasses grow?

— sonnet by JJM (not part of the I Ching)

Collective Insights:

What does it feel like to be wrong?

  • embarrassed?
  • shamed?
  • lost face?

No, that’s what it feels like to find out that you have been wrong. What it feels like to be wrong is

  • confident
  • talking a little too loud
  • domineering

Where does humility come from? For most of us it comes from being humiliated. For Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein, it comes from learning so much that they began to glimpse how much they don’t know.

Charles Eisenstein speculates that it is only hubris that leads mankind to think we are on a road toward more perfect understanding. Probably, there is much more that we don’t know how to learn than that we do know how to learn; more that we cannot coprehend with the brains that we have than that we can.

Daniel Schmachtenberger asks: Imagine you had to consciously manage the metabolic processes of a single cell in your body.

We, the human species, are modifying ecosystems by killing off insects, by pulling out weeds, by restoring wetlands and by planting forests. We imagine we know what we’re doing and what the effects might be. Do we think that ecosystems are less complex than cells?

What happened when we reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone Park?


Pursuit of any state of mind, be it happiness or mindfulness or even enlightenment, cannot produce a meaningful life.

Consciousness wants to be in relationship to consciousness. It’s both a part of our evolutionary heritage and it’s fundamental to the concept of consciousess.

I wouldn’t exist without the air, the bacteria, the sun—I am an emergent property of all this together, in relationship. My consciousness depends on all this.

What would the content of consciousness be without relationship? I think in words and images and concepts that were created by other people.  All the contents of my consciousness came from the world. The idea that it is “mine” is a misnomer and a product of flawed thinking.

Pursuit of any state of my body and mind is, in part, narcissism. When I grow beyond this, “What do I get out of life?” stops being the relevant question. I become interested in helping others, relieving their suffering, lending them a hand along this same path of outgrowing the selfish perspective.

Life starts there.

(All the above is quoted and paraphrased from the last part of this Modern Wisdom interview with Daniel Schmachtenberger)