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Some of us are bristly rather than smooth February 25, 2010

Posted by Jenny in nature, philosophy, poetry.
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Last year, I shared a poem of my mother’s here.  As best as I can understand, it had to do with the black, infinite spaces between stars, the places that trouble our imaginations with their unintelligible vastness.  The places that remind us that imagination is an absolute requirement of life, not some sort of pleasant decoration.

My mother, Barbara J. Bennett

Today, I want to present another poem of my mother’s that might be particularly appropriate in this time of year when the forces of ice are fighting the forces of thawing and growing.

What I particularly enjoy about this poem is that it starts to lure us into a complacent way of viewing the landscape, then pulls the rug out from under our feet.  We are not talking about a “pretty scene” here: we are talking about difficult realities.  It also has to do with the human need to find something definite, or what philosophers would call “epistomology.” Here it is.

The Appearance of Snow

In lucid sunlight the evidence

is clear: snow has quietly

remade the meadow into a scene

of undreamed simplicity.


But seek no deep truth in the snow:

it is just a cover, a white lie.

It fell quite by chance last night,

erasing the whole known world,

but now, prickly whiskers of brittle

grass-tips stick up through the surface,

stiff reminders of the difficult world

that lies forgotten below, cloaked

by the snow’s deceit.



Mom and cosmology March 12, 2009

Posted by Jenny in memoir, nature, philosophy, poetry.
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Barbara Bennett

Barbara Bennett

Many people remember my mother as a nice little old lady.  And they are right—she was nice, she was little (she grew steadily smaller over the last 10 or 15 years of her life), and one certainly can’t dispute the fact that, at the end, she was old.  When she departed on July 3, 2007, her age was 84.

It was just that when you chatted with her over a cup of tea, she might want to talk about the philosophy of science or a new development in astronomy rather than Florida vacations or grandchildren.  This was not only an unusual interest;  it was one that she had come to relatively late, in mid-life, in the course of her perpetual exploration of the world of ideas.  Her interest could not be explained by the usual determinants of childhood experience, college education, or any circumstance involving friends or acquaintances.  There was, perhaps, a larger proportion of philosophers than usual within the extended family—my uncle was a philosophy professor—but by and large she came to the subject independently.

In her 50s and into her 60s, she attended university courses in the philosophy of science, eventually publishing a paper about epistemological realism in the context of quantum physics.  And, having a mind that always sought connections—those shining moments of insight that come from linking things never before thought of together—she made a connection between the philosophy of science and the subject of nature, her other enduring interest.  And she wrote poems about that connection.

Some who read her poems did not like the way she connected the concrete and the abstract.  I think the real problem was that those readers simply had no taste for the abstract.  They told my mother that she would do better to write about personal experiences—something more confessional, perhaps.

I am glad to say that she rejected that advice.

I would like to share a poem written by my mother.   It is called “A New Cosmology.”

By the pulsing light of Cepheids

lucid as in crystal micro-time,

shocked astronomers weigh the age of the farthest

stars and find in wild illogic they

are older even than the universe.

What stars are these that pass like fossil seeds

ambered in archaic time between

extinction and rebirth?

The world collapsing

into darkness, a new time, another

universe will gather up the seeds

of stars, and over eons open out

and flower to become a painted cosmos

never dreamed before.  Then what frail

language will be scribbled on the sky

to read the enigmatic stars anew?

Galazy clusters seen through Hubble telescope

Galaxy clusters seen through Hubble telescope


Wittgenstein on getting lost November 15, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking, philosophy.
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Paul Klee's "Highways and Byways," 1929
“Highways and Byways”  (Paul Klee)

Most people navigating off trail have moments of realizing they aren’t on the right track, such as: “If I don’t angle more to the right, I’m going to run into a line of bluffs.”  Slightly losing a bearing can have serious consequences, but it pales by comparison with true disorientation—a very strange feeling, for sure.  In my post called Map, Compass, and Altimeter, I mentioned an experience I had when it was very hard for me to trust my compass— but as it turned out, the compass was right, and I fortunately stuck with the course.  That occurred when I had reached the summit of East Kennebago in western Maine on an overcast late October day with snow squalls.  The summit is on a long anonymous ridge with fairly thick spruce and balsam growth.  When I found the PVC summit canister, I signed in and sat down for a bit of lunch.  It was when I got up again to start my descent that I became disoriented.  It was the strangest thing—my compass seemed to be telling me to head into trackless woods instead of back to the logging road where my car was waiting.  (In fact, if I had gone the way I was convinced I should go, I would have ended up on a logging road, all right—one that would have taken me down to the Tim Pond road and the Kennebago Lake area, many miles from where I wanted to be.)

It was as if the whole idea of the mountain that I had in my brain had risen up in the air, turned around 180 degrees, and then come back down.  Very unsettling!  Thank goodness I had trusted the compass.

After I had this experience, I remembered that Wittgenstein had described something like this in the Investigations.  As a student of philosophy, I always loved that book.  It was the second of the two great books that he wrote.  The first one was the Tractatus, in which he created a complex and impenetrable fortress out of logical positivism, decided that he still couldn’t explain everything, and ended with a statement of pure mysticism:  “What cannot be said must be passed over in silence.”  The second was the Investigations, written many years later, in which he turned to the everyday use of language as a guide for philosophy.  It is full of weird and interesting explorations of the realm where language, meaning, and psychology come together.

He said, “Think here of a special kind of illusion…. I go for a walk in the environs of a city with a friend.  As we talk it comes out that I am imagining the city to lie on our right.  Not only have I no conscious reason for this assumption, but some quite simple consideration was enough to make me realize that the city lay rather to the left ahead of us…. But though I see no reason still I seem to see certain psychological causes for it.  In particular, certain associations and memories.  For example, we walked along a canal, and once before … I had followed a canal and that time the city lay on our right.”

So associations and memories can lure us away from the needle of the compass.  When I sat down for lunch on East Kennebago, perhaps the look of the tree with the canister unconsciously reminded me of another summit in which I should turn to the left instead of the right when I stood up from my lunch.  But does that mean that we should never base our navigation on associations and memories?  No, because it might be very helpful to remember that this was the big square boulder that we passed on the way up.  And deciding when to rely on memory is a huge part of off-trail navigation.

I like thinking of Wittgenstein walking beside his canal, lost in thought.  Right after the observation about disorientation, he races off towards another comparison that could only occur to such a strange and original mind.  “‘I feel as if I knew the city lay over there.’—‘I feel as if the name “Schubert” fitted Schubert’s works and Schubert’s face.'”  He’s saying something about the subliminal way that we sense what is accurate and what is not.  If you dip into the Investigations, you find many wonderful pronouncements.  “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”