“The more Carl learned about nature, about the vastness of the universe and the awesome timescales of cosmic evolution, the more he was uplifted…he never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire love and awe.” -Ann Druyan in the introduction to The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan
Glibert’s book tells the life story of Alma Whitaker, born in 1800 into the wealth and intellect of her father, a self-made botanist/ businessman and her mother, a scientific thinker in her own right, who came from a long line of Dutch botanists. Alma is pragmatic, brilliant, and curious. Her life work revolves around closely studying the mosses near her family’s Philadelphia property. Later, she meets an incredible botanist painter whose spirituality pushes her thinking in ways she never considered. He believes in “the signature of all things”–that God is to be found in everything in the natural world. There was so much to like about this book, but the overlap of the scientific and the spiritual was by far my favorite.
The painter says to Alma: “What profound reward you must glean from studying the world so closely…Too many people turn away from small wonders, I find. There is so much more potency to be found in detail than in generalities, but most souls cannot train themselves to sit still for it.” (203)
Alma holds fast to her scientific sensibilities, and yet she feels a shift as Ambrose’s perspectives stay with her as she grows older. The themes of paying attention to nature’s details and standing in awe from a scientific and spiritual perspective are woven throughout the engrossing narrative. I kept thinking about Looking at Mindfulness, a book I read last summer: “We are increasingly living in ‘psychotoxic’ environments that fragment our attention with constant interruptions, interesting or eye catching suggestions…This narrow, analytic mode of attention functioning leads to ruminations that fuel states of anxiety and depression. Hence, more than ever, our need to work on our capacity for attention and to protect and restore it (86).”
It is wild how much my relationship with technology has changed the way my brain works–I find myself looking at social media during television commercials or if my husband makes a coffee mid-movie. I’ve been realizing over the past year that I need to rewire some of my brain’s technology induced automatic behaviors. I took Facebook off of my phone. I’ve been using drawing and painting as a way to look at the details (and was shocked at how hard it was for me to feel relaxed while drawing, or settle into the idea that it would be messy, especially at first). The springtime blossoms carry an awful lot of symbolism for this process, though. It is helping me to find the signature of all things in my own way, and I love it when all the books I read become intertextual.