Wandering with the Wonderers
When I read The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, by Chet Raymo, a small, perverse voice occasionally interrupted the captivating narrative to wonder if Raymo could be a rather annoying person with whom to take a stroll. The premise of The Path is that you walk with Raymo along his usual one-mile commute from his home in North Easton to the Stonehill College campus where he teaches physics, and along the way he regales you with interesting information spurred by sights along the path—the rock formations, the former manicured estate that’s now open to the public, the shovel factory that used to dominate the town. I had a vision of the author slowing his gait every few steps and tilting his head to pose questions that all start with, “You ever wonder?...” like Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes, and then, before I have a chance to reflect on what’s been asked, pouring out a detailed lecture on shovel manufactory during the Industrial Revolution, the true intentions of the Bobbsey Twins childrens’ book series, the landscape architecture of Frederick Law Olmsted, or Roman philosopher Lucretius.
I ultimately decided, despite that (perhaps envious) nagging voice, someone as smart and reflective as Raymo would be astute enough to know when to keep quiet on our walk. Perhaps he’d save the majority of his musings for a shared meal, and it would be a privilege to break bread with the man. Because here is a true thinker, one that’s managed to walk the same path every workday for thirty-seven years and still never fail to see something in a new light or to uncover something that begs a fresh avenue of research. It’s compelling to walk with this thinker because the ability to marvel, the ability to, for example, feed an active mind just using the scenery on a modest path, is a severely endangered one in our vastly electronic media-dependent era.
The appeal of Raymo’s musings, many of which touch on humankind’s effect on nature and vice versa, is dual. On the one hand he’s clearly got both the scientific chops and the affinity for precise, descriptive language to summarize concepts like the ancient movement of the glaciers and the complexities of evolution. But on the other, he is “a man blessed with a poet’s eye and a tale-teller’s tongue” according to fellow author Scott Russell Sanders. So often people seem to believe that, when it comes to science, one must choose—either you stick to hard facts or adopt the “softer” side that includes the intuitive, the spiritual, the abstract. Raymo doesn’t choose. He can argue both sides and be convincing in both directions:
The one property of matter that lingers is its potentiality. The hydrogen and helium atoms forged in the Big Bang possessed a built-in capacity to complexify and diversify, to spin out stars and galaxies, carbon, silicon, oxygen, iron, and ultimately the rocky substrate of the Earth, even life and consciousness. Far from explaining away the mystery of the world, our new knowledge of matter rubs our noses in mystery.
The Path isn’t all grand science and the cosmos. I learned from Raymo about the inspiring habits of naturalists, my favorite a nurse to the Ames family children who lived at his local Sheep Pasture estate and painted for them a whole album of local wildflowers. She was inspired by Mrs. William Starr Dana’s How to Know the Wildflowers, a book still in print after nearly 100 years. I considered, for the first time, attempting some drawing from nature. I considered finally throwing my television out the window, not because Raymo advises this but because I saw how much knowledge I am missing, how much there is to examine and contemplate even within a mile’s distance. I was encouraged to think enthusiastically along The Path, following a long line of scientists, historians, and naturalists before me who lived an intellectual life that was anything but dry. It took a while for my brain to stretch and accommodate the ricocheting ideas spurred by the book, but boy did that stretch feel good. There are some works of science or philosophy to which I’ve never felt quite up to the task—like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time or Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings, probably because they are so abstract. But Raymo interweaves the abstract and the anecdotal in such a way that the former becomes accessible, no doubt the mark of a good professor and of perhaps even more benefit to the nonacademic reader.
On a roll with my admiration for great minds, I also turned this week to an author who has long been a favorite. Full disclosure: I’m a bona fide Annie Dillard fan so I started out biased. But scanning the rapidly shrinking inventory at Borders bookstore (soon to be closed forever), I couldn’t recall ever having read Teaching a Stone to Talk cover to cover. So Dillard came home with me and I dove right in, encouraged by my recent walk down The Path.
Dillard’s another true thinker, like Chet Raymo. But overall she’s more emotive, reactive, and spiritually oriented, prone to fits of ecstasy and endowed with a flair for acrobatic language that supports her sometimes tangential mental wanderings. Teaching a Stone favors more exotic experiences and locales than Raymo’s daily routine of a walk and is quite different from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of solitary time spent in a Virginia valley. I spent time with Dillard on the Galapagos Islands, in a South American jungle, and witnessing a solar eclipse from a hilltop. Teaching a Stone isn’t exactly a travelogue; it isn’t your typical book of essays, either. Dillard captures musings in such a way that, if you ride along, you are with her in the moment, looking out at scenes you hadn’t really noticed or thought much about before.
There are times when Dillard reminds me of an eccentric aunt who adds a lot of color but must also have her whimsical wanderings indulged. Acutely aware of my committed fanhood and the limited elasticity of my own mind, I had to forgive her a long essay in the book that intertwined scenes from a Catholic mass, references to clowns, and expeditions to the North Pole in a way I just didn’t grasp. But I held on in the belief that it’s good to stretch the brain, and much more fun with Dillard’s mean turns of phrase than many other forays into the unknown. It got better after the incense-infused Polar treks, better enough to come away re-enthused for the unique perspectives that came to me courtesy of Dillard. I had never, for example contemplated coming back as a tree:
I no longer wanted to “come back” as a sea lion. For I thought, and I still think, that if I came back to life in the sunlight where everything changes, I would like to come back as a palo santo tree, one of thousands on a cliffside on those godforsaken islands, where a million events occur among the witless, where a splash of rain may drop on a yellow iguana the size of a dachshund, and then minutes later the iguana may blink. I would like to come back as a palo santo tree on the weather side of an island, so that I could be, myself, a perfect witness, and look, mute, and wave my arms.
Dillard writes about mirages at sea, a documented phenomenon in which ships balloon to cartoonish proportions or cliffs appear in impossible places: “Mirages, like anything unusual, are hard to see. The mind expects the usual.” I wonder if she’s ever thought of her own work as its own kind of mirage—tricky to pin down and yet, still very much there on the horizon, an incredible picture that lays itself over the more mundane and makes you think twice, makes you change angles to see it better, pull up the binoculars and indulge in a long, unblinking gaze.
So there you have it—two incredible minds that have made themselves accessible for the rest of us, two minds that point to things without while causing us to look further within. Spending time with them feels like a privilege, and also a study in how much potential we all have to notice more, study more, and just plain think more. It’s a great reminder that, while the shapes of our books and the places where we buy them may be changing, the words offered to us by deep thinkers still contain a realm of possibility much larger than package in which they are wrapped.
Books mentioned in this column: