Archive for the ‘Birthday Bios’ Category

Celebrating Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau Packs for an Excursion

When July and August rolled around, Henry David Thoreau was ready, for what he called, an excursion. Thoreau is well-known for having traveled a good deal in Concord, but his excursions carried him farther afield to Maine, Cape Cod, Philadelphia, New York City, the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Mackinac Island. Several of these journeys were transformed into books: A Yankee in Canada, The Maine Woods and Cape Cod . Thoreau’s biographer Henry Seidel Canby describes these travel guides as “propaganda for the art of sauntering with an open eye, and for the proper use of leisure.” In them, we can catch a glimpse of Thoreau on vacation.

Thoreau’s excursions were inspired by books on travel and natural history. Like many of us, he used the winter months to read about and dream of summer destinations. “Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading. I read in Audubon with a thrill of delight, when snow covers the ground, of the magnolia, and the Florida keys, and their warm sea breezes ….” (Natural History of Massachusetts). We know that Thoreau also read books by William Bartram, Charles Darwin, Magellan, James Cook, the arctic explorers John Franklin, Alexander Mckenzie and William Parry, David Livingstone, Richard Francis Burton and Lewis and Clark, to name only a few.

When he was 22, Thoreau traveled lightly. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau chronicles a journey taken by boat and afoot with his brother John, from Concord to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He notes that: The cheapest way to travel and the way to travel farthest in the shortest distance is to go afoot, carrying
· A dipper
· A spoon
· A fish-line
· Some Indian meal
· Some salt
· Some sugar

We have to imagine that the brothers may have carried a few more items than just these on their journey. But at this time in his life, Thoreau was more an adventurer than a natural historian.

Compare the 1839 list with this one: “Outfit for an Excursion.” It was published as an Appendix in The Maine Woods. For twelve days travel in Maine in the month of July Thoreau suggests:

Wear – a checked shirt, stout old shoes, thick socks, a neck ribbon, thick waistcoat, thick pants, old Kossuth hat [a soft hat with a wide flexible brim], a linen sack
Carry – in an India-rubber knapsack, with a large flap, two shirts (check), one pair of thick socks, one pair drawers, one flannel shirt, two pocket handkerchiefs, a light India-rubber coat or a thick woolen one, two bosoms [dress shirts] and two collars to go and come with, one napkin, pins, needles, thread, one blanket, best gray, seven feet long.
Tent – six by seven feet, and four feet high in the middle, will do; veil and gloves and insect-wash, or, better, mosquito-bars [a net or curtain] to cover all at night; best pocket map, and perhaps description of the route; compass; plant-book, and red blotting-paper; paper and stamps, botany, small pocket spy-glass for birds, pocket microscope, tape-measure, insect boxes.
Axe, full size if possible, jackknife, fish-lines, two only apiece, with a few hooks and corks ready, and with pork for bait in a packet, rigged; matches (some also in a small vial in the waist-coat pocket); soap, two pieces; large knife and iron spoon (for all); three or four old newspapers, much twine, and several rags for dishcloths; twenty feet of strong cord, four-quart tin pail for kettle, two tin dippers, three tin plates, a fry pan.
Provisions – Soft hardbread [hardtack], twenty-eight pounds; pork, sixteen pounds; sugar, twelve pounds; one pound black tea or three pounds coffee, one box or a pint of salt, one quart of Indian meal, to fry fish in; six lemons, good to correct the pork and warm water; perhaps two or three pounds of rice, for variety. You will probably get some berries, fish, &c., beside.
A gun is not worth the carriage, unless you go as hunters. The pork should be in an open keg, sawed to fit; the sugar, tea or coffee, meal, salt &c., should be put in separate water-tight India-rubber bags, tied with a leather string; and all the provisions, and part of the rest of the baggage, put into two large India-rubber bags, which have proved to be water-tight and durable.

The plant book, blotting paper, botany, spyglass, pocket microscope, tape measure and insect boxes show Thoreau’s deepening interest in recording his observations of the natural world. William Howarth in his book Thoreau in the Mountains, suggests that the meat, bread and coffee were taken to satisfy his companions on the Maine adventures. He believes that even in his later life Thoreau’s personal style was Spartan and more in line with the list from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Howarth also describes Thoreau’s pack: “An average load weighed about fifty pounds, not suspended on a frame (as with modern packs) but hanging from narrow, unpadded straps. With that load he climbed the steepest trails, setting a faster pace than most of his companions.”

In his Journal Thoreau adds one more item to his list of suggestions on packing for an excursion . Before setting off on your journey, create a list of questions that can, hopefully, be answered during the course of the trip. “I have found my account in travelling, in having prepared before hand a list of questions which I would get answered – not trusting to my interest of the moment – and can then travel with the most profit.” (Journal – August 30, 1856) The questions you carry with you will keep you engaged with new places and people and may lead to unexpected answers and a whole new series of questions. This tidbit of traveling wisdom may be Thoreau’s best advice for us today as we plan our own excursions and adventures.

Celebrating J.R.R. Tolkien

Photo Credit: Rime Jos Dielis

Trees with Rime Jos Dielis

Today, January 3rd, Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, Ents and Men of Middle Earth celebrate their chronicler’s birthday – J.R.R. Tolkien, if were he still among us, would be 121 years old today. Tolkien’s love of the natural world shines through his writings about Middle Earth. He insisted that Middle Earth was in fact our world. In this letter to his son Christopher from late December 1944, he describes moments of Elvish beauty in his own back garden:

“The weather has for me been one of the chief events of Christmas. It froze hard with a heavy fog, and so we have had displays of Hoarfrost such as I only remember once in Oxford before and only twice in my life. One of the most lovely events of Northern Nature. We woke (late) on St. Stephen’s Day to find all our windows opaque, painted over with frost patterns, and outside a dim silent misty world, all white but with a light jewelry of rime; every cobweb a little lace net, even the old fowls’ tent a diamond-patterned pavilion. …The rime yesterday was even thicker and more fantastic. When a gleam of sun (about 11) got through it was breathtakingly beautiful: trees like motionless fountains of white branching spray against a golden light and, high overhead, a pale translucent blue. It did not melt. About 11 p.m. the fog cleared and a high round moon lit the whole scene with a deadly white light: a vision of some other world or time. It was so still that I stood in the garden hatless and uncloaked without a shiver, though there must have been many degrees of frost.”

from Letter 94 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien


This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthday and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Celebrating Eliot Porter

"In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World", Eliot Porter book cover

Today, December 6, is Eliot Porter’s birthday, his eleventy first. Porter departed this life back in 1990, but his presence lives on in his photographs and books celebrating the beauty of the natural world.

When he began his career, color photography was considered appropriate for commercial purposes, but not for fine art photography. Porter changed that. He had the eye of an artist and was a master of the color printing process. Even today, his works are marvels of hue, intensity and contrast. In the beginning, his books were published by the Sierra Club and were among the first to be printed in a large format with great care taken in the quality of the paper and the fidelity of the reproductions. They were among the first coffee table books – large enough that you needed a flat surface to be able to see the images to their best advantage.

His first book, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, was published 50 years ago. It paired his photos of the New England countryside with selections from the work of Henry David Thoreau. Porter’s wife Aline first suggested the idea. To her, his photographs were like Thoreau’s writing. The idea took root and he slowly began rereading Walden and other works by and about Thoreau. At first he looked for descriptive passages that he might illustrate. But the thoughts he found most influential could not be illustrated, for example: “Most men, it seems to me, do not care for nature and would sell their share in all her beauty for a given sum. Thank God men have not yet learned to fly so they can lay waste the sky as well as the earth.”

The idea of illustration having been set aside, Porter hoped instead to complement in feeling and spirit Thoreau’s thinking and “to show the peril we face even more today by our ever faster destruction of life not our own.” Porter spent almost ten years, working on and off, selecting what he considered the best of Thoreau’s writing and photographing in all seasons the woods, streams, ponds and marshes of the Northeast. Gradually text and images came together into the book we know and love today.

The title’s eight words, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, “express the theme of the book and tell what Thoreau discovered one hundred years ago (now one hundred and fifty!) that a leaven of wildness is necessary for the health of the human spirit, a truth we seem to have forgotten in our headlong rush to control all nature. Unless we reverse our course all wildness will disappear from the American continent even within the lives of those who are now the age Thoreau was when he died in 1862.” (For the record, Thoreau was 44.)

Fifty years later, Porter’s prediction has not yet come to pass. Wildness is reduced and continuously under attack but still abides. In Wildness is the Preservation of the World was a revelation those who had not experienced the beauty of wild places. The book was passed from hand to hand, shared with friends and family, and soon became a bestseller. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was also published in 1962. Together, though in very different ways, these books encouraged a growing environmental consciousness in our country.

Eliot Porter’s photographs help us catch a glimpse of a world we rarely see. It’s sometimes easier to take in the beauty of a vast mountain or canyon rather than the small subtle beauties of a drift of autumn leaves or the first faint bloom of a Red Bud in spring. By looking closely at Porter’s photographs, we can learn to see more deeply and clearly the beauty that surrounds us everyday. He believed that “You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis. You get better the more you play. The more you look at things, the more you see. …You just have to keep doing it.”

“Much is missed if we have eyes only for the bright colors. Nature should be viewed without distinction… She makes no choice herself; everything that happens has equal significance. Nothing can be dispensed with.”

So, on this, Eliot Porter’s birthday, may we suggest that you head to the library or your own bookshelves and find one of Porter’s books, sit down, and settle in for a good long look. Exercise your vision. You’ll be amazed at what you begin to see in the world around you.

Some of our favorite books by Eliot Porter:

In Wildness is the Preservation of the World

The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado

Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smokey Mountains

Nature’s Chaos

The Birds of North America: A Personal Selection

Eliot Porter Portrait, Amon Carter Museum

Amon Carter Museum

Eliot Porter’s personal archive is in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. Their guide to the collection includes biographical information and some small images of Porter’s work. We recommend visiting the museum collection or picking up one of Porter’s books to fully experience the beauty and vibrant nature of his photographs.
For additional information read an article from Sierra Club: “Eliot Porter celebrated ordinary rocks, fallen leaves and the lush complexity of life….” In Photography Is the Preservation of the World by Rebecca Solnit


This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthday and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Happy Birthday, Andy Goldsworthy

How many parched creek beds have we traversed over the years? Lots. Did we notice the dried mud mosaics left behind as the moisture was slowly being squeezed out by a brutal Texas sun? Maybe. Would we think about using this mud mosaic as a canvas to create art? Probably not, unless we were familiar with the work of Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy shows us things we have seen time and again but transformed, into art.

Nature provides him with his materials: ice and snow, leaves, flowers, thorns, stems, twigs, branches and trees, bones, sand, dirt, clay and stone. Time and place are also vitally important in his work. Time is usually an invisible element. Some of Goldsworthy’s works are so fleeting that technology provides the only means of preserving them at all. Photography can capture clouds of powdered stone and splashes of water, a chain of polychrome leaves sent racing down a fast stream or a line of small stone arches beset by the rising tide. Thus, seen on video or in a chronological series of photographs, the element of time may be revealed.

Red river stones ground to powder and thrown Penpont Dumfriesshire August 1995 photo by Andrew McKinna in Time.


Goldsworthy is immersed in the natural world, and his works, like nature’s, are subject to the transformations of time. Sometimes the element driving transformation is light that changes throughout the day, from dawn to high noon, evening, full sun, cloudy shadows or storms. Rising temperatures can reshape art made of ice and snow and, in the end, make them completely vanish. Sometimes change takes place more slowly over the course of the seasons or years. For example, when does a hole constructed of sticks stop being a work of art? When its appearance has changed through the action of wind and weather? When decay sets in and begins the alchemy of wood transformed into earth? Could it be when the work is lost to sight, having been covered with bracken or grasses? Or does the artistic process, once Goldsworthy has set it in motion, continue on through countless transformations?

Stacked sticks found branches Robin Hill Wood 1993


Which brings up the question: where does the artistic process begin for an artist like Andy Goldsworthy? Goldsworthy’s art arises in response to a specific place using materials that he finds there. He does not begin with a blank canvas. Nature has shaped the land and its living elements as, in some instances, has the hand of man. When Goldsworthy steps into the flow of transformation in a specific place and works his magical rearrangements, he too joins the ranks of wind, water, heat, cold and time as an agent of change in the natural world. Does the artistic process begin with his materials? Does it end when no trace of his work remains? We may never know, but we can be delighted and marvel at what he has created and be thankful for the technology that preserves it for all of us to see.

First half of Hollister Cairn, awaiting completion Hollister, California November 1999

Cover of TIME by Andy Goldsworthy

Learn more about Andy Goldsworthy –

Andy Goldsworthy Digital Catalogue


This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Celebrating Henry David Thoreau

Reflections of Clouds and Trees in the Assabet River – Herbert Gleason 1901

Reflections of Clouds and Trees in the Assabet River – Herbert Gleason 1901

Henry David Thoreau kept a journal. But unlike most of us, he kept at it. And when he died, he left fourteen volumes filled with his observations on life in the fields and forests surrounding his home in Concord, Massachusetts. We can also use the journals to chart the development of his ideas as he wrestled with the important political and philosophical issues of the day. And, since most of the journal entries are dated, we can see what he was up to from day to day. So let’s tag along and see how Thoreau celebrated his 35th birthday in 1852.

“2 p.m. – To the Assabet.

“…Now for another fluvial walk. There is always a current of air above the water, blowing up or down the course of the river, so that it is the coolest highway. Divesting yourself of all clothing but your shirt and hat, which are to protect your exposed parts from the sun, you are prepared for the fluvial excursion. You choose what depths you like, tucking your toga higher or lower as you take the deep middle of the road or the shallow sidewalks.

“Here is a road where no dust was ever known, no intolerable drouth. Now your feet expand on a smooth sandy bottom, now contract timidly on pebbles, now slump in genial fatty mud – greasy, saponaceous – amid the pads. You scare out whole schools of small breams and perch, and sometimes a pickerel, which have taken shelter from the sun under the pads. This river is so clear compared with the South Branch or main stream, that all their secrets are betrayed to you. Or you meet with and interrupt a turtle taking a more leisurely walk up the stream.

“Ever and anon, you cross some furrow in the sand, made by a muskrat, leading off to the right or left to their galleries in the bank, and you thrust your foot into the entrance, which is just below the surface of the water and is strewn with grass and rushes, of which they make their nests.

“In shallow water near the shore, your feet at once detect the presence of springs in the bank emptying in, by the sudden coldness of the water, and there, if you are thirsty, you dig a little well in the sand with your hands, and when you return, after it has settled and clarified itself, get a draught of pure cold water there. The fishes are very forward to find out such places, and I have observed that a frog will occupy a cool spring, however small.

“The most striking phenomena in this stream is the heaps of small stones about the size of a walnut, more or less, which line the shore in shallow water, one every rod or two, the recent ones frequently rising by more than half their height above the water, at present, i.e. a foot or foot and a half, and sharply conical, the older flattened by the elements and greened over with the threadlike stem of Ranuculus filiformis, with its minute bright-yellow flowers. Some of these heaps contain two cartloads of stones, and as probably the creature that raised them took up one at a time, it must have been a stupendous task. They are from the size of a hen’s egg down to the smallest gravel, and some are so perfect that I cannot believe they were made before the river fell.

“…It is an objection to walking in the mud that from time to time you have to pick the leeches off you. The stinkpot’s shell, covered with mud and fine green weeds, gives him exactly the appearance of a stone on the bottom, and I noticed a large snapping turtle on one of the dark-brown rocks in the middle of the river (apparently for coolness, in company with a painted tortoise), so completely the color of the rock that, if it had not been for his head curved upwards to a point from anxiety, I should not have detected him. Thus nature subjects them to the same circumstances with the stones, and paints them alike, as with one brush, for their safety.”

Thoreau spent the afternoon of his birthday exploring the Assabet River. So how will you celebrate his birthday? You could read a few choice passages from Walden or the Journal. Or perhaps you’d rather follow Thoreau outdoors and explore the natural world in your own neighborhood. You could even start your own journal to record your discoveries on this, a most auspicious day.

Portrait of Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau’s Journal online

Thoreau’s life


This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Celebrating Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes

Calvin and Hobbes Cartoon

© Universal Press Syndicate

In May 1990, Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, returned to his alma mater Kenyon College to give the Commencement Address. It was the speech that we all have hoped to hear on graduation day: funny, insightful, truthful and served up with a dash of optimism. In 1990, millions of readers turned to the funny pages every day to check up on the latest adventures of Calvin and Hobbes. Even then, Watterson avoided the public eye, so this speech offers us a rare glimpse into his thoughts on playfulness, merchandising, creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul, and more.

So if you missed out on the Commencement Speech when you graduated or don’t remember it or are still working towards that day, just for the moment, sit back and join Kenyon College’s Class of 1990.

Some Thoughts on the Real World by One
Who Glimpsed It and Fled

Bill Watterson – Kenyon College Commencement – 1990

“I have a recurring dream about Kenyon. In it, I’m walking to the post office on my way to my first class at the start of the school year. Suddenly it occurs to me that I don’t have my schedule memorized, and I’m not sure which classes I’m taking, or where exactly I’m supposed to be going.

“As I walk up the steps to the post office, I realize I don’t have my box key, and in fact, I can’t remember what my box number is. I’m certain that everyone I know has written me a letter, but I can’t get them. I get more flustered and annoyed by the minute. I head back to Middle Path, racking my brains and asking myself, “How many more years until I graduate? …Wait, didn’t I graduate already?? How old AM I?” Then I wake up.

“Experience is food for the brain, And four years at Kenyon is a rich meal. I suppose it should be no surprise that your brains will probably burp up Kenyon for a long time. And I think the reason I keep having the dream is because its central image is a metaphor for a good part of life: that is, not knowing where you’re going or what you’re doing.

“I graduated exactly ten years ago. That doesn’t give me a great deal of experience to speak from, but I’m emboldened by the fact that I can’t remember a bit of MY commencement, and I trust that in half an hour, you won’t remember yours either.

“In the middle of my sophomore year at Kenyon, I decided to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of my dorm room. By standing on a chair, I could reach the ceiling, and I taped off a section and made a grid, and started to copy the picture from my art history book.

“Working with your arm over your head is hard work, so a few of my more ingenious friends rigged up a scaffold for me by stacking two chairs on my bed, and laying the table from the hall lounge across the chairs and over to the top of my closet. By climbing up onto my bed and up the chairs, I could hoist myself onto the table and lie in relative comfort two feet under my painting. My roommate would then hand up my paints, and I could work for several hours at a stretch.

“The picture took me months to do, and in fact, I didn’t finish the work until very near the end of the school year. I wasn’t much of a painter then, but what the work lacked in color sense and technical flourish, it gained in the incongruity of having a High Renaissance masterpiece in a college dorm that had the unmistakable odor of old beer cans and older laundry.

“The painting lent an air of cosmic grandeur to my room, and it seemed to put life into a larger perspective. Those boring, flowery English poets didn’t seem quite so important when, right above my head, God was transmitting the spark of life to man.

“My friends and I liked the finished painting so much in fact, that we decided I should ask permission to do it. As you might expect, the housing director was curious to know why I wanted to paint this elaborate picture on my ceiling a few weeks before school let out. Well, you don’t get to be a sophomore at Kenyon without learning how to fabricate ideas you never had, but I guess it was obvious that my picture idea was being proposed retroactively. It ended up that I was allowed to paint the picture, so long as I painted over it and returned the ceiling to normal at the end of the year. And that’s what I did.

“Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.

“It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just for ourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, perhaps Utilitarianism is overrated. If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year.

“If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing everyday, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.

“We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.

“You may be surprised how to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of “just getting by” absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your politics and religion become matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised to see how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people’s expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.

“At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.
For me, it’s been liberating to put myself in the mind of a fictitious six year old each day, and rediscover my own curiosity. I’ve been amazed at how one idea leads to others if I allow my mind to play and wander. I know a lot about dinosaurs now, and the information has helped me out of quite a few deadlines.

“A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.

“So what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.

“I don’t look back on my first few years out of school with much affection, and if I could have talked to you six months ago, I’d have encouraged you all to flunk some classes and postpone this moment as long as possible. But now it’s too late.

“Unfortunately, that was all the advice I really had. When I was sitting where you are, I was one of the lucky few who had a cushy job waiting for me. I’d drawn political cartoons for the Collegian for four years, and the Cincinnati Post had hired me as an editorial cartoonist. All my friends were either dreading the first year of law school, or despondent about their chances of convincing anyone that a history degree had any real application outside of academia.

“Boy was I smug.

“As it turned out, my editor instantly regretted his decision to hire me. By the end of the summer, I’d been given notice; by the beginning of winter, I was in an unemployment line; and by the end of my first year away from Kenyon, I was broke and living with my parents again. You can imagine how upset my dad was when he learned that Kenyon doesn’t give refunds.

“Watching my career explode on the launch pad caused some soul searching. I eventually admitted that I didn’t have what it takes to be a good political cartoonist, that is, an interest in politics, and I returned to my first love, comic strips.

“For years I got nothing but rejection letters, and I was forced to accept a real job.

“A REAL job is a job you hate. I designed car ads and grocery ads in the windowless basement of a convenience store, and I hated every single minute of the four and a half million minutes I worked there. My fellow prisoners at work were basically concerned about how to punch the time clock at the perfect second where they would earn another 20 cents without doing any work for it.

“It was incredible: after every break, the entire staff would stand around in the garage where the time clock was, and wait for that last click. And after my used car needed the head gasket replaced twice, I waited in the garage too.

“It’s funny how at Kenyon, you take for granted that the people around you think about more than the last episode of Dynasty. I guess that’s what it means to be in an ivory tower.

“Anyway, after a few months at this job, I was starved for some life of the mind that, during my lunch break, I used to read those poli sci books that I’d somehow never quite finished when I was here. Some of those books were actually kind of interesting. It was a rude shock to see just how empty and robotic life can be when you don’t care about what you are doing, and the only reason you’re there is to pay the bills.

“Thoreau said, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That’s one of those dumb cocktail quotes that will strike fear into your heart as you get older. Actually, I was leading a life of loud desperation.

“When it seemed I would be writing about “Midnite Madness Sale-abrations” for the rest of my life, a friend used to console me that cream always rises to the top. I used to think, so do people who throw themselves into the sea.

“I tell you all this because it’s worth recognizing that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you will probably take a few.

“I still haven’t drawn the strip as long as it took me to get the job. To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I loved the work.

“Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in the work. This turned out to be an important realization when my break finally came.

“Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught. I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons, and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. It never occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of a bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I’d be faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple business decisions.

“To make a business decision, you don’t need much philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how the game works.

“As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I thought about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reason I draw cartoons.

“Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.

“The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become a committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.

“What the syndicate wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything calculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would turn my characters into television hucksters and T-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that expressed my own thoughts.

“On those terms, I found the offer easy to refuse. Unfortunately, the syndicate also found my refusal easy to refuse, and we’ve been fighting for over three years now. Such is American business, I guess, where the desire for obscene profit mutes any discussion of conscience.

“You will have your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

“Many of your will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that , with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.

“But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential – as if a job title and a salary are the sole measure of human worth.

“You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you are doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

“Reading those turgid philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time.

“I think you’ll find that Kenyon touched a deep part of you. These have been formative years. Chances are, at least, your roommates have taught you everything ugly about human nature you ever wanted to know.

“With luck, you’ve also had a class that transmitted a spark of insight or interest you’d never had before. Cultivate that interest, and you may find a deeper meaning in your life that feeds your soul and spirit. Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you’ve learned, but in the questions you’ve learned how to ask yourself.

“Graduation from Kenyon, I suspect you’ll find yourselves quite well prepared indeed. I wish you all fulfillment and happiness. Congratulations on your achievement.”

Bill Watterson Portrait courtesy of Cleveland Plain Dealer

Photo courtesy of Cleveland Plain Dealer


This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Celebrating David Brower, Environmentalist and Mountaineer

July 1, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of David Brower, a mountaineer and one of the most important environmentalists of the Twentieth Century. As a mountaineer, he is credited with over 30 first ascents in the Sierras. His love for the backcountry led to his involvement in the environmental movement. He was director of the Sierra Club for many years and founded Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute. As a fierce advocate for the preservation of wilderness for wilderness’s sake, he often found himself at odds with other environmentalists who were more willing to negotiate with developers and government agencies.

In 1971, John McPhee chronicled some of Brower’s confrontations with his “ideological enemies” in Encounters with the Archdruid. The enemies included an engineer who hoped to exploit mineral reserves in Glacier National Park, a developer who planned to create a resort on a Georgia Sea Island and a Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation who wanted to dam the Colorado River in northern Arizona. Brower won the first two fights and lost the third.

The New York Times noted in Brower’s obituary that “he seemed to maintain a level of indignation that would have burned out a lesser man. ‘I wish we didn’t have to be angry all the time,’ he said. ‘But someone has to get angry.’”

Bill McKibben noted that even though it sounded as if Brower “specialized in conflict (and though he always advised environmentalists to leave compromises to the politicians), he was in fact beloved throughout the activist community, always willing to lend a hand to other people’s causes and always willing to talk deep into the night at the local bar with whatever young environmentalists he could find.”

For Earth Day in 1975, Brower penned a short essay for The New York Times Magazine called “The Third Planet – Operating Instructions.” Today, we rarely receive a manual or instructions with our purchases – a link to a website is usually the most we can hope for or a series of inadequate graphic representations on a single sheet of paper. But back in the 1970’s almost everything came with a manual that extolled various features and earnestly warned of potential harm in the case of misuse. With this bit of historical context in mind, “The Third Planet – Operating Instructions” reveals itself as both a straight forward reminder and an entertainment. The elements that make life on our planet possible and our responsibilities for the planet’s maintenance are stated clearly but with humor:

“This planet has been delivered wholly assembled and in perfect working condition, and is intended for fully automatic and trouble-free operation in orbit around its star, the Sun.

However, to ensure proper functioning, all passengers are requested to familiarize themselves fully with the following instructions. Loss or even temporary misplacement of these instructions may result in calamity…”

Read the full essay “The Third Planet – Operating Instructions”

Portrait of David Bower, Environmentalist
David Brower was one of the heroes of the Environmental movement of the Twentieth century. The organizations he built, the battles he won to save wilderness areas from development, and the generations he inspired to action and engagement are a testament to his devotion and hard work for the benefit of our planet and us all.

Learn more about David Brower and his legacy.


This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

A Nice Cup of Tea with George Orwell

George Orwell Drinking Tea
Today, June 25th, is the birthday of George Orwell. Most of us know him as the author of two books we were supposed to have read in school – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. If we were more adventurous readers, we may have picked up Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia. What we may not have learned in our formal education is this – Orwell was a prolific essayist.

The Everyman Edition of his essays has 1369 pages and weighs almost three pounds. The essays were written for newspapers and magazines and cover a host of topics. Some deal with politics and current events, others comment on people and places, books Orwell had read and his musings on the questions of the day. His tone is conversational and direct and a reader is sometimes left with the impression of listening to an especially well-spoken and thoughtful man holding forth at the pub or in a comfortable armchair by a fire. Some of Orwell’s best known essays include: “Why I Write”, “Politics and the English Language”, “Marrakesh”, “Reflections on Gandhi” and the charmer, “A Nice Cup of Tea”.

The English love their cuppa and Orwell was no exception. The essay was written in 1946 when the British were coping with rationing in the aftermath of the Second World War. There was an urgent need to make the most of what little tea was at hand. Orwell noted that cookery books rarely gave recipes for brewing tea and that “the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.” As a man unafraid of controversy, Orwell wrote his own rules for brewing tea, rules, every one of which, he believed was golden.

GEORGE ORWELL’S RULES FOR BREWING A CUP OF TEA

Use Indian or Ceylonese tea.

Tea should be brewed in small quantities i.e. a teapot.

The pot should be warmed beforehand.

The tea should be strong – 6 heaping teaspoons to a quart of water.*

Tea should be placed directly in the pot – no tea bags or “other devices to imprison the tea.”

The water should be boiling at the moment of impact with the tea.**

After making tea stir it or give it a good shake*** allowing the leaves to settle.

Drink tea from a cylindrical cup, not a flat shallow cup, which allows the tea to cool too quickly.

Use milk not cream for your tea.

Pour the tea in the cup first, then add the milk.

Tea should be drunk without sugar.

*Orwell admits that this amount of tea might prove difficult in a time of rationing but states that “one cup of strong tea is better than 20 weak ones.”

** Coffee shops take note. No tepid water for your tea drinking customers! Draw the water from the Espresso machine.

*** This sounds dangerous or at the very least messy. Though Orwell prefers shaking to stirring, this is not a Martini. Stirring sounds far more sensible.

Thus speaks the authoritative Mr. Orwell.

So despite the heat, pull out your teapot today, brew a strong cup of tea and raise it in honor of one the Twentieth Century’s great writers, George Orwell.

You could also celebrate by reading an essay or pulling down your ragged copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm or even by watching a BBC 4 video biography of Orwell.

George Orwell Resources

+Biography

+Diaries

+Other works by Orwell available online

+Orwell’s Essay “A Nice Cup of Tea”

Above: George Orwell: A Life in Pictures A BBC 4 Documentary


This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Celebrating Alan Turing

Alan Turin Portrait

I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?”

June 23, 2012, marked the centennial of Alan Turing’s birth. Exhibits, conferences and symposia were held around the world to celebrate the life and achievements of one of the 20th century’s greatest minds. Turing made major contributions to Mathematics, Logic, Cryptography, Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence and Biology.

His gift for mathematics was recognized early. But how did he come to do such ground-breaking work in so many different fields? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy believes that it hinged on his ability to make “unexpected connections between apparently unrelated areas.” As an example, they cite the most fruitful of his unexpected connections: “His central contribution to science and philosophy came through his treating the subject of symbolic logic as a new branch of applied mathematics, giving it a physical and engineering content.” The fruits of this breakthrough include computer operating systems and software programs.

During the first half of the Twentieth Century the word “computer” referred to a human being who did computations. But in the 1950’s, the word began to take on the meaning it has today – a machine capable of doing computations accurately and with mind-boggling speed.

Turing Bombe replica

A replica of a Turing Bombe which was used in deciphering the Enigma Code during World War II – photo by Tom Yates – Wikipedia

Turing’s work as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War II united his work in mathematics and logic with state of the art technology. In effect, he was using complex machines to compute before the birth of computers. After the war he focused his attention on creating an actual computer, the Automatic Computing Engine or ACE. Turing’s insights led to, in the words of Gordon S. Cook, “the world’s first stored-program computer… a computer that had an architecture enabling it to store numbers that meant things and store other numbers that were instructions to do things. Such a computer could use the second set of numbers to perform operations on the first.”

Automatic Computing Engine (Science Society Picture Library)

Automatic Computing Engine (Science Society Picture Library)

Turing described his work on ACE as “building a brain.” He was fascinated by the subject of machine intelligence and his thoughts and insights laid the foundation for the field of Artificial Intelligence.

At the end of his career in the early 1950’s, he was using computers to study mathematical biology, specifically Morphogenesis – the biological patterns used by an organism to create its shape. He was particularly interested in the expression of Fibonacci numbers in plant structures like the florets of a Sunflower.

What breakthroughs might Turing have made had he lived beyond the age of 41? Unfortunately, he ran afoul of a British law against homosexuality and was convicted of public indecency. In the end, he committed suicide. In 2009, English Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially apologized for Turing’s “appalling” treatment.

Scholars and scientists have been attempting to understand, interpret and carry forward Alan Turing’s legacy for almost half a century. To celebrate the centennial, the 2012 The Alan Turing Year site has created lists and links to events, publications, videos and more.

BBC News – Technology has commissioned a series of short essays on Turning and his work.

Andrew Hodges, author of Alan Turing: The Enigma, has created a large website that includes a Scrapbook.


This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Celebrating Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration from The Garden of Abdul Gasazi

Illustration from The Garden of Abdul Gasazi

In 1979, a children’s book with the intriguing title The Garden of Abdul Gasazi appeared on bookshelves across the country. Unlike its colorful shelf mates, Abdul Gasazi was illustrated with black and white charcoal drawings. And in an era of children’s books with ‘messages’ this one just stopped, and readers were left with the pleasant prospect of deciding for themselves what had really happened and what it meant. The book won a Caldecott Honor medal as one of the best children’s picture books published that year. And so began Chris Van Allsburg’s career as a creator of enigmatic, treasured and well-read children’s books.

How did he do it? What made The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and his other storybooks so successful? In a 2011 interview with Jennie MacDonald for the Developmental Studies Center, Van Allsburg revealed some of his secrets.

The black and white illustrations of Abdul Gasazi immediately set it apart from its colorful peers. Van Allsburg revealed that using black and white illustrations was not a choice:

“I studied sculpture exclusively during my years in school, I really didn’t know how to use anything else except a pencil. So I was being praised for having made a choice, when in fact, I was being praised for a limitation.”

Reviewers wrote about the book’s mystifying surrealism, and yet the world in which the story takes place looks very much like our own, no melting watches or unnatural views across a checkerboard plain. In fact, Van Allsburg depends on our everyday world to highlight and bring the fantastical elements of his stories to life:

“My approach to fantasy has always been that there’s only going to be one fantastic notion, or one supernatural feature in the story. Around that single supernatural feature, everything else has to follow the rules that we’re familiar with. So, the way I manage it is that I do try to create a recognizable world… that probably is one of the reasons that I draw in a fairly representational style, because I’m depending on the artwork to create that recognizable reality. But then inside that pictorial reality, I try to introduce this strange event, and I try to maintain a faithfulness to reality that we are accustomed to in every other way. So I give myself one wild card, but every other card that I play has to be a real one.”

Harris Burdick Cover
Van Allsburg’s stories first come to him as an image – ‘a what if?’ – and are then worked out as a – ‘what then?’ His The Mysteries of Harris Burdick lets us try out his approach for ourselves. The book contains 14 images, each rooted in the everyday: a cathedral, a wallpapered room, a Venetian canal but with a difference – the cathedral is the backdrop for a nun sitting in a levitating chair; the bird design on the wallpaper is lifting itself from the wall and about to take flight; and the Venetian canal is being crushed by the bulk of an ocean liner. Each image is accompanied by an enigmatic text.

From The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

From The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

In this example, the illustration claims to be from Mr. Linden’s Library and has the text:
“He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late.” That’s it, the only explanation given for the spreading vine growing out of the book left open by the sleeping girl. Will the touch of the vine awaken her? Is it really too late? Who is Mr. Linden? And what kind of book is that? These are only a few of the questions inspired by the image. It’s no wonder that The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has been a favorite of teachers for over a generation. Students, who often find writing a chore, can be inspired by its illustrations to write stories of their own. In 2011, a new version of the book was published – The Chronicles of Harris Burdick in which famous authors like Stephen King, Gregory Maguire, Jules Feiffer and Louis Sachar took on the challenge of writing stories in response to Van Allsburg’s images.

Chris Van Allsburg is blessed with great artistic talent and a gift for creating stories that stay with us long after the book has been closed. By refusing to neatly tie up loose ends and by refusing to tell the reader what to think, he is “seeding our imagination by leaving a little something untold.” And in this era of full disclosure, what a gift that can be.

To learn more about Chris Van Allsburg, visit his website. See videos, play games, make bookmarks!

Read Jennie MacDonald’s two part interview with Chris Van Allsburg for the Developmental Studies Center.


This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.