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23. A Natural History of the Senses

After weeks of trying to get myself to finish The Art of Noticing — a book I truly love and truly just do not seem able to finish right now — I pivoted, as they say these days, to this old lurker on the shelves. The choice was prompted by a passing reference to Diane Ackerman in some newsletter I subscribe to — We have something by Ackerman, don’t we? Indeed we do.

A Natural History of the Senses is 30 years old, and I almost certainly purchased it during the century now ended. I am certain that many of the references cited are out of date, some of the anthropology suspect. And yet.

In the Hall of Gems at the Museum of Natural History in New York, I once stood in front of a huge piece of sulfur so yellow I began to cry. I wasn’t in the least bit unhappy. Quite the opposite; I felt a rush of pleasure and excitement. The intensity of the color affected my nervous system. At the time, I called the emotion wonder, and thought: Isn’t it extraordinary to be alive on a planet where there are yellows such as this?

As we grind through Year 2 of the pandemic — less and less likely to have any definitively agreed upon endpoint — which seems to have a common effect of alienation, it would appear that what I need are books suffused by sensate reality, and Ackerman’s lush descriptions were a balm to my nerves. This is one of those volumes you can open to any random spot and find something there to delight the imagination. Her page on kissing alone is worth the price of the book. (The cover price in 1991 was $11.00. Can you remember books being that cheap? It’s $17.95 now, and in one of the chapters she recounts watching the launch of a space shuttle, which she describes as “clinging like the young of some exotic animal” to its rockets.)

The book is divided, reasonably enough, into sections for smell, taste, touch, etc., with a final chapter on synesthesia, all of them described with a rich depth of feeling (in the sense of sentiment) that is quite without self-consciousness.

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Nothing? Something?

I’ve been in a reading slump ever since I finished Braiding Sweetgrass a while back. Yesterday I started flipping through How to Do Nothing again and landed on a bit where Odell is talking about some art… pieces? performances? that are really, as far as I can tell, about the difference between a thing being a thing – and particularly an art thing – vs being nothing at all. “Applause Encouraged” was one in which people sat in a roped-off viewing area, watched the sun set, and clapped when it finished. That reminded me of a bit in The Art of Noticing where the author and his wife happened across some unopened crates in a museum room and had an amiable argument about whether this was art-in-waiting, or were the crates themselves the art?

I am not qualified in the slightest to have a discussion about What is Art, but whether or not we consider something art, when we look at things as if they might be art, we are looking at them as being different from nothing at all. A blank wall is nothing. A blank wall with an empty frame hung on it might or might not be art, but in order to have that argument at all, we move the wall, or at least the part of it in the frame, from the “nothing” to the “something” category.

A big part of Odell’s book is about making this contextual mind-shift, taking into our awareness the sounds that fill what we ordinarily call silence, the energy that fills the space we call empty. What happens when we look at everything as if it was something?

(And then of course because I was well-trained in college to be suspicious of all binary models, is there a liminal edge between something-ness and nothing-ness, and what does that consist of? Perhaps for another day. Also there was an old Bloom Country strip where the news reports that, “Today, nothing happened.” Hmmm.)

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21. How to Do Nothing 22. Braiding Sweetgrass

I read the second because of the first, even though I picked up my copy a while ago. These are mind-expanding books in the best sense, ones that draw our attention to things that exist all around us, overlooked. More than that, they are a mini-course in how to train ourselves to be more aware of what we’re looking at, what we’re overlooking, and what might be going on in that intersection.

These are books that struggle. How to Do Nothing struggles with how to balance what amounts to self-defense of our sanity in this age of the “attention economy,” when vast resources are spent in efforts to herd our gaze and our emotions in the directions desired by, well, mostly by Internet advertisers, with the need to actually engage with the world in ways necessary to have a hope of improving it. The author of Braiding Sweetgrass is a deft navigator between scientific and Native perspectives on plant life, but there were struggles in getting there, and a lifelong effort to reclaim her people’s history, language, and ways–and intertwined with that, the Earth itself–from the harrowing of the past few centuries.

They are both gentle books, largely about cultivation, about gathering both literal and metaphorical. There is a deep love of living things throughout both–humans included–and a fascination with art and craft and the ways we spend our time. There is a love as well of particularity, a strong value on getting to know the place where you are, right now.

If you are of a particular sentimental bent, both of these books will make you cry (if parts of Braiding Sweetgrass don’t make you cry, I am concerned for you, friend), but they are both books that eschew despair in favor of a deliberate determination. There is a lot of work to be done, but for all of our faults, humans are good at work.

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20. The Nature Fix

A breezy pop science read that examines the question of what it is exactly that getting out into nature does for our brains and why. Is it the smells? The fractals? The (relative) quiet and lack of distractions? The lack of pollution? Does it have to be actual nature, or will VR do? (Spoiler alert: VR will not cut it so far.) How tightly tied is all of this to our physical and mental health?

Previously unbeknownst to me, there are scores of scientists out there studying these questions, hooking hikers up to EEGs, taking measurements of cortisol levels, and comparing population health to local tree density, among many other studies. It’s a question of worldwide significance, given trends in urbanization, although Williams concentrates on Asia, the US, and northern Europe. I would have liked to see more variety there (although I suppose she was limited by what ongoing studies would allow her to tag along and/or participate).

As someone who has, over the past year+, gotten a firm sense of how claustrophobic our own homes can become and who has for the first time in her life invested actual money in Things to Go Outside With, I found it an interesting and validating read.