This began as a place to gather images and impressions in preparation for writing a book, Letter by Letter, about the history of the idea of writing; it continues to live as a kind of shoebox under the bed.
I'm Matthew Battles. I write about technology in natural history, culture, and our experience of the natural world. I'm a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where I help out with metaLAB at Harvard, a collaborative investigating the roles of technology in the Arts and Humanities. On Twitter, I'm @matthewbattles.
The Taiyi summit nears the seat of heaven;
linked mountains stretch to brink of sea.
Looking back, see white clouds combining;
Entering the green haze, it becomes nothing.
Seen from the middle peak, the sectioned fields change;
Shadowed and sun-splashed, the many gorges vary.
Looking for human lodging for the night—
Query the woodcutter over the water.
Wang Wei (699–759), “Zhongnan Mountain.” The original poem was composed in the lüshi verse style of the High Tang; the lines were strongly divided into two- and three-syllable feet with an implied caesura, running in couplets linked by rhyme, logic, and enjambment. I’m accessing the original via How to Read Chinese Poetry: a Guided Anthology, ed. by Zong-Qi Cai; my version is informed by his lovely and illuminating commentary.
The poem struck me forcibly a couple of years ago, after a weekend spent on Maine’s Mount Katahdin. In it I found echoes of the work the mountain did on me: the braided vistas merging, the gulfs and drops seducing, the patterns of forest succession merging and disappearing into one another. Wang Wei catches a patterning that is always at work in us and around us, but which a mountain often brings into focus: combination, nothingness, change, and variation. Zong-qi Cai points out that the two middle couplets in fact end in he, wu, bian, and shu—the words for these four concepts, which buttress Chinese Buddhist cosmology.
Our haze on Katahdin was different from Wang Wei’s, however: on an otherwise clear day frenzied by a warm wind„ apparent only once we were high of the mountain shoulder, a brown haze blown up from the cities to the south hung on the horizon.
If a poet meets an illiterate peasant, they may not be able to say much to each other, but if they both meet a public official, they share the same feeling of suspicion; neither will trust one further than he can throw a grand piano. If they enter a government building, both share the same feeling of apprehension; perhaps they will never get out again. Whatever the cultural differences between them, they both sniff in any official world the smell of an unreality in which persons are treated as statistics. The peasant may play cards in the evening while the poet writes verses, but there is one political principle to which they both subscribe, namely, that among the half dozen or so things for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least.
The good earth, the planet on which we are embarked and making our annual voyage in the unharboured Deep, carries in her bosom every good thing her children need on the way, for refreshment, fuel, science, or action. She has coal in the hold, and all meats in the larder, and overhung with showiest awning.
The progress of art is to equalize all places. Reindeer, caoutchouc, glass windows, anthracite coal, Nott stoves, coffee, and books will give Greenland the air and ease of London. Ice, fruits, baths, refrigerators, linen, will fan the hot forehead of Cuba to the 56th degree.
[E]very work of science great enough to be well remembered for a few generations affords some exemplification of the defective state of the art of reasoning of the time when it was written; and each chief step in science has been a lesson in logic. It was so when Lavoisier and his contemporaries took up the study of Chemistry. The old chemist’s maxim had been, “Lege, lege, lege, labora, ora, et relege.” Lavoisier’s method was not to read and pray, but to dream that some long and complicated chemical process would have a certain effect, to put it into practice with dull patience, after its inevitable failure, to dream that with some modification it would have another result, and to end by publishing the last dream as a fact: his way was to carry his mind into his laboratory, and literally to make of his alembics and cucurbits instruments of thought, giving a new conception of reasoning as something which was to be done with one’s eyes open, in manipulating real things instead of words and fancies.