Mary Oliver's Contributions

March 1, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I never needed a reason to love the world, I simply just always have. With its faults and near-misses, its greed and its hope. I love the way it is patched together like a great quilt of countries and languages, mountains and deserts. Most of all, I love, and am humbled by the fact that somehow I participate in that great, complicated quilt. And so, many years ago, when I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s poetry, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Oliver passed away in January of this year and to speak of her in the past tense grieves me greatly. Fortunately, her words remain so that her light is not altogether lost.

Oliver’s childhood was a brutal one, and yet somehow she turned around and made such beautiful things as the world had never seen. To create beauty from difficult circumstances is the first reason we should admire her. Mary Oliver turned to nature as the first place which gave her comfort. She avoided her family by walking out among rivers, flowers, and trees, but she also came to see struggle as part of the natural world. In fact, hope, in part, arrives as a result of struggle, and Oliver is eternally hopeful.

Her early work finds joy, ecstasy and divinity through nature. Then, in poems like “Rage” and “The River” she begins to address her personal pain and loss of home. She concludes “The River” with: “Home, I said./ In every language there is a word for it./ In the body itself, climbing/ those walls of white thunder, past those green/ temples, there is also/ a word for it. / I said, home.” It is an acceptance that home can be transient, not permanent. Every one of her poems grapple with big questions about love and faith, courage and forgiveness.

Many years later, she would say that she hardly knew herself in those early years. She said she had to go out and find herself, which she did by stumbling over rocky trails and along muddy rivers. That she taught herself the language of nature is the next reason that we should admire her. Countless people have quoted from “Wild Geese” or “Morning Poem” on blogs, mugs, letters, etc. Oliver’s language did not glorify or transcend nature, but put humanity squarely back into it. These poems, among many others, inspired friendship, imagination, and openness. She placed the human world within the most glorious riches of the earth, and then asked for us to witness that glory. The final sentence of “Wild Geese” is: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting - / over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” She reminds us that we are to participate with nature and to imagine that presence as part of one complicated family.

Oliver’s work has always been profound and moving. Yet, near the end of her life, she began to explore spirituality. In Blue Horses, she discusses all types of faiths as she herself battles cancer. Yet, once again, she finds that beauty is itself the answer. In the poem “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” she expresses sorrow about Marc’s career cut short by World War I. She writes, “I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses/ what war is./ … I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc./ Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually./ Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” In this poem, the natural world and the human-constructed world collide with dangerous and negative results, and still, Oliver finds beauty and names it. She responds by attending to both Marc’s life and death in a way that offers him thanks. It is this attention to detail which will make us kinder. Again and again, she asks us to use imagination in order to remind us of our connections.

During her lifetime, Mary Oliver won many awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. In addition to her writing career, however, she also taught at Bennington College. She inspired others to seek answers to big, daunting questions. Therefore, her teaching pursuits offer one more reason to admire her. At the end of her short essay titled “Upstream,” Mary writes:

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She paid attention in a way that few humans find time for anymore. Furthermore, she invites all of us to do the same. Mary Oliver’s works never fail to inspire. And yet, certainly, if she were here today and reading this, she would defer not to her work but to the land itself, to the birds and skies that fly above all of our heads.

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What's Your Sign?

January 11, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Let’s listen with our eyes and not just our ears. That would be the ideal.” -Christine Sun Kim

Early exposure to language seems to be the key in all languages. The key to what? Success in that language, or with language in general? Or in society? What is the bar for success and how is it measured? With today’s blog, I want to better understand how language expresses thought, particularly through the lens of sign language.

Most of us have some experience with a young, non-verbal child (your own, someone else’s, or even through movies, etc) in which the child wishes to communicate. Think of the crabby one or two year old demanding something by screaming or crying, body language and/or facial expressions. Also, think of the parents’ joy at their child’s first word. It really is amazing to have these tiny humans mimic words at such a young age. This seems to be proof of an innate desire to communicate with others. Even if it is mimicry at this stage, they come to grasp the idea of language and communication, which still leaves me wondering how far language is learned versus innate. The child simply sees adults talking, or perhaps older siblings, and they want to join. Spoken language has existed for over 60,000 years, making it difficult to differentiate natural from learned behaviors. However, a lot of superb scholarship is currently coming out of sign language due to two facts: a) it is a relatively new language and b) sign language is not linked with verbal language. These differences offer some key insights into how languages act.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), sign language relies upon visual cues alone. It creates language with bodies and space. Though there is an alphabet, it is used mainly for spelling new words or names. While there are a number of popular sign languages, today’s blog focuses mostly on American Sign Language (ASL).

First, let’s start with fingerspelling. This is the process of spelling a new word, such as the name of a person or organization. But it could also be some new piece of information. According to this lesson plan on ASLU, many flowers lack specific signs in ASL. Therefore if you want to say daisy, you would fingerspell D-A-I-S-Y. In further explanation of the utility of fingerspelling, the instructor continues: “How about food? While there are quite a few signs for various food items, there are thousands of types of foods that have no established sign. Hold on to your chair when I tell you this - there isn't even a widely accepted sign for burrito. (As opposed to a burro, which is a small donkey. We do have a sign for "donkey," but try showing a picture of a both a donkey AND a mule to 10 different Deaf people and watch 'em tell you ‘mule is spelled.’) And a mule is a relatively common animal -- don't even get me started on ‘ring-tailed lemurs!’”

Another use of fingerspelling is when you have a common name like John or Bob, you can fingerspell the name, but refer to a particular space in front of you which will equal “Bob” for the rest of the conversation. So, as a shortcut, you can point to that space to indicate Bob, rather than fingerspelling the name each time. There are some instances, however, in which a name does have a particular sign. Think of names like Dawn or Penny. These are somewhat common names which also have a corresponding sign. In this case, you would fingerspell the name to explain that you mean to designate a proper noun and not the concept of dawn, for example.

In fact, names offer such a rich area of study in terms of sign language. There is an entire culture dedicated to naming things in sign language. Names often depend upon a person’s characteristics as decided by the Deaf community. This short video from My Smart Hands gives a little more understanding into how names are assigned. (among others) explains:

“Fingerspelling your name can seem a bit impersonal, especially among friends. So, members of the Deaf community often give each other sign names. Your sign name is often related to something about you (a characteristic). For example, if you have curly hair, your sign name may be a combination of the first letter of your name and the sign for curly hair. Culturally, it is not appropriate to pick your own sign name and only Deaf people assign sign names. When you first use a sign name in a conversation, you would fingerspell the name and then show the sign name. Once the people know who you are talking about, the sign name makes it easier and more personal to refer to the person during the conversation.”

Many cultures have not been able to control their own language due to outside oppression and/or language mixing. While French sign language and ASL do share a common history, today they are distinct languages. Due to the unique nature of the Deaf community, it is not clear (to me, at least) to what extent an outside force could actually affect or alter a particular sign language. (For more on this, check out Nicaraguan Sign Language or the fascinating Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language.) It makes sense that the Deaf community prefers to assign their own signs for names, since much of sign language relies upon a cultural understanding of how to use space, body language and gesture itself. In the same way that typing in all capital letters looks like shouting, some subtle body change (such as pointing, shaking your hand, or raising an eyebrow) may greatly affect the nature of the word that you mean. The artist Christine Sun Kim explains that “In deaf culture, movement contains sound.” (She explains the concept of full-body language in this TedTalk.) Signs can express irony, sarcasm, anger, humor, etc. just as capably as voiced speech. Understanding humor or sarcasm in a second language, however, is one of the greatest challenges of learning a new language.

Due to the way that sign language involves full body language, I find that it is an extremely emotive language. While the Syntopicon does an adequate job of outlining topics related to Language, I find fault that there is not a cross-reference for Language in terms of Emotion. I believe there is much development to be made between the cognitive associations of language making, language preferences, language learning, memory recall and emotion. Since memory and emotion are both contained in the limbic system of our brains , it would make sense to pair language recall with memory and/or emotion. (To Adler’s credit, he does suggest a link between Memory and Imagination). There is room though, I believe, for exploration regarding emotion as it relates to language cognition, use, and development. One other area of great interest to me is the bridge between Language and Art (which Adler does address in the Syntopicon). (For more about the deaf experience in the world of art (and sound), check out artist Christine Sun Kim’s exploration of noise.)

I also wish that there was a cross-reference between Language and Nature. Is language natural? In what way(s) does the early language-learner express a natural tendency to communicate? If the young child desires to communicate, is this concrete evidence that natural language exists, that language is natural to humans? What does it mean to say that language is natural? And finally, what can a developing language such as sign language tell us about language itself?

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Planets, Planets, Planets

October 13, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The vastness of heavens stretches my imagination... Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” - Richard Feynman

In 1609, Johannes Kepler published a few surprising details. First, he said, “the orbits of the planets are ellipses with the sun at one focus.” Then he added, “the time it takes a planet to travel from one position in its orbit to another is proportional to the area swept out by a planet in that time.” This comes almost 70 years after Copernicus corrected Aristotle's view of the heavens. Aristotle's versions were so widely accepted that Copernicus's assertion that placed the sun in the center of the universe upset many people. Kepler, too, shocked with his description of elliptical orbits around the sun. It was not until Newton arrived on the scene that these theories were put to scientific tests. In fact, Newton explained a lot about the celestial beings in his laws of motion. While Newton used calculus to support his scientific findings, he realized that he had to explain the motions in terms that other scientists in his day might understand. Therefore, he proved the motions of the planets using plane geometry. (“Just for fun”, Richard Feynman proved the same in his “lost lecture”, which can be found here: )

Aristotle believed in natural final forms. In his book Meteorology, he explains his hierarchical system which includes: fire, air, water, earth. What may sound trivial to us is incredibly complicated, however. Aristotle observed a great number of events – some of them celestial – and attempted to explain them or their origins within his working framework. Yet even Aristotle understood that his categorization was incomplete. He admits the limits of scientific language in explaining his theories. He argues for a more scientific understanding of the processes on earth. He writes, “Some say that what is called air, when it is in motion and flows, is wind, and that this same air when it condenses again becomes cloud and water, implying that nature of wind and water is the same. So they define wind as a motion of the air. Hence some, wishing to say a clever thing, assert that all the winds are one wind, because the air that moves is in fact all of it one and the same; they maintain that the winds appear to differ owing to the region from which the air may happen to flow on each occasion, but really do not differ at all. This is just like thinking that all rivers are one and the same river, and the ordinary unscientific view is better than a scientific theory like this. If all rivers flow from one source, and the same is true in the case of the winds, there might be some truth in this theory; but if it is no more true in the one case than in the other, this ingenious idea is plainly false. What requires investigation is this: the nature of wind and how it originates, its efficient cause and whence they derive their source; whether one ought to think of the wind as issuing from a sort of vessel and flowing until the vessel is empty, as if let out of a wineskin, or, as painters represent the winds, as drawing their source from themselves.” Science often requires metaphor, and Aristotle certainly used this linguistic device. Drawing upon the idea of vessels being filled or emptied or the idea of a wineskin helps others understand his theory. It also helps to explain when there is no language for explanation. At times he writes of “stuff” or ambiguous “forms” and explains that we must use this terminology because it is what we have to use.

Creating a language for something new requires thought and metaphor. Proper nouns often rely upon metaphor or story. This is especially true of celestial beings. When Uranus was discovered in 1781, there was no standard of naming. It wasn't until 1850 that Uranus was officially accepted and a process for naming celestial beings was established. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded in 1919, now controls all names. Assuming that all planets within our solar system have been identified, they deal mostly with moons, surface features, asteroids, and comets.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been recognized in the heavens throughout history. The next three planets were identified as technology advanced. First Uranus in 1781, then Neptune in 1846 and, if you want to include it, Pluto in 1930. Early cultures identified the movement of the planets with the movement of mythological beings. For this reason, Romans named Venus after the goddess of love, who would surely be epitomized by the brightest and most beautiful celestial being. Mars, of course, the god of War, takes on a reddish appearance, and Mercury whose orbit is so short, moves swiftly on winged feet. Merriam-Webster tells us that Earth, ironically, comes from the Indo-European base 'er,'which produced the Germanic noun 'ertho,' and ultimately German 'erde,' Dutch 'aarde,' Scandinavian 'jord,' and English 'earth.' Related forms include Greek 'eraze,' meaning 'on the ground,' and Welsh 'erw,' meaning 'a piece of land.' Jupiter, the largest and most massive of the planets was named Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans. This name depends entirely upon size because he was the most important deity in both pantheons. Saturn (Cronos in Greek) was the father of Zeus/Jupiter. Since it is visible by the naked eye, Saturn has a variety of names from other cultures as well. (Find a wonderful list of names gathered from many cultures here: ). Uranus was first seen in 1781 as noted above, named for the father of Cronos/Saturn. Neptune followed in 1846 and is named for the Roman god of the sea. Pluto is named after the Roman god of the underworld. The name especially fits this body because Pluto can make himself invisible at will, as does Pluto in its orbit.

As science continues to push to exoplanets and quantum physics, language will continue to evolve. As technology jumps from email to iPhones to cloud computing, we continue to see metaphors emerge and converge, proving that language must evolve simultaneously with culture.

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Powell's Adventures

May 26, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Many veterans have shaped our history in both service through military and then ongoing service after their military careers. All military contributions are incalculable, but important for contemplation and discussion. Additionally, the contributions of those once they have left military service is worth our contemplation. Veterans often face great unknowns in their military career, and then upon leaving the service, they return to yet another unknown. In returning to civilian life they have families, find jobs, but lose the military structure. Today's blog discusses the life of one soldier who founded a life on adventure.

Powell was first a scientist and adventurer who enlisted in the Union Army in support of Lincoln's abolition of slavery. At the age of 27, he enlisted as a cartographer, topographer and military engineer. In the Battle of Shiloh, he lost an arm and was briefly hospitalized. However, he did return to the war, in which his bravery promoted him to major and finally, brevet lieutenant colonel. After serving in the Civil War, John Wesley Powell, decided on a personal adventure. Wallace Stegner writes, “Major John Wesley Powell's 1869 expedition down the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers was the last great exploration within the continental United States, and an exploit of enormous importance in opening the West after the Civil War.”

Directly after the Civil War, Powell became a lecturer, which did not fully satisfy his adventurous spirit. According to his desire, he began to plan a trek intended to map previously undocumented regions of the West. He is memorable both for his military service, and also for, albeit unknowingly, giving the country a new direction post-war. Few people had the capability, planning skills and desire to pursue such a dangerous path. Yet, he successfully gathered a handful of scientists and veterans to navigate the difficult waterways.

After the Civil War, Powell set the goal of traveling into “the Great Unknown”, which includes portions of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The group of nine men traveled for months by small boats through the narrow, tall and dangerous canyon walls. They carried supplies, occasionally losing items to the river's wrath. Most of the men kept a journal or record which described both scenery and their mental anguish and frustration at all of the journey's unknowns. The trip took these men from Wyoming through parts of Colorado, Utah and Arizona. They traveled down uncharted rivers without any knowledge of what they might find or knowledge as to the trip's duration. While three men did not finish the voyage, Powell and the others emerged from the long, arduous canyon as the first ever to accomplish this feat.

Powell is a difficult figure to encapsulate. He studied and wrote about languages, cultures, geology, botany, and survival. Above all, he is most likely an adventurer; someone in whom curiosity peaks at nearly every turn. For this reason, his journals and notes are also hard to categorize since they span a wide variety of specialties. It is perhaps important for any such adventurer to have a wide lens when introducing the world to something new. The country embraced his journals and asked for more. The United States government then funded a second expedition. Additionally, he wrote a number of essays published in Scribner's because of the high public interest. Some of the originals can be viewed here. Also, find photos from his second expedition here.

In addition to Powell's survey of the Grand Canyon, he also traveled extensively in the southwestern desert in order to learn native cultures and ways of life. The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons dedicates a large quantity of space to native language and culture. He often asked natives about their mythology, structure, lifestyle and food. He attempted to discuss and categorize pueblo life versus the “more primitive” hunter/gatherer style of living. He also narrates a bit about family ties and the way that bloodlines might lead to powerful roles within a Native American community.

While a number of flaws and errors have been found in his journals and writings, his narrative stands the test of time. His adventurous spirit drove him from successful self-funded small trips, through the Civil War, into the Grand Canyon and then on to become director of the US Geological Survey, the Bureau of Ethnology and the Smithsonian Institution. Described as “stoical to a fault” and at times “autocratic”, he has the renown of having achieved all he set out to do.

Major Powell is only one example of the many heroic veterans who have served our country. In order to better understand his life and times, visit a Civil War memorial or the John Wesley Powell Museum. Spend the day researching other famous veterans, or say a quiet thanks to the many who did not leave the battlefields.

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