Saturday, May 8, 2021


Chrysler building at night


When it was Desdemona’s time to sing,
and so little life was left to her,
she wept, not over love, her star,
but over willow, willow, willow.

When it was Desdemona’s time to sing
and her murmuring softened the stones
around the black day, her blacker demon
prepared a psalm of weeping streams.

When it was Ophelia’s time to sing,
and so little life was left to her,
the dryness of her soul was swept away
like straws from haystack in a storm.

When it was Ophelia’s time to sing,
and the bitterness of tears was more
than she could bear, what trophies
did she hold? Willow, and columbine.

Stepping out of all that grief,
they entered, with faint hearts,
the pool of the universe and quenched
their bodies with other worlds.

~ Boris Pasternak, tr Mark Rudman, Bohdan Boychuck



It's part of the craziness of my life: of all Pasternak's poems (and I loved My Sister Life), the one that meant most to me was English Lessons. Of course I had had my share of English lessons, a childhood brimming with English lessons. But it's perhaps more important that one of my reasons for trying to learn that preposterous, difficult language was to be able to read Shakespeare in the original. This finally happened, and I thought, “Oh, so that's why he's considered a genius.” 

But this poem by Pasternak is so gorgeous in English, at least to my ear, that it instantly became a part of my psyche. Some translations can indeed rise to the level of masterpiece. Another instance that comes to my mind is Baranczak's translation of The Winter's Tale, and Wilbur's translations from French. And Pasternak's translations of Shakespeare's Sonnets were very popular in the Soviet Union. Translation is a nerve-wrecking job, but . . . long live translation and its rarely sung heroes.

Odilon Redon: Ophelia among the Flowers, 1906



~ Chekhov the downcast tubercular writing magnificently mournful plays about the declining aristocracy on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, the king of the country whose national anthem is the minute-long sigh. The picture lasts because it’s what we want from our 19th-century Russians: gravity, fatalism, melancholy, minds wracked by the Big Questions. We wouldn’t want this kind of writing today—too un-ironic, too free with emotion, too un-relativist, too naive in thinking that the Big Questions have resolution at all. But we love the echo.

This isn’t the person I think of when I think of Chekhov. I think of an 1890 photograph of a 30-year-old man returning by steamer from Asia. He’s no rake on a grand tour—he’s just completed a journey that would be arduous even today: a humanitarian visit to a penal colony in the Russian Far East. But neither is he a brow-furrowed Marxist scribbling a manifesto as his train races back to the capital. 

No, he has taken the long way home: Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, about which he has written, to a patron and friend, “When I have children, I’ll say to them, not without pride: ‘Hey, you sons of bitches, in my day I had sexual relations with a black-eyed Hindu girl, and you know where? In a coconut grove on a moonlit night. . . . ’”

This isn’t a sodden aberration when no one is looking. Mr. Chekhov likes his ladies—his Lydias—of the capital; sometimes he goes out with Lydia Yavorskaya, and sometimes Lydia Avilova. And he’s no urban snob. At a rural wedding at which he served as best man, as he wrote to his sister Maria, he “saw a lot of wealthy marriageable girls . . . but I was so drunk the whole time that I took bottles for girls and girls for bottles! One of them . . . kept striking me on the hand with her fan and saying, ‘Oh, you naughty man!’”

In the 1890 photo, the sun seems high, and Chekhov takes shelter on a bench alongside an acquaintance. Each is cradling a mongoose—why not. Chekhov is dressed like a cross between a peasant, an Eastern guru, and a rake: A fedora high on his forehead, an open-necked shirt, loose white pants. He’s grinning like a man who’s just risen from a choice bed, his hair mussed and his rumpled goatee clearly Leonardo di Caprio’s secret inspiration all these years. He is the very picture of joy and vitality.

Chekhov was moved by great passions—I can’t think of a Russian great with more skin in the game. But just as few could be as funny or bawdy amidst the sobriety because . . . well, because that’s how life is. Forget that, early on, Chekhov made his living through humor pieces, a Dickens-in-reverse who got paid only if he came in under 100 lines. (He was paying for his medical education then, the “wife” to which literature was a “mistress.” Not for long.) I’m talking about “The Siren,” a lip-licking ode to food in the Russian mouth that reads like an extended version of that Gogol exultation about Ukrainian dumplings in sour cream flying into a certain gentleman’s mouth by themselves. I’m talking about the wry, playful humor that breaks through the foliage of even the darkest story: “Hundreds of miles of deserted, monotonous, scorched steppe cannot produce such gloom as one man when he sits and talks and nobody knows when he will leave,” he writes in “An Artist’s Story,” otherwise an account, included in this collection, of multiple sorrows. Take any “dark” story and count the exclamation marks.

Nabokov came from the library. Gogol from the government office. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy from the clouds, where they wrote books meant to deluge the ground and sweep away the old order, ushering in a utopia of Christian suffering and redemption, in the former’s case, and moral rectitude, rural life, and vegetarianism, in the latter’s. Chekhov came from the earth. Literally. He was the only great Russian writer of the 19th century born to the peasantry rather than the nobility, the reason why the peasants in his stories are complex human beings, neither saints nor sinners, and as understandable as they are sometimes degenerate, rather than pegs in grand philosophies.

“While Tolstoy and Dostoevsky both believed that Christian faith was the main source of moral strength for the impoverished and ignorant Russian peasants,” the Chekhov scholar Simon Karlinsky has written, “Chekhov’s much more closely observed and genuinely experienced picture of peasant life shows nothing of the sort.” Just read “In the Ravine.” After the funeral for a defenseless creature gruesomely murdered out of greed and spite by an extended family member, a funeral during which “the guests and the priests ate . . . with such greed that one might have thought that they had not tasted food for a long time,” listen to “the priest, lifting his fork on which there was a salted mushroom,” offer to the creature’s meek and suffering mother this magnanimous comfort: “Don’t grieve . . . For such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” One imagines that just then the salted mushroom meant far more to him. As Chekhov wrote in a letter, “I have peasant blood flowing in my veins, and I’m not the one to be impressed with peasant virtues . . . Tolstoy’s moral philosophy has ceased to move me . . . Prudence and justice tell me there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam than in chastity and abstention from meat.”

But it’s also in Chekhov that you find the opposite portrait of a religious man. (Consider “The Letter.
) “For all their preoccupation with religion,” Karlinsky writes, “[Tolstoy and Dostoevsky] never thought of making an Orthodox priest, deacon or monk a central character in a work of fiction as Chekhov did . . . Most of these men of the Church are presented as full-blooded human beings with their own joys and problems.”

As radical as it is simple: Tell things how they are, not how they should be. This approach is as natural today as it was radical a century ago, and every time art moved from a depiction of the idealized to the real. (Think of European painting going, in the 17th century, from “angels with gauzy wings” to “the actual look and feel of a world, which, after all, God has created,” as the art critic Robert Hughes has put it.) If Dostoevsky was concerned by humanity in extremis, if Tolstoy sought final, unvarying answers, Chekhov concerned himself with ordinary people, and felt that no single philosophy could answer for a world of perennially shifting circumstances, to say nothing of the fungibility of human nature—the view of an empiricist and clinician, as per his training. He went quietly about the same work the others went about loudly.

As Dr. Zhivago says in the famous novel, Chekhov’s work has a “modest reticence in such high-sounding matters as the ultimate purpose of mankind or its salvation. It’s not that he didn’t think of such matters . . . but to talk about such things seemed . . . pretentious, presumptuous.” It was a matter of creative philosophy: “I think that it is not for writers to solve such questions as the existence of God, pessimism, etc.,” Chekhov wrote in another diamond of craft advice. “The writer’s function is only to describe by whom, how, and under what conditions the questions of God and pessimism were discussed.”

But temperament played a part, too; it won’t come as a surprise that Chekhov had no great notions of himself. “If I have a gift that should be respected,” he wrote to an older novelist who had written to urge him to take on a novel, “I had got used to thinking it insignificant.” Some of this had to do with his beginnings: No one has diagnosed as articulately the self-abnegating servility which the low-born of the time and the place—the serfs, Russia’s version of the feudally bonded, and their descendants—carried within them. 

“Try writing a story about how a young man, the son of a serf . . . brought up venerating rank, kissing the hands of priests, worshiping the ideas of others, thankful for every crust of bread . . . hypocritical towards God and man with no cause beyond an awareness of his own insignificance—write about how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop.” Chekhov managed to do just that, a course of rigorous self-education and -improvement despite low means and a petty tyrant of a father that accomplished, in the elegantly acidic formulation of Chekhov scholar Aileen Kelly, “what Tolstoy spent his life trying vainly to do: He reinvented himself as a person of moral integrity, free from the disfigurements inflicted by the despotism that pervaded Russian life.”

If Chekhov took his talent lightly, he altogether ignored his health. He had tuberculosis for a decade before he finally bothered to have it diagnosed, so busy was he with writing and the social-improvement projects to which he constantly devoted himself. He spent the winter of 1891-92 working to relieve a countrywide famine caused by the previous summer’s failed harvest, “concentrating, with characteristic practicality, not on charity handouts, but on an organized campaign to prevent the peasants from slaughtering their horses for food, a practice that perpetuated the famine cycle, since it left no horses for next year’s spring plowing” (Karlinsky). The following summer, a cholera epidemic broke out in the area several hours outside Moscow where Chekhov had just purchased a home; he spent the next two seasons in an unpaid position battling the epidemic, and treating a thousand peasants along the way.

Every community he encountered was left the better for it: The library in Taganrog, in southern Russia, where Chekhov was born, was the beneficiary of a lifetime’s steady supply of books in multiple languages, as were libraries near his country home and in Siberia. He built schools, arranged for the construction of a local highway, created a clinic for alcoholics, bought horses for peasants who needed them, fund-raised for a journal of surgery, and even helped set up a marine-biology laboratory. Pleaded with to relent, he said he was happier giving medical care to peasants than enduring the literary chatter in Moscow.

Even on his deathbed, he couldn’t bear to turn away all those who crowded his doorstep. Maxim Gorky, one of the many writers who benefited from Chekhov’s encouragement and intervention, put it well: “In the presence of Anton Pavlovich everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself, and I had many opportunities of observing how people threw off their attire of grand bookish phrases, fashionable expressions, and all the rest of the cheap trifles with which Russians, in their anxiety to appear Europeans, adorn themselves, as savages deck themselves with shells and fishes’ teeth.” 

A single sentence of Chekhov’s, after Tolstoy visited him at his rural clinic, says it all: “We had an extremely interesting conversation, extremely interesting for me because I listened more than I spoke.”

For all its flickering beauty, real life offers little moral justice or dramatic convention. Take the moment, in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” after the adulterers, Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna, have slept together for the first time. Anticipation has given way to post-coital gloom. “Her features drooped and faded, and her long hair hung down sadly,” Chekhov writes of Anna. “‘It’s not right,’” she tells Gurov. “‘You don’t respect me now.’” The story, imagined conventionally, seems to beg for anything other than what follows: “There was a watermelon on the table. Gurov cut himself a slice and began eating it without haste. They were silent for at least half an hour.” Gurov doesn’t do this because he’s unfeeling, but because it’s the at once unexpected and inevitable thing that a person finds himself doing in such a circumstance, like plosive newlywed kisses sending up calf spasms and a taste of over-sweet raisins.

This is not the way Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote, which is, perhaps, the reason we wouldn’t call either a modern writer or, for that matter, a direct influence on much of posterity, geniuses though they were. It won’t surprise you to learn that Chekhov also declined to inhabit the straitjacket for which every Russian writer of the late 19th century was expected to fit himself by the literary establishment: that of the liberal critic of autocracy. It isn’t that Chekhov didn’t agree with the politics; he objected to the lack of freedom in the establishment’s dictates on how freedom should be promoted. He was against falsehood, hypocrisy, and compulsion in all corners, and didn’t hesitate to disagree with “his own.” He had friends on both sides of the aisle, and in a poignantly naive view, as relevant for America today as for Russia then, “it [did] not even occur to him that unbiased observations . . . might be incompatible with patriotism” (Karlinsky). In staid times, such a man feels like a seer. In divided times, like a miracle. You want to live in his country, except it has so few citizens.

Chekhov was savaged for his supposed lack of ideology. Usually, it didn’t get to him: he nominated an especially scathing critic of his work to the Russian Imperial Academy. But sometimes it did. (He was no wallflower.) “You once told me,” he wrote to another author, “that my stories lack an element of protest, that they have neither sympathies nor antipathies. But doesn’t the story protest against lying from start to finish? Isn’t that an ideology?(Pity the author in a politicized society in a polarized time. Lampedusa, who portrayed Italy’s old, pre-Republican guard with nuance and empathy, and who himself, in the words of his biographer, “remained too skeptical and disillusioned to be a genuine democrat or a liberal,” was excoriated by the Marxists who dominated Italian literary criticism after the war.) 

A doctor committed to observable reality rather than ethical or dramatic convention, Chekhov also wrote about sex as a physical phenomenon rather than a moral dubiety best seen through Victorian gauze. (This didn’t endear him to Tolstoy, either.) Radically, he wrote about the predicaments faced by women with the clarity of a non-ideological feminist. (By non-ideological, I mean that he saw those women as clearly as he saw their oppressors.) He got married, at 39, to Olga Knipper, an actress who spent most of her time in Moscow and St. Petersburg while he remained in southern Russia for his health, an arrangement so unusual for its time (though not for ours) that even Chekhov’s most intelligent critics have been unable to refrain from seeing it as “pathetic” and “unhappy.” But if you read Chekhov’s letters, you’ll see that the terms not only suited him—he agreed to marriage for Olga’s sake—but made him rather frisky. (He called her “doggie.”) A man of the earth to the finish, he even wrote about ecological ruin, a subject that has trouble getting traction even today. He was 19th-century Russia’s greatest modern.

I used to feel little for Chekhov. I was born in the Soviet Union and majored in Russian literature at university to try to reconnect with my heritage after a decade of trying hard to pass for American. I was riven with confusion and doubt—so is every undergraduate, but I had an extra piece due to losing my home country at nine—and was easily seduced by the grandeur, nobility, moral preoccupation, and clarity of the grandees we read. America felt free, but more frivolous, than the Soviet Union. Here was the opposite of frivolity. Here were writers who believed—no, took for granted—that the writer was a moral accountant to a fallen world, charged with showing the way forward. (And that there was a way forward, as opposed to an endless array of equally compromised truths.) 

It would take nearly 20 years to begin to see the occasional falsehood in the neat tie-ups of traditional storytelling, or in the protagonist breaking through to some understanding at the end of the story—to see that writing this way often has as much to do with the author’s needs as with those of his characters. In my early years here, I craved only one thing: certainties. I cycled through many false ones before Chekhov put me at rest about their impossibility even for less bifurcated people. If you can hold on to that, he seemed to be saying, you might live in a little more peace and write in a little more truth.

Perhaps the saddest way in which Chekhov remains relevant for our times is how accurate, in spirit, his portrait of Russia remains: power without account; greed, nepotism, and boot-licking; stability at the expense of freedom. What would Chekhov say of Vladimir Putin? He wouldn’t say anything about Putin. He might write a story about Putin’s press secretary misplacing the cufflinks the President gave him, which sends him into such a frenzy that he commits a crime so the most noticeable thing about his wrists is the handcuffs around them. Except that law enforcement doesn’t dare touch the President’s circle, and the poor man remains free, his torment in full view. (It would be called: “Cufflinks.” Or: “The Press Secretary.”)

And what would Chekhov say of America today, and America of him? Would it revere him as much as it reveres the playwright-of-twilight hologram, or would his actual perspective prove a little too sandpapery? For he would savage, equally, the witch-hunts enacted by social justice warriors, the soul-sellers lining up to lie for Trump, the provincialism of liberal echo chambers like New York and San Francisco, and the media’s reductions and manipulations. He wouldn’t touch the actual headlines, of course—he would write about individuals in concrete situations—but his brief would be the same: human nature, and its tendency equally to confusion and clarity; to small-mindedness, greed, and vulgarity as much as to generosity, self-transcendence, and love, all heavily dependent on circumstance. His stories highlight this above all, usually without judgment, always without bombast and remedy. How did such a “quiet man” and non-ideologue manage to survive such an unquiet, ideological century? ~

Chekhov and Gorky in Yalta, 1900


I agree. Chekhov comes across as the most modern of the great Russian writers because of his amazing (for the times) honesty.


~ We think we want to be happy. Yet many of us are actually working toward some other end, according to cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics.

Kahneman contends that happiness and satisfaction are distinct. Happiness is a momentary experience that arises spontaneously and is fleeting. Meanwhile, satisfaction is a long-term feeling, built over time and based on achieving goals and building the kind of life you admire. On the Dec. 19, 2018 podcast “Conversations with Tyler,” hosted by economist Tyler Cowen, Kahneman explains that working toward one goal may undermine our ability to experience the other. 

For example, in Kahneman’s research measuring everyday happiness—the experiences that leave people feeling good—he found that spending time with friends was highly effective. Yet those focused on long-term goals that yield satisfaction don’t necessarily prioritize socializing, as they’re busy with the bigger picture. 

Such choices led Kahneman to conclude that we’re not as interested in happiness as we may claim. “Altogether, I don’t think that people maximize happiness in that sense…this doesn’t seem to be what people want to do. They actually want to maximize their satisfaction with themselves and with their lives. And that leads in completely different directions than the maximization of happiness,” he says. 

Kahneman argues that satisfaction is based mostly on comparisons. “Life satisfaction is connected to a large degree to social yardsticks–achieving goals, meeting expectations.” He notes that money has a significant influence on life satisfaction, whereas happiness is affected by money only when funds are lacking. Poverty creates suffering, but above a certain level of income that satisfies our basic needs, wealth doesn’t increase happiness. “The graph is surprisingly flat,” the psychologist says. 

In other words, if you aren’t hungry, and if clothing, shelter, and your other basics are covered, you’re capable of being at least as happy as the world’s wealthiest people. The fleeting feelings of happiness, though, don’t add up to life satisfaction. Looking back, a person who has had many happy moments may not feel pleased on the whole. 

The key here is memory. Satisfaction is retrospective. Happiness occurs in real time. In Kahneman’s work, he found that people tell themselves a story about their lives, which may or may not add up to a pleasing tale. Yet, our day-to-day experiences yield positive feelings that may not advance that longer story, necessarily. Memory is enduring. Feelings pass. Many of our happiest moments aren’t preserved—they’re not all caught on camera but just happen. And then they’re gone. 

Take going on vacation, for example. According to the psychologist, a person who knows they can go on a trip and have a good time but that their memories will be erased, and that they can’t take any photos, might choose not to go after all. The reason for this is that we do things in anticipation of creating satisfying memories to reflect on later. We’re somewhat less interested in actually having a good time. 

We feel happiness primarily in the company of others, Kahneman argues. However, the positive psychology movement that has arisen in part as a result of his work doesn’t emphasize spontaneity and relationships. Instead, it takes a longer view, considering what makes life meaningful, which is a concept that Kahneman claims eludes him. 

Kahneman counts himself lucky and “fairly happy.” He says he’s led “an interesting life” because he’s spent much of his time working with people whose company he enjoyed. But he notes that there have been periods when he worked alone on writing that were “terrible,” when he felt “miserable.” He also says he doesn’t consider his existence meaningful, despite his notable academic accomplishments. 

Indeed, although his contributions legitimized the emotion as an economic and social force and led to the creation of happiness indices worldwide, the psychologist abandoned the field of happiness research about five years ago. He’s now researching and writing about the concept of “noise,” or random data that interferes with wise decision-making. 

Still, it’s worth asking if we want to be happy, to experience positive feelings, or simply wish to construct narratives that seems worth telling ourselves and others, but doesn’t necessarily yield pleasure. Meet a friend and talk it over with them—you might have a good time. ~


Maybe the issue with happiness is not that we don't want it, but that we don’t want to let it go. Instead of simply enjoying the moment we are busy trying to collect souvenirs, and archiving them in a retrievable and shareable form, as  in stories, or in photos, for instance. It's as if we not only want to hold on to that moment of happiness, but also Prove we were convince others, or ourselves. Surely this is part of all those selfies, all those pictures of one's restaurant meals and the group at the table — evidence you were there and happy, evidence to keep and to show to others, somehow making that momentary experience more tangible, solid, and storable in memory.

But of course you cannot capture and store happiness in such souvenirs..what you are creating is a story about being happy rather than the feeling itself. The story can trigger the memory of that experience but not recreate it. What you end up with is not joy but nostalgia.


Happiness is indeed a slippery concept, momentary, fleeting. The overall narrative is more important, as you pointed out many times. “I had many excellent meals in Chinese restaurants,” sounds rather trivial next to “I raised three children” or “I was a high-school teacher for forty years,” or even “I was an amateur actor in the local theater.” Work and overcoming obstacles have dignity; simply eating a fine dinner doesn’t.

To be sure, we don’t want to be miserable either; but we’ll choose something difficult if it means that in the end we end up being proud of ourselves and admired by others. Still, if you look at the titles of self-help books, you’d think that happiness was the most important thing in life. Maybe it’s time to stand back and ponder our values and priorities.

As for the greedy need to capture happy moments in photographs, that’s its own pathology. Once I discovered that taking pictures interfered with my enjoyment of the scenery, I stopped taking pictures. I gave away all the cameras. Now, the kind of photography that rises to the level of art, that’s a different story — one with the dignity of work and accomplishment.



Years ago, before the drought, I saw one very near my house. He (or she) sat there and stared at me, head a bit tilted to the side, in a pose of curiosity. Fascinated, I didn't move. The fox eventually decided that enough is enough, and sauntered away without fear. “Sauntered” isn’t the right word — the animal somehow faded, disappeared in a kind of quantum leap from a ruddy-beige presence to complete fusion with the background of scrubby vegetation.



~ Few people realize that England has fragments of a globally rare habitat: temperate rainforest. I didn’t really believe it until I moved to Devon last year and started visiting some of these incredible habitats. Temperate rainforests are exuberant with life. One of their defining characteristics is the presence of epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants, often in such damp and rainy places. In woods around the edge of Dartmoor, in lost valleys and steep-sided gorges, I’ve spotted branches dripping with mosses, festooned with lichens, liverworts and polypody ferns.

You may have heard of England’s most famous fragment of temperate rainforest: Wistman’s Wood, in the middle of Dartmoor. With its gnarled and stunted oaks, its remote location marooned within a sheep-nibbled moorscape, and attendant tales of spectral hounds that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, it has an outsize reputation for somewhere so tiny in size: eight acres – about four football pitches.

Temperate rainforests, however, once covered a much larger swathe of England, and even larger parts of Wales and Scotland. A map produced by the academic Christopher Ellis in 2016 identified the “bioclimatic zone” suitable for temperate rainforest in Britain – that is, the areas where it’s warm and damp enough for such a habitat to thrive. This zone covers about 1.5m acres of England – around 5% of the country. For comparison, the entire woodland cover of England today is just 10%, and much of that is conifer plantations.

We have, in other words, lost a lot of our rainforests. I grew up with the Save the Rainforests movement of the 1980s and 90s, spearheaded in Britain by groups such as Friends of the Earth, which campaigned to stop deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. When I was five years old, my mom organized a Save the Rainforests fundraiser; we painted a mural for our local library of colorful toucans, parrots and rainforest trees. Halting tropical deforestation remains utterly essential, a task made more vital by the rise of anti-green populists such as Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil. But I did not realize growing up that we had already destroyed our own rainforests here in England.

Many of England’s rainforests were lost long ago, to the axes of Bronze Age farmers and medieval tin miners. Others were lost more recently to well-meaning but profoundly misguided forestry policies, which led to the felling of ancient, shrunken oaks in favor of fast-growing Sitka spruce. And in many places where rainforests would naturally flourish, overgrazing by sheep – whose sharp teeth hungrily eat up every sapling – has prevented their return.

But as I read with horror about this destruction, I started to realize that more fragments of our temperate rainforest have survived to the present day than I first thought. It wasn’t just Wistman’s Wood: rainforests cling on, too, along the whole valley of the Dart river (as the poet Alice Oswald reminds us, dart is Brythonic Celtic for “oak”), the Bovey and Teign rivers, and far beyond. 

In other places, temperate rainforest is not just surviving, but thriving. At Lustleigh Cleave, a steep-sided common on the river Bovey that was barren pasture on Ordnance Survey maps a century ago, several hundred acres of rainforest has miraculously regenerated. Even Wistman’s Wood, so often portrayed as a stunted, moribund relic of the ice ages, has increased significantly in size since the late-Victorian period. Comparing photograph of the woods taken when Jack the Ripper was terrorizing London with today’s Google Earth imagery shows a habitat that has grown dramatically, both in extent and in the size of the trees. Our forgotten rainforests are not just a primeval Lost World: they are also living, breathing and reproducing. As Jeff Goldblum memorably intones in Jurassic Park: “Life … finds a way.”

So the next time you go for a walk in the woods and spot ferns growing from branches, lichen sprouting like coral and tree trunks bubbling with moss, you may well be walking through one of this country’s forgotten rainforests. ~


My first experience of an enchanted moderate rainforest was in Vermont. I wasn't used to such lushness. Some might argue that coastal Oregon and even Northern California still have surviving enclaves of rainforest; my reply is that the lushness is not of the same order.

Washington State does have a preserved rainforest in the Olympic National Park. It is a wonderful experience. But again, the prize for the greenness and the waist-high ferns goes to Vermont. Perhaps it takes a huge amount of rainfall and certain other special conditions. 

And we too have lost much of our North American temperate rainforest: it used to spread from Oregon coast all the way north to southern Alaska. 

The desert has its own beauty; desert lovers do not surprise me. What astonishes me is lushness: the inexhaustible abundance of  life that's the opposite of mere survival under harsh conditions. Spare me the heroism of cacti and sage brush; give me the rich mosses and ferns of a luxurious rainforest.


It is true that we tend to think of rainforests as tropical, so temperate rainforests are a bit of a surprise, and a wonderful one at that. What immediately comes to mind is the urgency to preserve what we still have, because like the tropical ones, the temperate rainforests are teeming with diversity, great treasuries of life forms and strategies. It is very encouraging that these forests seem to be able to regenerate and restore themselves if allowed the time and space, the freedom from continuous active use and interference, including mistaken efforts at replanting in a monoculture of pines. We learn slowly, but maybe just in time. I certainly hope so.


Nature knows best how to restore wilderness. Even my garden plants surprise me, seeding themselves in new and better locations, thriving best when I interfere least, aside from watering. If humanity manages to shrink to sustainable levels (2-3 billion max), we'll have plenty of magnificent forests.



~ Israel is an important global center of wild plants that are relatives of crop plants – plants that were developed by farmers for generations – and we should take steps to protect their natural habitats.

Wild plants are the ancestors of most of our types of food and a large percentage of ornamental and medicinal plants. The authorities recently began cooperating with researchers and academic institutions in an initiative to preserve the areas where these plants are found. The possibility of mapping a particularly important area and granting it the status of a World Heritage site is being examined.

Israel has a total of about 129 species defined as having an especially close relationship to cultivated species, and the number rises to 300 species if we include a somewhat more distant relationship. The regions with a potentially high concentration of these species are the Upper Galilee, the Carmel and Ramat Menashe, the strip between the Judean Plain, the Judean Hills and the desert, and the high Har Hanegev.

In recent years the Nature and Parks Authority has realized that nature preservation must include species of wild plants that are ancestors of cultivated plants. Aside from the cultural-agricultural heritage, this is an important contribution to the preservation of a genetic variety that could help cultivated plants withstand diseases or climate changes.

The list of species in the survey indicates a close relationship of wild species and the food we eat today. There are wild species like the common beet and a type of cabbage (brassica cretica) that are relatives of the present-day vegetables, and Cynara syriaca, a relative of the artichoke. The flagship species is
wild wheat, discovered by agronomist and botanist Aaron Aaronsohn near Safed in 1906. According to researchers, until that discovery, the main source of mankind’s bread was still a mystery. Kaplan says that the wild wheat still grows where Aaronson found it.

“Israel and the Fertile Crescent are one of the world’s most important centers for plant cultivation,” says Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir, director of the Hebrew University botanical gardens. “In this region they cultivated important food plants such as wheat, barley, peas and carrots, but also ornamental plants such as the narcissus and the hyancinth, and spice and medicinal plants such as triangular sage, white-leaved savory and common hyssop.

He says that the reason for the wealth of species is that Israel is at the center of an encounter between continental regions and different climates. “The varied conditions in Israel also contribute to the large variety of plants,” he added. “Calcereous hills, valleys, sandy areas, the basaltic Golan Heights and a varied topographical altitude. And there’s also the ancient human history in our corner of the world.” ~

Hyssop, a relative of lavender


Preserving wild plants and the habitat in which they grow may not only be a good, but a necessary thing. So much of our agriculture is now industrialized monoculture despite al the good reasons against it. One danger is certainly a disaster like the potato blight in Ireland, where a monocrop failed completely when faced with a new disease. The wild plants may form a reservoir  of variety and recovery for plants we are so overdependent on.


As I understand, there is a “seed bank” in Norway that exists just in case a plant becomes in danger of extinction — usually because of human harm to the environment. A priceless resource. 



“Mozart” — the last word of Gustav Mahler, conducting an imaginary orchestra in bed, 1911.



Defenders of the Christian faith spend a considerable amount of time trying to prove that something happened thousands of years ago. But that really shouldn’t be necessary because, if the claims of Christianity were true, the present day evidence for it should be all over the place.

1.) The church would experience less sickness, injury, and accidental death than the rest of the world.

Jesus clearly promised that if you pray for the sick, they will be healed. The apostle James (who we are told was his brother) claimed the same thing, and the New Testament is full of examples of the disciples successfully praying for people to be healed. So we’re not exactly talking about an obscure doctrine.

More than that, Jesus went on to expand the effectiveness of prayer when he said that any time two of his disciples agreed on something it would be done by the Father in heaven. That’s a really bold claim. I’m guessing the reason he didn’t make the number higher than two was that he knew if he shot for more, there would just be an argument and another church split.
Rarely concerning himself with caveats, Jesus audaciously promised: Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father…You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

There should be at least a statistically significant difference between the fortunes of Christians and non-Christians, but there isn’t.

In fact, one of the largest and most carefully controlled studies of the effects of intercessory prayer was done by the Templeton Foundation, which was created by a wealthy Presbyterian looking to demonstrate the contact points between faith and the empirical sciences. The study found that those who were prayed for actually encountered more complications than the ones who were not. To my knowledge, no other study has been able to find statistically significant evidence to the contrary. The lived experience of all who are honest with themselves will only corroborate this finding.

And yes, before someone says it, I know in one place the Bible says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” But in another place, the God of the Bible also says, “Test me in this…” referring to his promise to unleash material prosperity on his people in exchange for faithfully tithing to him. That promise in itself could constitute another point in today’s list, but I’ll save that discussion for another time since my former theology inclined me to believe that the Old Testament tithe was a practice made obsolete by the crucifixion and should never have been carried over into the church anyway.

Now back to our list. If Christianity were true…

2.) The church wouldn’t keep splintering into hundreds or possibly even thousands of rivaling groups.

There are at least two reasons we should think this. First, Jesus himself gambled his own validity on the church’s ability to remain unified, which was a colossal mistake. He actually said—out loud—that the unity of the church would be the way the world would know that the claims he made about himself were true. Yikes. That was a very, very bad move.

But even if he hadn’t have made that connection explicit, it would still stand to reason that you should expect more agreement among a crowd of people claiming that God speaks to them, or that he spoke to them at one particular time in the past. Unless God is a very poor communicator, it shouldn’t matter how bad people are at accurately perceiving his thoughts and feelings. There should be more agreement on what he wants.

So the rest of us should be forgiven for not being impressed. And given that Jesus staked his credibility on this very thing, it seems to me that we should also be excused for not accepting the message his “followers” so passionately want us to believe.

When what you’re perceiving is real, you don’t wind up with this many wildly conflicting opinions about what you’re seeing and hearing. And that goes double for a subject around which we are expected to build our entire life and community.

3.) There should be a notable difference in character among people who believe they have the Holy Spirit, and they should care about the same things Jesus cared about.

But there’s not a great deal of evidence for either. And I’m not trying to argue that I am better than they are; on the contrary I can tell you that generally speaking they’re in the same boat as I am. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. If Christianity were true, the indwelling Holy Spirit would yield in Christians a noticeably better crop of behavioral “fruit,” and yet I honestly cannot say that such is the case.

Among those fruit, we are told, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness…but how do we judge what those should look like in action? I could take each of those terms and unpack them to show that there is little discernible difference between the traits of Christians and those of the rest of the world, but I’d rather streamline this discussion by simply asking what key trait mattered most to Jesus? 

Jesus was far more at home with prostitutes than he was with religious leaders. Why? Because evidently in his mind, sexual deviance wasn’t actually the most dangerous vice a person could have. That dishonor belonged to self-righteousness and sanctimoniousness, two traits I would argue fit Christian culture in my country better than almost any I can name.

Christians in my country are downright obsessed with sex—with controlling who does it and with whom, and when, and how they do it. No personal detail seems off limits for this preoccupation of theirs, and virtually every censorious rule they champion somehow traces back to the regulation of this one single activity, including their highly restrictive language codes.

One would think that being indwelled by the Spirit of Jesus would make people more like him, and yet the church’s value system seems to have inverted what mattered most to him. That is relevant information for the question I’m exploring today.

And once again I know what some of you are thinking: You’re thinking this only points to the failure of Jesus’s followers, not to a failure of the Holy Spirit who is supposed to empower people to be better about these things than they naturally would be. But this is a convenient deflection, a shifting of the blame from the beliefs themselves to the believers who adhere to them.

What did Jesus care about most, and is it the same thing that Christians seem to care about most? That should tell us whether or not the same spirit that animated this man animates the people who represent him to the world today.

I’ve read through the gospels more times than I can count and it seems to me that Jesus cared most about showing mercy to others, especially to the poor and the foreigner and to those most rejected by everyone else, and he cared least about adhering to the purity codes of the surrounding religious establishment. In fact, at times he was downright ostentatious about contradicting their obsession with purity, breaking their rules on purpose just to make a point: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'”

Whose power is supposed to accomplish this moral quickening? Ours, or God’s? And when this fails to happen, on whom do you place the blame? Is your answer to the second question consistent with your answer to the first?

To put it bluntly, if Jesus were truly raised from the dead and living inside of people today, it would make a more noticeable difference. They would care about the same things he cared about, worrying more about how you treat the less fortunate than about what you do with your genitalia.

4.) Christians would be better at discerning what is true from what is not.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus promised his disciples: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”

As it turns out, the church is quite easily led into trusting faulty ideas as well as people who should not be trusted at all. I could go off again on how the largest and most powerful group of Christians in America (evangelical Protestants, especially white ones) voted into power the most corrupt and dishonest presidential administration in national history, or how support for Donald Trump has only escalated following the revelation of numerous personal scandals and legally contradictory statements. But it goes so much deeper than that. It’s a problem much older than him.

I could add several more things to this list.* The Bible makes it sound as if inexplicable miracles should be happening all over the place (and I don’t mean at the hands of doctors practicing medicine, which is a human discipline), but for some reason every miracle story you hear today involves something that you missed because you weren’t there at the time. And if you get the nerve to ask why someone can’t show you one of these miracles for you to see for yourself, you’ll likely be shamed for asking for it.

That says a lot, doesn’t it? It would be one thing if they just shrugged and said, “Oh, well. I guess you missed it. Maybe you’ll see the next one.” But they’ve been taught to guilt anyone who asks for evidence, which signals an insecurity that speaks volumes. When you know what you’re saying is true, you don’t have to impugn the character of anyone who wants you to demonstrate how you know it. That looks super sketchy.

Honestly, the whole field of Christian apologetics shouldn’t even exist. If the Christian faith were true, it wouldn’t need defending with a Bayesian statistical analysis for the probability of the resurrection. If the claims of the Bible were true, the resurrected Jesus would be so alive and present in the world today that no one would need to resort to such elaborate efforts to convince us they’re legit. The evidence for them would be everywhere.

So you won’t likely catch me diving into endless debates with theists over topics like foundationalism versus coherentism or constructivism, nor will I get sucked into arguing about the reliability of ancient historiography. I’ll leave that to people far more enamored with philosophy than I am. But I still say that if the claims of this faith were true, we wouldn’t really be having these discussions at all. The fact that defenders of the Christian faith spend the amount of time that they do obsessing over these things may be the most damning detail of all. ~ Neil Carter

Portal of the Cologne Cathedral

Yes, we'd see inexplicable miracles taking place all the time . . . 

A quick clarification on the famous study prayer: It was those patients who were prayed for and knew it who had worse outcomes. One suggested explanation was that patients who were told they were being prayed for assumed that they must be in really bad shape. Alternately, they may have felt pressured to recover quickly so as not to disappoint the people doing the praying. Unfortunately, there were no follow-up interviews. 

The ineffectiveness of prayer – or at least of my prayer – was indeed one of the factors (but not the foremost one) that made me renounce religion. Yes, you do grow up with the stories of miracles, not only in the bible, but also in the lives of the saints. If only the promises of the effectiveness of prayer had not been so blatant . . . or nature equally blatant in its demonstrations of causality, for example that it will rain when the conditions for rain are just right – see those dark rain clouds over the mountains? And those shameless prophets, called meteorologists, saying, "chance of rain: 90%"? 

Also, if a person loses a limb in a car accident, say, how come we never pray for the re-growth of that limb? The answer is that we know the laws of nature. So perhaps it's the laws of nature that are in charge, and not the divine will, which is supposedly supposedly influence-able by prayers . . . (Of course if we take the path of the unalterable Divine Plan, then there is no point praying.)

And if you think that my examples are trivial, ask yourself if a mother's prayer can change even by a fraction of a degree the trajectory of a tree falling on her child.  


Neil Carter’s article proposes: If Christianity were true, the evidence proving its validity would be overwhelming. When I think of my Christian friends, Neil’s data is outside their everyday experience. Occasionally, religious leaders attempt to refute his ideas. They use unscholarly research and spin to prove their point of view.

Their goal is to gain contributions and prove it is Christians against science. An example of how a Christian sees the world was provided at a funeral I recently attended for my friend Seth’s wife, Allie. Nine weeks ago, Allie passed. Due to COVID, her funeral was last week. Her funeral was held in an outdoor chapel and is an example of how Christians view their religion. For twenty years, Seth and Allie attended the same evangelical house of worship.
Seth, with his six children, survived Allie. Their beliefs are central to the family. The day of her funeral was cold with intermittent showers, and because of COVID, the mortuary scheduled her services out in the open. The night before her funeral, Seth worried about the weather affecting the attendance.
After dinner that evening, the funeral director called Seth. The family who had booked the outdoor chapel canceled. It was a short-lived celebration because the luncheon caterer canceled. Seth didn’t sleep well that night. In the morning, a friend of a friend contacted Seth and offered to cater the event. It seems the weather had canceled his job.
Once inside the cemetery, I noticed that it encompassed a ridge that ran into a small clump of mountains. I watched the clouds circle the section of the cemetery where the chapel stood. After the minister’s benediction, Seth gave the eulogy. He began by saying how God had showered Allie and him with his love that day.
He asked, “Did you notice it’s raining everywhere but over the chapel? Look how the sunlight hits her casket. Surely, it’s a sign from God. Furthermore, last night this chapel became available. Who could doubt the power of God?” Seth went on to say that yesterday the caterer withdrew, and out of the blue, another offered his services.
He ended by saying, “It just shows that He will provide.” After the services, I explained to Seth how the wind rises over a ridge and how canyons will suck clouds into them. He didn’t argue with my concept. He replied that an all-knowing God would have foreseen this day and formed the land for this day. He wanted Seth to know He rewarded Allie’s dedication.

I explain this not to knock or to promote religious faith. To Seth, his reasoning was solid, and that is why Neil’s article would not sway a Christian. I liked and agreed with Neil’s thesis, but I wonder why faith remains strong in a world where it is easy to disprove its tenets.  Because church attendance is down doesn’t mean the religious belief is waning.

Daniel Cox and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux write that twenty percent of churchgoers stopped attending churches. One reason they give is the Republican identification with white Christians. This political affiliation is a litmus test for the Christian faith. Their article asked if people would return to the Christian Church if they put spirituality over politics.

Recently, Christian leaders posed the same question, and mainstream Christian leaders such as Osteen, Jansen, and Graham dismissed it as too liberal to be valid. I watch The University of California Santa Barbara TV broadcasts on CNN 2. One program discusses current issues.

In one show, a panel discussed the shrinking Christian community. The show consisted of a moderator, three ministers, and a nun. The ministers belonged to various evangelical denominations, and the nun was a Catholic. One question posed to the panel was how do we keep the young (millennials) from leaving the Christian community.

The Catholic nun responded that preachers and priests should stop preaching politics from the pulpit. They should stop demonizing people of different political beliefs and cultures in their fear-based sermons. Instead of minimizing everyday problems of their congregations, such as high rents, mass shootings, and police brutality, they should discuss solutions.

If they did this, God would become part of the solution because the Church represents him, and its involvement in helping focused prayer not on God’s punishment but His love. She expressed the idea that science is a blessing from God, not his enemy. She wanted all Christian churches to stop competing with each other for the title of True Religion.

They said she was right. Yet, the consensus was that when the people between eighteen and thirty married and started their family, they would return to the Christian churches because they were the only game in town. All the Christian churches had to do was keep their doors open. Their belief gave rise to the unspoken question at the heart of Carter’s article, what does religion offer?

Thinking about the religious history of the Mayas, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Egyptians, and Hindus: one realizes that cruelty and oppression exist in every religion. Also, the questions he puts forth:

         The Church (believers) would experience less sickness, injury, and accidental death than their neighbors.
·         There would be a notable difference in character between the believers and the non-followers.
·         The believers would be better at knowing the truth of the world than the non-believers.

Those points apply to every religion in recorded history.

Religious organizations existed for over five thousand years with all the logical weaknesses that Carter discusses. My question is, what does an organized, hierarchical religion offer to the human experience. Perhaps religion mirrors the essence of human nature, like an orca emerging from the deep in the ocean. It is beautiful and brutal.


Thank you, Joe, for this complex response to what I think is a very complex and challenging article. I remember that as a child I was struck by the fact that in the bible stories god talked and performed miracles, but in our times — nada. Nor did I see churchgoers as either healthier or kinder toward others than non-believers. One blatant difference was in the level of education. The most ardent believers seemed to be poorly educated (perhaps even illiterate) old women. No one would approach them with questions about religion versus a scientific worldview.

I must confess to a certain nostalgia when I think about my grandmother’s old-fashioned religiosity. She even thought of the year in terms of religious holidays: after St. Andrew’s, around St. Sophie’s, before Transfiguration, after Candlemas (of course I’ve anglicized the names). She knew the difference between Our Lady of the Flowers and our Lady of the Meadows. There was a poetry to all this, not to mention the splendor of the tall candles and flowers — even in winter. 

And I didn’t rule out the possibility that as I grow older, I might return to the church.

The only thing that doesn’t surprise me is that life is always surprising. I did go to mass a few times just to see what was happening, and if anything could draw me back. I went back more than once to make sure — after all, all eternity was at stake. Alas, the post-Vatican 2 church was completely unattractive to me. In no time at all I had my answer: the church no longer had anything to offer to me. As for the moral education of children, I knew instantly that I’d never doom my child to what I call “going through hell because of hell” — blindly absorbing the ideas of sin and punishment that caused me so much anguish.

At the same time, I slowly realized that I belonged to a minority of people whose inability to believe absurdities prevailed over their desire for a powerful invisible protector in the sky. And during my last stay in the hospital I had plenty of opportunity to ponder how terrible and unpredictable life can be — and how this could make some people stay in the church or return to it. At the same time, my own personal experience indicated that no amount of suffering (and I’ve come to know many varieties) would make me return. Was this unique?

Intrigued, I began to read books and articles on the subject. It turned out that these days, just as widows show little desire to remarry, so former believers don’t return to the church as they used to when they grow older, marry other non-believers, and have children. They find other ways to spend time with family and teach children how to be kind. There seems to be no stopping the decline of religious practice. (Milosz provided a fascinating explanation for that decline: not science, but technology; people don’t feel as helpless anymore.)

At the same time, life remains surprising as ever, so when a friend suggested that a hundred years from now a new religion might emerge and gain billions of adherents, I admitted that such an event was possible. Not probable, but at least possible. There will no doubt always be some people whose need for a supernatural protector will exceed all other needs — including the need for evidence. 


I replied at greater length than I thought! There’s certainly something to say for the view that atheists are more interested in religion than the so-called “faithful.” Meanwhile the faithful couldn’t care less about evidence or the lack of it, which is the non-believers’ main concern, and instead bask in some kind of feel-good emotional reassurance they get from going to church. There are those whose entire lives revolve around their church. 

The true believers and the non-believers certainly seem to live in different worlds. To the non-believers, the very notion that an infinite being would plan the earth and every detail thereof so that the weather for someone’s funeral would be just right is simply beyond-absurd. The divide has always existed, but until fairly recently the non-believers mostly chose to stay silent in order to save their jobs (think of teaching or being a librarian in a small town with two evangelical churches)  or even, if we go further back in history, their lives. 
And I suppose there will always be people who don’t see anything strange about a god who didn’t move a finger to stop the Holocaust, but who made sure (apparently already during the Creation, when he was shaping the earth) that it didn’t rain during the funeral of one of his followers.
Now the non-believers are mostly out of the closet, but their hope that religion will collapse within their lifetime is not as bright anymore. The two groups simply have to live together. And this is indeed happening, without the bloodshed of Protestant-Catholic wars in Europe centuries ago, or the Sunni-Shia wars, or the more recent demonstration that even the Buddhist monks may lack religious tolerance. 

At the very least, let’s not kill one another in the name of religion and the god of peace and mercy. This is for the most part already our current reality, and that’s my remaining hope: not the disappearance of religion, but — no blood shed. At least that, and, historically speaking, that is a lot.

(data on the decline of religiosity can be found here:


I have always found issue with the efficacy of prayer. It always seemed to me a kind of crass belief you could use prayer to manipulate god into bestowing favors on you, like a gambler's  belief in the inside line that will guarantee a big win. Even as something similar to horse doping to win a race..a formula that if followed will yield the appropriate rewards.

If you believe that, and your prayers are not answered,  what does that mean??

You are not worthy, the one you prayed for is not worthy, you did it wrong, you didn’t try hard enough. It's  the same problem when cancer, for instance, is presented as something one must battle against hard to win survival. Does that mean those who succumb are losers who weren't strong enough or didn’t fight hard enough?? Are they guilty losers instead of brave winners?? Is it all their own fault for being unworthy sinners?

And one isn't always grateful for all those prayers. When I was having what seemed like one cancer after another, one surgery or complication after another, my parents took to sending me Mass cards every week. I had to tell them to just stop it. All these novena masses made my situation look much more grave than it was, and I didn't want to have to live up to all those prayers in any living or dying was not to be meddled with by spiritual demands or reform. I didn't want any bargains made over me or in my behalf. I refused to be obliged for any miracles, and preferred no interference to some supernatural intervention. A universe where prayer "works" is simply too mechanical and absurd, a god that responds to prayer as unfit as Lear, lapping up the sycophantic lies of his manipulative daughters, and banishing the one who told the simple, honest truth. That kind of god is one I could never respect.



Yahweh and Lear bear a lot of resemblance
— as do various dictators and wanna-be dictators. The farther away we move from the biblical times, the more archaic and insufferable religion looks — children told they must love and worship a tyrant in the sky who demands incessant praise . . . for what, exactly? For having created an imperfect world full of disasters and suffering? And not just human suffering, but also the suffering of innocent animals, like us subject to disease, aging, and predation?

If god really existed, I’d want to say to him (pretty sure it would indeed be a bulky “he,” a Godzilla) — I’d want to ask, “How dare you, you old sadist? Do you have no decency left?”
But then he never had any decency to start with. It’s all a reflection of how little decency ancient humans had making up their cruel gods.

Christianity was actually a breakthrough, theoretically speaking, a leap from cruelty to forgiveness. History, however, shows Christian love in a very different light. It’s altogether a relief to ponder nature as nature, with malice toward none, just unfortunate genes that make some people susceptible to cancer or schizophrenia — and fortunate genes that bestow a gift for music or mathematics. None of this has anything to do with deserving. How marvelous that when we see a blind man we no longer ask, “Did he sin, or did his parents?”

(Thanks for reminding me of novenas. It’s hard to believe how tiresome it gets to repeat a certain prayer, even a short one, for nine days. 

But religion is slowly, slowly losing its stranglehold on the human mind. Below, one of the many abandoned churches.)


~ No matter how hard they try, brain scientists and cognitive psychologists will never find a copy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in the brain – or copies of words, pictures, grammatical rules or any other kinds of environmental stimuli. The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’.

I need to be clear: computers really operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?

In his book In Our Own Image (2015), the artificial intelligence expert George Zarkadakis describes six different metaphors people have employed over the past 2,000 years to try to explain human intelligence.

In the earliest one, eventually preserved in the Bible, humans were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god then infused with its spirit. That spirit ‘explained’ our intelligence – grammatically, at least.

The invention of hydraulic engineering in the 3rd century BCE led to the popularity of a hydraulic model of human intelligence, the idea that the flow of different fluids in the body – the ‘humors’ – accounted for both our physical and mental functioning. The hydraulic metaphor persisted for more than 1,600 years, handicapping medical practice all the while.

By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as RenĂ© Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.

Each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it. Predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology in the 1940s, the brain was said to operate like a computer, with the role of physical hardware played by the brain itself and our thoughts serving as software. The landmark event that launched what is now broadly called ‘cognitive science’ was the publication of Language and Communication (1951) by the psychologist George Miller. Miller proposed that the mental world could be studied rigorously using concepts from information theory, computation and linguistics.

This kind of thinking was taken to its ultimate expression in the short book The Computer and the Brain (1958), in which the mathematician John von Neumann stated flatly that the function of the human nervous system is ‘prima facie digital’. Although he acknowledged that little was actually known about the role the brain played in human reasoning and memory, he drew parallel after parallel between the components of the computing machines of the day and the components of the human brain.

Propelled by subsequent advances in both computer technology and brain research, an ambitious multidisciplinary effort to understand human intelligence gradually developed, firmly rooted in the idea that humans are, like computers, information processors. This effort now involves thousands of researchers, consumes billions of dollars in funding, and has generated a vast literature consisting of both technical and mainstream articles and books.

But the information processing (IP) metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.

Setting aside the formal language, the idea that humans must be information processors just because computers are information processors is just plain silly, and when, some day, the IP metaphor is finally abandoned, it will almost certainly be seen that way by historians, just as we now view the hydraulic and mechanical metaphors to be silly.

In a classroom exercise I have conducted many times over the years, I begin by recruiting a student to draw a detailed picture of a dollar bill – ‘as detailed as possible’, I say – on the blackboard in front of the room. When the student has finished, I cover the drawing with a sheet of paper, remove a dollar bill from my wallet, tape it to the board, and ask the student to repeat the task. When he or she is done, I remove the cover from the first drawing, and the class comments on the differences.

Because you might never have seen a demonstration like this, or because you might have trouble imagining the outcome, I have asked Jinny Hyun, one of the student interns at the institute where I conduct my research, to make the two drawings. Here is her drawing ‘from memory’ (notice the metaphor):

And here is the drawing she subsequently made with a dollar bill present:


Jinny was as surprised by the outcome as you probably are, but it is typical. As you can see, the drawing made in the absence of the dollar bill is horrible compared with the drawing made from an exemplar, even though Jinny has seen a dollar bill thousands of times.

What is the problem? Don’t we have a ‘representation’ of the dollar bill ‘stored’ in a ‘memory register’ in our brains? Can’t we just ‘retrieve’ it and use it to make our drawing?

Obviously not, and a thousand years of neuroscience will never locate a representation of a dollar bill stored inside the human brain for the simple reason that it is not there to be found.
A wealth of brain studies tells us, in fact, that multiple and sometimes large areas of the brain are often involved in even the most mundane memory tasks. 

So what is occurring when Jinny draws the dollar bill in its absence? If Jinny had never seen a dollar bill before, her first drawing would probably have not resembled the second drawing at all. Having seen dollar bills before, she was changed in some way. Specifically, her brain was changed in a way that allowed her to visualize a dollar bill – that is, to re-experience seeing a dollar bill, at least to some extent.

The difference between the two diagrams reminds us that visualizing something (that is, seeing something in its absence) is far less accurate than seeing something in its presence. This is why we’re much better at recognizing than recalling. When we re-member something (from the Latin re, ‘again’, and memorari, ‘be mindful of’), we have to try to relive an experience; but when we recognize something, we must merely be conscious of the fact that we have had this perceptual experience before. 

Perhaps you will object to this demonstration. Jinny had seen dollar bills before, but she hadn’t made a deliberate effort to ‘memorize’ the details. Had she done so, you might argue, she could presumably have drawn the second image without the bill being present. Even in this case, though, no image of the dollar bill has in any sense been ‘stored’ in Jinny’s brain. She has simply become better prepared to draw it accurately, just as, through practice, a pianist becomes more skilled in playing a concerto without somehow inhaling a copy of the sheet music.

As we navigate through the world, we are changed by a variety of experiences. Of special note are experiences of three types: (1) we observe what is happening around us (other people behaving, sounds of music, instructions directed at us, words on pages, images on screens); (2) we are exposed to the pairing of unimportant stimuli (such as sirens) with important stimuli (such as the appearance of police cars); (3) we are punished or rewarded for behaving in certain ways.

Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary.

A few cognitive scientists – notably Anthony Chemero of the University of Cincinnati, the author of Radical Embodied Cognitive Science (2009) – now completely reject the view that the human brain works like a computer. The mainstream view is that we, like computers, make sense of the world by performing computations on mental representations of it, but Chemero and others describe another way of understanding intelligent behavior – as a direct interaction between organisms and their world.

My favorite example of the dramatic difference between the IP perspective and what some now call the ‘anti-representational’ view of human functioning involves two different ways of explaining how a baseball player manages to catch a fly ball – beautifully explicated by Michael McBeath, now at Arizona State University, and his colleagues in a 1995 paper in Science. The IP perspective requires the player to formulate an estimate of various initial conditions of the ball’s flight – the force of the impact, the angle of the trajectory, that kind of thing – then to create and analyze an internal model of the path along which the ball will likely move, then to use that model to guide and adjust motor movements continuously in time in order to intercept the ball.

That is all well and good if we functioned as computers do, but McBeath and his colleagues gave a simpler account: to catch the ball, the player simply needs to keep moving in a way that keeps the ball in a constant visual relationship with respect to home plate and the surrounding scenery (technically, in a ‘linear optical trajectory’). This might sound complicated, but it is actually incredibly simple, and completely free of computations, representations and algorithms.

Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain. Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences.

This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering (1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more.
No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well (see the first drawing of the dollar bill, above).

This is inspirational, I suppose, because it means that each of us is truly unique, not just in our genetic makeup, but even in the way our brains change over time. It is also depressing, because it makes the task of the neuroscientist daunting almost beyond imagination. For any given experience, orderly change could involve a thousand neurons, a million neurons or even the entire brain, with the pattern of change different in every brain.

Worse still, even if we had the ability to take a snapshot of all of the brain’s 86 billion neurons and then to simulate the state of those neurons in a computer, that vast pattern would mean nothing outside the body of the brain that produced it. This is perhaps the most egregious way in which the IP metaphor has distorted our thinking about human functioning. Whereas computers do store exact copies of data – copies that can persist unchanged for long periods of time, even if the power has been turned off – the brain maintains our intellect only as long as it remains alive. There is no on-off switch. Either the brain keeps functioning, or we disappear. What’s more, as the neurobiologist Steven Rose pointed out in The Future of the Brain (2005), a snapshot of the brain’s current state might also be meaningless unless we knew the entire life history of that brain’s owner – perhaps even about the social context in which he or she was raised.

Think how difficult this problem is. To understand even the basics of how the brain maintains the human intellect, we might need to know not just the current state of all 86 billion neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections, not just the varying strengths with which they are connected, and not just the states of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each connection point, but how the moment-to-moment activity of the brain contributes to the integrity of the system. Add to this the uniqueness of each brain, brought about in part because of the uniqueness of each person’s life history, and Kandel’s prediction [that within a hundred years we will understand memory] starts to sound overly optimistic. (In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, the neuroscientist Kenneth Miller suggested it will take ‘centuries’ just to figure out basic neuronal connectivity.)

We are organisms, not computers. Get over it. Let’s get on with the business of trying to understand ourselves, but without being encumbered by unnecessary intellectual baggage. The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way. The time has come to hit the DELETE key.


Something in the brain seems to act as an initiator of a sequence of behavior (e.g. we recite a poem or sing a song; a lizard goes through its mating display). I am not prepared to go further than that. I can only echo what my mother, a neuroanatomist, said: "The most magnificent thing in the universe is the human brain."

ending on beauty:


Light drizzle as if the Atlantic

were examining its conscience

November no longer pretends

Rain dowsed its bonfires and sparks

Santiago is Spain’s secret capital

Patrols arrive day and night

Pilgrims wander its streets, exhausted

or eager, like ordinary tourists

A woman sat by the cathedral

She leaned on her backpack and sobbed

The pilgrimage is over

Where will she go now

Cathedrals are only stones

Stones don’t know motion

Evening approaches

and winter

~ Adam Zagajewski, tr Clare Cavanagh