The terrarium was an accidental discovery in one of the most polluted parts of world. Wardian cases, as terrariums were originally known, were named after their inventor, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an unsuccessful gardener in London’s East End in the late 1820s.
Ward was a doctor with a practice in the Whitechapel neighborhood, which he described as “surrounded by, and enveloped in, the smoke of numerous manufacturies.” Coal, ash, and other toxic byproducts of local industries befouled the air so much that Ward’s attempts to grow ferns came to naught. But one day in 1829, “a small fern spore sprouted inside a bottle he was using to hatch an insect chrysalis” writes Victorian Studies scholar Margaret Flanders Darby.
It was Ward’s eureka moment. Tightly-sealed glass cases could be used to control humidity (very good for ferns) and air quality (also very good for ferns). Ward’s 1842 book Of the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases and the display of his cases at the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations publicized his exciting discovery. And these glass cases weren’t just for home gardeners, either. The Wardian case became indispensable to explorers sending live plants back to Britain from all over the world.
As Darby points out, 1851 was also the year the majority of Britain’s population became urban. And while toxic air pollution was concentrated in poorer neighborhoods like Whitechapel, it cast a pall over entire cities. Everybody burned coal, and the resulting coal dust bedeviled everybody.
By calling attention to smoke and other pollutants in descriptions of terrariums, horticultural texts insinuated that the home interior had become a toxic space. Although the Victorians could not see the harmful fumes and microscopic carcinogens of combusted coal, they could watch their uncovered houseplants wither from exposure to the air that they themselves were breathing every day.
The air outside may have been toxic, but the Wardian cases provided a miniature, unpolluted world. Commercial advertisements, gardening journals, and Ward’s own work “typically feature cases fully stocked with robust flora: the splendor of nature effectively preserved from the ravages of modern industry.”
The middle and upper classes were the beneficiaries of all that industry. And yet the sealed glass display cases allowed them “to indulge in the chimera of nature restored to a preindustrial state of perfection.” Many put their Ward’s cases in front of windows, where they could screen out the view of factory chimneys.
“While it would be easy to dismiss the terrarium as a frivolous ornament that conveyed a false sense of vegetal viability in nineteenth century Britain,” writes Darby, the cases can also been seen as “a vehicle for environmental scrutiny.” Such tiny “yet thought-provoking” gardens connected home and planet. Ward’s son and successor called them a “climate within a climate, a little world within a world.”
For the last couple of years I’ve read several essays by my friend Chad Wellmon about the state of the American university, and the place of the humanities in that university, and while I have found each of those essays enormously thought-provoking, I have also struggled to discern an overall account of the university in Chad’s writings. He seems to do a lot of “on the one hand, on the other hand” stuff. But today, listening to this talk, I think I see some pieces of the puzzle fall into place. I now discern three interrelated themes in Chad’s recent writing on these subjects.
Utopian promises lead to dystopian responses. The more dramatic the claims that university leaders make on behalf of their institutions — We create great citizens! We’ll make you rich! We have the best sports teams, and they will fill your leisure hours with delight! We’ll be a home for you better than your actual home! We are the sole source of Knowledge! — the more certainly they create a backlash that portrays universities as cynical, corrupt exploiters of its students, sold out completely to the neoliberal order or to every leftist trend — depending on your politics. (My politics are such that I suspect selling out on both sides, but that’s a story for another day.)
Proximate goods are not ultimate, but they’re still goods. The purpose of the university is not to reveal to you The Meaning of Life, or to Save the World — though some university presidents might hint at such powers — but at the university you can learn to think better, to evaluate evidence, to test hypotheses, to formulate arguments, and to do all this in daily relation with others who are developing the same skills — though perhaps not always in quite the ways, or with the results, that you’d prefer. But this too, this negotiating with imperfect partners, is a discipline and a skill.
Institutions, even deeply flawed institutions, are where the formation of persons happens. And in a society that is rapidly disempowering or dismantling so many institutions, from the family on up, do we really want to destroy one that, however inconsistently and imperfectly, does the pedagogical work described above? If there were no university, then where, in our society, would those disciplines and skills be pursued? Twitter? Facebook groups? (Clay Shirky used to think so. Not so much anymore.) Or do you expect individuals to do the necessary work themselves, asocially and non-institutionally?
In brief: If you pay attention to what universities actually do — again, however inconsistently and imperfectly — as opposed to what their PR-driven leaders promise — you might be better positioned to understand their value, and our society’s complete inability to build other institutions that might provide similar value.
Chad thinks he’s a liberal, but this sure looks like a conservative argument to me — an old-fashioned case for the wisdom of limiting one’s ambitions and expectations alike — a Chesterton’s fence kind of argument. I like it. (Assuming, that is, that I have understood Chad properly.)
When families and friends gather to eat and drink this holiday season, one of the ground rules often observed is to avoid talking about politics. For ancient Greeks, that idea might have been almost unintelligible. As classics scholar John Rundin writes, from the way feasts are portrayed in Homeric writings, it’s clear that feasting was inextricable from politics. (It’s worth noting that Homeric society, the setting of the Odyssey and the Iliad with all their gods, heroes, and monsters, isn’t exactly a real historical time and place. But it was certainly grounded in the real life of the region.)
For one thing, Rundin notes, feasts were a venue for carrying out economic policy. Rather than centralized state institutions, politics in the Homeric world consisted of chiefs vying for control through wealth, prestige, and military power. Gift-giving was a primary feature of many feasts. This allowed leaders to establish their status by sharing grain, meat, and other goods with other leaders and household heads.
“In Homer, a feast is a division of consumables, in particular, of meat,” Rundin writes. He notes that when Achilles hosts a feast he distributes meat among his guests himself, rather than leaving the duty to a servant.
If feasts help define political hierarchies, they also demonstrate who is excluded from them. Rundin notes that, while goddesses take part in Homeric feasts, mortal women generally do not, except in the role of servant. The few exceptions are women who don’t quite fit the mold of female humanity, like Helen of Troy (Zeus’s daughter). In the Iliad, Hector mocks Diomedes, saying that “the Danaans of the swift horses used to honor you beyond others with a seat and meats and full cups. Now they will take away that honor. You turned out to be like a woman.”
Beyond defining status relationships and distributing material resources, feasts in the Homeric world could also be political strategy sessions. During the siege of Troy in the Iliad, Nestor advices Agamemnon to “take charge, for you are the most kingly. Make a feast for the elders…. You have all the means to offer hospitality, and you rule over many. And of the many men who gather, you will listen to whoever suggests the best plan.”
Rundin writes that feasts also fostered a sense of belonging by celebrating bravery in battle and bringing allies together with music and poetry. The clearest evidence of this might be the contrast drawn between humans and the Cyclopes, among whom “no one has any power over anyone else.” Cyclopes drink milk rather than wine, and therefore, as Silenus tells Odysseus, “they live in a land without choruses.” This sort of an existence is so uncivilized that, rather than fete those who visit their land, the Cyclopes eat them up.
Homer’s lesson for us this feasting season might be that it can be worthwhile to talk politics around the table. At least it’s better than eating your guests.
A new SpaceX rocket launched recently carrying various satellites, including Tavares Strachan’s artwork “Enoch.” Strachan was inspired by the canopic jars that ancient Egyptians used in burials.
What were those canopic jars anyway? Well, to prepare for the afterlife, ancient Egyptians underwent elaborate mummification, including the removal of certain organs. The liver, stomach, lungs, and intestines were extracted, sometimes from an abdominal incision, and carefully placed within four containers known as canopic jars. While their design evolved over the centuries, they often involved an animal or human face carved on the lid. Sometimes they represented the deceased; other times divine protectors.
“During the New Kingdom, the mythical Four Sons of Horus, the son and successor of Osiris, god of the dead, were entrusted with the care of these organs,” writes archaeologist Robert S. Bianchi in Archaeology. “Later during the Third Intermediate period (1080-750 BCE), canopic jars were not popular and the soft organs were packaged individually into bundles and then redeposited into the abdominal cavity of the corpse.”
The number of jars—four—was possibly symbolic. As Egyptologist Maarten J. Raven explains in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, the number four appears in numerous Egyptian rituals, such as the “shooting of four arrows and the release of four birds during coronation rituals.” Although the jars were phased out over time, they did have an impact on other funerary traditions.
Canopic jars have long inspired other works. Curator Joan R. Mertens writes in Metropolitan Museum Journal that the jars may have inspired Etruscan urns, which similarly had a human head atop a simple terracotta base. Instead of organs, these held ashes of the dead. “The hypothesis that these Etruscan objects prompt is that, in the course of commercial contact, knowledge of a canopic urn, or urns, reached the Athenian potters’ quarter,” writes Mertens.
When Egyptomania swept through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, the canopic jars were among those artifacts reinterpreted into decorative arts. For instance, Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famed Wedgwood pottery company, designed one from black basalt that has a pharaonic head above reliefs of hieroglyphs. The visual essence of the canopic jar was there, but the Wedgwood iteration lacked its funerary and spiritual meaning. It was simply an object.
Still others were influenced by the original purpose of the vessels. Composer Claude Debussy owned a couple of canopic jars which he kept on his work table, and composed a 1913 piano prelude called “Canope.” “The sight of a stark, slender canopic jar itself may have suggested the unadorned, blocked chords of the opening section,” observes music scholar Richard Hoffman in College Music Symposium. Debussy’s enigmatic notes, and “tinges of modality,” suggest contemplation of a distant time and place.
Strachan’s 24-karat gold canopic jar, contained in a black frame, features the face of the first African American to train as an astronaut, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. Lawrence, an air force pilot with a PhD in physical chemistry, was selected in 1967 for the Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory. Tragically, Lawrence died on December 8th, 1967 while working as a supersonic jet instructor, teaching the landing techniques that would eventually be used on the Space Shuttles. He was thirty-two years old.
Strachan created “Enoch” through the Art+Technology Lab at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). As LACMA describes on its site, Strachan’s choice of a canopic jar “nods to a practice employed by the ancient Egyptians to protect and preserve organs of the deceased for use in the afterlife.” His sculptural tribute to Lawrence was blessed at a Shinto shrine in Japan, and there “recognized as a container for Lawrence’s soul” and named “Robert Lawrence–Enoch.” In some biblical texts, a man named Enoch lived over three centuries and entered heaven without experiencing death. Under this name, Lawrence spiritually departs the mortal plane and ascends into outer space.
Strachan is installing “beacons” that will light up on top of schools as “Enoch” travels above Earth for about seven years until it ultimately burns up in the atmosphere. Lawrence never got to space, yet in this tribute his spirit soars, embodied by this ancient symbol of life’s passage to the next realm.
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Facebook is unlikely to shut down tomorrow; nor is Twitter, or Instagram, or any other major social network. But they could. And it would be a good exercise to reflect on the fact that, should any or all of them disappear, no user would have any legal or practical recourse. I started thinking about this situation a few years ago when Tumblr—a platform devoted to a highly streamlined form of blogging, with an emphasis on easy reposting from other accounts—was bought by Yahoo. I was a heavy user of Tumblr at the time, having made thousands of posts, and given the propensity of large tech companies to buy smaller ones and then shut them down, I wondered what would become of my posts if Yahoo decided that Tumblr wasn’t worth the cost of maintaining it. I found that I was troubled by the possibility to a degree I hadn’t anticipated. It would be hyperbolic (not to say comical) to describe my Tumblr as a work of art, but I had put a lot of thought into what went on it, and sometimes I enjoyed looking through the sequence of posts, noticing how I had woven certain themes into that sequence, or feeling pleasure at having found interesting and unusual images. I felt a surge of proprietary affection—and anxiety.
Many personal computers have installed on them a small command-line tool called wget, which allows you to download webpages, or even whole websites, to your machine. I immediately downloaded the whole of my Tumblr to keep it safe—although if Tumblr did end up being shut down, I wasn’t sure how I would get all those posts back online. But that was a problem I could reserve for another day. In the meantime, I decided that I needed to talk with my students.
— Me, earlier this year. With Tumblr in the news I was reminded of my argument here, and would like to remind you of it as well.
What was the Nobel Prize in Literature? Everyone seems to think it’s over. December 10 is the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death and the date on which the prizes in his name are traditionally awarded. This year, for the first time ever, the Prize in Literature has been entirely omitted from the ceremony: no medal, no presentation speech, not even the announcement of an absent or unwilling...
There’s one piece of the plastic pollution puzzle that hasn’t gotten quite as much media attention as plastic rocks or the plastic island floating in the ocean. One of the largest contributors to plastic waste? Cigarette butts.
Despite a global reduction in smoking, cigarette waste remains a huge problem. According to one article by researcher Richard Barnes, in 2010 people worldwide smoked five trillion cigarettes. While the majority of the cigarette is burned, the plastic filter, contaminated with tobacco, formalin, and other chemicals, is left behind. Butts present a particular disposal problem since, unlike a lot of trash, they are disposed wherever a smoker happens to be. Cigarette butts can enter the environment literally from anywhere, and, according to Barnes, traditional approaches to litter prevention do not seem to have any effect on cigarette waste.
Of course, it’s not all the smokers’ faults. According to a BMJ article by scholars Elizabeth Smith and Patricia McDaniel, the tobacco industry has been aware of the issue for years. Manufacturers, concerned that the litter problem might lead to greater regulation of cigarettes, have sponsored various anti-litter campaigns. For a while, tobacco manufacturers mailed smokers individual ashtrays as a means to reduce litter. (A more effective tactic was to sponsor ashtrays in public locations.) One of the more cynical approaches was to try and push back against indoor air quality rules, on the grounds that forcing smokers outside contributed to the litter problem.
So what does work? One innovative idea that never actually went into practice was modeled on highly successful bottle deposit laws. A Maine proposal would have placed a surcharge on cigarettes, refundable when a pack’s worth of butts was returned for proper disposal. The idea never got off the ground due to handling concerns.
Then there is the filter itself. As Smith and McDaniel noted, cigarette filters don’t actually make smoking any healthier, so they introduce waste for no real purpose. No one has officially tried banning filters, but doing so would certainly reduce cigarette waste. Barring that, Smith and McDaniel suggest reframing cigarettes into a general environmental cost problem—talking in terms of waste, rather than litter. Studies show that consumers are receptive to reducing the overall impact of a product where appealing to their behavior may fail.
Most effective of all, though, are tactics to reduce smoking. In many areas, taxes on cigarettes have directly correlated with reduction in purchases. And fewer cigarettes means fewer butts.
Despite its subtle and not-so-subtle ravishments, a Warhol canvas is expressively vacant. “There’s no place for our spiritual eye to penetrate it,” the art historian Neil Printz has said of the work. “We’re just thrown back on the surface.” That’s true, though the effect is more dreadful than that. What made Warhol so perishingly cold was the implication that the “spiritual eye” never existed in the first place. Warhol, one observer put it, “wanted to be Greta Garbo, he wanted to be Marilyn Monroe,” and to better convert himself into an icon, he withdrew behind an affect as lifeless as one of his Marilyn paintings. The deadpan rigmarole was total. It functioned as an anti-elegy. It said that nothing was lost, that nothing of depth or value had been surrendered to the image.
— Stephen Metcalf. Is it Warhol who is “expressively vacant”? Or is it the world that he so faithfully represents? Imagine if Warhol, a faithful Ruthenian Catholic, had been born not in Pittsburgh but in the Carpathians two hundred years ago: Would you expect that an artist of his gifts, so culturally placed, would produce “expressively vacant” work?
For the past few years I have taught a first-year seminar, here in Baylor’s Honors College, focusing largely on technological and media literary. If I am honest with myself, I will have to admit that it has never gone particularly well.
If there is one argument that I make most relentlessly in the class, it is this: Every technology proferred to us by our technocracy has powerful affordances that are encoded in those technologies’ default settings. You do not have to stick with those defaults, and in some cases it can be dangerous or even unethical to do so. So what I’m trying to teach my students is what the Hebrew Bible calls bin, discernment, and what Aristotle and his heirs call phronesis, prudence or judgment. I don’t tell them to delete their Facebook accounts, but I do want them to know precisely what is involved in having a Facebook account, what the costs and benefits are; I want them to be thoughtful and mindful in how they use these technologies.
Some of them thank me for opening their eyes to the realities of our current socio-technological order, but more of them admit, either ruefully or a little defiantly, that nothing we’ve read or discussed is going to change their habits, because it’s just not important enough to invest time and energy in. They’re worried about whether they’re going to get into law school or medical school, and they want to have fun at football games, and when you add up the work hours and the leisure hours there just aren’t any left over for questioning the moral legitimacy of Instagram. And anyway that’s where their friends are. Usually there’s a shrug at this point.
And you know what? I don’t think I can say that they’re wrong. Maybe that’s a rational decision they’re making, all things considered. In which case I need to find a new topic for my first-year seminar.
UNC Press highlights historian Nina Silber’s new book, This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America. Silber’s book examines the place the war, slavery, and reconstruction had in American culture and politics in the pre-Civil Rights, inter-war era. Silber situates the Civil War firmly within FDR’s thinking in addressing the Great Depression. The invocation of “slavery” by Roosevelt and other new dealers was a rhetorical strategy that sought to link Depression-era whites’ economic distress with that of enslaved African Americans of nineteenth century—but often came at the expense of addressing their very African American peers in the 1930s and 40s.
An earlier version of Silber’s approach to these two eras is found in her 2015 article for the Journal of the Civil War Era. There, she discusses Abraham Lincoln’s legacy in the 1930s. According to Silber, “Lincoln now took center stage in volatile discussions about economic collapse, race and civil rights, and global conflict.”
At Harvard University Press’ blog, Lindsay Waters reflects on his longtime editorship of philosopher Bruno Latour.
Latour is a pioneering and interdisciplinary figure whose initial work challenged prevailing notions of scientific facticity and truth. According to some critics, that critique been adopted by climate change deniers and others outside the field’s mainstream. It would be hard to place too much blame on Latour, though. In recent years he has focused almost exclusively on climate change, collaborating with researchers in fields across the earth and planetary sciences.
Latour wrote a short piece for Science in 1998 outlining his engagement with the disciplines. Latour seeks to champion “research” before “science.” “Science,” as such, seeks certainty and finality, whereas “research” seeks uncertainty and new frontiers. “Science might be dead,” he writes, “but then long live research!”
At the University of Minnesota Press’ blog, environmental humanist Nicole Seymour discusses her new book, Bad Environmentalism: Affect and Dissent in the Ecological Age. Seymour’s book interrogates the major modes of environmentalist discourse: “not only shame and guilt but also sanctimony, self-righteousness, ‘gloom and doom,’ reverence, and sentimentality” in favor of “irony, irreverence, glee, absurdity, perversity, and playfulness.”
For Seymour, shame or virtue signaling over personal behavior misses the point that “just 100 companies are responsible for the majority of global emissions,” as a recent report showed.
In an ironic letter to her former home of Little Rock, AR, Seymour links an emergent “ironic” remembrance of Civil Rights historiography to a new environmental ethic, not dissimilar from what she outlines in Bad Environmentalism: “For one thing, irony can ensure that the stories we tell of environmental resilience and recovery—stories that lift us out of gloom and doom—still maintain a critical edge; that they are not naïve or Pollyannaish, that they do not license further environmental destruction.”
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Ever since James Cook nearly wrecked his ship on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770 ...
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I was honored to be asked by Europeana, the indispensable, unified digital collection of Europe’s cultural heritage institutions, to write a piece celebrating the 10th anniversary of their launch. My opening words:
‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed,’ science fiction writer William Gibson famously declared. But this is even more true about the past.
The world we live in, the very shape of our present, is the profound result of our history and culture in all of its variety, the good as well as the bad. Yet very few of us have had access to the full array of human expression across time and space.
Cultural artifacts that are the incarnations of this past, the repository of our feelings and ideas, have thankfully been preserved in individual museums, libraries, and archives. But they are indeed unevenly distributed, out of the reach of most of humanity.
Europeana changed all of this. It brought thousands of collections together and provided them freely to all. This potent original idea, made real, became an inspiration to all of us, and helped to launch similar initiatives around the world, such as the Digital Public Library of America.
You can read my entire piece at the special 10th anniversary website, along with pieces from the heads of the Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons, and others. Allez culture and congrats to my friends at Europeana on this great milestone!
When a recent Pew survey asked what gives Americans a sense of meaning, thirty-four percent mentioned their careers—making this the second most common answer after family. As theology scholar Jonathan Malesic writes, in the United States, finding meaning through work is a concept that has been closely associated with Christianity. But Christian theology may also offer reasons, and methods, to make work less central to our lives.
Malesic notes two concepts that typically define Christian attitudes toward work: vocation and co-creation. He writes that vocation, particularly in Lutheran thought, means that “any and every station can be a means of serving God and society, and each station has its characteristic duties.” Co-creation, meanwhile, celebrates work as an expression of human beings’ likeness to God—a way to “stretch” divine creation and bring forth new things.
But Malesic argues that these ideas might not help people cope with work as it exists in rich nations of the twenty-first century. For many of us today work is precarious, lacking the identity-defining stability associated with a calling. Modern work is also often abstract—moving pixels across screens or shifting numbers in databases rather than really creating anything new.
To make sense of today’s working life, Malesic suggests drawing from a different Christian tradition: the asceticism of Benedictine monks. For them, he argues, work is primarily penitential. Labor is necessary to keep the basic functions of a monastery running, but its more central spiritual function is to mortify bad impulses and promote patience and devotion. In contrast to the industrial capitalist model of work, this perspective makes the subjective experience of work, rather than its products, central.
During the Industrial Revolution, factory owners adopted new technologies to create increasingly specialized jobs. This vastly increased productivity while relegating workers to repeating a single function all day. In contrast, during the Middle Ages, monks used new labor-saving innovations like the mill not to increase productivity but to free up more time for communal prayer.
Rather than specializing in one duty for maximal efficiency, Benedict prescribed rotating jobs like dishwashing or reading aloud to the other monks during mealtimes. While some jobs might require specialized skills, he insisted that artisans must remain humble:
If one of them becomes puffed up by his skillfulness in his craft and feels he is conferring something on the monastery, he is to be removed from practicing his craft and not allowed to resume it unless, after manifesting his humility, he is so ordered by the abbot.
Malesic suggests that Benedict has something to teach twenty-first century workers. For one thing, our work doesn’t just create products but also helps to form our subjective natures. For another, work alone can’t create meaning in the way we sometimes crave. According to Malesic, like Benedictine monks, today’s workers may want to try to “combat work’s expansion into their time, space, and person, so they can devote more of these resources to spiritual aims—including simple leisure.”
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As it happens, a large amount of carbon sits in American dirt. If that carbon escapes into the atmosphere, it will worsen climate change. Should a small nation ever appoint you despot of all climate laws, please do something about dirt. But generally and politically speaking, dirt does not get the people going. Upon hearing the slogan “Dirt: Now More Than Ever,” most voters will not picture overflowing cornucopias of prosperity. They will picture bath time.
I have come to think of this tension as climate policy’s Boring-as-Dirt Problem: the BAD problem. The BAD problem recognizes that climate change is a very interesting challenge. It is scary and massive and apocalyptic, and its attendant disasters (especially hurricanes, wildfires, and floods) make for good TV. But the policies that will address climate change do not pack the same punch. They are technical and technocratic and quite often boring. At the very least, they will never be as immediate as climate change itself. Floods are powerful, but stormwater management is arcane. Wildfires are ravenous, but electrical-grid upgrades are tedious. Climate change is scary, but dirt is boring. That’s the BAD problem.
— Robinson Meyer. As Rob suggests, almost every social problem in desperate need of addressing shares the BAD problem.
It isn’t easy to be a citizen in 2018. We are told to watch out for bots and biased ...
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Deep in the birches and oaks of Ashdown Forest, William Butler Yeats and his new bride Georgie Hyde-Lees were having a miserable first few days of marriage. A.A. Milne would later turn the same Sussex forest into the cheerful Hundred Acre Wood, but the mood on the Yeats’ honeymoon in 1917 was as gloomy as a funeral with Eeyore.
The newly married Yeats—famous for lines like “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” and “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree”—was also the newly twice-rejected Yeats. Georgie was his third in a series of quick-fire marriage proposals that began with his longtime obsession, Maud Gonne. Maud rejected it. He followed up with a boomerang proposal to, of all people, her daughter, Iseult. Iseult rejected it. Like a whack-a-mole, Yeats bounced back. “You are certainly in a muddle,” Yeats’ friend Lady Gregory replied when he wrote that he planned to see if his friend Georgie, 27 years his junior, would make the third time the charm.
Mere days into their honeymoon at the Ashdown Forest Hotel, Georgie (renamed George by her husband) must have had a ghostly suspicion—or perhaps simply seen the poorly hidden fact—that Yeats was still writing wistful letters to Iseult. Another newlywed might have told Yeats to take a long walk into the Lake of Innisfree. Instead, playing on their mutual interest in spiritualism and the occult, George tried a novel approach to saving her marriage.
“On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage,” wrote Yeats, “my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer.” Automatic writing, where, according to believers, a spirit guides the pencil of a living medium as he or she writes out the spirit’s message, wasn’t unheard of at the time. Starting with Victorianism, and resurging after a generation perished in World War I, spiritualist experiments to communicate with the dead via table turning, tarot, séances, and the occult had fascinated western society. George’s new husband was one of the fascinated. Throwing away his correspondence with his former flames, Yeats’ became obsessed with his new wife. He now had a live-in medium.
The clairvoyant couple were inexhaustible. In their first three years together, they averaged three automatic writing sessions a week, creating 4,000 pages of material dictated by the spirits through George to her husband. Conveniently, the spirits got to work extracting Yeats from his obsession with Maud and Iseult. Their advice didn’t end there: They suggested he switch to a healthier diet, hinted when George was ovulating so the couple could have a baby, and offered helpful suggestions on how Yeats could make sex more enjoyable for George.
Most importantly, the spirits provided Yeats with raw material for his poems. All of it was from George’s pencil. It took decades for Yeats scholarship to state the obvious: “We are having to take an extraordinary fact into far more serious consideration than we have before,” wrote Margaret Mills Harper in 1988. “Much of the literary output of one of our century’s major poets from the year of his marriage on was directly influenced by a unique imaginative partnership with a highly creative woman.” George’s supernatural writings were eventually published in a book called A Vision. Yeats’ name was the only one on the title page. In at least seven editions of A Vision, George has never been credited as a co-author. Yeats did offer to dedicate a later edition to her. “To my wife,” the proposed dedication read, “who created this system which bores her, who made possible these pages which she will never read…” George rejected it.
George wasn’t the only spiritual collaborator to be cheated of proper coauthor credit for her writing. “It is now five years since the great gift of inspired writing first came to my wife,” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the introduction to a collection of his wife’s automatic writing, Pheneas Speaks. “The sentiments expressed by no means represent those of the Medium or of myself.” Lady Doyle at least got a dedication acknowledgement. Charles Wentworth Littlefield’s medium for The Beginning and Way of Life was not so lucky. Littlefield thanked St. Paul and St. John for dictating the text but did not mention the medium who took dictation from the departed.
This terrible lack of credit is unsurprising given that, in the heyday of spiritualism, many mediums were women. The high percentage was predicated on the Victorian reasoning that the passivity of women made them the perfect empty vessel through which spirits could transmit their messages, argues the Victorian literary scholar Elana Gomel in a 2007 article for Victorian Literature and Culture. As the spiritualist movement became less socially taboo, it attracted women who were educated, well read, short on opportunities to flex their creativity, and locked out of “legitimate” creative spaces like publishing. In other words: aspiring authors.
Under the halo of the séance spotlight, women wrote pages of automatic writing filled with rich narrative, character, and dialogue. A publishing industry sprang up in response to the public’s appetite for ghostwriting, ranging from memoirs of pirates to murder mysteries. Often, it was the wealthy clients or male family members listening to the séances who published the materials. Routinely, the medium’s authorship was not credited. That is, until one medium turned the tables on table turning and took the issue to court. In doing so, she changed copyright law forever.
In July of 1926, a year after the first printing of A Vision reached six hundred private subscribers, the spirit medium Geraldine Cummins hauled Frederick Bligh Bond into the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice. In several spirit sessions attended by Bond, Cummins had used a pencil to automatically scrawl out, at 2,000 words an hour, the text of The Chronicle of Cleophas. It was anticipated that the book would be lucrative. Bond had attempted to publish the book, arguing that he was the recipient of the messages. Also, he added, Cummins “could not have produced the work if he had not cooperated by placing his hand on the back of hers during the writing.”
Cummins slammed his paranormal argument with a legal one. Who owned the copyright to the story? The medium, the spirit, or the listener who paid for the session? The judge, Justice Eve, seemed to find much that was posthumorous in the posthumous property case. He pointed out that his jurisdiction was limited to England, so he couldn’t rule on the spiritual plane. A commentator in The Virginia Law Review helpfully suggested that the spirit Cleophas be brought in to be cross-examined via automatic writing.
In a ruling that would, bizarrely, affect the course of intellectual property law forever after, Geraldine Cummins won the copyright. Cummins v. Bond determined that an author is the one who converts the message of the supernatural into readable language. It set a precedent that the author is the individual “but for whose actions” the work would not exist, as the legal scholar Shyamkrishna Balganesh noted in 2017 in the Columbia Law Review. While perhaps intended facetiously then, it is relevant in the current age of AI that the case also ruled the author must be human.
While Geraldine Cummins was slapping away Bond’s unhelpful hand from her automatic writing pencil, women were finding agency in hacking another form of spirit authorship to get access to the publishing queue. These women added new literature to the canon under the name of a deceased male celebrity. The literary scholar Helen Sword describes how Hester Dowden published a new book dictated to her by Oscar Wilde—who had died 24 years before. The book led to a fight in the Occult Review between Arthur Conan Doyle—Lady Doyle’s co-author on Pheneas Speaks—who claimed the author was clearly Wilde, and C. W. Soal, who claimed “that the author of the text was the medium herself, even though she may not have been aware of her forgery.”
Meanwhile, Lola V. Hayes crafted and published a new Mark Twain book, Jap Herron: a novel written from the Ouija Board. It won national attention, as well as its own lawsuit from Samuel L. Clemens’ daughter. Theodora Bosanquet took up the mantle for the deceased Henry James, the writer Leigh Wilson notes in Critical Survey. When Marguerite Eymery’s first book earned her a prison sentence in absentia for her erotic gender-bending storytelling, she explained that the real author was Rachilde, a late Swedish nobleman, the literary scholar Muireann Maguire writes in The Modern Language Review. These women pirated the brand names of dead celebrities, using them to find agency, if not an author credit, and slip into publishing through a side door.
This heyday of spiritualist ghostwriting took place, not coincidentally, just as the modern ideas of authorship and copyright were being codified. Some mediums, like Hester Dowden, used that authorial ambiguity to their advantage. Others, like Lady Doyle, were caught up in pre-Cummins power dynamics. All of these women comprise a secret congregation of overlooked writers, whose names are as buried as the bodies of those they ghostwrote for.
George Yeats outlived her husband by three decades. His rejected dedication in A Vision had thanked her for working on a project that she was too bored to read. Despite her apparent boredom, after his death, George took up A Vision and edited it for immediate republication. “[Yeats] had not been long in his temporary resting place… before the process began of—not to put too fine a point on it—corrupting the texts,” says Yeats diehard Richard Finnneran. Rather than move on from the writing she had poured so many hours into since that first week in Ashdown Forest, George continued to fine tune and tweak the work collected years later in editions of Yeats’ poems.
Like Hester Dowden and Lady Doyle, George was purportedly one of the most finely tuned spirit mediums of her time. One might therefore assume she could have gotten in touch with the deceased Yeats to collaborate on these revisions. But, oddly enough, it doesn’t seem like she ever asked for his input.
Surveying the devastation of California’s Camp Fire, President Trump suggested that America’s forests aren’t sufficiently raked. He went on to cite heavily-forested Finland as a place that knows its raking. (According to the Finnish president, Finns are accomplished yard maintainers but don’t rake forests). Whatever President Trump really meant, it does pose an interesting question. What is a forest fire like in Finland?
Comparing Finland to California is problematic to begin with. While Chico, CA, near the Camp Fire, is located at approximately 39.70 N latitude, Helsinki, the Finnish capital, is around 610 N. That puts Finnish forests squarely within the boreal Forest, or Taiga, biome. The Taiga is a ring of mostly evergreen forests that spans the Earth from around 500 N to the Arctic Circle. In other words, it’s a very different place from Northern California’s Sierra forests, which are comprised of mixed conifer and hardwoods, and the chaparral, the dry scrub forests found in Southern California.
So what is a boreal forest? As described by biologists M. Fauria and E.A. Johnson, much of the year the taiga is frozen, snowy, and cold, conditions that are not conducive to fires. As such, the boreal forest has a short fire season, lasting from May to August, peaking between mid-June and mid July. By August, burns decline rapidly. The unfavorable conditions limit the size of fires, although the infrequent large fires are responsible for most of the damage.
As much of the taiga is uninhabited, lightning is the primary source of fire. Most of these fires are crown fires, which burn rapidly across the tree tops, rather than fires that completely obliterate everything, as has been seen in the American West. The biggest risk factor for taiga fires is a particular climate pattern that causes spans of very dry air. Precipitation declines and fuel quickly dries out, increasing fire risk while these conditions last.
Given the vast, empty areas of the taiga, forest management has been limited. While decades of fire suppression in the American West allowed fuel to build up, increasing the severity of fires, suppression is mostly irrelevant in boreal fires. The sparse population also keeps the loss of property and life low.
There is a connection, however, between taiga fires and those seen in California. Just as climate change has been causing warmer and drier conditions in the American West, increasing the risk of devastating wildfires, high latitudes have been and are expected to experience even more dramatic temperature increases. The effects are already noticeable. The largest fires, once rare, are steadily becoming more common. And if the taiga becomes warmer and drier, fires will be more frequent in those forests as well.