Walking on Air: A Science and Poetics of Light and Levity

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If one of the globules of blood that circulate in our veins were magnified enough million times, we might see a globe teeming with life and power.

Aristotle's epistemology

Such is this earth of ours, coursing in the veins of the Infinite. Size is only relative, and the imagination finds no end to the series either way. Looking out of the car window one day, I saw the pretty and unusual sight of an eagle sitting upon the ice in the river, surrounded by half a dozen or more crows. The crows appeared as if looking up to the noble bird and attending his movements.

How much did that man know—not about eagles, but about Nature? If he had been familiar with geese or hens, or with donkeys, he would not have asked that question. The ancients had an axiom that he who knew one truth knew all truths; so much else becomes knowable when one vital fact is thoroughly known.

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You have a key, a standard, and cannot be deceived. Chemistry, geology, astronomy, natural history, all admit one to the same measureless interiors. I heard a great man say that he could see how much of the theology of the day would fall before the standard of him who had got even the insects. And let any one set about studying these creatures carefully, and he will see the force of the remark.

We learn the tremendous doctrine of metamorphosis from the insect world; and have not the bee and the ant taught man wisdom from the first? I was highly edified the past summer by observing the ways and doings of a colony of black hornets that established themselves under one of the projecting gables of my house. This hornet has the reputation of being a very ugly customer, but I found it no trouble to live on the most friendly terms with her. She was as little disposed to quarrel as I was.

She is indeed the eagle among hornets, and very noble and dignified in her bearing. She used to come freely into the house and prey upon the flies. You would hear that deep, mellow hum, and see the black falcon poising on wing, or striking here and there at the flies, that scattered on her approach like chickens before a hawk. When she had caught one, she would alight upon some object and proceed to dress and draw her game. The wings were sheared off, the legs cut away, the bristles trimmed, then the body thoroughly bruised and broken.

When the work was completed, the fly was rolled up into a small pellet, and with it under her arm the hornet flew to her nest, where no doubt in due time it was properly served up on the royal board. Every dinner inside these paper walls is a state dinner, for the queen is always present.

I used to mount the ladder to within two or three feet of the nest and observe the proceedings. I at first thought the workshop must be inside,—a place where the pulp was mixed, and perhaps treated with chemicals; for each hornet, when she came with her burden of materials, passed into the nest, and then, after a few moments, emerged again and crawled to the place of building. But I one day stopped up the entrance with some cotton, when no one happened to be on guard, and then observed that, when the loaded hornet could not get inside, she, after some deliberation, proceeded to the unfinished part and went forward with her work.

Hence I inferred that maybe the hornet went inside to report and to receive orders, or possibly to surrender her material into fresh hands. Her career when away from the nest is beset with dangers; the colony is never large, and the safe return of every hornet is no doubt a matter of solicitude to the royal mother. The hornet was the first paper-maker, and holds the original patent.

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The paper it makes is about like that of the newspaper; nearly as firm, and made of essentially the same material,—woody fibres scraped from old rails and boards. And there is news on it, too, if one could make out the characters. When I stopped the entrance with cotton, there was no commotion or excitement, as there would have been in the case of yellow-jackets.

Those outside went to pulling, and those inside went to pushing and chewing. Only once did one of the outsiders come down and look me suspiciously in the face, and inquire very plainly what my business might be up there.

I bowed my head, being at the top of a twenty-foot ladder, and had nothing to say. The cotton was chewed and moistened about the edges till every fibre was loosened, when the mass dropped.

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But instantly the entrance was made smaller, and changed so as to make the feat of stopping it more difficult. There are those who look at Nature from the standpoint of conventional and artificial life,—from parlor windows and through gilt-edged poems,—the sentimentalists. At the other extreme are those who do not look at Nature at all, but are a grown part of her, and look away from her toward the other class,—the backwoodsmen and pioneers, and all rude and simple persons. Then there are those in whom the two are united or merged,—the great poets and artists.

In them the sentimentalist is corrected and cured, and the hairy and taciturn frontiersman has had experience to some purpose. The true poet knows more about Nature than the naturalist because he carries her open secrets in his heart. Eckermann could instruct Goethe in ornithology, but could not Goethe instruct Eckermann in the meaning and mystery of the bird?

It is my privilege to number among my friends a man who has passed his life in cities amid the throngs of men, who never goes to the woods or to the country, or hunts or fishes, and yet he is the true naturalist. I think he studies the orbs.

Numéros en texte intégral

I think day and night and the stars, and the faces of men and women, have taught him all there is worth knowing. We run to Nature because we are afraid of man. Our artists paint the landscape because they cannot paint the human face. If we could look into the eyes of a man as coolly as we can into the eyes of an animal, the products of our pens and brushes would be quite different from what they are. But I suspect, after all, it makes but little difference to which school you go, whether to the woods or to the city.

A sincere man learns pretty much the same things in both places.


From ancient times to the present moment, from mystics to quantum physicists, nothing has so fascinated, so perplexed, so captivated, and so mystified the mind . Walking on Air: A Science and Poetics of Light and Levity - Kindle edition by Hyatt Carter. Download it once and read it on your Kindle device, PC, phones or .

The differences are superficial, the resemblances deep and many. The hermit is a hermit, and the poet a poet, whether he grow up in the town or the country. I was forcibly reminded of this fact recently on opening the works of Charles Lamb after I had been reading those of our Henry Thoreau. Lamb cared nothing for nature, Thoreau for little else. One was as attached to the city and the life of the street and tavern as the other to the country and the life of animals and plants. Yet they are close akin.

They give out the same tone and are pitched in about the same key. Their methods are the same; so are their quaintness and scorn of rhetoric. Thoreau has the drier humor, as might be expected, and is less stomachic. There is more juice and unction in Lamb, but this he owes to his nationality. Both are essayists who in a less reflective age would have been poets pure and simple. Both were spare, high-nosed men, and I fancy a resemblance even in their portraits. There was a willfulness and perversity about Thoreau, behind which he concealed his shyness and his thin skin, and there was a similar foil in Lamb, though less marked, on account of his good-nature; that was a part of his armor, too.

Speaking of Thoreau's dry humor reminds me how surely the old English unctuous and sympathetic humor is dying out or has died out of our literature.

Our first notable crop of authors had it,—Paulding, Cooper, Irving, and in a measure Hawthorne,—but our later humorists have it not at all, but in its stead an intellectual quickness and perception of the ludicrous that is not unmixed with scorn. One of the marks of the great humorist, like Cervantes, or Sterne, or Scott, is that he approaches his subject, not through his head merely, but through his heart, his love, his humanity.

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His humor is full of compassion, full of the milk of human kindness, and does not separate him from his subject, but unites him to it by vital ties. How Sterne loved Uncle Toby and sympathized with him, and Cervantes his luckless knight! I fear our humorists would have made fun of them, would have shown them up and stood aloof superior, and "laughed a laugh of merry scorn. And this point cannot be too strongly insisted on in view of the fact that nearly all our humorous writers seem impressed with the conviction that their own dignity and self-respect require them to look down upon what they portray.

But it is only little men who look down upon anything or speak down to anybody.

One sees every day how clear it is that specially fine, delicate, intellectual persons cannot portray satisfactorily coarse, common, uncultured characters. Their attitude is at once scornful and supercilious. The great man, like Socrates, or Dr. Johnson, or Abraham Lincoln, is just as surely coarse as he is fine, but the complaint I make with our humorists is that they are fine and not coarse in any healthful and manly sense.

The Story of Light

A great part of the best literature and the best art is of the vital fluids, the bowels, the chest, the appetites, and is to be read and judged only through love and compassion. Let us pray for unction, which is the marrowfat of humor, and for humility, which is the badge of manhood. As the voice of the American has retreated from his chest to his throat and nasal passages, so there is danger that his contribution to literature will soon cease to imply any blood or viscera, or healthful carnality, or depth of human and manly affection, and will be the fruit entirely of our toploftical brilliancy and cleverness.

What I complain of is just as true of the essayists and the critics as of the novelists. The prevailing tone here also is born of a feeling of immense superiority. How our lofty young men, for instance, look down upon Carlyle, and administer their masterly rebukes to him! Ay, there's the rub; he makes heroes of them, which is not a trick of small natures.