Tag Archives: science

Finding the Mother Tree

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Suzanne Simard.

Simard Finding the Mother Tree

This volume should stand as the magnum opus text of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard. It’s hard to estimate the relative proportions of narrative memoir and silvicultural science here, in part because one of Simard’s themes is to challenge mechanistic-exploitative science divorced from narratives recognizing the agency of trees and forests.

The book’s most obvious theme is cooperation as a paradigm for forest growth and health. Simard communicates this idea very effectively. Despite her decades of efforts to get this perspective to inform policy and industrial practices, she still struggles for it to have traction in forestry management. She has been more successful among academics and the general public. It’s clear that there are actual elements of competition in natural ecology, but the conceptual exclusion of cooperative mechanisms is a debilitating fault that Simard’s work has consistently sought to address. (She doesn’t much bother to explain, but it is hideously obvious, that this feature in her field is derived from industrial capitalism and entrenched in neoliberal outlooks that create analogous damage on many other levels as well.)

On the philosophical level–again, inextricable from the memoirist content–I was reminded of Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, although the emphasis here on unrecognized complexity and interdependence strikes me as more sophisticated than Haraway’s slogan of “Make kin, not babies.” Simard’s trees seem to understand that they need to make kin (in Haraway’s sense) in order for their babies to thrive, and to make babies in order to perpetuate their constructive relationships with their kin.

The key (but far from only) scientific takeaway of the common mycorrhizal network as the material stratum of a forest’s collective intelligence is pretty thrilling. In other venues, she has referred to this collaborative vegetable-fungal matrix as an “underworld.” It is easy for me to imagine cultural evolution of local humans to appreciate this reality without the benefit of the sort of alienating experimental science that Simard has needed to use in validating and justifying her hypotheses. She claims that First Nations lore tallies with her discoveries.

After reading the book, I watched one of Simard’s successful TED Talks on YouTube, where I saw her rehearse some of the powerful anecdotes included in this book. She’s an adequate public speaker, although she confides in writing that she finds it an unpleasant ordeal. What holds the attention is the awareness she has to impart, and for me, the book medium was more effective. Not only did it supply a fuller explanation of the scientific ideas, but it also put her personal stories into the context of a life arc of professional challenges, intimate relationships, personal survival, and family affections.

Dark and Magical Places

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Christopher Kemp.

Kemp Dark and Magical Places

Dark and Magical Places is a popular science book written by a man with “no sense of direction” (4). Author Christopher Kemp rates himself a 1 out of 10 in the ability to find his way through spatial environments, and the text is at least as much about being lost as it is about successful navigation. Although the word doesn’t appear in this volume, neurodiversity is one of its chief themes. While Kemp does marvel at the “very few people who are really, really, really good and … a ton of people who are a little bit worse” at navigation, much of the book is concerned with ways in which “the tail of the graph stretches out and out and out into all sorts of realms of badness” (56, quoting researcher Hugo Spiers).

Since I had recently read and enjoyed Donald Hoffman’s The Case Against Reality, I was skeptical about the veridical model of perception that seems to underpin much of this book’s neuroscience. Kemp at one point draws on The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map (1978) to ask “Can objects exist without space? … Does space even exist, or is it an invention, a human construct–a figment of our imaginations? If we invented space, how did we do it?” (35) but he makes no serious effort to answer these questions. Instead, he relies on the axiom that “space and time are the raw materials of navigation” (16), when they might instead be the products of navigation. Correlating neuroanatomically-specified “activations” with spatial cognitions–a regular preoccupation of the text–does not establish the relevant modes of causation.

The book’s information about neurodiversity of spatial capabilities is not fatalistic. While identifying organic variety and congenital outliers, as well as the apparent heritability of DTD (“developmental topographical disorientation”), Kemp also establishes the possibility for people to improve their navigational capacity through training. Suitable activities include video games designed for the purpose and the practice of origami paper folding (106-7). There is also a dark side to this plasticity: dependence on GPS devices is evidently leading to seriously deteriorated navigational capacity in large segments of our population (173-4).

Kemp consults neuroscientist György Buzsáki for the notion of “mental travel” to characterize the integration of navigational functions with those of memory, planning, and imagination (44-5). In my own work, this idea opens fruitfully onto such “occult” activities as “astral” visionary work, “memory palaces,” and spatial orientation in ceremony. In light of some of the information in this book, I suspect that regular performance of the lesser ritual of the pentagram (and also a daily regimen of solar adorations) could in fact empower the memory, as well as reinforcing navigational ability. This relationship also led me to hypothesize an explanation for the strong mnemonic effects of olfactory stimuli: it seems likely that human smelling abilities co-evolved with our spatial navigation, and the two may overlap one another in their use of neural resources (83).

Despite my reservations about Kemp’s apparently mechanistic metaphysical angle and his unsophisticated epistemology, this book was full of interesting and useful scientific ideas, as well as a wealth of entertaining anecdotes, like the one about Noel Santillan who became a flash celebrity in Iceland by virtue of following hideously mistaken GPS directions (166-7, 177). It’s a short, 200-page volume in the usual format of successful contemporary popular science studies, and its information is terrifically current.

Christians have their Cross – fetish ov guilt and shame. Christ on thee Cross – symbol ov martyrdom/sacrifice for thee sinfulness ov thee human race. unworthy, godless slaves.

We repudiate – have our own fetish/symbol for thee immense possibilities and dimensions ov thee human mind and vessel in life. Thee Psychick Cross – an alchemical symbol for (magickally) dangerous material/knowledge. Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth is “danger” to dogmatic/streamlined thought, that is to thee stability/status quo in present society/culture: thee seed to a new science/way ov living.

TOPY is…

Hermetic quote TOPY is christians cross fetish guilt shame repudiate symbol immense possibilities dimensions human mind and vessel danger dogmatic status quo


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Levitation: Physics and Psychology in the Service of Deception. A Story about Stage Magic. [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by  Jim Ottaviani and Janine Johnston.

Ottaviani Johnston Levitation

This graphic novel is the first I’ve read with an annotated bibliography. It’s a fictionalized history of a single trick of stage magic, how it was devised, and its passage through three generations of performers. Although some supporting characters are purely fictional, the three magicians and the stage technician who serves as narrator are all actual historical figures.

The technical explanations that make up much of the book are not boring, nor do they seem too digressive. The ending, factual as it evidently is, has a small and quizzical taste of tragedy to it.

If you held the belief, child, that I knew everything that hid under every stone and leaf, I must disappoint you. I may have my own understanding of how the art works, sharpened by long years of memory, but I do not know how it will work for you. There is a reason I call magic an art, rather than a science. I might guess, but in guessing too hastily I might influence, or even diminish, your talents—taint you with my predictions.

J Kelley Anderson, Casting Shadows [Amazon]

Hermetic quote Anderson Casting Shadows taint you with my predictions

“This,” I said, “is contrary to all the doctrines of our science, which teaches that we can see nothing whatever unless it has a shape of some kind.”

“The eye of science sees only the outward form,” answered Adalga; “but the eye of wisdom sees the reality itself.”

Franz Hartmann, Among the Gnomes

Hermetic quote Hartmann Among the Gnomes the eye of wisdom sees reality itself