Robin Wall Kimmerer on Attention

I’ve been growing mint and watching birds during the pandemic. I am constantly amazed by what I’ve been seeing and learning and how ignorant I was for over four decades of things that were right in front of me. This morning, I came across this quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (via Maria Popova) that resonated in ways that it wouldn’t have a year ago:

We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.

Reinhold Niebuhr on Hope, Faith, Love, and Forgiveness

From Reinhold Niebuhr’s book, The Irony of American History (1952):

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Via Katherine Tyler Scott. Hat tip to Joanna Levitt Cea.

Quote Investigator to the Rescue!

At the end of last year, I received a Christmas card from a friend with this lovely quote attributed to the great writer and thinker, James Baldwin:

Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant tasks.

As is my practice with quotes that I like, I did a quick search to see if I could confirm the source, and I came up empty. I saw this quote attributed to Baldwin hundreds of times with nary a citation. I then checked Wikiquote, which is invaluable for rooting out misattributed quotes, but had no luck there either.

Usually, at this point, I assume that the quote is misattributed, and I stop looking. But just a few weeks earlier, my friend, Kate, who knows about my hangup with misattributed quotes, sent me a link to Garson O’Toole’s website, the “Quote Investigator,” who “diligently seeks the truth about quotations.” I loved his website, and while it looked like he received more requests than he could handle, I decided to ask him for help on a whim.

Over two months had passed, and I had long figured that he had been too busy to respond. Then, this morning, to my surprise, I received an email from him! He had researched my request and had published his answer! In short, Garson was unable to find any evidence that James Baldwin said it. However, Garson’s story of the trail he followed was just as interesting. I’d encourage folks to read the whole story.

The virality of today’s Internet tools has its costs, as we’re recognizing more and more these days. But these same tools offer ways to counter to these problems… should we decide to leverage them (as Mike Caulfield passionately reminds us to do). I’m grateful for folks like Garson, and I’m grateful that the Internet — along with a good dose of real-life social connections — enabled me to find him. Seeing his research made my morning!

Copyright and the Evolution and Availability of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Speeches

Last week, I wrote a blog post for Faster Than 20 where I quoted some lines from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1961 commencement speech at Lincoln University. I first heard this and many others last summer on Spotify, which has a comprehensive playlist of King’s speeches.

The Lincoln University one grabbed me the most, and when I decided to revisit it last week, I searched for a transcription and was surprised that I couldn’t find one. I found a few scanned versions, but no transcriptions.

At first, that made me wonder about the copyright status of his speeches. As suspected, the King estate keeps tight hold over who and how his speeches get shared (as is its right). For example, it gave an exclusive film license to DreamWorks for an upcoming Steven Spielberg biopic, which meant that Ava DuVernay had to paraphrase his speeches for her movie, Selma.

Because I couldn’t find an existing transcript, I went through the trouble of transcribing one of the scanned versions for my own use. I also wondered whether some choice quotes from that speech were available anywhere. If not, I figured I could contribute some.

His Wikiquote page did not reference this particular speech, but it already had several of the quotes I wanted to share. Many of them, for example, appeared in his 1965 sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Not surprisingly, King reused parts of many speeches. It was fascinating to see how some of them evolved over time. I also think it’s fascinating to wonder how certain speeches became more prominent and others did not. I think his Lincoln University speech, for example, is far more powerful than the version he gave four years later at Temple Israel of Hollywood, but the latter is much easier to find.

I think this is unfortunate, but I’m glad that audio recordings of that speech (which is the best way to enjoy his speeches anyway) are more readily available:

Photo by Dick DeMarsico / New York World Telegram & Sun (November 6, 1964). From Wikimedia Commons.

“Collaboration” in the Public Consciousness

I was sorting through old books today, looking to get rid of a bunch, and I came across two ancient books of quotations, one from 1970, one from 1980. When I was younger, I used to use them a lot, but I hadn’t touched them in decades, and it was time for them to go.

I decided to find and record the quotes on collaboration, then give the books away. So I opened them up, and to my surprise, neither book had sections or indices on collaboration.

I realized this was an interesting way of tracking when collaboration as a concept entered more of the mainstream of public consciousness. When I get the chance, I’ll see if I can find when “collaboration” does start appearing in the index.

Google Books has a really cool feature called Ngram Viewer, which enables you to chart how often different words and phrases appear in Google’s considerable archive of scanned books, which date back to 1800. Several years ago, I searched for “collaboration,” which turned up this chart:

If I were to guess, the initial dip in 1943 is because the French word, “collaborateur,” became associated with those who were collaborating with the Nazis, and the term naturally lost favor. The term gradually returned into favor, and the most recent spike started in 1982. It will be interesting to see if the inquiry into quotation books lines up with this data.