The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, native of the Prussian town of Königsberg and a towering figure in Western thought, was in life a rather diminutive man. His writing reveals that he rued his stature, his “flat and narrow chest” in particular. Yet his negative opinion of it appears to have rested on concerns of well-being rather than personal vanity: A chest as slight as his, he wrote, accommodated but “little movement for the heart and lungs.” Similarly cramped must have been his stomach, for it often troubled him. Such complaints notwithstanding, Kant would frequently put to friends the question, “Is it possible to conceive a human being with more perfect health than myself?” Though the question may be thought to mask a boast, it’s likely Kant really sought validation of his daily habits, which were as regular as they were salubrious.
“Nature, thou ever budding one,
Thou formats each for life’s enjoyments,
And, like a mother, all thy children dear,
Blessed with that sweet heritage, — a home!”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Wanderer”
There are sometimes born into this world people of singular goodness. American naturalist William Bartram was one such person. (Kaspar Hauser, I would argue, is another.) I came across Bartram while researching staghorn sumac. From the tree’s crimson seed clusters — or drupes, more accurately — comes the lemony seasoning often used in Mediterranean cuisine. Sumac grows just as readily along the Eastern seaboard, as well, and it was one of the many plants Bartram painstakingly classified. He had a great love for plants and animals, a love which he worked tirelessly to impart to the wider world.
On summer weekends I swim in a nearby pond. Its water is as dark as Darjeeling tea, the hue owing to the pond’s bed of decayed leaves and organic matter cast off from the masses of trees and plants ringing its banks. The resulting sludge teems with microbes, insects, and all the other minute creatures that feed the snakes, snapping turtles, and bluegills I see as I do my lonely laps. Plants likewise feast on the nitrogen and phosphorus present, and as they grow, flower, and die, they themselves become part of the ooze. Its this virtuous cycle of rot and rebirth that makes ponds and other bodies of water throngingly alive.