The Moth and the Milky Way: In search of the obvious in art and nature

by Pamela Guerra

After beginning his lecture by acknowledging the individuals and organizations that brought him to campus, Jonathan Meiburg (C’97) also jokingly thanked them “for giving me a nice, narrow topic to discuss – Art and Nature, which, as I thought about it, is kind of a lot to take on in an hour.” In all seriousness, Meiburg might be one of the most qualified speakers to tackle such a subject. As an English major and recipient of the prestigious Watson Fellowship during his time on the Mountain, Meiburg has become a full-time musician, part-time ornithologist, and occasional interviewee for publications such as Scientific American after graduating from Sewanee.

Meiburg’s lecture focused on the intersection between art and the sciences and how the two really aren’t as disparate as one might think. “I should begin by saying that I feel like I only really started to notice the natural world after I left here,” Meiburg confessed, alluding to his Watson Fellowship. During this year abroad, he discovered his interest in ornithology—particularly with regards to a bird in the Falklands called the Striated Caracara. “I’m a little ashamed of that, given the abundance of it that’s served up to you on the Mountain. But it can be the hardest thing, sometimes, to see what’s right in front of you.” He added, “I also think that, as a English major, I was a little suspicious of the sciences. Not because I didn’t ‘believe’ in science, but that science’s approach to the world seemed, at a distance, to be reductive, dedicated to taking things apart, when I thought wanted to know about the fullness, the gestalt, the mystical vision, in which everything is revealed at once. Or maybe I was just was too afraid to admit that there was a lot I didn’t know.”

In the background of his lecture, Meiburg showed some films by pioneering French filmmaker Jean Painlevé. With his work and life partner Geneviéve Hamon, Painlevé made films about biology and other sciences, for he believed that “science IS fiction.” According to Meiburg, “I think [Painlevé] meant that our famous imagination often falls short of the complexity, variety, and beauty of the actual world. He set out to prove it by taking the camera places it hadn’t really been before, especially into the microscopic world and underwater, where he loved filming the lives—especially the sex lives—of the weird creatures that lived in tidal pools on the coast of Brittany—and using the new cinematic techniques of slow motion and time-lapse to change the scale at which we can see them.”

Discussing the Universal Genetic Code, Meiburg pointed out that DNA uses the same three-letter chemical code words to signify the same amino acids in just about every living thing. He noted, “You might have seen the slogan that says ‘you share 99% of your DNA with a chimpanzee, but you also share 60% with a banana’. The meaning of those particular numbers can be debated, but the undeniable fact is that you share DNA itself, the basic plans for the chemical process that produced you, with everything that lives on Earth. And that all of this DNA, in all of these individual beings and lives, communicates in the same chemical language, leaves us a trail of bread crumbs that leads ultimately back to a common source—a common single ancestor—for all life.”

Meiburg then moved on to speak about the world from a broader perspective, touching on the idea of deep time. Passing around a fragment of the Diablo Canyon meteorite—which landed in Meteor Crater in Arizona about 50,000 years ago—he commented that “it’s a little fragment of the solar system, all of the stuff of which is about the same age – including the stuff that makes up you and me; every part of your body and your mind is as old as this little rock…This little lump of iron has been a lump of iron for about 4.5 billion years, and it spent nearly all of that time floating in space.” Imagining the world on this sort of timeline appears as an extremely difficult task for most, and Meiburg acknowledged this fact: “But trying to really imagine 4.5 billion years—let alone a million, or even a thousand, is nearly impossible. In the English department, the oldest thing we read was Homer, who described a world of gods, giants, and spear-wielding warriors that seemed pretty remote, and those stories date from about three thousand years ago. Wind the clock back even a little from there and things start getting really weird. Ten thousand years ago, there were still wooly mammoths, giant sloths, camels, and saber-toothed cats around here, and humans, though we’d been on the scene for a while already, hadn’t yet invented agriculture…this sense of the abundance of deep time is, in a way, luxurious.” Jokingly, he added, “Look in Dr. Potter’s eyes, he’s swimming in it. Relax. Look around. There’s So. Much. Time.”

Meiburg noted that “fright, wonder, joy, despair” all seem like valid reactions when one realizes that the Earth is in its final days—in the context of deep time, of course. “But they’re also unbearable, volatile emotional states, that want to get out, radiate light and heat, and return to rest. If there’s a universal wellspring for art, I think this is it. It’s like a ringing phone. Are you going to pick it up? Isn’t it harder not to?” Meiburg said. He also commented that “we spend most of our time sealed in our conceptual worlds, of which the Internet is a recent and powerful manifestation, lost in Plato’s cave, entranced by the shadows, and making use of their two-dimensional outlines to simplify all the input we have to contend with every day” and pointed out that “paradoxically, I think this unstable, action-forcing feeling—of glimpsing yourself in a broad, even cosmic context—might have been easier for our ancestors to reach than it is for us now, despite all that we now know about the Earth and the cosmos. Partly because I think we’ve been victims of our own conceptual success.”

Throughout the course of the lecture, Meiburg managed to relate even more topics such as visual art and color perception, music and perception of pitch and harmony, graffiti, and his own personal research on the Striated Caracara. Meiburg also revealed the source for the title of his lecture: The Sphinx and the Milky Way, by the 20th century American artist Charles Burchfield. Said Meiburg, “This is a painting about context above almost everything else, to me, though even as I say that it sounds pitifully reductive. Our Sphinx is a Sphinx moth, from the family Sphingidae, hovering at the bottom of the frame, while the Milky Way looms above her.” Meiburg commented, “I love the way that, in this image, Burchfield resolves the focus on objects that are as close as your hand and light-years away, without diminishing either, and in fact makes them seem intensely related.”

Meiburg concluded the talk with a quotation from Painlevé about the filmmaker’s description of his own daily work: “Wading around in water up to your ankles or navel, day and night, in all kinds of weather, even in areas where one is sure to find nothing, digging about everywhere for algae or octopus, or getting hypnotized by a sinister pond where everything seems to promise marvels although nothing lives there. This is the ecstasy of any addict.” Adding his own ideas about the intersection of nature and art, Meiburg ended his lecture by stating, “Nature and art share this: the mere fact of their being has a cosmic resonance, like the vibration of a great string, and they seem to, ineffably, both ask and answer the question: What does the world mean?”