Beyond the stained-glass glow of the library’s windowed wall was a garden of medicinal plants. Purple bells of foxglove and yellow buttons of calendula flourished among the leafy blankets of chamomile and sage. For a summer I worked at the mahogany table where the man who invented the pacemaker once took tea.
My fellowship was for researching quack medicine, particularly as it related to matters of electricity and the heart, but on the first day I was scolded for using the word quack. One curator said it was a judgmental pejorative that misunderstood how important unproved theories are to the development of knowledge. Other fellows objected on similar grounds to pseudoscience, dead ends, mistakes, and folk. It became hard for me to say, when asked, what exactly I came to that place to learn.
Fortunately, there were many distractions in the archives. I followed a little question about luminescent aether into the whole history of hot-air balloons. Then nosed around in a box that contained the indecipherably calligraphic notebooks of a man who had been institutionalized for fifty years. His grandniece had brought them here after he died because she wasn’t sure how, but was sure they mattered.
I read with more or less derision the self-published account a farmer-scientist wrote about his experiments with a greenhouse constructed entirely of blue glass. Though his findings were not significantly for or against the light, he chose to print them on blue paper. Every time I turned another heavy, ink-saturated page I thought of how carefully he would have lifted each delicate pane into the frame of greenhouse, like he was holding a piece of the sky. What could you call him if not a quack?
Independent of these largely unread results, whole schools of thought in both psychiatry and the visual arts have emerged around the idea that our moods and capacities are influenced by the light we receive.
I hate learning. For my whole life I will never stop being wrong about what I used to think. It is such a painful and humiliating way to live and only the alternative is worse.
I live about one hundred miles from that farmer’s land. The winters up here are very long and dark, but when the gray months came, this man walked among his seedlings beneath a dome of blue.
Where do storks go in winter? One dumb beautiful theory was that they turned into mice. Another, that they went to sleep at the bottom of the sea.